Friday, 18 Jan 2019

Telling our daughter why come to our town

Pittsburgh residents at a vigil for victims of last month's shooting at Tree of Life synagogue. (Jorge Santiago)

Around 10 am on Oct. 27, I left my house in Squirrel Hill to go for a run. As I waited to cross Murray Avenue, police raced up the center of the street. I thought it was strange, but I kept on, passing dozens of Jewish families heading to synagogue. I ran in the street to give them room. I saw a mother beckon to a little boy on the threshold, and I smiled at him. Then I entered the park and disappeared into the reverie of my music until 20 minutes later, my husband called.

"There's an active shooter in the neighborhood," he said. "Do not come home. We're not allowed to go outside. "

The woman beckoning to her in the United States. child. My husband and daughter at our windows. The synagogues, the scrambling of people inside, blood. I was at the bottom of the ravine in the wide-open park. Where do I even go? I thought. Then I thought, Jorge will be next. A brown immigrant with an accent. I am in circles around the park for another hour, blind to my body, in a blur.

Jorge called and said they'd caught the guy and I could come back. On my way home, the streets felt like they belonged to another city, another country. "What's wrong?" My daughter asked, and I said, "Nothing." I did not want to scare her.

It is strange to see the place where one lives and one takes for granted suddenly in the spotlight, drawn up for a national audience. On "All Things Considered," Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh, who lives in Squirrel Hill, called "the most diverse neighborhood in Western Pennsylvania." On CNN, on NPR, in the New York Times, it was portrayed as a neighborhood Jewish identity and as a melting pot of cultures. This was the main reason we had chosen to live here. On our street are Chinese families; South Asian families; a transgender woman and her partner; Orthodox Jewish families; our Mexican American family; and an interracial white and African American family. At the Blue Slide Playground, where my daughter plays, it's not uncommon to hear several languages, and to have a pass of kids of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds waiting in line for a slide with a square of cardboard.

I realize that this sounds like a virtual signaling, a self-congratulation about a status symbol. I have seen how easily it can be worn as a badge of progressivism, along with organic and reusable stainless-steel mugs. I have been guilty of this easy smugness. But I also have experienced, as the wife of a Mexican immigrant and the mother of a Mexican American daughter, how can a very real measure of safety. How is a key metric? We no longer feel entirely safe in our country or rural suburban spaces. Relative, some of which is voted for our president, will tell us to be careful driving through certain areas of the Midwest. Diversity lets us know that we are in a space where we are not likely to be associated with danger.

The great irony is that the diversity that makes us feel safe too. It is not a bad thing that the people who posted racist tirades on the far-right websites. For him, diversity was a threat; it was so separate from him to be expendable with an AR-15. This attitude of separateness infects not only those who know each other, but also those who are in the world of self-esteem, races, religions. When my husband and I stop at gas stations in the middle of nowhere Ohio, I get the gas. I go inside. I stare at the people around me: Whom did they vote for? What will they think if my husband gets out, carrying my daughter?

Thinking about the diversity of our neighborhood, and the growing, hostile whiteness of so many other American spaces, I decided to talk to my daughter about the shooting. My decision has not been made because of my husband and I have been barricaded. It came because I believe that a true commitment to diversity means teaching my daughter, or like our Jewish neighbors, can be the target of violence and hate. It means teaching the difficult and painful lesson of this violence that we have a responsibility to fight. This is a lesson I believe my whole neighborhood has learned in the wake of the Tree of Life shooting. I have seen it in the windows of the people, in the candelitness of a local Muslim leader announced to the Fund Campaign for Jewish Victims, in the protest at which 2,000 neighbors sang in the president's motorcade, but in the smallest daily acts: the letter our neighbor wrote saying how grateful it was that we were her neighbors. The way people say Spanish to speak Spanish to speak Spanish. The tenderness, arising from tragedy, which brings the community together to affirm the fact that we are all responsible for one another. This is what it means to live in a different neighborhood. I want my daughter to know this. I want to be held, kindly, lovingly, by that obligation in others.

She is only 4, but she is old enough to hold out her arm and observes, "She is watching", "Mommy's skin is white!" their separation from their children. "Like Papi?" She has asked, and I have said, "Like Papi." She has listened while I explained, "This man killed these people with a gun," asking, "Why did he hate them?" She has sat quietly while I said, "Some people hate other people because they are different. This is why it's important to love everybody: people with different skin, who speak different languages, and who thinks different things than we do. "

She has asked, "Will we get shot?" To this I answered, in the way parents dismissed fears of monsters, "No, honey" – all the while thinking that I do not know.

I do not know, but I know this: I want my daughter to grow up knowing not just a celebration, but a commitment to a family and to an American society, an affirmation of how we are responsible to one another, how does violence against one affect us all. I want my daughter to understand the difference between people are real, and that for some people, difference is scary. I want to be able to compare these fears in different ways, in part by simple proximity, in part by meaningful dialogue. That begins with me talking about what happened in our neighborhood, and why.

The violence that came to my neighborhood will eventually come for all of us. That Saturday morning was terrible, sickening, but the most surreal part of it was the echo of all other mass shootings: Sandy Hook, Parkland, Charleston, and already a new one in Thousand Oaks, and thought for a minute, ugh, how awful, and gone on with our lives. The most surreal part of the world was, but the fact that this was, in fact, an American norm. This hate, this terror, is buried deep within the boundaries of our country and it's not going away. If anything, it's getting worse. It is reinforced by our separateness, by the idea that violence only happens to certain people, different people, various people.

A week after the shooting, we went to a party in the neighborhood. We ate tikka masala, samosas, pizza and cake. The kids raced in the backyard. I chatted in Spanish with a Peruvian couple who was new to my daughter's school. Afterward, there was a street fair on Murray Avenue, a way to celebrate the community of such sadness. We have a falafel and listened to a high school band play Amy Winehouse covers. There was a heart in the air, a sense of being, one of the most vulnerable, boldly, fiercely together.

Sarah Menkedick is the author of "Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on Midwestern Farm"(Pantheon, 2017). Her second book, An Epidemic of Anxiety in American Motherhood, is forthcoming from Pantheon. She lives with her photographer husband and her daughter in Pittsburgh.

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More reading:

Another horrific shooting and a chance to teach your children

I want to protect my son from racism


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