"Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his."
- Girard Manley Hopkins
I am in love with my own city, and cities. I love my city’s skyline with its cash register and cranes, and its quirky grid of diagonal streets. I love the homes that have welcomed me, those Montview Boulevard mansions with marble fountains in the living room, and those cardboard residences set up under Platte River bridges. I love its publicly commissioned art and its dumpster graffiti. I love the #15 Colfax Avenue bus with all our sorts of people. I love my first day in any other city on the planet too, with whatever it serves up. My first five minutes visiting Delhi, I stepped over a cow. Just to get out the airport door! I knew right then the day would be an awakening, as is every city day.
It wasn’t always this way. Growing up in the Colorado wilderness, with coyotes singing me to sleep every night, I vowed lifetime residency in the primitive state of nature I experienced to be ideal. Nature was my kindergarten, my child’s playground. Not mine alone, in any sense of ownership; it was home and playground to bobcats, rattlesnakes, bears, and bluebirds – who knew it best. I had merely ventured in, the new kid at the jungle gym, scurrying along overgrown game paths with my dog Bessie. In time though, I knew every path and what else had traveled there.
The woods were my spiritual home, my monastery, and I was the silent mystic – when I wasn’t doing irritating things like chores or riding the school bus. Mystery played in the wind and in the cougar tracks and in ten thousand places throughout our little valley. I lay in the leaves and listened, for hours. I felt at one with everything.
The woods were my spiritual home, my monastery,
and I was the silent mystic – when I wasn’t doing irritating things
like chores or riding the school bus.
At seventeen I went off to college in Illinois, and paradise was lost. I couldn’t imagine how to live. But one evening, a few buddies and I decided to explore Chicago. We got off the commuter train and asked which way to Bulls stadium; we thought we’d catch a game. We’ll just walk, we told the steward cheerfully. “You can’t walk from here.” Why not? It can’t be many miles, and we’re young dudes. “You can’t.” We did, leaving him shaking his head. In twenty minutes, headed south in the dark, we were in another world. Of all my familiar animals, here were my first rats. Shouts came our way from crumbling buildings. A stranger told us we’d best be careful. Running seemed like a bad idea, from my cougar experiences, but we walked quicker. Dark grew darker, and people hung close by in the shadows. When the stadium came into view, we broke into a sprint.
I was terrified and exhilarated. I thought I had left behind the wild mystery of the wilderness, with its danger and risk, back in Colorado. But here the same energy pressed in. Heart pounding, I was glad to be alive. Glad, and very alive.
I never walked through the South Side at dark after that. I could learn, like in the woods. As in the woods, I learned to listen. And I learned delight again.
Listening, I also learned that cities were not created for the sole purpose of giving clueless young white dudes an evening of adventure. In time I encountered the abyss of the human species that swallows souls whole. I stood at caskets while loved ones screamed. I watched cops take down boys without reason, and schools fail girls without remedy. I looked at needle holes in veins and bullet holes in glass. I heard a child’s body thud against the wall, and the crying stop. Head in my hands, I asked God where the hell he had gone away to, leaving us to our ghastly devices, and received no answer.
And I learned delight again.
Continue reading “Playground” here - a longform companion essay for this week’s Seeking the Peace of our City urban exploration retreat. In these retreats we explore contemplative ways for actively engaged people to see and be in our neighborhood life.
For Soul Tending
How have you learned to delight in your neighborhood - urban, suburban, or rural? If your context has brought you pain, how are you learning to delight again?
Scott Dewey, director of Centering Way, is a spiritual director and community chaplain.