I’ve always loved the start of a new year. While I’m not one for resolutions — it feels to me like starting the year with a list of personal weaknesses — I do like the crispness and clarity of January’s air and light. The sense it brings of starting fresh, of beginning again with a promise of new opportunities and possibilities.
I started my second term Monday night along with hundreds of Duluthians who came out to celebrate a new City Council and commit with renewed urgency to build a sustainable and equitable city for all neighbors across all neighborhoods. It was a powerful night filled with purpose, friendship, and a very real sense of grace that as a city we can do right together even when we disagree.
And yet, despite this beautiful event, like many Duluthians, my heart sank the next day when I learned the St. Louis County Board voted to delay saying that refugees — people fleeing terror — could be welcomed to find safety and sanctuary here. On the same day we waited to see about impeachment and whether we are lurching into another war.
These two days clarified for me our collective call and challenge for 2020: How do we find hope and build community? How do we work together with humility and assume goodness in others despite our fears and across legitimate differences and disagreements?
I am reminded of a conference I attended in Portland, Ore., 11 years ago, when hope and humanity collided in a way that moves me to this day.
I stayed downtown instead of at the conference hotel at the airport, so the morning of my presentation I made my way to the bus stop. I got there just as my bus pulled away. I’d left myself a cushion of time, just in case, so waiting another 25 minutes wasn’t a problem. Soon, I wasn’t the only one waiting.
He came out of nowhere and stood next to me. I tensed up. This stranger stood close. But this was the mostly pre-phone era. There was nothing to do except to turn, make eye contact, and talk.
The exchange started lightly. It was a beautiful morning, and we both were drinking coffee. Weather and caffeine are surefire conversation starters. Before long, we were sharing stories. He told me about Portland. I told him about Duluth. We talked about his kids, I about mine. Our favorite foods. Books we’d read.
Then the conversation went a layer deeper. We talked about things we’d dreamt about. People we loved. Things that made us feel afraid. It was the most unexpected conversation I’d ever had. With someone I’d never met.
I asked where he was headed that day on the bus. Big smile, head held high, he told me it was a day of new beginnings. He was taking the bus to a treatment facility and checking in. He had an appointment, he said. An appointment for a new start.
Silence. Addiction felt like a big thing to share with a stranger.
And yet, in the course of 20 minutes, we weren’t strangers anymore. We’d crossed the threshold of conversation and vulnerability reserved for those closest to us. I asked how he was feeling about his decision for treatment. “I got hope,” he said.
Those next five minutes flew by. We talked. We drank coffee. Our bus pulled up, and we got on. For 30 minutes we sat across the aisle from each other in comfortable silence. And then we both laughed out loud when we stood up to get off at the same stop. I was headed in one direction, he in the other. We looked at each other and embraced.
“I don’t know you. But I love you. And I wish the best for you,” he said to me as we hugged.
I said the same to him.
He assumed my goodness, and this allowed me to assume his.
So that’s my community wish for this new year, call it my first resolution, that we assume goodness in others, even if we are afraid at first. That we find ways to share our light within. That we reach out to embrace others and find in ourselves the strength and vulnerability to say out loud, “I got hope.”
I never learned his name, and he never learned mine. We didn’t take a selfie or announce on social media that something amazing happened.
It just happened. And that was enough.
More than enough.
Happy New Year, Duluth. I wish the best for you.
Emily Larson is mayor of Duluth. She wrote this for the News Tribune.