Essays | Notes in Glass Bottles

About Those Kids Who Crashed Our Neighborhood Potluck

In This Issue

Notes: About Those Kids Who Crashed Our Neighborhood Potluck · In Other Words: Bishop Daniel Flores on Guns and Despair · News: A New Family in Huff House · Postscript: My Soundtrack This Week


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NOTE

About Those Kids Who Crashed Our Neighborhood Potluck

Every kid deserves to be welcomed at the community table.

Somehow, I always expect no one to show up for the potluck that our neighborhood has held every year since the mid-noughts (except for the pandemic year), and every year, to my surprise, I’m proven wrong. Five o’clock rolls around, and the dead-end street is empty except for a few folding tables and maybe one or two other people, and internally I sigh, thinking This is the year the potluck dies. Well, it was good while it lasted.

But then someone else shows up and asks where we’re going to put the desserts, and I gesture to the blank tables and say pick a spot, and we joke about maybe this is the year we’ll have nothing but dessert for dinner. But then more people come down the street carrying folding chairs and covered dishes, and pretty soon the tables are filling up and people are standing around talking to one another, waiting for the call to eat.

That’s the way the things were unfolding as we gathered again last Sunday, everything going according to script—at least until some unexpected guests showed up.

We could hear them from well down the block—five loud teenage kids that none of us recognized from the neighborhood. Two of them were on skateboards, another was on a bike, and the rest were on foot. They weren’t loud in the joyful way kids sometimes are when they’re enjoying one another’s company. The noise they made was more along the lines of a preemptive warning: Here we are, and think twice before you mess with us. They were like prey animals trying to make themselves seem bigger. They wore oversized tie-dyed t-shirts, dreadlocks, pajama pants. One girl’s face was studded with painful-looking piercings.

They rolled down the dead-end street, stopping a stone’s throw from the tables piled with food, which they eyed hungrily.

“Are they from around here?” the woman next to me asked in a low voice. She was among the handful of neighbors skeptically eyeing the kids.  She’d brought a large tater-tot hotdish.

“Is that free food?” the kid in dreadlocks called.

“Um,” I said, wondering how to answer, because that’s not exactly how I’d advertise it. “Yes?”

“All right!” The kid broke away from the others and beelined toward the tub of KFC. He grabbed a big drumstick and began eating right away, stepping back into the orbit of his friends.

You know that needle scratching across a record sound effect? It was that kind of moment. None of the middle-aged, middle-class adults standing around watching this said anything, but the breach of etiquette might have raised a few eyebrows—figuratively, anyway.

“It’s a potluck,” I said. “Everyone brings a dish to pass.” I was trying to clarify that this wasn’t a free-for-all, but none of the other kids were moving toward the tables.

“Do we know these kids?” the woman next to me asked again in a low voice, conspiratorially. The next question, I suspected, would be whether we should ask them to leave.

“Well,” I said brightly, “we do now.”

She snorted ironically.

By this time, there were maybe fifty people milling around, and the tables were full. It seemed like the right moment to invite everyone to circle up for introductions, so that’s what I did.

The kids stayed on the sidewalk, outside the circle.

We made our introductions, each of us giving our name and address and saying how long we’d lived in the neighborhood. There was a good amount of joking around, and new people kept drifting into the circle. In the end, we had maybe seventy people attend, and four of the families were new to the neighborhood within the past year.

Back when five of us revived the annual potluck tradition, we had young kids and we thought this would be a good way to connect with the neighbors. Several of us had been involved in Katy Smith’s parent education classes at the school district, and she was always advocating for getting to know your neighbors. She was a big believer in community parenting: all the adults in the neighborhood should know who all the kids are, and who they belong to, so that they could keep an eye on them—and call the parents, if needed.

None of us at the potluck last week knew who these kids’ parents were, but some of us may have been thinking of the rise in disciplinary problems in our local schools. There’s a lockdown or two every month, it seems.

“Well, that girl said she lives in the neighborhood, at least, but she didn’t say where,” the tater tot hotdish lady reported later in the evening.

“Mmm,” I said. “Well, they sure seem hungry.”

They hadn’t brought their own plates and utensils, but fortunately one of the new neighbors had brought paper plates and plastic utensils, which she handed out to the kids cheerfully. Some other neighbors introduced themselves to the kids and asked their names. Before they left, they’d gone back for second and third helpings.

It was cooler than you’d want for a potluck—people wore light jackets—but it wasn’t cold, and it wasn’t windy, and it didn’t rain. In fact, as we broke down the tables and picked up trash at the end of the evening, the setting sun was painting the few clouds in the sky with a golden light.


Two days later, news of the Uvalde elementary school massacre was everywhere.

I don’t pretend there are easy answers to the question of what would drive an eighteen-year-old kid to do something so horrifically evil, and I don’t believe a single neighborhood potluck would have been enough, by itself, to change his trajectory.

Common-sense gun regulation would be a good way to start addressing the epidemic of gun violence in this country, but the root causes of our culture of violence are ultimately spiritual.

A single neighborhood potluck isn’t enough. But it points us in the right direction: toward neighborliness, toward hospitality, and toward a society in which every kid—no matter how loud—is welcome to at the community table.

A third (and final) question: What am I trying to do here, teaching my twelve-year-old to identify bird songs?

Birds live in the deep background for many people; if they hear them at all, what they hear is random, if sometimes pleasant, noise. But those with the patience to listen hear something else—a conversation, as it were. If it were only a conversation between different individuals of the same species, then we’d only have the pleasure of eavesdropping. But on some level, when I hear the robin singing outside my window (as I do now, writing this), I hear another living creature on God’s green Earth “speaking” to me.

In the second Genesis creation story, God made the animals to be companions for the first man, because it was “not good for the man to be alone.” It is true that the man found his most suitable companion in the first woman, but her presence didn’t revoke the status of the animals (and plants!) as boon companions. Maybe, then, what I’m trying to do for my son is to bring him into this cross-species “conversation.” It is good for us to know these companions; when we do, we’re not quite so alone. And maybe initiating my son into this conversation is my way of passing along the gift of these remarkable creatures.


IN OTHER WORDS

Bishop Daniel Flores on Guns and Despair

Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, got a lot of attention this week for a tweet he posted in the wake of the Uvalde elementary school massacre:

“Don’t tell me that guns aren’t the problem, people are,” he tweeted. “I’m sick of hearing it. The darkness first takes our children who then kill our children, using the guns that are easier to obtain than aspirin. We sacralize death’s instruments and then are surprised that death uses them.”

Following the tweet, Flores—who also chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee on doctrine—gave a lengthy interview with The Pillar on the theological foundation of the U.S. church’s advocacy for certain gun control measures.

But Flores also touched on other causes of the epidemic of gun violence in this country, such as the atomization of society: “There has been a breakdown in communal sense of belonging to each other. And I think that was something we took for granted in our local communities. And if we ignore it, it breaks apart, and a lot of ugly things follow.”

Educators and public health officials have been sounding the alarm about the rising rates of teen depression and suicide since about 2009. Ubiquitous smartphones and the rise of social media are often blamed, but Flores pointed toward an even deeper, spiritual sickness, saying that “the darkness is their sense of despair, in which the difference between life and death is negligible. …  It’s devastating to know a young person who has no hope and then feels that there’s no difference between what’s good in life and death, and so they just treat life cavalierly. …  This is a phenomenon that we need to attend…because it’s very, very grave.” You can read the entire interview at The Pillar.

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NEWS

A New Family in Huff House

Earlier this year, our Afghan refugee support group purchased a house a block away from where I live—I can see the house through the tree branches outside my bedroom window. The house has sat vacant for more than a month following the abrupt departure of the family that had been living there—they moved to Bloomington to be part of a larger Afghan refugee community.

We’ve been looking for another refugee family to take their place, but on Friday, we learned about a Mexican immigrant family who’d lost their house in a fire. A volunteer cleaning crew spent Saturday fixing things up for them, and the family of five moved in later that evening. It’s nice to see the lights on over there again.

On the gardening front, nearly everything is planted, although I still haven’t planted the clover and native grasses on the side of the house yet. Susan decided that yesterday was the day the jungle that has grown up along our southern fence would fall to her blade, so I joined her with a saw to take down the small trees. I pulled a ton of woodbine (aka false Virginia creeper) off the lilac bushes, too. Suddenly, we can see our neighbors’ yard! On Friday, I also had a good meeting with the team that’s developing Catholic HOM, a Catholic family ministry that feels a lot like what I was trying to do with Peanut Butter & Grace, but better funded. It looks like I’ll be developing some free resources for their website, so stay tuned for that.


POSTSCRIPT

My Soundtrack This Week

I’m a huge fan of Josh Garrels, a Christian musician who easily crosses multiple genres with smart lyrics and gorgeous music. Last week, he released his Spiritual Songs playlist on Spotify—more than seven hours of (mostly) really good contemporary Christian music.

As anyone who has ever slogged through the dredges of the contemporary Christian genre will appreciate, it is a great gift to have someone curate a playlist that is not only not bad, but artistically on a par with any of its secular peers. It’s going to be my playlist this week.


Stay warm, stay well…



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