I sit on the pebbly stairs outside my apartment in my pastel scrubs. A luxury of working night shift are these slow “mornings” before heading into work. It’s just about dinner time and the hot Texas sun beats across the west side of the complex. My cheeks feel flushed and I close my eyes to take in the warmth. The colorful clatter of everyday life in these refugee housing apartments is in full swing. A swarm of little boys whiz by on scooters and pink second-hand bikes, laughing and chattering in Swahili. The old man with the colorful hat from Nepal strolls along the sidewalk- part of his nightly routine. I give him a head nod and he solemnly returns the gesture. A car horn obnoxiously sounds for the third time, impatiently signaling for my downstairs neighbor. A beautiful young girl with glowing brown skin and a vibrant, patterned dress walks steadily along the street, a platter of fruit atop her head, arms swinging at her side. She can’t be older than 16. I stare, entranced by the grace in her steps and the dignity she exudes with her perfect posture. A familiar, squeaky voice calls out to me from below the cracks in the stairs – “Monica, is Sadie home?” I poke my head between the railings and see three of my little neighbors adorned in their traditional Afghani dresses. I smile and wave. I tell them she’s sleeping inside and they run off to their next adventure. The sounds, the colors, the stories, I breathe in deep and soak it all in.
I love these people.
But no amount of love for these people can make me love this place. Rodents run rampant within the walls of the apartments, scurrying across counter tops and burrowing beneath bed sheets. Their feces litter the cabinets and floors and no amount of diligence can maintain an acceptable level of cleanliness. Management’s attempt to control the infestation leaves us with poisoned mice corpses rotting in the walls and strewn across the fields- decaying flesh for the maggots to feed on. I came home the other day to a pile of dead mice carefully arranged in an empty parking space- the hand prints of little children all over the scene. I shiver at the thought of the diseases and germs these little ones are exposed to. The health department comes and goes but nothing ever changes.
I’ve walked through the painful process of finding a minimum-wage job for those with fragmented English. Hundreds of applications submitted, dozens of trips pleading to managers for the opportunity to work. Dead end after dead end. When a door finally opens, I think of their hopes and fears for their children: that they do well in school, respect others, stay out of trouble, have dreams and goals, grow up to cherish their culture, their language, and where they came from. But this all requires cultivation. Discipline. Counsel. But these children spend their days and evenings in summer school, after-school programs, and at neighbors’ houses so their parents can work two jobs. Meanwhile, teachers label their parents “uninvolved,” and the children, “unmotivated.” It’s all the price of the hustle to make ends meet, hoping that one day, the stars might just align.
From my spot on these pebbly stairs, I clutch a mug in in one hand while my fingers mindlessly circle the rim with the other. Hues of purple, orange and pink sprawl gloriously across the horizon. From my vantage point within the barbed wire fence that perimeters Ladera, the sun seems to be setting over another, far-off world. Here, garbage blows across the grass. Barefooted children run on asphalt glistening with the glass of broken beer bottles. A father and toddler play near the metal, chain-linked fence. The son holds the wire between his sticky two-year-old fingers and stares at the wildflowers, swaying just beyond his reach.
The distant Fort Worth skyline, bathed in the bright colors of cotton candy skies, reminds me of the Dream that Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about in his book Between the World and Me.
I have seen this Dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. it is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint and tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. This has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies…
It felt like a punch in the stomach the first time I read those words. My whole life, all I’ve known is this Dream; I woke up in it and made my bed in it, blissfully unaware of the world beyond its picket fences. Here, from my pebbly steps, my heart aches not because I’m cast from this Dream while I live here, far outside my comfort zone. The opposite actually. I ache because of the deep, intimate experience of doing life with those who are, when I myself can hop in my car at any given moment, cruise down 35 and be welcomed into it- as if I never left. Because the truth is that I haven’t. I can’t. One does not simply leave the Dream as if it exists in a physical sense. It’s a social construct embedded in the DNA of our society. So although the twinkling lights of West Seventh glisten just a few miles away, for them an eternity separates these two worlds. But not for me.
Despite every effort to shatter the dividing walls of injustice, to step into hard places, to reject the Dream and all it has to offer, the haunting truth is that at the end of the day, I am still living out my days on this earth in a body to which this world caters. A westernized, educated, middle-class body with an ethnic background that creates the ultimate propaganda for the Dream: a rags to riches foreign heritage that overlooks the fact that before I was even born, I was many steps ahead. The opportunities and circumstances that laid the foundation for a lineage of hard work to flourish? Brushed aside so that my story can silence any objection to this artfully crafted Dream.
A little familiar voice interrupts my thoughts, “Monica, is Sadie still sleeping?” I chuckle. “Tomorrow she will come out and play.” The day is turning to dusk and I steal just a few more minutes soaking up the dimming daylight. Hope reminds my weary heart that the fading realities of this world are temporary. That a far better Dream of reconciliation and wholeness exists in this “already/not yet” life of following Jesus. But tonight, that hope is a mustard seed. From my pebbly steps I draw circles around the rim of my mug and close my eyes to feel the warmth of the fleeting sun across my cheeks. For a moment, I pretend that it is not a million light years away. I open my hands turning them upward as I take a deep breath- my feeble attempt at laying all this mess, all this hurt, all this injustice, at the feet of a God whose goodness I believe in with all my heart, but whose ways I do not understand. Then I rise to my feet, hop in my car, drive down 35, and head into work; another day living in this far lesser Dream turns to night.