A couple of weeks ago while Leslie and I were touring Oregon, in the yard of a rundown, wood frame house outside the town of Sisters, we saw a homemade sign. Next to a large wood pile, a small American flag, and three rusting automobiles, was a large white piece of cardboard, a kind of poster board, with the words Black Lives Matter written on it, and slicing across those words, a deep red slash. Next to it was another sign. This one read Gay Rights, and another red slash. There were several others, but driving past at fifty miles per hour made it difficult to read them all. That probably was a good thing.
We met wonderful people, experienced striking beauty in Oregon. Seeing those signs was heartbreaking.
Signs, although not like those in front of that rural home along that remote highway, are before me now as Sam and I walk in the evening an hour before dark. These are signs I have ignored, missed, or disregarded until now. Since seeing what I saw in Oregon, the vision resurfaces, coming to me like the oil of a spill in the waters of a pristine mountain lake, fouling an otherwise heavenly land. And now, the signs around the homes where I live seem to be everywhere, and Sam and I find ourselves seeing differently these streets where we walk.
Walking Sam, or any dog, is an agreement to interpret one’s world. The dog, unlike the human, takes in what is given him with life-affirming affection. Sam cannot read, of course, but she is still decoding this world in her own way with profound regard. If she had command of our language, what might be the sign she would post in her lawn? No Cats Allowed. Sniff Your Own Yard. Pick Up After Your Human. Or maybe something less demanding? Bark if You Love Bones.
In the yard of three homes in a row, there are signs for security systems, signs announcing installed units that if triggered will alert the authorities. Is there more crime here than I know about? Security signs or not, at my home, or anyone’s—I wonder, are they only an indication of our false fear in a seemingly troubled world, the myth of razor blades in apples on Halloween?
“Are you worried about the neighborhood, Sam?” I ask.
Sam ignores me and sniffs a dandelion.
Posted to a tree in Crazy Guy’s lawn—remember him?—is a yellow Beware of Dog sign. Crazy Guy does not own a dog. There are a number of signs touting the accomplishments of high school athletes—baseball teams, lacrosse teams, and tennis players—signs that remind us they are on the team, no matter their abilities. And proud signs stuck in the ground near the front doors of the homes of families who send their children to local Catholic schools—Notre Dame and St. Isaac Jogues. Outside one home, there’s a sign of warning, white with green lettering, the words of a lawn care company making certain I am aware of the potentially harmful chemicals sprayed to keep things green and the crabgrass out. I pull on Sam’s leash to keep her off the lawn. She appears perturbed, as if there is something here far more important, more interesting than her health. Sam is unaware of the dangers of herbicides. But even if she was, even if she could read, would the sign matter? Would any of them? Or could it be that Sam, like me, walks this neighbor and decodes her world just the same. Through the signs, I see a neighborhood wrapped in pride—pride in their homes, lawns, pride for their children. It is a very human gesture to offer to the world the story of the things we love, the things we cherish—safety, family, the greenness of a yard. Sam and I turn west on Algonquin Drive to head back home, and I am thinking that there certainly must be more to the lives of those who live in what John Mellencamp might label as these “little pink houses.” But the signs do not prove this. Sam might not be able to read, or consider what these signs say about our neighborhood, but she can smell it, she can see it, and she knows.
Before witnessing those unsettling signs near Sisters, Leslie and I had spent a couple of days in Bend where a different kind of sign—one of red, white, and blue—could be seen in the yards of houses on nearly every street we walked.
IN OUR AMERICA
All people are equal.
Black lives matter.
Immigrants & refugees are welcome.
Disabilities are respected.
Women are in charge of their bodies.
People & planet are valued over profit.
Diversity is celebrated.
And on a subsequent walk back home, a few days after the hike where the neighborhood signs became so noticeable, Sam and I saw yet another, a brand new sign west of the main road, just over the border in the village of Westmont. A former church had been sold and was now renovated, and outside near the entrance is posted this sign:
The Madani Foundation
This old brick structure with large stained glass windows is now the home of an Islamic center, standing in the middle of a traditionally Catholic neighborhood. Its website says its an educational foundation to help Muslims and non-Muslims understand the true meaning of Islam through the teachings of The Holy Quran and the Prophet Muhammad.
Sam pays little attention to the sign. She does what she always does when she walks the neighborhood. She sniffs the trees and she looks for squirrels and prances when she sees another human nearby who might offer a pat on the head. Like all the other signs, Sam cannot read this one either. But it’s no matter. She likes our neighborhood and all the signs and the symbols they offer. In fact, I would guess Sam is rather proud of it all.