Speaking to the Locks

Our locks tell us a lot about our lives. Locks of all kinds hold my attention because of a dream I had when I was thirteen. In the dream a gray-haired woman in a white coat sat behind a desk. I knew she was me, far in the future. Behind her on the wall was a cross-stitched sampler with a motto. I wish to this day that I could remember what it said. The words were the most beautiful I had ever heard or read. I was moved, lifted by the beauty of the message. In another dream, I saw a photograph of the same woman in a newspaper clipping. The caption below her picture is all I remember. In bold type, it read, “Speaking to the Locks.”

I woke up knowing what I was supposed to do with my life. I was going to “speak to the locks.” The phrase has been my guide over the years. Its meaning continues to become clearer as the years go by.

At a party once, I was telling a friend about Ike’s, a restaurant in a neighborhood by the railroad tracks. Ike’s serves the best chili cheeseburger in the state. From the outside it looks like a dive. But inside you might see the mayor, construction work crews, college professors, and bikers with jailhouse tattoos. You would also see black, white, and Hispanic people, a mix you don’t see many places around here.

My friend jumped in: “I know just where that neighborhood is! My mother used to make us lock the car doors when we drove through there, and she would step on the gas to get through fast.” He grinned. “We were supposed to lock the doors by sneaking our finger up to the buttonand pressing it down gently so it didn’t make noise. My sister would lunge across the seat and pound the lock down, and Mama would hiss at her, ‘Not that way, you’ll hurt their feelings!’”

I think about the new road in the middle of town, a four-lane connector with a fine swooping curve and a great view of downtown. The road’s location makes supreme sense, unlike some city projects. A road should have been there all along; it’s amazing that no one did it sooner.

The new road barely touches a neighborhood that had a bad reputation in the forties and fifties. I still wouldn’t want to walk there alone and drunk at three in the morning, but going through at fifty miles an hour is surely as safe as fifty miles an hour anywhere. I know someone who reaches stealthily to lock the car doors when they turn onto that road. What do people think is going to happen? Some wild-eyed person might charge their rolling car, wrench the door open, and do unspeakable things? Wild-eyed people grab you when your car is stopped, not when it’s going full speed.

In my old suburban neighborhood I was street captain one year, which meant I had to go door-to-door collecting dues. I rang the bell, and in a minute I heard locks being unlocked from the inside, sometimes two or three of them. People cracked open the door enough to look out fearfully with one eye. They watched too much TV. I couldn’t figure out why else they would imagine that there were roving gangs of folks out to invade our homes.

My friend Jake lives in a downtown neighborhood that is bad by anyone’s standards. He sees a couple of crack houses from his front yard. Yet, he told me that on several occasions, he has gone camping and left the front door open for twenty-four hours.

“Open, like unlocked?” I ask.

“No,” he said, “standing wide open. Nothing inside was touched.” In Spartanburg County you mostly have to look out for being shot or stabbed by someone in your own family. No one bothers strangers much.

Here is what I’m thinking. We’re scared of the wrong things. We lock our car doors and take our kids home to where the guns are. We tell them all about being wary of pedophile strangers, and we forget to tell them about protecting themselves from uncles and cousins. We don’t let our neighbors into our lives so there is no one to turn to when we’re in trouble. We’re scared of people, don’t want to know them, and worry that they want to rob or rape us, but we don’t want to hurt their feelings.

Isolation is greatly to be feared, but our fears keep us alone. Ignorance is greatly to be feared, but our fears keep us at home, associating only with folks of our same nationality, class, and color. Looking like a fool is greatly to be feared, but our fears keep us silent when we should speak up and make us talk too much when we should be quiet, so we end up looking like fools after all. Our fears keep us from bending, growing, changing in a supple way. Our fears lock us down into a narrowness of experience that sucks the marrow from our bones and leaves us dried-up husks in safe homes with satisfactory retirement funds.

Yeah, we’re scared of all the wrong things.

A padlock and chain on an iron gate

Did I Say That Out Loud?

By Meg Barnhouse

From Skinner House Books

Wit, wisdom, and hope from the minister in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

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