This banjo is sitting in the corner of my living room. For the first few weeks it was here, it sat inside its case because I wanted to make sure my head and heart were clear when I finally opened it up.  It belonged to my dad, and even though he died nearly six years ago, his wife only recently began packing up his things and figuring out what to do with them. She knew I wanted the banjo, but she couldn’t find it in any of the places she expected it to be and then one day, as she lie on her bedroom floor fishing underneath the bed for a roll of Christmas wrap, her fingers bumped up against the black faux-leather case.

I brought it home, having only unzipped the case once or twice to peek inside and marvel at its pristine condition (although I shouldn’t have, my dad was a Marine in every sense and took impeccable care of his things).  When I finally sat down in the living room to take it out all the way – Bubba off on a business trip and the girls away at school for the day, weak February sunshine filtering through the leaded glass windows – time stopped.  I don’t remember hearing anything from inside or outside the house; no dogs barking or airplanes soaring by, no hum of the refrigerator or the dryer. Of course, that is impossible, but I felt weighty and deliberate as I gently lifted it out by the neck and the body, careful not to smear fingerprints on the shiny chrome or twang one of the strings and break the spell.  Nestled beneath the banjo itself was a songbook and instructional manual by Pete Seeger and I nearly cried out when I saw it. Dad was a huge folk music fan. We grew up listening to the Kingston Trio and The Mamas and the Papas and Dad, while he couldn’t read a note of music, could hear a song once or twice and pick it out on the banjo or the guitar or the piano.  I don’t recall how often it happened, but I have fond memories of sitting cross-legged in the living room in a small circle with my sister and brothers while Dad taught us “Froggie Went-A-Courtin'” and “Greensleeves” and we had sing-a-longs.  I remember his long freckled fingers with the ridged nails and knobby knuckles picking and bending the strings in perfect time as our little troupe swayed back and forth singing with great gusto.

Laying the banjo across the couch cushions, I picked up the songbook and flipped through, hoping for some handwritten evidence of Dad somewhere within. His distinctive scrawl, always in pencil, shaped by the tremor in his hands, didn’t show up anywhere.  I was deflated.  I think I was looking for some message from beyond.

In the months since that day, I have walked by the banjo many times as it sits propped up in a box in the corner, neglected. I would love to learn how to play and have often thought about picking up that instruction book to give it a shot, but I’m both afraid and intrigued by what the music would do to me, what doors it might open if I do, indeed, figure out how to strum that banjo to play the folk songs of my childhood.  Occasionally as I walk past, I can smell the scent of cherry tobacco that came from Dad’s pipe and I am suddenly in the middle of that living room with the green shag carpet and the gold velour couch and swivel chair, Dad leaning back with the newspaper and the pipe smoke wafting gently to the flecked ceiling. My thoughts drift to the brother we lost during that time and I quickly shut the door of my mind.

Last Friday, Bubba and I took the girls out for dinner to a place in our neighborhood we’ve never been before. As we sat and waited to order, I became aware of the music playing and my heart swelled.  Throughout our fantastic meal, an entire Jim Croce album played, each song in the order I remember: Time in a Bottle, Operator (That’s Not the Way it Feels), Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy), Bad Bad Leroy Brown, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, One Less Set of Footsteps, I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song.  The girls kept getting annoyed with me, alternately because I was singing along with the songs and because I got lost in my reverie and dropped the thread of our conversation.  I know they don’t understand the pull of this music for me and the melancholy memories, but it was such a lovely warm feeling to be surrounded by Dad, laughing at the absurdity and playfulness of some of the lyrics as well as the innocence and sweetness.

Even though Dad was not a musician by trade, nor would he ever have considered that a possible career, one of his purest joys was music and it was often the one thing that we could all agree on.  The soundtrack to our summer road trips featured folk artists as well as popular music from The Doobie Brothers and The Little River Band (Dad was not a Beatles fan at all). More often than not, we would pop in an 8-track, roll all the windows down and sing together in what we thought was perfect harmony. And it turns out, it was.

Eleven wine glasses. Stained with lipstick prints and puddles of dark red wine in the bottom, too tall for the dishwasher, sitting in a cluster next to the sink waiting for me to wash them. Remnants of last night’s book club meeting where we sat and talked about Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Invention of Wings,” our conversation straying to the challenging history of race in the United States and the recent rash of car burglaries and home invasions in our community. We agreed that we all sit in a place of privilege, but that we are not separate or immune, that awareness of and compassion for the lives of others is vital. We talked about our children and the ways in which their world is so different from the days of slavery in the South and how many strides we have made, not discounting the distance we have yet to go.

This morning I was grateful for those glasses and the opportunity to stand quietly and wash them one by one. I let the warm water run over my hands and imagined it melting the tension in my chest, the fear I brought home with me from driving this morning’s carpool.  As I soaped first the outside and then the inside, swiped the rim of each glass and then the stem, I reveled in the methodical work.  Last weekend there was a gang shooting a few blocks from the girls’ school and the park where they hang out at lunch was quickly host to a growing memorial for the 24-year old who was killed. The side of the school building became a display of sadness and love for the young man and school officials decided to leave it up until after his funeral to honor the community’s grief.
Last night I praised the school’s handling of the issue, the way they talked openly in community meeting with the students about the incident and let them ask as many questions as they wanted. The staff were sure to use the victim’s name and the girls repeated it often throughout the week. Eve shook her head as she told me he had two young children. Some of the girls were upset that their school had been defaced by the graffiti, and others were angry that they can’t go outside at lunch any more for a while. 
“Even though we may not be able to understand why someone would post graffiti on the school, we have to honor their process so long as it doesn’t harm us. Like it or not, our school is part of that community and it’s important to acknowledge that,” I told the women in our group.  
In the middle of the night, there were two more shootings within blocks of the school and I woke up to an urgent email detailing the increased police presence that would be at school today.  All outdoor activities were postponed, including the bike ride Lola’s entire class was to go on today.  When Lola found out, she buried her head under the covers and burrowed down to the bottom of her bed.
“I don’t ever want to go to the park again.” 
I wondered what it must be like for her to have a constant reminder of the young man’s death every time we drive by and see the memorial site, black and white balloons floating from the street sign above a collection of candles and stuffed animals and a bottle of whiskey. That park where she and her friends play tag and shoot baskets and swing as high as they can go. Will it be forever marred in her mind? 
I was thrilled to be the parent driving carpool this morning, if only so that I could see my girls safely from door to door.  After they were inside, I stopped to talk with other parents clustered around on the sidewalk in the shadow of a huge police officer who kept a watchful eye up and down the block.  Overnight, the graffiti in the neighborhood had bloomed, anarchy signs tagged in red on every block and a few posters pasted on signs declaring “The only good cop is a dead one.” My sternum was locked up tight.  The first victim’s funeral service is to be held on Monday and I am afraid of what will happen over the weekend. 
One by one, I washed the stains from the glasses and turned them upside-down to dry on a kitchen towel. Thoughts flitted through my mind, dissolving as quickly as they formed like so many soap bubbles.  In the suburbs, I worried less about random street violence. Is this the beginning of an uptick in gang warfare? Is there something substantive I can do to make a difference? As a white, middle class woman, would my showing up to try and do something be more offensive than not? None of my musings had any weight or substance and I washed them down the drain.  
I am driving carpool this afternoon, too. Until then, I will sit with this fear and examine it. I will do my best not to act from it and honor my own process. I have compassion for the families involved, who have lost sons and fathers and brothers, but today I think of my children. Today, I will think about how to shine a light on what is good and hopeful and promising in our lives so that I can show up for Eve and Lola feeling grounded in love instead of rooted in fear. It may take all day, but that is my task.