This is how the Symphony of my sorority, Alpha Chi Omega, begins. I spoke these words on a weekly basis for four years straight, and they always struck a resounding chord with me. The “common things in life” for me in my collegiate years were often easy to recognize. Yes, it was sometimes difficult to see beauty in the dreary Milwaukee winters (or an April snowstorm…), or in late nights spent at the library (or, more often, in the newsroom), or in frustrating relationships with friends, sisters, professors, etc. But I truly did try, and often, the Symphony helped me find a silver lining in the common things that made up my life.
But my life no longer consists of sorority meetings, snowy walks to class or late nights editing newspaper stories. The common things have become uncommon. The uncommon, or what was uncommon to me for so long, is now the norm.
Newark, New Jersey. Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, New York. Scranton, Pennsylvania. Harlem, New York. Camden, New Jersey. Anacostia, Washington, D.C. Baltimore, Maryland.
These neighborhoods and these cities, often elicit strong negative responses from people. When my friends from college or home ask about my weekend plans and I tell them I’m going to visit friends in these places, the response is predictable: A face – wrinkled nose, raised eyebrows. The name of the city repeated in a way that very clearly means, “Who would choose to live there?”
But these places are common now. They are where I live, where my friends live. Where we work. These are the places where our clients and students and neighbors live and work. These places are home. And they are beautiful.
Where is the beauty in a dilapidated subway station at 2 a.m., dripping with unidentifiable substances, smelling like garbage or worse, the sounds of daytime street performers long echoed into silence? The woman in front of me just swiped a stranger onto the train because he couldn’t afford fare. The man at the newsstand on the train platform gave a bottle of water and a Snickers to someone who has been riding trains all day, asking riders for change and still doesn’t have enough to buy dinner.
Where is the beauty in the deserted Camden waterfront, littered with trash, grey skies over a grey landscape, looking across the Delaware River at the more prosperous, more visited, more widely recognized Philadelphia? Someone recently built a smiling snowman on the sidewalk. Huge sheets of ice creak as they float downstream and remind me that there are more powerful and beautiful forces at work in the world than the unjust human systems that so often leave me feeling frustrated and hopeless.
Where is the beauty in the heat not coming on? Where is the beauty in being thousands of miles from your family? Where is the beauty in a winter where one snowstorm after another, with nothing but subzero temperatures in between leaves countless people to suffer on the streets? Where is the beauty in being constantly surrounded by concrete and metal when you long for the beauty of nature – fresh air and open space? The answer is not easy, but it is simple: that beauty is everywhere, if you put effort into searching for it.
After six months as a Jesuit Volunteer, the common things in life look a lot different. The beauty in them is often more elusive, but when I am able to find it, it becomes even more incredible.
This is to be my symphony.