This past Friday morning, I sent my children off to school with an extra hug and kiss, telling them good-bye, as they were about to embark on a two-week Christmas road trip with their father. They’ve made the trek to Michigan and back multiple times, but each journey tests my nerves. Twenty-five hours is a long time to have them at the mercy of wintry roads and holiday drivers. In a typical year, a part of my heart is sealed in a panic room until they return. By Friday afternoon, however, I had to just put the entire thing in lock-down.
One of the most terrifying realizations parents make is how much of our children’s safety is completely out of our control. It’s a truth we try to swaddle in waffled cotton and tighten down in five-point harnesses, but the reality is that we are all one fallen oak limb, one slippery intersection, one frayed wire away from potential disaster. But unless we’re willing to live in a solar-powered underground allergen-free bomb shelter, there isn’t much that can be done to eliminate every risk. We have to do our best and then send them out into the world. And hope for the best. Every day we hope.
Last Friday's school shooting in Newtown struck so many parents so deeply in part, I think, because it represented the very worst, the bottom of the dread barrel that we don’t dare to scrape. It was a violation of the contract we make with humanity every day, a main point of which is: I’ll place this small, helpless, innocent being in the care of my community because doing so will someday serve us all. All it takes is one person’s aberrance from that contract to destroy our faith in it, at least for a time.
I’m no expert on human behavior, but one of the basics I learned in Intro to Psychology is that it’s a natural desire to dehumanize those among us whose behavior is too abhorrent to comprehend. Ever since then, I’ve avoided using the term “monster” to describe criminals, no matter how unnatural their behavior may seem. I’ve tried to remember that, somewhere in their deepest reaches, they are still people, albeit people gone terribly wrong, and by seeing them as such, we’re better able to minimize future risk.
But over the last few days, with talk of every possible factor that could go into creating a person capable of the unimaginable horror experienced in Newtown, CT, I gave up. There’s no reason, I thought. He’s a monster. That’s all.
I’ve spent nearly 10 years telling my children that monsters aren’t real, that their imaginations shouldn’t get the best of them, that the real world is a pretty decent place. And even though I know, logically, that all those things are still true, the reminder of the random cruelty and unfairness humans are able to unleash on each other is deeply disturbing.
It’s worth having the conversations and asking the questions about what causes tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary, and hopefully they’ll result in a safer, healthier society, but I think it’s misguided to believe that we can legislate or medicate or even culturally revolutionize our way out of danger. The monster is chaos, and it can’t be destroyed.
And yet, we face it. We make breakfast and pack lunches. We help with homework and oversee piano practice. We live our lives. Because no matter what unknown forces may be out there trying to take what’s most precious from us, we have to give our children the lives they deserve. And that means accepting some risk, having some hope, and keeping the monster under our own beds.
This past weekend, I was mobbed in Cooper-Young. Luckily, I was with about a dozen other women, and the mob consisted of eager holiday shoppers looking to buy some stuff we’d made. As part of the Memphis Women’s Creative Collective, I was a beneficiary of the second-ever Memphis Cash Mob, the local outlet of a national effort to ambush small businesses (with their blessing) with a scheduled burst of paying customers. It’s a deeply simple concept, and so far, very successful. I was a mobber the first time and a mobbee the second, and on both occasions, I was surrounded by friendly Memphians with open wallets.
The whole “shop local” movement has gained traction over the last few years, as the community-related effects of Wal-Martization have set in and even large chains like Borders haven’t been able to fight their online counterparts. I have to make a confession, though: I’m terrible at shopping locally. I want to, I try to, but when it comes right down to it, I usually can’t afford to. I shop at my desk or on my couch, during random off-hour pockets of time, and I hold “50-percent-off-retail” as a standard for what I’m willing to pay.
By all appearances, I should be willing and able to make the small and rewarding sacrifices required to shop in my own community, but the reality is, I’m on my own fiscal cliff, and have been teetering on its edge for four years now. That’s when, as a recovering small business owner (oh, the irony), I began a debt consolidation program that has redirected a significant portion of my paycheck toward the mountain of credit card debt I built while trying to keep my store above water. For 50 months now, the equivalent of a mortgage payment, or a week in a 2-bedroom Gulf Shores condo, or semester’s tuition for one course at the University of Memphis, has been automatically withdrawn from my checking account. Poof! Gone! Worst magic ever!
It’s been happening for so long now that I barely think about it, but now that the end is in sight (April, if I’m doing the math right … which clearly may not be the case), I’ve started pondering what life will be like when that sturdy sum stays put each month. No more end-of-the-pay-cycle panic, no more due-date juggling, and, Maude help me, no more credit card balances. Ever.
I’m no economist (I mentioned that I kept a business afloat on personal credit cards, right?), but I start feeling a little like one when all the current budgetary rhetoric flies around because the financial mess we’re in as a country feels a little too familiar. Simply put, we overspent, from the top on down. No matter how noble or frivolous the intent, the money’s gone either way. And it wasn’t just The Administration. We helped. We sent in those no-interest-rate credit card applications and applied for mortgages that seemed a little too good to be true because, well, they were. Welcome to my cliff, everybody. Pull up a chair. And don’t look down.
The problem with the national parallel is that going through a serious buckle-down period as a country may not resolve anything, because we can’t guarantee that everyone will hold to their part of the deal and stop making the mistakes that caused these issues in the first place. I have no problem making major, long-term sacrifices if I know I’m coming out better on the other side.
My neighbors, however, are giving me hope. Seeing hundreds of people forgo the mall – at least for an afternoon – and spend money in their own communities, even though it’s a little less convenient (sorry about the downpour, people who parked two blocks away!) is reassuring. I think it’s safe to say that Memphis doesn’t tend to be at the forefront of many trends, so there’s good reason to believe that this mentality is already catching on in other metro areas. And if a growing number of people are buying into the idea that paying a little more, working a little harder, and supporting our own is worth the trouble, we just may be able to step back from the cliff.
As I sat on a makeshift bench in a temporarily sodded yard adjacent to the Sears Crosstown building and watched a well-dressed couple ambling down the sidewalk toward various nearby destinations, I was suddenly struck. “They got me,” I thought, “it worked.” Because in that moment, I was able to envision what a revitalized Cleveland Street would look like, and that was exactly the point of MemFix, the event that had brought me (and my kids, and seemingly half of midtown) to an empty department store parking lot that day.
Call me unimaginative, but before MemFix, I’d had a hard time picturing how the street I’d avoided taking my parents down during their visits to Memphis was going to become a thriving new part of the community. I must not be alone, though, because this whole if-you-fake-build-it-they-will-come thing is starting to become a powerful new tactic around here. It took an event like A New Face for an Old Broad in 2010 to show the potential of that long-neglected area. In the two years since, artists, restaurants, and other adventurous businesses have taken a chance on the old Broad and, based on steady occupancy of the street and unsteady departees of The Cove, it seems to be working out as planned.
Lack of imagination isn’t something Memphians are often accused of, however. Our default is more akin to skepticism. “Believe Memphis” was a great tagline for our NBA team, but did anyone happen to notice that it didn’t get picked up until the Grizzlies were near the playoffs? Did we believe before we saw the proof?
I don’t fault anyone for this tendency toward doubt; I’m a strong purveyor of it myself. There have been a lot of plans and promises that haven’t come through for Memphis, and it’s fair, I think, to want some evidence before we show enthusiasm, that most vulnerable-making of emotions.
But it’s hard to deny that the evidence is mounting. It’s filling up the empty spaces all around us. In the last ten years, a museum and charter school rose from the rubble of the Stax studio. New homes finally replaced the bare swath cleared for a deflected highway. A beautiful and well-managed trail system overtook abandoned rail routes. Vacant storefronts along South Main became condos and galleries and offices (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I happen to be currently employed by a firm that works with many of these emergent entities). I even hear they might do something with that Pyramid.
The next experiment begins this weekend, when MemShop will fill the unoccupied spaces on Overton Square with temporary businesses, just in time for your holiday shopping. I’ve spent the entirety of my Memphis residency wishing for Overton Square’s comeback, and have been let down numerous times, but it really and truly seems to be happening. For sure. Maybe. Probably? If MemShop can lure retailers back to the square the way Broad Avenue’s efforts did, the corner of Madison and Cooper may skip a revival and go straight on to renaissance.
With the recent addition of Memphis to National Geographic’s “Best of the World 2013” list, the doubt has been temporarily set aside for something dangerously close to giddiness. Had those explorers come to visit a decade ago, they would have found many of the things that made them declare Memphis a must-see destination – the food, the music, the all-around uniquity – but they also would have found an overwhelming sense of defeatism, one which probably would have pushed us somewhere behind Cleveland (or, heaven forbid, Nashville) on their list. Luckily, they came to 2012 Memphis, and that’s a whole different story.
So the positivity is pervasive? And everything’s solved? No. Not at all. Our position between St. Augustine and Kyoto on some travel site makes little change in the daily lives of residents who are more concerned about feeding their kids than updating their feeds. Our issues as a city are deep and serious, and pop-up shops and food truck rodeos aren’t going to make them disappear. They are, however, going to help us have a little more fun while we work the rest out. And what could maybe be dismissed as hipster boosterism (hoopsterism?) will fill in some of the space where our doubt used to be.
We have holes all over the city, from downtown storefronts to suburban foreclosures. But what’s making Memphis a must-see is how we’re planning and working and collaborating to fill them. We don’t have to imagine what’s coming next. We can see it. We, finally, can believe.