When you walk through the garden
You gotta watch your back
Well I beg your pardon
Walk the straight and narrow track
If you walk with Jesus
He’s gonna save your soul
You gotta keep the devil
Way down in the hole
“Way Down in the Hole” by Tom Waits, theme song of The Wire
Thank you, Dichotomy. Thank you for the reminder that the world is not all one way. I appreciate the way you show up, just when I need you. Like a shower after a day of sweaty exercise and dusty cleaning, or an email from an uncle who sees the world through a completely different lens, a smoothie after too many French fries, a dark political podcast and followed by an episode of Schitt’s Creek.
The world is so full of contrasts that help illuminate that which is sometimes hard to see. There are times when I can’t see what is right in front of me, until I spot the opposite. For example, I do not appreciate my health, until I get sick. It takes the scary depths of a stomach bug to realize that almost every day I feel absolutely great.
You don’t realize you’re surrounded by noises, until you hear nothing at all. When you drive over a series of steel plates laid out like crooked teeth, you see that most of the roads are paved smooth. Maybe you don’t notice how gray winter was until spring green fills in the skyline.
Running once a week in West Baltimore with Back on My Feet and my team (Bad Ass Penn North) makes this sensation of dichotomy more apparent. The sights in West Baltimore can implode the notion that everyone has it as good as you do. Empty houses and buildings, the intermittent smell of urine, crunching glass underfoot. Street lights out for months, discarded food vessels, construction equipment deposited in front of peoples’ homes, cigarette butts and needle remnants. Black plastic bags and signs of white flight. Splintered window panes and weeds reclaiming sidewalk tiles. Bus fumes swirl past half broken benches. Forgotten cats slink by, tails curled under their skinny bodies, as they dart through peeling retread tires and pieces of an old bike. Red and blue lights bounce off all structures where the Avenue meets North, constantly piercing the end of the night at 5 a.m., a reminder that you are being watched. You may be anonymous but you will not go unseen. A cop under those lights flicks through his phone, his brain in some place other than right here in West Baltimore–a spot large swaths of our city, state, country, and world, have determined is forsaken, for good.
But yes, Dichotomy, you’ve got me again. Today is the fourth anniversary of Freddie Gray’s murder. Has much about West Baltimore changed since then? Since the night of April 27, 2015 when I sat shaking in Aubrey’s living room as we clicked back and forth from the news to The Little Mermaid, attempting to hold the book club meeting we knew couldn’t really happen, what with our city burning? Back then, I wasn’t in the pattern of driving Over West much, unless it was to my mom’s school or to the Mondawmin Target (R.I.P.). I didn’t have kids I picked up and took places, didn’t have my running team, no yoga classes or people I knew. It felt at the same time right down the street and lightyears away. And now that I go to West Baltimore often, I feel more in that memory of her distance–like I’ve added to something that’s from my past. Because in between the despair, the dilapidation, the crumbles and sighs and the lack of investment, I see a collection of neighborhoods teeming with life and loveliness. People mostly doing their best, or what they’ve learned or been told is their best.
Singer Billie Holiday’s open mouth next to an image of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, intricately layered on a brick wall. Billie’s got a pink flower in her hair. Murals of history and of hope. Tiny gardens inside repurposed Goodyears. Knee-high fences and fresh spring plantings. Rowhouses splashed with crayon colors. Babies and mommas and morning greetings. Bird nests on window sills and hundred-year-old spires topping attic windows. Kids in school uniforms and year-round strings of lights. Basketballs bouncing and “No Shoot Zone #123.” Kids and adults swinging in the playground. Recycling bins, churches, and schools named for figures in civil rights. Parks, green space, and porch lights switched on. Marble stoops preserved for decades adorned with flower pots. I see small businesses, both store front and street corner. Brick and mortar beauty shops and young hands slinging cool bottles of water for a buck at a red light. Spots people forgot and those some are just starting to remember. Pride and careful paintings and people going to work before the sun does. A driver yells a name from car windows to a walker nearby and their faces collapse into matching smiles.
On Wednesday night I attended a Core Power continuing education training. It was four hours long in a sterile studio with fake wood floors, dim lights, and forty-ish people all white but one black man and two Asian girls. We received a printed packet containing photos of skeletons and muscles and several grammatical errors. The presenter included messages about how to speak about postures, how to set a universal intention, how to make a shorter surya namaskar B, and several tips the following phrases were repeated (among others): “point your hip tips down,” “filling your diaphragm,” and “the natural curve of your low back.” Some people showed off their knowledge of the sagittal plane or kyphosis or hip dips. We were told not to plan sequences at home–the subtext being, “We will not pay you for work you do outside the studio.” The leader of the workshop called us “team” because “guys,” often a default, sends the wrong message. She rattled off questions to which the answer was always yes. “Does your theme matter?” (Yes.) “Is it important to work the entire core?” (Yes.) “Do you eat spinach?” (I’m kidding…but yes.) I get it. It’s a corporation. It’s a yoga training for a large national company. None of this doesn’t make sense. But, the older I get, the more dichotomy I see, and I am having a harder and harder time with minutia.
On Thursday night, I taught a yoga class to members of my BoMF team. We practiced in a field on a random concrete platform next to a chipping mural of figures from black history. Before we started, we picked up two bags of trash including several pieces of very stale bread which could only be described as rat food at this point. After we cleared our space, we set up my motley crew of yoga mats I’ve gathered by donation. Two elementary aged girls asked if they could join us, which was an emphatic yes and a pair of women who live nearby hopped in too. We were 9 yogis practicing in the sunshine in a field in West Baltimore, across from a community resource center that houses people in recovery. Kids ran the basketball court across the field and the playground was full too. Members of Penn North stood across the street and watched us flow–maybe wanting to join in. Life continued around us, a helicopter circled over head, and people did what they do on Thursday afternoon, arrived home from work, rode by on motorcycles, walked through with a waving toddler.
These two “yoga” experiences offered such a great dichotomy. “Yoga” means to unite–but which night offered the greater example of uniting?
On Thursday night, my breath cues weren’t perfect, you could barely hear the music from my portable speaker, I never mentioned hip tips (I don’t even really know what that means), and the soles of my feet wore dirt socks, but it was beautiful.
Thank you, Dichotomy, for all that you teach me. At the end of both nights, we all said namaste at the end but only on Thursday do I think we all truly agreed that, “The light in me sees the light in you.”