The space I occupy

Spring break 2016

I fold up the pages of case law I’m reading on the C train uptown and put it away as I climb off the train and out of the underground onto a sidewalk in Harlem. I emerge along St. Nicholas park where I used to run on mornings before work on my way to the YMCA on 135th street; I remember the park filled with snow or daffodils, depending on the season, nature in the moment before the crosswalk at Adam Clayton Powell. In the morning, the woman with the yellow vest made sure the children crossed safely, and we talked as we waited for the light to change. Routes familiar. In the evenings, the women on stoops sat with the kids with untied shoelaces.

I walk up the sidewalk. I remember the sky when the storms came in during spring, and I step up to a porch where two men with big smiles open the door wide. They’re walking out and letting me in. I climb the stairs to my friend’s third floor walk-up. She’s laughing, “I’m not even dressed up yet,” hugging me, and I’m saying, “I missed you.”

I sit in her kitchen as she unwraps cheeses from the farmer’s market and cracks open ingredients for cornbread. It’s a housewarming, and so far, it’s us two and a couple friends from Harlem Grown, the urban farm down the street that fights for food justice. Lydia has a job offer as a manager on a farm upstate, and we talk about new opportunities, as I curl into the sweetness of cooking and being close. More friends arrive, dropping bags of pans and bottles of wine on the floor and tables around the small two-bedroom apartment. Two cats spring from the bed. One friend tells a story about Revolution Books. Lydia stirs maple bison chili, warns the vegans that the cheese has animal rennet, and we all fit easily into conversations about sustainability, human rights, animal rights: my people, the places I come back to. A community made of those who work in nonprofits, farmers’ markets, people who occupy places of seeking to do better, to do good.

Inevitably, we talk about power and status quo, how the best leaders aren’t scared of discontent, how discomfort is not a thing to be stamped down but heard. How people feel energies. We’re wrapped in re-worn and re-used and re-sold clothes, local food, home cooking. I rejuvenate for hours.

Friday, I sit in the back of the room at the Poet’s House, and I listen to writers divulge sentiment into the heart of the room. Women, brown skin, foreign languages, oppressed identities, I absorb the nuance and softness and anger and pain and cries. I’m here because my friend from university, who’s been writing during a residency in North Carolina, has been driving through states along the East coast reading poetry, and I am here listening to his words and his fellow poet’s words, the floods, the broken silence along the Hudson River.

Later, my best friend and I walk along the river after the poetry reading, talking until we end up eating brisket and watching UNC play in a quiet bar. Before the game is over, I talk along the countertop with a former ball player from Brooklyn who was rooting for Syracuse and tells me how basketball was his ticket out and now his wife is in Paris on vacation and his son is in college on academics. The pride pulses from his heart to mine.

On our way uptown that night, there is a fire in a building on 151st street, and my best friend and I walk along the roads lined with fire trucks and ambulances, before slipping into her Harlem apartment to listen to the news helicopters circle and watch Broad City until 3 am. She wakes me softly to go to the gym in the morning, and after a fast dance-club-inspired class, we eat breakfast sandwiches in a coffee shop, and I always forget what we talk about but the conversations feel easy, complete.

I think about how I want to live. How I want to occupy space. How justice and soul is lost in competition and consumption. I find myself in the creative moments. Innovation is not just a business. It’s a soul that grows in dark and warm and light and ugly and lovely places with people who want to spread roots in hard earth, break soil, transform the land we live on.

Saturday night, I meet a co-worker from GEMS who is still advocating for trafficking survivors and tells me she still needs to grieve the trauma of the girls and women she’s lost and fought for and saved. “And you’re going to be a lawyer,” she tells me proudly, as I express my own grief that I am no longer helping, serving, fighting. The stories she tells me bring back the old system burning through my veins, as I remember what I left to come back for: the cold injustices. To support the warm hearts of social workers and steady hands of lawyers combatting the system every day.

In law school, a peer drops out halfway through the semester, to be a social worker. We once talked in the last hour before a 1L exam about energy, health. I text her when she stops coming to class; she’s following her dreams.

On Easter, I lean into the stories my sister, an athletic trainer, tells about walking onto fields to patch the injuries of students hurt during games. My older brother says, when you’re pushed to work harder, it’s good for you. I hug my mother for cooking our meal, and my father for putting out flowers.

There is no path that I must follow, but only a soul I wish to be connected to as I strive to be a better justice warrior. Over spring break, as I took a couple days to reconnect and rejuvenate, I remembered what it feels like to be more than a number, a rank, a student with all the answers.

I don’t have answers. But for a moment, I explore and fight and struggle through the questions with the farmers, poets, social workers, best friends, family and strangers as I binge on humanity in the close streets and narrow rooms.

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