To our west, behind the white spot-lighted spire of the wide brick school building, an even wider sunset had concluded. For the passerby on the sidewalk, most everything about our house must have looked dark. The big maple in the front yard, the flower bed, the pale blue of the house’s front wall had all faded to shades of green-gray and blue-black. To one side of the dark red door, a square of window light, and in a small room bright with yellow walls, three people sat at a table talking. What was the conversation? The passerby, the late walker on the sidewalk, would never know. Inside, at that table, we talked politics and climate change, but we were all the while circling around the question of hope.
Was it too late for hope? Were people too tired to hope? In times like these, was hope naive or essential? Maybe tools and skills and partnerships matter as much as a hopeful attitude going forward? We felt the urgency but drew no conclusions.
The next day a former neighbor came through town for a visit. The family’s been away for fifteen years. While catching up we began noticing what’s new and what’s unchanged in our part of town. On a fairly easy walk from the house, you see evidence of the most practical kind of visionaries living and working among us, having taken root here in the fifteen years our friend has been away. Can old pianos be saved, souped up again, and sold to the right music-loving household in one storefront and in the room next door can a cozy jazz club be sent tapping and riffing through the night? The Merrimans say yes. Can folks bring up a family, run a city shop, breed and raise sleek happy goats on a green acreage outside the city, build a cheese cave there, and draw tourists from the Interstate and good neighbors as well to the city shop to sample their delectable wares? The Klinedinst family at Oh Mamma’s say yes.
Down the avenue from these visionary establishments, you can read the signs any way you please—hopeful or otherwise. The long-established import grocery store, my favorite car mechanic, the neighborhood hardware store, lots of old houses mostly but not always in good repair, an empty factory settling brick by brick onto its foundation. Off the wide avenue a few yards, a house where South Bend’s big-hearted musical revolutionary David James lived for many years. Who’s going to haul the loudspeaker to the next downtown rally now that David’s gone?
Businesses thriving or sliding, families holding steady or not, practical visionaries stirring things up, imagining new vistas and then just going ahead and painting them like a mural on their front wall, because why not? Hope and skill and imagination, bubbling and sprouting right down the avenue from more troubled spaces, and some of our best visionaries gone. The bar where the police and even the ambulance come roaring up too often. Hope or decline, you can make the case either way. You can open the morning paper and find some local guru on the op-ed page predicting the future, and the future he’s predicting is usually pretty bad.
Funny thing, though, is that people are still sitting with friends at their kitchen table into the night trying to figure things out. Somebody’s up early the next day milking the goats. Somebody’s calling the jazz pianist and working out a date for the next gig in South Bend. Somebody’s trying to figure out why there is so much violence and poverty and what to do next. Somebody says we will be ashamed if we don’t do something better in our lifetime. Somebody says the cavalry isn’t coming, we are the cavalry. Somebody’s in trouble not far from here. Somebody’s got an idea, somebody’s got a plan, somebody’s going to need our help. Many hands make light work, as the old saying goes. I hope, no, I think the saying is right.
Music: Adam Smale Quartet at Merriman's Playhouse in South Bend.