Beth Kephart

is the author of 21 books, most recently her Jersey Shore novel, "This Is the Story of You"

I wake from a harrowing dream in the dark heart of the night and I cannot shake it. I am being pursued, we are all being pursued. Pursued? Consumed? It isn't clear. It is less a dream than a nightmare.

This has happened to our country: Politics is war, discourse is screech, the real problems (economic imbalance, national security, environmental degradation, easy violence, personal dignity and communal justice, the future of people and things and landscape) are so confounding and contentious that we can't seem to talk - helpfully talk - about them. Unsettled and brokenhearted, we wait in the dark for the dawn.

Days after my dream wore off, I took a train to the city. I filed down the stairs with the crowd at 30th Street Station, crossed the Market Street Bridge, and walked along the Schuylkill Banks, watching the clouds on the river. I turned east at Locust Street, hurried over the railroad tracks, and counted off the gridded blocks until I reached Rittenhouse Square.

I chose an empty bench in view of the bronzed Billy. I sat.

The curved bench swooping behind the goat wore the temporary graffiti of chalk art. The sun that found its way through the leaves of established trees seemed especially kind. I couldn't hear the cars at the edge of the park. There was the traffic of puppies.

I watched:

The little boy who, under his mother's watch, further shined up the shine on that sweet, imperiled goat. The man in a motorized chair. The proud lady with the thin cane, the teen with cool shoes, the men talking business, the two women with a baby stretched between them and the couple who replaced them - a man and a woman who kept their grocery cart of possessions close, their cart piled high with sacks and duffels.

I felt like a time-lapse camera sitting there. I was watching the people come and go, on a pretty day in a part of the park where the benches form a rough, whole circle.

All throughout that day I returned to Rittenhouse Square. I took my place at different benches. I watched: The mothers and the children and the lovers and the solitary. The father and the son. The readers. My own shadow-bending, leaning.

Not long after my day among the benches, violence struck Rittenhouse Square - a young couple, a teen with a gun, a Good Samaritan who, for his kindness, was sent to a hospital torn and bleeding. A few days after that a community gathered in the sanctuary of a church to cry out against the crime that all too often infiltrates the square, to seek a solution for it. In the midst of it all, just a block from the square, violence struck my own family.

What can we believe in? What do we know? What can we trust? There are guns and fists and needles and fear, rhetoric and rage, fierce dissatisfactions, endless degrees of nasty, so many dangers lurking. But there is also sun that falls and a bronzy goat in a square where children play, mothers talk, readers read, fathers teach their sons to dance, friends find each other in happy happenstance.

Soon the votes in a most contentious election will be tallied. Soon a new president will be named, down ballots settled, propositions resolved. The nation is brittle with anticipation.

We have nightmares.

We have dreams.

Here, for our city, for our nation, is my dream: That in the public spaces where our private lives get lived there will be more sun than shadow, more dance than fear, more laughter than contention, more community than division, more talk than screech.

That we will sit as equals among a democracy of benches, peaceable and unthreatened.

No guns.

No fists.

No Good Samaritans bleeding.

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