On occasion, we treat ourselves to a little getaway to visit friends up in the Philadelphia/Camden area. Which is, to be perfectly honest, a medium-sized pain in the neck. We need to clear the schedule, gas up the car, pack all of our junk, and drive all the way up there. The world of traffic, beltways, battlegrounds of 4-lane concrete, gauges, clocks, hurry, and food wrapped in paper and passed through windows presses in, and seems very real, indeed. We rush up at a high rate of speed, then dive off the highway and make a bunch of right turns and then even more left turns and park and grab our junk and rush to meet our friends.
In so doing, we enter another world. A weird place where brick houses are painted with murals, and signs hang everywhere, and people proceed at a decidedly slower pace of life. Everyone here is regular and ordinary, with all of the insecurities and foibles that one would expect; they’ve just decided to live differently. It takes a little time to readjust: to walk slower, talk slower, listen, and just exist. To sit around and talk. To walk to the corner to buy vegetables, then dice them all with a knife and gather around the bowl with some tortilla chips to decide what we need more of. Then to wait for the salsa to mellow and meld and become just a little bit more than what it was when it was trapped in all of those individual vegetables.
I borrow my daughter’s eyes for a walk around the neighborhood in the middle of the afternoon, and we notice stores and streets, adults and kids, cars and dogs. We wander through a thrift store, where the train overhead shakes the floor underneath, where serendipitous and surreptitious pottery finds us, where we groove to some soul, and where we stage a gentle, silent argument with a thin, bearded man over who will hold the door for whom.
We light up a grill and wait for the coals to whiten while people gather. We talk about life and death and philosophy and gardens and books and creating and rebuilding and cooking and kids. Instead of talking about the neighbors, we talk with the neighbors. We talk with the neighbors until we remember that we are neighbors, too. We talk about what we’re doing, and what we truly care about, knowing that these are sometimes distinct. We talk about getting together more often, and we mean to, but we also know that even if it takes awhile, we’ll be able to pick up right where we left off.
After a couple of hours or a couple of days, we eventually get back into the car. A short drive, and we’re back in a world that suddenly seems tilted and strange and foreign and underhanded. A world where huge faces leer at us from giant billboards, shaming us into buying another thing we don’t need. A world where lights shine brightly for no apparent reason. A world where shiny metal boxes hurtle down highways, where people risk their lives to move ahead of others, where individuated cells protect us from one another, and ourselves. A world where manufacturing plants emit smells far stinkier than the worst diaper. A world where bigger is better. A world where people systematically forget why they’re alive.