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Chalk on pavement: Casting words for others to discover

At the far west end of the still-empty predawn park-and-ride lot off of I-494, a silver Toyota slowly jerks and grinds across the yellow painted parking lines in starts and stops.

Courtesy of MN Women’s Press
Tami Mohamed Brown

Someone, presumably, is learning to drive.

It’s early, and it’s rare to encounter others out at this hour, in this location. The car’s headlights hit me at uneven intervals from across the parking lot, an unintentional searchlight that makes me feel hurried, a little furtive.

Sprawled sideways on the ground, I pull an oversized piece of cheap pink sidewalk chalk across the uneven cement, my hand echoing the jerks of the car in an attempt to carefully form letters on a square of pavement next to the bus shelter, the rough concrete cold under my hands, my forearms, my outer thigh.

The car pulls across the parking lot, up to where I stand, next to the words I’ve written on the pavement. 

I stand, and wipe my dusty fingers down my already wrinkled gray skirt, a trail of faded pink, which will mark me for the rest of the day. 

‘What are you up to?’

“What are you up to over here?” asks a man through the rolled-down car window, his tone more curious than accusatory.

I really haven’t thought about why I’ve started this practice of rising early to leave quotes lying on the ground in wait of readers. I’ve carried chalk in my bag, in my glove compartment, in my pockets for almost a full season without fully considering the reason.

My answer — its preciousness, its awkwardness — surprises me, catches me off-guard.

“I’m leaving a love note. For anyone who might be looking.”

I blush.

“It’s Emily Dickinson,” I add, although I’ve clearly and properly credited her on the concrete.

Words for people to discover

I’ve spoken without thinking, but the intent, I know, is the truth. This action feels like important work to me, the putting of words out into the world for others to discover, and I love watching people react in surprise or delight if a single word speaks to them, just as often as they step over my handiwork without noticing or bothering to take it in.

The girl in the passenger’s seat gets out of the car to examine the pavement. She leaves the door ajar, dinging its disapproval. She reads the words aloud, carefully.

“Morning without you is a dwindled dawn.”

It makes me blush again when she speaks the phrase aloud, makes me feel as exposed as if they are my own thoughts put out into the world for the first time, a note in my own hand intercepted, a secret want discovered.

Too lovely for this parking lot?

Aloud, these words sound too lovely for this parking lot, for this morning. But aloud, perhaps, they are as they were meant to be.

Poetry.

“It’s beautiful,” the girl confirms, nodding, and we stand studying the ground carefully together, with reverence, as if it held the shore of the Pacific Ocean, or the Taj Mahal or a framed painting. As if it held something far larger and grander and more permanent than words written sloppily in chalk on an early-morning sidewalk.

Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University. This commentary reprinted with permission. Previous versions appeared in Minnesota Women’s Press and River Teeth.

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