DIGNITIES

I found a nest in the woods today. I almost walked right by it, but the careful woodwork and tender shelter caught my eye. I couldn’t help but be delighted (thrilled!) by my discovery. What a strange and beautiful labor of love to have stumbled upon on a Saturday morning walk. My imagination filled with the image of Baba Yaga, carefully building the structure for her nightly rest. 

BY LIZARD LETTER 2020

I peeked into the structure, and couldn’t help but notice both the careful shelter created here and the stunning lack of human footprint. I’m still a bit awestruck by its construction. I wondered about the person who had clearly taken much careful time and effort to build the structure: I noted the skilled architecture, the sturdy frame and the smaller branches and leaves used to soften the edges of the temporary home. There wasn’t so much as a shoe print left behind. Even in the short time that this person(s) spent here, there is clearly so much human resilience built into its design. I wish I could meet the home’s past inhabitants, thank them for building this beautiful structure and see if perhaps their next home was able to offer even more shelter and protection from the outside world. 

One thing that really struck me about it was the dignity and love with which it was constructed, as well as that was offered to its inhabitants, present and future. I’d seen other temporary “shelters” in the vicinity — tarps on the ground, scattered water bottles and children’s shoes. However, none so beautiful and caring as this one. The people who built this short-term home made the most out of what limited resources were available to them, as we often see in times of crisis. What I struggle to really grapple with is the system that created the circumstances in the first place. Yes, it is a beautiful nest, but in such a distressing context.

All people are deserving of respect and dignity, regardless of circumstance, background, or identity. In our everyday lives, watching the news, interacting with strangers, I know it can feel difficult, tiring even, to consistently keep this in perspective. I was always taught that if you break a law, then you are deserving of punishment. That’s the way our system works; as if, because it’s The System, it is not expected to evolve with the people subjected to said system.  

What always bothered me about our understanding of crime & punishment, is that it contributes to the idea that when people face hardships (lose their job, can’t make rent, can’t afford to launder their clothes as frequently as perhaps I can) there is a bit of a habit to assume that they are deserving of the outcomes, whatever they are. Constant unlearning, questioning, relearning ideas that are foundational to our understanding of life is exhausting difficult work to do; but I see no other alternative.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned of late is to stop for a moment and question these assumptions that I might have otherwise just moved past previously. How does that assumption really play out, especially in the life of someone who is housing-insecure? Especially amidst the calls for quarantine and social distancing, there are a lot of people in the United States for whom that simply is not an option. When we’re all inside, it’s hard to know and see all the people out there who are still just looking for a place to ride out the storm, or who might not have the time or means to get to the one grocery store on the other side town that still has toilet paper in stock. 

At least, it is for me. I know when I’m anxious, my mind is filled with concerns of myself; how others are judging me, how productive I’m being during this time, feeling guilty that I’m not doing more to help combat COVID-19, and wondering when I’m going to be able to hang out with my friends again. When anxious, I crave immediate control of my circumstance. However, what I often have to remind myself is that, in the grand scheme of things, these concerns will pass. After the quarantine is lifted, my life will largely return back as it was prior, and my anxieties will eventually pass (at least for the time being). 

As I walked away from the nest in the woods, I thought about the people who had found shelter there. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much who they were, or how they came to build their temporary home here, but why they felt they had nowhere else to go. It’s so easy to get caught up in the larger political arguments, that I often fail to remember that there are communities within my direct neighborhood I have the resources to support

Neighborhood justice begets city-wide justice begets statewide, national, international change. It’s hard to recognize our larger impact, but, something that COVID-19 has really drawn into focus for many of us is our impact on others. We are social distancing because we as a whole society have such a hard time fully understanding our impact on others. We are all so much more powerful that we give ourselves credit for. Give yourself some credit, too. 


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