If You See Something, Say Something

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up on the High Line in New York City.  Beauty amidst the crush of a big city.

Up on the High Line in New York City. Beauty amidst the crush of a big, sometimes dark city.

It’s 6:30 on a hot and humid August morning. My dogs, Sam and Max, are anxious to get back home, where Bill has their breakfast mixed and waiting for them. They’ve taken care of their “business” and I’m now awake and sweaty after a brisk walk and just as happy that in a few minutes I’ll be back in my air-conditioned abode.

As I turn the corner toward home I notice an old car parked facing out into the street in a driveway to my left. I don’t know the people who live there, but I walk these streets every day and have never seen this aged, black Volvo station wagon before. As I get closer I see its dings and dents, and someone sitting in the drivers seat. The car isn’t parked next to the other cars much further up the driveway and close to the house. This one sits right at the edge of the road as if it’s ready to make a quick get-a-way.

I live in one of Charlottesville’s oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods. The streets are lined with stately tree and in the spring the yards are filled with a riot of color with azaleas, forsythia, Chinese magnolia, dogwood, redbuds, and cherry trees blooming one right after another. Most, if not everyone who lives here feels safe and loves our little community here in the gulch, tucked between several hills.

It’s a 1950’s kind of of a neighborhood. When they’re not in school kids of all ages are out playing together, riding bikes, or shooting baskets without being looked after by overly doting parents. Occasionally a police van drives slowly through the area and though we hear of an occasional nearby car break-in, we who live here, are trusting and don’t live in fear.

This morning there is no one else about except that person in the car. The sun is up and the birds are singing, but it seems that most people are still sacked out or sipping coffee as they read the morning paper. I wonder who that person is in that car and what his business is.

As I pass in front of the car, I notice what looks like the long barrel of a rifle pointing out into the street from the front passenger seat. But I think nothing of it … until I’m about to turn the next corner and begin to feel a rush of adrenalin coursing through my body. I run home, dragging the dogs behind me, who now if they had their way, would stop to sniff every blade of grass we pass.

I tell Bill about what I saw. He says we should call the police, but we look at each other and agree that there must be a rational explanation for the car, the man, and the “rifle.” We’re both thinking, Bad things just don’t happen here.

Brave and brazen, Bill decides to drive around the block to see what’s up. When he returns a few minutes later, he comes in smiling. He tells me that when he drove by the scene of what I now think was all my imagination, the man was out of his car, unloading tree trimming tools. The gun barrel I saw was a long pole he was about to use to trim the neighbors trees.

I was relieved but still distressed and shaken to my core. I’ve suddenly seen my own neighborhood in the shadow of the violence that seems to fill the headlines on a daily basis in this country. That we live in a time when we must be continuously reminded that if we see something suspicious, we must say something, is nothing short of discouraging and often depresses me.

Whether we know it or not, we live in two worlds; the world of home and community where we feel comfortable and safe, and the world we read about or view on tv, in which innocent children and every day good citizens, some whose jobs are to protect us, are shot down for no reason at all. And we can’t always be sure which world we’re in during any given moment.

Had we called the police about the tree trimmer, how would I have felt to learn that he was just an innocent man, getting ready to do his job, but first having a smoke and finishing the last drops of his morning coffee before unloading his tools? I would have felt like a jerk and been kicking myself in the butt.

But how would I have felt if someone in my neighborhood was shot and killed because I never reported what I saw to the police, refusing to believe that bad things could ever happen here?

I know horrific events can and do happen anywhere. And yes, we must say something if we see something that disturbs us and could be harmful to ourselves and other people. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

But constantly being on guard and ready to speak out about the things that frighten or anger us, can make our days darker and our anxiety levels sky rocket.

Perhaps we could grow our awareness, our sense of reality, and stem the tide of anxiety and depression if we also spoke out about the beautiful things we see around us.

Perhaps if the next time we witness an awe inspiring sunset or a person doing good deeds benefiting all creatures and point it out to everyone around us, we can spread the notion that indeed we live in a wonderful world. By sharing the goodness as well as the badness, we can all be happier and live more fulfilling lives. Reality is both frightfully horrible and outrageously wonderful.

We can soften the blow of the horrible by recognizing the beauty that surrounds us.


  1. I will attend to something important this morning, thanks to you – not quite THAT alarming, but important –

  2. Joan Rough says:

    Good for you Patti. It is important whatever it is, to speak out.

  3. Joan, you are the consummate storyteller and cut to the chase about what we are all facing as we all try to find our place of peace and serenity in a world gone awry. Powerful post. I was with you on your walk. I love your closing line about recognizing and sharing the beauty to counteract the horrible. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Joan Rough says:

    Thanks so much, Kathy. That incident really shook me up and writing about it now has cleared my head. The world is different than it used to be and it takes acceptance and living in each and every moment to find the good that keeps us sane.

  5. Jane Mackie says:

    Hi Joan. I am also a P137 alumnae I am studying white privilege (I am a Northern European who has had a life of privilege). Do you mind sharing whether the person who seemed out of place was a person of color? Please don’t take this as some kind of judgment. I am seeking to explore my own fears and reactions when something or someone seems to not fit in. When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, nothing short of overt violence would catch my attention. Now I live in a medium sized town in PA, one that is not at all diverse, and I see that my perspective is changing. I feel that I need to be very attentive to discern what constitutes a real threat versus a perceived threat when something or someone doesn’t “belong”.

    • What a great question, Jane. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember if he was person of color or not. I was concerned with what I perceived as a gun. Charlottesville is a hugely diverse community and though this neighborhood is white it is not unusual to have people of color both visiting and/or working here.

  6. “Perception is reality” is illustrated so richly by your story. Good for you for examining your perception more closely to discover that your conclusion was faulty. Thank God!

    Another image that came to mind as I read was “beauty and the beast.” We live in a world of contrasts – the ugly with the pretty, good and evil. It’s a wise woman who recognizes which is which.

    Now I wonder what adventure will unfold on your next walk with Max and Sam. We’re all ears, Joan the Savvy Storyteller!

  7. Thanks, Marian. I rarely come across that kind of event when I walk. My morning walks are usually quiet and peaceful. Afternoon walks are usually times when I get to talk to all the other neighbors who are walking their dogs. It’s a very doggy community and some of us only remember the neighboring dogs names rather than their owners!

  8. Jane Mackie says:

    Joan: A gun, even if perceived, would get my focus and attention, too. This really gives me a lot to think about.

  9. Jane, I asked my husband whether the tree trimmer was a person of color. His answer was no, he was white.

  10. Our perception is our reality … and is something to be taken seriously when we are triggered into a fight or flight response. They reveal our hidden fears and conditioning, as well as what makes us feel safe.
    Such a helpful post Joan!

    • Joan Rough says:

      Thank you, Val. Yes, perception is our reality and feeling safe is of the utmost importance.

  11. Joan — “Reality is both frightfully horrible and outrageously wonderful. We can soften the blow of the horrible by recognizing [and shouting from the mountaintops] the beauty that surrounds us.”

    yes, Yes, YES indeed!

    • Joan Rough says:

      Yes, Shouting from the mountaintops, doing happy dances, and sending love to all of our fellow beings are all the things we need to do!

  12. Hi Joan,

    I agree that we must be vigilant and report suspicious, out-of-the-ordinary sightings. As a person of color, however, I worry about my kids and grandkids (especially the males) becoming unwitting victims of overzealous, trigger-happy policeman.

    I live in a lovely and safe area, but the unconscionable police murders across the nation have heightened everyone’s fears. Just this morning before my neighborhood post office was open, I pulled onto the parking lot to drop off some letters and noticed a police car come of out of nowhere and follow me onto the parking lot. (We were the only two cars on the lot.)

    Since I wear my hair cut extremely short, at a glance some folks might think I’m a black male. You never know if an officer is responding to a description or a call. (Don’t those descriptions all sound alike?) I can tell you I was a little nervous as I tried to emerge from my car slowly and as nonthreateningly as possible. The police car promptly left after I entered the post office, perhaps deciding I was harmless.

  13. Joan Rough says:

    Flora, It is sad that race is still so rampant in this country and that people of color and certain ethnicities must tiptoe through life. I cannot imagine going through what you did in order to mail a few letters. It is outrageous and I believe that the stress and fear that many of us live with may be part of the many undiagnosable medical problems we see.

    Though we do not live in a physically war-torn country, psychologically we are constantly encouraged to watch our backs. There are certainly thousands of kind individuals and policemen out there, but we’re always wondering who we can trust, especially when it comes to those who are supposed to protect us.

    It’s a tough situation. Coming to terms with equality and civil rights for all people including immigrants has been a hot topic for a long time. And now, especially in this pre-election year, it’s heating up even further.

    I am one of those who would love to fix the world so that everyone is happy and love abounds, but there is little any of us can do, except to set an example in our own behavior, and vote for those we believe can bring some peace to our country. That last part, in itself, is the hardest nut of all to crack.

    Thanks so much for being part of this conversation.

    • Hi Joan,

      I’m pleased to be part of the conversation so we can get different perspectives.

      In spite of how dark and scary things appear (thanks to nonstop news and social media), I believe most people in the world have positive motives and long for love and happiness. As authors we play a big role motivating and inspiring others with our stories and experiences of working through adversities, building resilience, and most of all, taking responsibility for our own happiness.

      Thanks for your uplifting outlook and encouragement to acknowledge our fears, but work through and beyond them on a positive path for ourselves and example for others.

      • Joan Rough says:

        Thanks so much. It is important to get different perspectives that not only broaden our views, but keep us part of an ever changing world. That is why I so love memoir. I’ve learned so much about living and loving from other writers that I have never met, and only wish that one day I could.

  14. Joan, so glad that you are safe and have returned to feeling safe in your neighborhood. But this walk definitely illustrates the thin line separating fear and safety in America today. My guess is that you would have thought little or nothing about a car parked in the neighbor’s driveway two decades ago. Today, the headlines scream all kinds of fears at us. Just to pick one fact. There are somewhere between 200 and 300 million guns in this country. Your fear was not unreasonable about that tree trimming tool.

    Like you, I yearn for peace and especially for safety for people of less privilege than I.