One year ago we offered up a space where we could mark a year unlike any other, not through grand gestures or pronouncements, but by inviting anyone to add words of grief and hope into the branches of a magnificent tree at the home of a humble yellow house.
This action was inspired by the beautiful traditions of the sacred trees of Buddhism, Lakota and Cherokee prayer ties, Scottish clootie wells, and the numerous places and cultures from China and Iraq to Brazil and Japan that mark mourning and healing by tying ribbons to a tree. It was also inspired by the need that I and my small team of volunteers and collaborators had to grieve and connect with others during isolation from one another. If we needed such a space maybe others did too.
It was December 2020, days before the Winter Solstice, and our hearts were heavy. Our doors were still closed to keep our community safe, but the shelter of our mighty oak tree was ready to receive our elegies, prayers, or wishes.
At every hour of every day, ribbons in the shades of shadow and shine have been available to anyone who wanted to add to the tree words of grief and hope. What have we lost, who do we mourn, what needs repair? What have we gained, where have connections deepened, who have we cared for or stood with, how are we reimagining a world beyond? What does healing look like? How do we achieve liberation? At last count more than 950 of our neighbors have added to this…this. Exactly what is this – public art, an act of defiance, a chapel? Community.
The words of poet and friend Yvette Angelique, writ large on the side of our building, have provided inspiration and permission to pause. Her poem “A Reckoning Between Shadow and Shine” was created as a work of art for the moment. Reading the first stanza one year later is stunning:
“Every 30 seconds, a human dies. One cheek to cheek hug
is lethal. In a blink, the artist’s brush and fountain pen freeze.
Unemployment and stimulus checks are too little and too late.
Lysol fumes swap as fresh air; quarantines house the office,
the classroom, and a night out on the town. To vote is now
a Special Forces mission. Zoom rooms and Tiktoks are
how we fly to see Grandmas and Uncle Joes.
Finally, our longest December night ushers a half-moon.
Part shadow, part shine, the fine line that divides
command a Reckoning. An andante movement
escorts 295 pandemic days—no doubt tomorrow’s nostalgia
told from once closed cafes and bookstores.”
You see, this Community Tree was only supposed to be in place until the Spring Equinox. It was intended to help us transition from a time of darkness, deep reckoning, and loss into a lighter time, a new normal. But as we continued to mourn the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and engage in a rekindled revolution, we found too many reasons to still be in the streets, to protest hypocrisy, racism, brutality, and an insurrection at the hands of white supremacy. And even as vaccines promised to eradicate our fears and introduce an era of safety, a mutating virus continued to wreak havoc across the globe and deepen the mistrust that divides us.
So with each zoom meeting in which the Yellow House family set a date to remove the ribbons and plan a reopening of our space, the world whispered otherwise. Our neighbors asked for the ribbons to remain, they had more to say.
Our work turned inside out with art, conversation, and even the sustaining power of food finding a place on our front lawn, at the corner of King and Phyllis Streets. It became a gracious and courageous space for us to truly see one another.
Even now, with our gallery space open again, dozens of ribbons are added every week. As the lower limbs become heavy with fabric, we remove each with care, document the words, and retie the ribbons higher into the tree. It has become a sacred ritual of listening and lingering.
On ribbons in shades of purple, hues of shadow people wrote:
I fear the unknown.
I lost my mom and my mind.
I want to leave behind drugs, self hate, toxicity, spite, jealousy.
Too many people sick and dying.
I miss my dad. He was amazing.
I have lost irreplaceable time with my people.
Mourning the countless lives lost to racism and hate.
I miss physical touch.
Praying to be free of toxic traditions.
The shadow was my marriage, it never was, and then I wasn’t.
Fuck the government.
Fuck being hungry all the time.
Will we see freedom in our lifetimes?
And too many that start with RIP.
Yellow ribbons, the color of shine, contain the words of what is to come, the light that broke through the dark, words of gratitude:
I am grateful for family, friends, zoom, slow going, spending time at home.
My light – friendship, intentions set, love, independence, my son, me.
Thankful for my first dose of the vaccine.
I overdosed on Monday after Super Bowl Sunday. Today I’m 54 days sober. I’m alive. I’m living.
Hoping for kinder days ahead.
Being able to provide for my family.
Friends, weed, love, family, peace, art, life, compassion.
Power of the people coming together to proclaim Black Lives Matter.
We will overcome – together.
I see love.
I became a better friend to myself.
Hope for ending the war in my homeland – Syria.
I am grateful to be alive.
These and hundreds of other statements have combined to create an ever-evolving statement about the times in which we are living – a statement about us.
The Community Tree remains active. We welcome you to breathe in Yvette Angelique’s poem and add your own words to what has become a sacred space. And as we move with trepidation and hope into a new year, we leave you with the final stanza in Yvette’s poem:
“Oh, Winter Solstice who art in the heavens,
forgive our trespasses, hellish pokes at credible science,
exploiting warriors in blue scrubs, and snatching souls
of sons and daughters of the African Diaspora.
We fall on our knees, dear Mother,
bow to your shadow and shine.
After a cold night, palm to palm in deep breathing,
give us daybreak, celestial wisdom,
and deliver us to what is holy and true.”
We are humbled to hold this space with YOU.