All Saints Day

The witch sisters of Elm Hill.

Yesterday, at the Haunted Hutchings mini-block party, I hung out with 300 of my Dorchester/Roxbury neighbors. Parents met over apple cider and cookies. Kids played with spooky steam from the laundry vent next door. Families posed in a DIY photo booth, clothed as witches, zombies, lizards or kittens.

On Halloween, as we played at being things we are not, we emerged as something we are:

a hardworking, playful community, with deep resources of talent and a critical mass of people who do GOOD.

This connectivity lodges deeply in my heart today, a day which happens to be All Saints’ Day. It’s the day that my family, traditionally, remembers those who we have lost in the past year. In Mexico and other parts of the world, it’s called Day of the Dead and isn’t limited to people who have passed on recently. People observing Día de los Muertos remember the dead with vibrant social spaces that welcome the animas— the spirits of those we knew– to return to us. Families build ofrendas (altars) with photographs of the lost person and food and objects that person loved in life. It’s playfully serious and DIY– a homemade reminder that “as you are now so once was I”– but it also carries with it the ever-present imperative of memory. If the animas return to the world of the living and that they have not been welcomed, then there will be consequences for the living. Day of the Dead galvanizes us to remember, and do so in public, extending and exporting “the privacy and intimacy of grieving” (Reyes-Cortez 2012).

In my neighborhood, many families carry a disproportionate share of private and public grieving. Street memorials with candles and teddy bears– everyday ofrendas– are constant reminders of the animas of lost children. Over 70% of violence happens in 5% of Boston’s city blocks (Kennedy et al., 1997), and some of those blocks are not far from where we live.

Stories emerged while I chatted to neighbors in the weeks preceding Haunted Hutchings. Robert, my neighbor, waved to a woman taking out her trash on Elm Hill and told me that the woman’s son had died where we stood, five years before. Robert saw it happen. While standing outside my friend and colleague’s house a few blocks over, a father walking by asked about a sculpture that had been part of a gallery show at the Children’s Museum.  The sculpture– wrought by artist Ben Tau in metal found on this very street– depicted his son, who had been killed nearby around the same time. Yvonne Abraham’s lovely article in the Globe last week thankfully focused on the uplifting parts of the Haunted Hutchings project, but we cannot deny the memories that truly haunt these streets.

Pairing these very human stories with those very cold statistics, many people would not see our neighborhood as a “relaxed field,” a factor that must be in place if play is to occur (Burghardt, 2005). For a creature to be able to play, it needs a low level of stress/competition for resources, adequate food, a basic level of health and parental care. Burghardt’s criteria reference non-human animals, but humans are no different. It’s hard to play when you’re worried about food; when the stresses of your life make parenting especially challenging; when your son gets involved in something he shouldn’t– or worse, when he was exactly where he was supposed to be– and it ends in tragedy.

Despite all the stresses families face, somehow, Haunted Hutchings– with its kittens, lizards, and a whole family of zombies– was a “relaxed field.” It fell somewhere between that and the “magic circle”– the space that is “a temporary world within the ordinary world” (Huizinga, 1955). It’s the space where a few factors– cultivation of space, the words we use– combine to magically indicate that the game has started. It’s a play bow, a predication, a move towards something different.

Through people like Steve and Allison and Dane and Amy and Liz and Linda and Carla and Marilyn and Lester and Rick and Robert and all the other neighbors on my block, with the stimulus of the Grove Hall Trust, we faced our fears playfully on Halloween. We started something magical.

On All Saints’ Day, I remember my Grandma Doris and her playful Halloween parties. I remember Ivol Brown, a young person I knew who was murdered several years ago. I think of my colleague Patrick and his friend who was shot and killed in Dorchester just a few months ago. I hold all the mothers and fathers of my neighborhood in my heart– my inner ofrenda— and I pose a challenge and a question.

To my fellow players– my neighbors in this magic circle of promise— my question is this: where does the game go next? How will we continue to play for keeps?

Let’s get started.

“Play, while it cannot change the external realities of children’s lives, can be a vehicle for children to explore and enjoy their differences and similarities and to create, even for a brief time, a more just world where everyone is an equal and valued participant.”

Patricia G. Ramsey“Diversity and Play,” 1998

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