Beauty and Brokenness

I have lived in San Francisco for less than four weeks, and at the risk of being premature, I think I can safely say this is love.  I love the walkability, the mild weather, the amazing restaurants and bars steps from my front door, the cultural opportunities that abound.

I love that it feels like a small town – that I keep running into people I know on the street, and that at a party last weekend I met a girl who used to live two blocks from me and a guy who currently lives two blocks from me – total strangers who turned out to be neighbors.

I love the social consciousness, the signs in windows of bars and convenience stores and laundromats that say “No Ban, No Wall, “Love is Love,” and “Black Lives Matter.”  I love that after leaving a party at 11:30pm I stood in line for 30 minutes at Hot Cookie in the Castro to get their “California Cookies,” with the ingredients listed as coconut, almonds, chocolate chips – and love.

I love the diversity of the neighborhoods – the Castro, Mission, Hayes Valley, the Haight – echoes of the distinct neighborhood-iness of NYC.  Each with its strong identity and equally strong supporters and detractors.

Despite my state of happy smitten-ness with this city, something that has been hard to adjust to is the disparity between all the loveliness and all the need – the chasm between the haves and the have nots.  A few days after I moved here, I volunteered at City Hope, a community organization in the Tenderloin, and I felt overwhelmed by the brokenness.  There were the two young girls, 6 and 8,  who are experiencing a childhood so radically different than the one I experienced just 40 miles from here – and radically different than the one their neighbors are experiencing just 4 blocks away in a more affluent area.  There was the man struggling with mental illness who dumped his plate of spaghetti over his head, and stormed angrily away from a group of people who wanted nothing more than to care for him.  There was the young woman with her eyes glazed over and her shirt ripped open in a way that made my stomach clench, as I thought about the intense vulnerability of being young and female and living on the streets.

I walked home from the Tenderloin to my apartment in Hayes Valley, and in that 20 minute walk I felt like I had travelled to a different world.  My neighborhood is the very picture of gentrification – darling, populated with charming restaurants, boutiques, green space, a playground-  it feels, in some moments, like an SF version of Disneyland – a little too perfect to be real.

It felt surreal that these two communities could exist in one place, so close together yet worlds apart.  And I struggled deeply with my place in that, my identity, the weight of the privilege that meant I could so easily walk away from the discomfort, the pain, the brokenness, and travel to this kinder, gentler, picture-perfect world.

At church on Sunday our pastor began his sermon by saying this “You don’t have to go far in this city to find beauty – beautiful vistas from the top of every hill, world-class music and museums, the beauty of diversity.  You also don’t have to go far in this city to find brokenness – poverty, homelessness, broken relationships.  Our city is a place that’s filled with beauty – and also filled with brokenness.”

So much beauty, so much brokenness.

On my first full weekend living in the city, I went for a run in Golden Gate Park – it was 70 degrees, clear blue skies, birds chirping, dogs running, children laughing and I just thought “this is perfect.”  I was so blissed out on the heady cocktail of Vitamin D and endorphins that I dropped my cell phone and shattered the screen and didn’t even care.  As I was running back home, I rounded the corner to my block, earphones in, blissed out to Coldplay, feeling on top of the world – and almost stepped on a person.  There is a row of tents a block from me where people live – and a man was lying on the sidewalk, and I almost ran him over.  I faltered and stepped to the side, and in that moment the picture-perfect SF montage I was living in came to a screeching halt.  “Oh,” I thought, “Right.  This is reality too.”

One of the reasons I deeply appreciate cities is that they force you to confront the messiness of our world – they are the opposite of gated communities, clean and tidy and filled with manicured lawns.  They are gritty and real.

“Beauty and Brokenness” perfectly describes the paradox of this city – which feels fitting, actually, because doesn’t that also perfectly describe all of us, if we’re being honest, and the reality of our lives?  Great beauty and great brokenness, dwelling side by side in our stories and experiences, our memories and pasts, in our hearts, souls and spirits.

I look around my neighborhood, at the man bathing on the sidewalk or the woman sleeping in a tent a block from my warm, dry, charming apartment and I have big, messy, hard questions.  I look at their lives and mine, at the chasm of privilege and opportunity so vast it feels insurmountable, and I have so many questions. I walk by on my way to work at my shiny tech job and I think “but for the grace of God” – which raises even messier, thornier questions about why I got a Big Gulp sized measure of grace and they seem to have a Dixie cups worth – at least measured in worldly terms of comfort, security and opportunity.

I don’t have the answers, but I want to continue to wrestle with the questions – to ask what it looks like to live this life I’ve been given out of a place of gratitude, to be the master of my own privilege and steward it well, to acknowledge the disparity that exists and turn toward it with love, compassion, and an extra measure of grace.  I want to practice the discipline of turning my palms upward to receive all of the beauty, and extending my arms outward with love and mercy toward the brokenness.