We’ve all done it. Walking at night and catching ourselves peeking into strangers’ homes from the sidewalk. For me, it’s when I’m walking my dog through the neighborhood. The corner of a painting might catch my eye – or a wall of family photos. I might find myself admiring a window dressing, an interesting light fixture or a furniture piece. Sometimes I wonder why all the lights in a particular house always seem to be on or off. I see that the football game that is on in my house is also on in theirs. The other night, I saw someone typing in an upstairs bedroom and a family sitting at the dining room table. A light turned on in a basement just as I walked by another house. It’s hard not to notice, to wonder, to muse. Who’s that in the photo? What are they typing? What’s for dinner? But then, of course, I keep walking. Because not doing so would be – you know.
This doesn’t have to be a creepy thing. Instead, it tends to sober me and put things into perspective.
Catching glimpses of these private worlds helps me remember that no matter what we do or what happens to us – good or bad – and no matter how we’re portrayed or judged, we all admire beauty and family. We all seek a window into the world, a light to banish the darkness, a chair to sit in. Sometimes we need a dark cave, sometimes a light on in every room. We value work, sustenance, and connection.
I am not so naive to suggest that everyone in our city possesses these things or even the means to obtain them. I walk through a neighborhood filled with comfortable homes with holiday lights inside and out. But I do know that we all need and desire the same kinds of things. Peering into strangers’ windows helps humanize their strangeness. To see someone salt their dinner or another wash dishes – without needing to know what their day was like let alone their entire past or their future intentions – connects me with them in a weird way.
“No man is an island,” John Donne once wrote, “entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” From my island on the sidewalk, I feel connected to the islands of strangers’ kitchens and living rooms and basements, connected to the community and its private and quotidian life. I feel, strangely, less alone.
But passing by others’ dwellings without ever making a true connection – something more than an existential connection – isn’t enough. This year, writing for Milwaukee Independent, I sometimes just showed up and reported, as I did during Walnut Way’s Harvest Day. That’s always a good thing: showing up. But this year, I’ve also attempted to look into the windows of people’s lives in Milwaukee by conducting interviews and, often, creating monologues or dialogues based on those interviews. Artist Rosy Petri, for instance, gave me more than a glimpse through her Pfister Hotel studio, sharing the important message that “the act of creation belongs to everyone.” We are always, she says, in the process of creating both ourselves and our culture. The artwork that one can see from the hotel hallway is much more than intricately sewn fabrics and a welcoming pink sofa; it’s Petri’s myth of creation unfolding before our eyes.
Radio personality Tarik Moody emerged from behind the studio windows to proclaim his love and frustration for the city of Milwaukee: “I love this city and I love, as a former architect, witnessing the evolution of cities, which are ecosystems, living entities. Sometimes for evolution to happen, however, we have to go back to the drawing board.”
And restaurant owners Laurie Henderson Thurman and Bradley Thurman showed me how Coffee Makes You Black is more than just a coffee shop with beautiful old bank windows. It’s a community hub of support. “I find joy and purpose,” Henderson Thurman told me, “in helping others who are in need and seeing them grow.”
More and more, I’ve also found myself giving readers a look through my own mental windows with personal narratives and reflections. At the beginning of 2019, I had readers peer with me through the small security door windows at Vel R. Phillips School to examine with Socrates how the “unexamined life is not worth living.” Then, throughout the year, I invited readers into my thinking process as I pondered my sometimes role as a non-black Black history tour guide, my joy and dismay when visiting Portland and my hometown of Seattle, two of the whitest cities in the country, or my conundrums over the “race blind” casting of Hamilton.
I am thankful to my editor, who has allowed me these opportunities to pull back the curtains of journalistic objectivity and offer subjective, honest and vulnerable stories.
Therefore, in 2020, I will continue to remind myself (and readers) that we all admire beauty and family. We all seek a window into the world, a light to banish the darkness, a chair to sit in. Sometimes we need a dark cave, sometimes a light on in every room. We value work, sustenance, and connection. I’ll probably find myself glimpsing into homes when I walk my dog at night, but I hope to also find myself sitting in the home of one Milwaukeean a month to bring you their story – and to bring our islands closer to together.