Photo: The author’s children (from left): Lydia, Mateo and Vivia. Photo provided by the author.
This letter to my 10-year-old daughter is based on actual experiences and conversations, and the style of the letter is inspired by Jacqueline Woodson’s book The Day You Begin. In Camden, New Jersey, we find ourselves in awe of the beautiful rainbow of hope—in friendships, in the neighborhood school and park, in community-building—even as the swollen gray clouds of racism, ecological injustice and social inequality crowd the skies and flood the streets. This letter is my attempt to name some of the complexities that my daughter already sees and to highlight our faith: that we discover the riches of God as we cling to hope in a place many see as hopeless and see beauty in a place many don’t think is beautiful.
There will be times when people say, You live in Camden? and they turn up their nose as if they smell a stench, and you will remember the smell of sewage from the county’s treatment plant or the smell like burnt peanuts from the licorice root factory or the chemical smell and diesel fumes from the industries that surround us. And you will remember, as well, how it feels to inhale deeply the fresh salty air blowing in our car windows, to laugh and tremble with giddiness as your hair waves and dances as we drive over the bay for a weekend retreat in Ocean City.
There will be times when people say, Isn’t it dangerous there? and you will remember how you feel when you hear loud bangs and ask nervously, Daddy, was that gunshots? and I say, It was fireworks and my glance tells you, We’ll talk later, keep playing with your younger siblings, I’ll be back in a few minutes, and you will remember telling your little sister, Watch out for needles as you hop over driftwood by the fishing pier. And you will remember, as well, how it feels to run barefoot with no glass on the sidewalks of the shore town Brigantine, past big houses, and only the waves roar in the distance, or how it feels to roll and wrestle in the green grass at grandparents’ houses in the Shenandoah Valley.
There will be times when you’re on the sidewalk and ahead of you a woman shuffles slowly, hunched, pauses with knees slightly bent and drops her coins, then stoops to gather them like she’s picking flowers, and she says to you as you pass, Thank you for not laughing at me, and you will wonder why people with sunken faces wander the streets looking dazed and lost and you will remember Teddy and Mindy and Ms. Pam, and you will remember how you felt when people came around behind the abandoned house to pee or defecate while you were in our backyard and you stopped swinging on the trapeze and came inside. And you will remember, as well, how you feel by North River in Bridgewater, free to explore the paths great-granddaddy made and venture over rocks and fallen trees through the sloping wilderness of woods and wade in the cool currents and spy on your cousins.
There will be times when you wonder, Why does our neighborhood have so much pollution and broken glass? And, Why are there so many homeless people? and you will wonder, Why do we live in Camden? And, What if we lived in the Shenandoah Valley or Ocean City or a suburban town?
When you have these doubts and questions, you will feel a variety of feelings and think a variety of thoughts. That’s OK.
And you will also remember how you feel when you stand with your friends, the whole school watching as you dance, slow and confident, rhythmic and powerful, lift your voices and sing, Can you hear freedom calling? Calling me to answer, gonna keep on keepin’ on, evoking the memory of Harriet Tubman—courage, vision, the struggle to be free, and you will remember how you walk, proud and independent, all by yourself across the street and through the alley each morning to school, ready to hold preschoolers’ hands and read them books before joining your classmates upstairs.
And you will remember how you feel as we take a family walk, skip stones at the Delaware, pick a bouquet of wildflowers as our dog romps through the sea of brilliant colors, and we run and hide on the nature trail we made in our neighborhood park as the groundhog dives headlong into its hole, and how you spotted a soaring bald eagle, and we stalked a shy flitting goldfinch and we were swallowed up in love of birds and trees and everything.
And you will remember how you made cucumber ranch on little round pieces of baguette and shared it with our neighbor Ms. Stephanie, and she said, I love you, you’re the best! And you will remember how you feel on the humid summer evenings after the scorching sun falls behind the houses when the kids on the block come out and run and play Shark and ride scooters ‘til your parents make you come in and shower off because you got sweaty and dirty from all the running and gardening and playing and swinging and you smell like smoke from the fire pit where you made hot dogs and corn on the cob and s’mores.
And you will remember…
Timothy H. Heatwole Shenk, Cheryl, his wife, and three children are part of an intentional community in Camden, New Jersey.