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Where the Streets Have No Name – 1/4/2015

The place where I grew up sees a lot of snow, each winter. Specifically, it consistently places in the top 20 of US cities with the highest annual snowfall. There are certainly much colder places to live, and there are a number of towns that see far more severe winter storms on a regular basis, but as far as dependably large amounts of snow spread out over a long season goes, we had plenty of it. Having enough of the white stuff on hand offers a laundry list of opportunities for seasonal diversions – sledding and skiing and snow-person building among them. But it also requires certain chores be undertaken: mostly, the moving around of all that crystalized water to get it from any place where it poses an obstacle to any other place where it does not.

So it was that, on many occasions throughout my childhood, I was tasked with the chore of shoveling out the family driveway. For an adolescent with no particular back problems, it wasn’t such a bad job. The driveway wasn’t particularly large, and the whole thing could usually be done in less than two hours, even after a serious storm. Still, I don’t remember ever enjoying the work. Shifting all that wet, heavy, lake-effect snow around is a slow, monotonous task, and I did not then, and still do not have, the gift for finding a rhythm or a meditative attitude in it. It was simply one of those things that had to be done; the inconvenience of a tiring winter afternoon didn’t really compare to the unthinkable alternative of a blocked driveway with no way to get vehicles in or out.

What I cherished, though, and still do, were those times when fortune smiled on me. Our neighbors across the street were an older, retired couple. In winter, they had the same shoveling problem that we did, that everyone in our neighborhood did. And their solution, rather than a lot of elbow grease and wear and tear on backs that really shouldn’t be taking such, was owning a snow blower. And if I happened to be outside shoveling at the right time, and perhaps if I made myself look particularly pathetic, the man from across the street would sometimes come over to our drive after he’d finished his. Without exchanging words, he’d use his incredibly loud snow-eating and expelling machine to uncover the front section of asphalt, saving me a big chunk of work and time.

That commonplace, deeply appreciated act of neighborliness took my neighbor through and across the street that lay between our two homes. And it’s this place – this odd place, both ubiquitous and ignored – that I want to focus our spiritual attention on this morning. The street – any street – whether a road or a highway or a path, but especially the paved expanse between the blocks of a town or city, dramatically shapes the world in which we live. The contours of urban living, the very essence of what it means to be a city, resides in the street. It is an in-between space that has at least three different roles: the street can connect us, it can divide us, and it can help us to know each other.

The connection should be the most obvious. A street is an open, flat expanse that people can use to travel from one destination to another. Here in Beverly, and in cities all over the world, that means blacktop for cars and cyclists with some space along the edges set aside for pedestrians. But that’s not universal, of course. Some low-lying cities replace roads and cars with canals and boats. Others have streets free of vehicle traffic – usually out of necessity, when the existing space between buildings is too winding and narrow for any car (or sometimes even bicycle) to share the thoroughfare with people on foot. The old section of Jerusalem is one example, as is Fes al Bali in Morocco which is home to over 150,000 people and is believed to be the largest car-free urban area in the world.

The way in which streets divide us should be almost as obvious. Streets are dangerous, at least the ones full of cars, which again is almost all of them. This danger is a basic lesson we try to instill in our children. It’s the basis for all the laws and regulations associated with our roadways. And it’s a recurring trope in fiction and media. In one classic Monty Python sketch, a news host introduces a cut-away to ask “the man in the street” his thoughts on an issue. The man being interviewed is standing literally in the street – and so his remarks are interrupted when he is hit by a car. Consider also the classic arcade game, Frogger, in which the player attempts to help erstwhile amphibians navigate a busy highway. Three and a half centuries ago, the realities of travel were so different that getting from Beverly to Salem was an arduous, time-consuming, and occasionally dangerous prospect. With our modern pavement, bridges, and most importantly, cars, we have evolved into a phenomenally mobile society. That mobility comes at a price, though, of being tied together and surrounded by a vast web of streets which see fast-moving, multi-ton vehicles coursing along them at all hours of the day and night.

Even this, however, is not the only element of division created by our streets. The street – interpreted broadly, to include the sidewalk as well – is the point at which the places and properties where we live, work, shop, study, and worship end. The street is public space, the line where private property stops. But this is also what makes the street’s third role in our lives possible: it is a place where we can come to know each other better. In our era, this meaning for the street has been eclipsed and diminished to the point where what I’m driving at may not seem so obvious. Most of what a modern street is there for is to provide a route for our rolling boxes of privacy and anonymity: our cars. Everything else is usually treated as a secondary concern, so that we may want safer intersections for cyclists and crossings for pedestrians, but we blanch at sacrificing speed and convenience for drivers in order to get them. Yet, roads are common space – they are the most common form of common space in our cities, in fact, far exceeding park land and public buildings when measured in square feet.

The street has a role, therefore, as a place of interchange and interaction between people. This does happen on the sidewalk from time to time, when we manage to pull our senses out of the bubble of immediate, personal concern in which we are trained and socialized to live. But think of how it also explodes during those unusual times when we are allowed to use the street for something other than zipping along between the place we have to be and the place we had to be an hour ago. We had one of these moments just this past week, when the street outside was shut down for the local New Year’s celebration. And we also have a more permanent example across the bridge in Salem, where the Essex Street pedestrian mall allows the free flow of people and constant opportunities to notice and engage with each other. This is not all lollipops and gumdrops – I followed with interest some months ago as conflicts between street performers and a street preacher grew large enough that the city had to weigh in on the matter. But the fact remains that the street is most of the space that we hold in common in our cities and towns. It is natural and necessary that we do all that we can to help and to make it serve as a place where neighbors and strangers can connect with and experience each other. In fact, this is the sort of thing we need in order to really become and remain neighbors at all – as opposed to just people living separate, parallel lives in buildings or rooms that happen to be near each other.

Now, this is not the venue for a lecture on urban design, and my education is in theology, not city planning. I want to focus on what the street has to say to us at the spiritual level. These three very practical purposes for the street – a means of connection, a line of division, and a place of interchange – are all very much spiritual matters. How we connect to each other, how we cross the boundary between ‘I’ and ‘thou,’ is fundamentally a spiritual question. It’s a question that gains some illumination from one of the most important concepts in the religious history of East Asia: the Tao.

The Tao is a crucial, influential idea of ancient Chinese philosophy and poetry. It is described, in part, as the source of and force behind all things. The word ‘Tao’ is often translated as the Way – it is a rhythm or course through existence that is in harmony with existence. The Tao is one way of understanding the holy – the central meaning of the universe, whatever that might be – and if it does not literally translate as street, we can see that its meaning is closely related. As Unitarian Universalists, we sometimes talk about the sacred as something that occurs between people, and that the spirit exists in and as the bridge between ‘me’ and ‘you’. God then, or the Tao, or whatever term for meaning speaks to you, can be said to be like the street: made up of the space between, both a pathway through life and a foundation for relationships between lives. The Tao Te Ching – one of Taoism’s most essential texts – observes:

If I have just a little sense

Walking on the great Way

I fear only to deviate from it

The great Way is broad and plain

But people like to take short-cuts

The street knits our neighborhoods together into cities, but it also shapes the contours and limits of those neighborhoods. Streets provide character and form to the places where we live, their yellow lines providing boundaries like a map literally drawn onto the world. The poet Sue Ellen Thompson, in her poem entitled, ‘Home,’ appears to begin with the building itself, but quickly expands the sense of belonging and of where and what home is to include the streets surrounding:

The place your parents brought you straight

from the hospital, where you spent

those endless years of grade-

school. Or maybe it’s the place

where you raised your own

children, where you were never alone.

The place you retreat to after the divorce,

or when circumstances force

you to go there. According to Frost,

they have to—but you know the rest.


Who can say for how many weeks

after moving you will lie awake,

staring at the clock-radio, before

you stop listening for the pre-dawn roar

of traffic down your former street—

before the word begins to rise from deep

inside somewhere as you approach

the yellow blinker at Main and Oak,

which, like the porch light your mother

flicked off and on when you and your first lover

were parked at the darkest edge of the lawn,

reminds you where you belong.

          But having a place, a neighborhood, to be, even to belong to, does not necessarily make one a worthy neighbor. About ten years ago I remember reading about a man in England who had alienated all the people living near him by building a race track in his backyard. The smog-spewing, broken-down cars often ran around that loop at strange hours, without about as many emergency calls for vehicle collisions as you might expect. The world has no shortage of examples of lousy neighbors.

Still, it also has plenty of examples of great ones. When I was still in grade school, my hometown had a storm serious enough to disrupt the normal course of life for basically everyone in the city. The Ice Storm of 1991 brought down electrical lines all over town. Whole neighborhoods lost power and heat, but the crews working to restore service could only do so in much smaller pieces: a few houses here, a block there. In the week or more it took to get anywhere close to normal again, the line between warm and safe and cold and in a lot of danger was often a row of hedges, or a fence, or a street. My family spent a full seven days without electricity that winter. We had the means to be safe where we were, and turned down offers from neighbors and friends to move in with them temporarily. We did take folks up on the offer of a place to shower, though. It was during that week that we were driving down one particular street and kept feeling an odd series of bumps. Eventually, from watching out the window, we saw what the cause was: There were long, orange lines of extension cords running across the street. The houses on one side had power – the houses on the other did not. So creative folks had come up with this jury-rigged solution to come to their neighbors’ aid.

The book of Leviticus and the teacher Jesus both agree that neighborliness is religious work, and there is no short-cut through considering the lives and needs of the people who are our neighbors. We cannot be sure what our sense of connection to others will ask of us in each moment, but we can be sure that moving beyond isolation and into relationship will require us to set out and to cross the street.


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225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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