Baltimore is a city you need to take stock of frequently. You’ve got to take it week by week. And, if you’ve got a camera, keep the shutter speed fast. That way, you can freeze the action. Oh, how I wish sometimes that I could freeze the action.
The last two weeks were fast-moving and not good. No sector of our city – from north to south, east to west – no major point on the compass was spared. At least 18 people were shot, two of them toddlers. Gun violence stories and the names of people who get shot don’t stay long in the news. They slip away from us with their victims into sterile operating rooms. And, sometimes, into too-early graves. Oddly, in Baltimore – city of neighborhoods, it’s the block numbers and street names we remember. When everything else is gone, these remain. Permanent reminders of the impermanence of life.
I’ve never found an evidence marker that was left behind – the police are pretty careful about those, I guess. But, the broken yellow ribbons of plastic police tape will sometimes hang onto their moorings for days and weeks. Fluttering in the tailwind of passing traffic. Eventually, rolling down empty streets, like synthetic tumbleweeds from an old wild west movie.
All of this, while one mayor steps down in Baltimore and another one steps up. All of this, while we try to simply go on with our lives. Continue to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Read books, put in a tomato plant or two, have lunch with a friend. While we get our children off to school and come to work. And, we’re just talking about the last two weeks.
All of this, can be way too much. Because all of this happens, while somewhere – not too many blocks away or not in the too-distant past – there’s a stone wall still standing. A stone wall of loss and grief. A wall, where tendrils of violence and trauma cling like ivy to the mortar.
In these past two weeks at Caroline Center, we said farewell to the graduates of Class 72 as they stepped into their new careers, and we welcomed Class 73 as they began to sample the many possibilities a Caroline Center education would offer them. And, because everything really is connected, we knew that we wanted to begin this important, new journey by traveling with our trainees along the healing pathway that the staff of Roberta’s House would help us discover together.
Roberta’s House is a nonprofit community center that provides a safe environment, where children, teens, and families can heal from loss and address grief so that healthy living can be achieved and wholeness of being can be restored and nurtured. Learning and saying together the Roberta’s House pledge – “I care for you. You care for me. We care for each other.” – and, sharing our stories in a safe and supportive environment helped us to quickly form bonds of trust and respect. Whether we were experiencing a recent loss or were still grieving a past loss, we were comforted by the words of a generous “bill of mourner’s rights” that gave us permission to grieve in our own ways. We discovered that it was okay to mourn as we chose – to cry or not to cry – without needing to explain and without being judged. We came to understand and appreciate that the individual tasks of grief work, while difficult, were accessible to us and achievable. And, that mourning, itself, could be better understood if we knew its distinct stages – steps that help us accept and embrace the reality of our loss and allow us to make meaning out of our life’s experiences.
Recently, I discovered an anthology of poems by National Book Award Finalist Kevin Young that he compiled after the passing of his father. The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing is what happened as the result of Mr. Young’s failed search to find a book that spoke to his personal sense of loss. Mr. Young would agree with Roberta’s House staff that grief and mourning are normal – that these are common and necessary experiences for all of us. It's just that in Baltimore, we're grieving and mourning way too often. And, sometimes, needlessly. And, Roberta's House would also appreciate Kevin Young's take on the special role poems can play in the grieving process, simply because the “best poems are precise about a feeling” and “can plead in ways we may wish, but are unable to.” Poems, Kevin Young adds, “can be direct . . . but also make music . . . make metaphor, make meaning.”
Everything is connected. And, in a small town like Baltimore, when it feels like everything that can happen, might actually have happened in the past two weeks – we need the presence of Roberta’s House in our community. We need the truths of poetry. Mostly, we need to admit that we know what’s broken in Baltimore. And, we need to commit to repairing it and to healing and meaning-making.
Last night, as I drifted between wakefulness and sleep, these words from Stephen Dobyns' poem “Grief” were on my mind. And, so was this - how for the past two weeks in our city and for, perhaps, many months to come, we all will be called upon to “carry the water” and also to await its restorative gifts. Because everything, everyone is connected.
Trying to remember you
is like carrying water
in my hands a long distance
across sand. Somewhere
people are waiting.
They have drunk nothing for days.
Photo credit: Associated Press