Summer is near. On my block in Harlem, people have fled their apartments to hang out on the stoops. In his seminal essay Here is New York, E. B. White writes, “the inhabitant [of New York] is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.” My neighbors and I wander outside to connect with each other and observe the street. We also sit together because we share certain values as neighbors that sustain, delight, and protect us. In some ways, we form a sangha; we immerse ourselves in the block, and in doing so, create the spirit of our tiny and complete neighborhood.
If my block is my sangha, then the stoop provides two opportunities for seeking refuge: privacy and participation. Seeking refuge, in this sense, is an emergence into the belief that privacy and participation are sincere and courageous choices that can lead to freedom. I can choose to sit alone on the stoop to get some fresh air, return to a novel I’m reading, or silently watch people walk by. I can also choose to sit on the stoop to engage with the world. I can hear about my neighbors’ careers and life work, or we can politely debate politics. Stories about the generations of people who have lived here before us—tales about the way the block used to be—sustain our conversations well past sunset.
Each time I return home after a long day, I look forward to reuniting with my block. I feel like I am arriving back to myself, circling back to what is important to me. When I approach my stoop, the neighbor’s dogs wag their tails and shimmy down the steps to greet me. Another neighbor asks my opinion about the flowers in sidewalk garden she has been tending. Would I like to help her plant seeds this weekend? On my block I can be independent, and I can also be a companion to many. If the most precious gift we can offer each other is our presence, then time spent sitting with people on the stoop is something I can generously offer, as well as something I feel grateful to receive.
Being part of an attentive and caring sangha also increases my awareness of the suffering around me. For many, circumstances are far from idyllic. One young homeless man regularly stands at the end of the block. His pants sag around his hips. His shoes are mismatched, his T-shirt stained with sweat and grime. He is tired and hungry. Every day, he pleads for support from passersby. “Just something to help a bum. Just something to help a bum.” People shuffle along, glancing at their phones or their feet. He remains on the corner through the full heat of the day. The street is where he comes for the little support he does receive; as he stands on the street, the sun shines on him.
Like all things, the block evolves with time, casting stark reminders of transition and impermanence. We hear the rumble of moving trucks and rumors of terminal illness. On the stoop I find myself tuning in to time-effacing sounds, like the chatter of sparrows or the laughter of children down the street. I also sense that my neighbors and I are looking out for each other, and these feelings of safety and promise underlie our casual gatherings. Such qualities seem unceasing, and when we experience and appreciate these together, the block becomes a sanctuary.
Some weekends, I sit with Marcus, who lives a few houses down, and Caleb, Marcus’s friend who is a retired veteran. Many times Caleb’s small dog, Lucy, also sits with us. We don’t talk much. We just watch the block. Sometimes a breeze comes, rustling the leaves on the oak trees. In a quiet voice, Caleb reminds us that the river sends the wind. When the breeze is strong, Lucy lifts her head, sniffs the air, and closes her eyes. We watch, silently, as she holds her head up like this for some time.
Caleb looks up at me with a small grin. “She studies the breeze,” he says almost every time. We watch her for another few moments. When the wind stops, she opens her eyes, rests her head back on her paws, and lets out a long, knowing sigh.
Like Lucy, I am trying to make sense of what I do know and what I don’t. What I do know is that support exists in structure, in these routines of watchfulness and care established by my block. If I practice maintaining a balance between outward emergence and internal reflection, I think I can be content with—and curious about—what I don’t know.
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