We Make Homes

On Community

megan stielstra
Feb 6, 2020 · 10 min read
Illustration by Christina Yoseph

In the fall of 2018 a spree killer started shooting people in Rogers Park, the neighborhood where I live on the north side of Chicago. The first life taken was a 73-year-old man walking his dogs on a Sunday morning, killed execution-style and found by his neighbor face-down on the sidewalk. On the news they showed a photo of him hugging his husband. He is laughing and safe and in love and that’s the image I will screenshot in my memory — not a body on the ground, but a human being, loved.

The second life was taken 36 hours later with the same gun; a 24-year-old kosher supervisor at a local grocery store, shot point-blank and left for dead. He was dressed in traditional Jewish attire and playing Pokémon Go, a mobile game where you locate and battle adorable virtual creatures. The night after his murder, hundreds of players gathered at Loyola Beach for a candlelight vigil. “He would trade his crappiest Pokémon to give us his best,” one told a reporter, and I think about what it means to be part of a community.

At the same time the shootings started, Chicago was watching the trial of Jason Van Dyke, the white police officer who shot a black teenage boy named Laquan MacDonald sixteen times. The nation was watching the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, our bodies buzzing with rage.

The camera pans out: my neighborhood, my city, my county.

Then right back in to my heart.

Six months earlier I adopted a puppy, a tiny squirmy pit mix named Ripley after Sigourney Weaver in Alien. I needed to get out of my apartment, out of the depression winding like vines in my veins. I’d spent a year pretending it wasn’t happening. I’m just tired. Working too much. Not enough Vitamin D. The fact that I couldn’t get out of bed had nothing to do with neurobiology and everything to do with awful Chicago winters and the world in 2018.

The last time this happened, I had a newborn. His needs were bigger than mine. It was easy to push down panic because this tiny squirmy hungry human needed to eat or poop or chew on my cheek. Now — not so easy. That perfect human is eleven years old, and yes, he still needs me, but not in the same way. He isn’t an excuse. He never was.

I did everything they tell you to do: yoga, no booze, social media breaks. I joined an axe-throwing club, trying to get it out of my body. I got a therapist — out of my head. Nothing helped. The days I wasn’t teaching were spent deadlocked to the couch watching Twitter like a movie: white nationalists in Charlottesville, missile tests in North Korea, mass shooting in Las Vegas. It was mid-#metoo and too many of my college students were writing about sexual assault. Their stories aren’t mine to tell but I hope you will think of these brave young people as you walk into the voting booth: they’re writing to save their own lives.

A puppy in the house changed everything. Suddenly I was walking five, six times a day, remembering the world outside my head. I’ve lived in Rogers Park for eight years and love it dearly; far north end of the city, Lake Michigan long to the east. Every year community members collaborate on a 600-foot mural called Artists of the Wall, bright paintings by little kids and famous folk alike. There’s live music, kites flying, and people of all ages and families and bodies. Census lists us as the highest level of racial diversity in the city. Residents who work in nonprofits double the state average.

Ripley and I would head north down the lakefront from the pier at Tobey Prinz Beach to the playground at Loyola Park, then circle back down the bike path. If there was time we’d keep going, past the Lighthouse Tavern, past Sherwin and Jarvis. She is a nightmare on a leash, an admission I’m sure will result in much unsolicited advice from dog owners (I love you, dog owners. Don’t @ me). We walked through snow and slush and gross gray rain. We walked through the shooting in Parkland and children caged at the border. We walked through the end of the academic year and into summer.

Ripley doubled in size. I remembered how to breathe.

The Van Dyke trial began in September and the city tensed; shoulders tight, fist clenched. It had been four years since Laquan’s murder. Three years since the dash cam footage was released to the public. A year since the Department of Justice released a scathing report on the Chicago Police Department’s use of excessive force, specifically in regards to the black community. I watched the jury selection. I watched opening statements. I watched it tangle in my newsfeeds with the Kavanaugh hearings, a whiplash of race and gender and power.

Here’s an experiment: turn to the nearest woman and ask how she felt when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified on September 27. That day is burned on our bones. I was in the kitchen, watching on my laptop, Ripley asleep on a blanket at my feet. My friend Sarah showed up at my backdoor because she didn’t want to watch it alone, or she didn’t want me to watch it alone. I love you, my friend Dia texted from California. I’m with you, women told each other on Twitter. We shared a pulse that day, our bodies tied together across miles, across memory.

Indelible in the hippocampus.

I thought of watching Anita Hill testify on television when I was in high school (incidentally, the first time I heard the name Joe Biden). I thought of articles I’ve read about what a Kavanaugh confirmation would mean for women’s healthcare, about talking with young people about the accusations, about the end of the supreme court. I thought of the essayist Kiese Laymon asking, “What does the body remember?”

Sometimes it’s safer to write from the head.

Sarah left to pick up her daughter and I watched Kavaunaugh turn red and unhinge until I couldn’t take it. I turned him off. I cried in my kitchen. I wager I wasn’t the only one. “What should I do?” I said aloud, and Ripley heard my voice and got up. She gave a long, luxurious stretch. She wiggled her puppy-butt.

Then she took a bite out of the wall.

The shootings started three days later. We saw the police cars on Sherwin Avenue on our walk Sunday morning, and again on Lunt on Monday night, but I didn’t understand the impact until ballistics matched the bullets and the story hit the news on Tuesday, October 2nd. I taught my first class of the fall term. Trump mocked Dr. Ford at a campaign rally. Van Dyke testified that he killed Laquan in self-defense. “How many times did he shoot him?” asked my son. He held out his fingers and counted to sixteen.

Put down this essay and count to sixteen.

The first community meeting was Wednesday night at the Loyola Park field house, ten minutes from my apartment on same quiet lakefront path I walked with Ripley every day, but that night I took the long way up Sheridan, alive with traffic and people and bright street lights. Hundreds of my neighbors were pressed into folding chairs set up in the gym. We waited and sweated, 85 degrees in October. A police superintendent got on the mic and outlined facts: first shooting, second shooting. He said police presence in the neighborhood had been increased — “saturation” he called it — to make the community feel safe. I thought of Van Dyke’s testimony. I thought of Kavanaugh’s.

Safety depends on your body.

They showed us video surveillance footage of the killer. He was tall, over six foot, wearing a ski mask. It was impossible to see his face. The superintendent pointed to his feet, splayed out to the sides. “He walks like a duck,” we were told. If any of us saw anyone who walked like a duck, we were to call 911 immediately. Some people pushed back, pointing out the connections to racial profiling; the ugly, beating heart of the Van Dyke trial.

Walking home down Sheridan, I stared at everyone’s legs. How was that guy walking? What about that guy? How about her? I felt an impossible tension between being scared in the community where I live and my commitment to see Chicago in contrast to the single story of violence it is given every day in the national media. Here is our beauty, our communities, our art. Here are our young people, writing about systemic racism and how to fight it. Here are our young people, remaking the world.

This is the truth of my city.

Still: Ripley and I started walking south. Away from the lake.

On October 5th, I helped my friend Amanda move into her new condo; a beautiful, sunny place on the river that she bought her own damn self. Movers took the boxes and big stuff while we loaded everything precious into the back of her jeep: art and plants and ukuleles and whiskey down three flights of stairs in Andersonville, then up three more in Albany Park.

At 1:30 we set up lawn chairs on her new porch, her laptop open on a stack of unpacked boxes to watch the verdict. It came fast: guilty of second-degree murder, as well as 16 counts of aggravated battery, one for each shot. The jury forewoman read each count aloud; slow, distinct, excruciating:

”We the jury find the defendant, Jason Van Dyke, guilty of aggravated battery with a firearm — first shot.”

“We the jury find the defendant, Jason Van Dyke, guilty of aggravated battery with a firearm — second shot.”

“We the jury find the defendant, Jason Van Dyke, guilty of aggravated battery with a firearm — third shot.”

Put down this essay and count to 16.

Amanda and I went back to boxes and, an hour later, returned to the lawn chairs. We listened to Susan Collins speak from the senate floor about her support of Kavanaugh, and understood that her vote would lock in his confirmation to the high Court. I briefly imagined picking up the laptop and hurling Susan Collins into the river.

Amanda grabbed my hand.

I thought about the homes we make for ourselves in this beautiful mess of a world. I thought about the people we make them with.

That night I put on Ripley’s harness to take her out for a last pee. “It’s dark,” said my husband. “Please be aware of your surroundings.” He is a good man — a feminist, here for the fight — but my insides were boiling: Kavanaugh, Weinstein, the Access Hollywood Tapes, a hundred student essays, a thousand women’s stories. “I have lived in this body for forty-three years,” I yelled. “You think I’m not aware of my fucking surroundings?”

I stormed down the stairs and into the alley, dragging the puppy. I was scared to walk too far from the apartment, so I stood by the dumpsters and fumed. From my left, towards the lake, a voice yelled, “What are you doing?” I didn’t answer. Why would it have anything to do with me? “I said what are you doing?” he yelled again. At the end of the alley — say, a half block away, the length of three buildings — was a man. I knew that much from the voice, but it was too dark for details.

“Me?” I yelled back. “I’m walking my dog.”

“You don’t look like you’re walking.”

I was not going to get into it with a dude in the alley.

“You shouldn’t be outside!” he yelled. “There’s a serial killer out here!” He was walking fast towards me and I heard my own heartbeat. Safety depends on your body. “Aren’t you scared of the serial killer?”

Two hundred feet away.

“What if I was the killer?”

A hundred feet away.

“What if?”

I scooped up Ripley and ran inside my building, locking the door between our bodies, shaking with fear and anger. By the time I got up the stairs, I was covered with dog pee.

I’m so tired of this story.

It didn’t occur to me to look at his feet.

We’ve started walking north again — Tobey Prinz Beach to the playground. On the mural along the lakefront, one of my neighbors painted the word JUSTICE in bright looping letters. I wonder what it would look like in practice; power and violence and bodies, gender and race and rage. It’s been over a year and the Roger’s Park Killer hasn’t been found. Brett Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court. Van Dyke was sentenced to seven years. Douglass Watts and Eliyahu Moscowitz are dead. Laquan is dead.

Ripley has tripled in size. I’m trying to remember to breathe.

We circle around at Loyola Park and head home down the bike path. Today my son walks with us. He pets cute dogs, talks with our neighbors, says hi to kids playing games on their phones. At Lunt, where Eliyahu was killed, we stop to look at the memorial, gifts piled high around a laminated photo. “Who is that?” he asks. I tell him, then think, A human being, loved. People leave flowers. They leave their crappiest Pokémon and their best Pokémon. They leave painted rocks signed with names and dates that we don’t understand but we don’t need to. They’re not for us.

This is his community, inside of my community, inside of yours.

We make homes for ourselves in this mess of a world.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

megan stielstra

Written by

Megan Stielstra is the author of three collections, most recently The Wrong Way to Save Your Life.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

megan stielstra

Written by

Megan Stielstra is the author of three collections, most recently The Wrong Way to Save Your Life.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store