Syracuse.com: Clotheslines and consensus: a lesson in community

Linda LeMura, president, Le Moyne College

Commentary appears on syracuse.com:

Clotheslines and consensus: a lesson in community

My introduction to diplomacy began at the kitchen table of my childhood home on the North Side of Syracuse. My mother would brew a fresh pot of coffee and bake a batch of Italian pastries, all in preparation for what was often a contentious, animated conversation among the women of the neighborhood. Some of these women spoke in the flat vowels of Upstate New York; many spoke broken English, slipping occasionally into Italian, Russian, Turkish and an assortment of Sicilian dialects. Each arrived at my mother's table with an agenda, and they often argued their case in tones that might worry the uninitiated. When things got too spirited, an almond paste cookie would often take the edge off, just a little, but just enough.

And what was the subject at hand? The neighborhood clotheslines.

When I try to explain to many of our students why these gatherings were so powerful, they are, at best, bemused by what they imagine is a quaint bit of nostalgia; worse yet, they're mystified. Why would you need to share a clothesline? Or, worst of all, what's a clothesline?

Back in the 1970s, in a neighborhood where few owned a dryer, having clean, dry clothes took planning and organization. Families were large back then, and no single yard could string enough line to handle the demand. So, women shared what space there was, and they managed the inevitable confusions and crises that arose.

I grew up watching hardworking women negotiate when they would wash and dry their clothes around the availability of neighborhood clotheslines. The Albino's had Monday afternoon; the Avsitidsky's took Wednesdays; Mrs. Toscano always left her clothes up longer than she promised; and Mrs. Ponnarelli was always taking the clothespins back to her own house. When it rained, it wreaked havoc with the meticulously designed schedule. My mother would convene another "meeting" when someone needed the lines on a day that belonged to another neighbor, or, if the weather dealt someone a bad hand.

When I think of those women today, and when I conjure that cacophony of language, that operatic, passionate exchange of demands and concessions, I realize that what I was witnessing was a living embodiment of community. No one expected these conversations to be easy, but I knew that these working mothers would find a solution in the end. They wanted to; they needed to. In other words, they had a practical investment in the well-being of their neighbors.

Recently, I've thought a great deal about those clotheslines. When I hear calls for a national conversation about race or racism, police tactics or abuses, when I hear calls for dialogue, I think about how real change takes place: one difficult conversation at a time, held between neighbors who want and need change.

Not everyone left my mother's kitchen loving her neighbor; but I know that we at least listened to her. Many of those women were tired, burdened and frustrated, but they were invested in progress even if it meant a bit of sacrifice. These are the values missing in the angry, inflexible exchanges that currently dominate public discourse: No one's listening, no one's acknowledging the legitimate problems or needs of their neighbor; very few seem willing to share, to change, to do what's necessary to create a healthy, functional community.

One of the most important values of Jesuit education is cura personalis, the care of the whole person. Each individual embodies an entire world of need, of talent, of history, of desire and all of it is sacred. The police officer walking a dangerous beat, the young man who worries about whether to wear his hooded sweatshirt on a cold day, the mother who sends her child to the corner store, the father working an extra shift at an extra job: all have practical needs to be met, problems to be solved, stories that need to be heard. We have a moral obligation to listen, to solve those problems and meet those needs. This obligation is particularly strong now in the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County. While national events dominate, we have work to do in our schools, on our streets, and with our neighbors. As president of the college I speak for Le Moyne -- we are not only members of the community, we will be at the table and in the conversation.

The clothesline has, sadly, disappeared from many neighborhoods; what it represents for me still abides. We are all, necessarily, unavoidably, connected. Community is a work in progress, and that work is often as difficult and contentious as it is mundane. If we can listen to more than just the passionate words, if we can look past the immediate moment in all its divisiveness, we may see and hear a neighbor in need.