Lullaby for Baltimore

A year ago, I wrote this as we mourned for the pain of our city. A year later, she stirs, wakes, begins to rise.

Tonight, my children are sleeping, but from my roof I can see buildings burning. My children are sleeping, but I can hear the constant hum of helicopters and whine of sirens.

Still…my children sleep.

Other mothers in this city do not know where their children are.

Other mothers had to leave their houses, leave work, leave safety and plunge into the unknown to retrieve their children. They had to worry whether their children would make it home safe on the public busses that shut down and stranded students all over the city. Other mothers live near those burning buildings.

Other mothers have already lost their children.

Tonight before bed we talked to Grandma and Grampa, we played dress-up, we brushed teeth, put on pajamas, picked out stories. Ivy picked out Do Princesses wear hiking boots? Kip picked Professor Wormbog in Search for the Zipperump-a-zoo.

I needed a story, too.

I chose He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, by Kadir Nelson. I used to sing this book to my children every night. It was a gift for their Baptism. The Inscription from their Uncle Ben and Aunt Sarah reads, “Dear Kip and Ivy, on the occasion of your baptism, we are reminded that you are indeed in good hands, large and small. All our love…”

This beautiful book…

These beautiful children…

This beautiful city…

Yes. Beautiful.

Make no mistake, she will rise. Do not judge her by the color of her flames, but the content of her character.

Her story will unfold not in the destruction of the night but in the creation of the days and weeks and months and years to come as we plunge into the unknown searching for her, determined to bring her home, bind up her wounds, hold her close, whisper prayers in the dark as she rests.

She is in our hands.

Sleep, my love.

Sleep.

Rebuilding the road to Baltimore Love

We have confused our love of a landscape with a love of the community. But can we claim to love Baltimore without loving the people within it? Can we claim to understand the city without seeking to understand its citizens?

The strange story of my deep love of Baltimore begins with an unlikely matchmaker.

“Good Morning Sisters and Brothers!”

Whenever Ralph Moore speaks to a group of people (large or small) he begins with this heartfelt greeting.I always waited in anticipation for Mr. Moore’s “address” during the morning faculty meeting at St. Frances Academy because I knew he would tell me something I didn’t know or help me love someone I didn’t…yet.

A fixture in Baltimore’s civil society, Mr. Moore has long been a champion for various marginalized residents of the city. When I knew him he ran the community center next to St. Frances Academy. He hosted career fairs, neighborhood Halloween nights, peace camps in the summer, clothes drives in the winter. He was also tasked with giving the newly arrived Jesuit Volunteers a tour of this city where we would work for the span of a year.

A love affair between a 23 year-old Midwestern white girl and “Charm City” was no sure thing.

Fresh out of college in Minnesota, I had no context to understand the vast cultural and regional divides between growing up in southern Missouri and growing up in the inner city. It would have been so easy for my fledgling relationship with this complicated landscape to go awry, mired in mistrust and misunderstanding.

Instead, I first saw the city reflected in the eyes of Ralph, one of its devoted children. When somebody gazes at a space with such committed love in their eyes…well, the courage of that devotion can be contagious. Mural 2 Ralph didn’t begin our guided tour of Baltimore with the Inner Harbor. Didn’t take us to Camden Yards. He didn’t wax poetic about Natty Boh or Domino Sugar. Never once mentioned Edgar Allen Poe.

Instead, he began with the busses. Ralph, has never gotten a driver’s license. This was one way, he said, to always remain in solidarity with the working class and low-income communities he wished to serve. He said there was no better way to get to know a city than to hop on the nearest public transportation line. The physical infrastructure of a place reflects the human infrastructure of the society.

Ralph noted that most of the contiguous transit lines in Baltimore (including the light rail) run north to south, not east to west. This makes it easier for the higher income Baltimore County residents to patronize the inner harbor, Camden yards, Ravens’ stadium and for Southern residents to shop at the malls and eat at the restaurants in northern Towson. It makes it harder, however, for the low-income population located east and west (and those most likely to use public transportation) to get to work, to the super market, to school.

“Why would that be? That doesn’t make any sense!”

The same reason, he said, there are no metro stops in the richer areas of DC such as around Georgetown. Yes, those stops would benefit young people, but they would also make it easier for “them” to get “here.” He noted that MLK Boulevard, just like in so many other cities, serves as the dividing line between those in Baltimore who have and those who have not.

Before this moment, I had always seen roads as something that got you places…not something that kept you FROM places.

Ralph didn’t stop there. He pointed out that while northern cities have “good sides” and “bad sides” of town, southern cities like Baltimore have pockets of poverty bumping up against enclaves of wealth. This, he said was due to the necessity of having slave quarters in close proximity to the masters homes in which the slaves served. Though slavery was abolished, the structures that supported it remained, the juxtaposition of poverty made more visible, more present, more discomforting to those, in more well-off areas.

He went on not to praise but to critique the Inner Harbor. He spoke of promises made and broken by politicians, about over investment in the commercial waterfront to the neglect of the nearby West Side communities.

Perhaps it seems strange that romance with an urban landscape would begin with such stark realities, but what Ralph helped me realize is that to understand people, you must understand the places that have shaped them. As Winston Churchill once observed, “We shape our buildings; thereafter our buildings shape us.” Mural 1 Many of us have been selective in our love of the city. We have allowed ourselves to be shaped by parts of it, but few of us have given ourselves over to the whole.

There are those of us in the city who have never ventured west of MLK. Never renewed our license at the MVA at Mondawmin Mall. Never realized that the gothic castle we pass on 83 as we enter downtown is not a fairyland but a federal prison. We have confused our love of a landscape with a love of the community.

But can we claim to love Baltimore without loving the people within it? Can we claim to understand the city without seeking to understand its citizens? All its citizens? We become uncomfortable when the city view we love is obstructed by the people we don’t know how to love… …yet.

As we clean-up and start re-building in our city, our eyes are rightly turning towards each other, but they must also turn to spaces. We must ask if our spaces are equally inviting and accessible not just to various races, but various age groups. Is there a place for the “whiteheads” to enlighten the “young bucks.” Is there a place for the children to enliven their elders?

How do we grow spaces we can fall in love with as we fall (back) in love with each other? This is not a Utopian dream. Ralph Moore, his wife Dana, and people like them have been forging accessible spaces at boundaries and border crossings for decades. His community center with its peace camps in the summer and career fairs in the winter is a multi-generational space where the needs of all community members might be revealed and addressed.

One thing I Believe (Hon) about #OneBaltimore is that it is about to undergo a dramatic reshaping. The lines that have divided us are eroding and we must choose whether we will invest in walls or build bridges instead…because on the other side of the valley, the love of our life may be waiting.

#BeMoreCircles – Baltimore’s Summer of Peace

I often wake in the morning with ideas and insights my subconscious labored over in the night. This morning I came to consciousness with my son’s little body curled against me…and the  image of dialogue groups scattered throughout the city throughout the summer in public spaces around public events.

Intentional, accessible conversations and reflections on the fringes of First Thursdays, or during Concerts in the Park, or after the public pools let out. All summer we will be gathering together. As we do, we will be wondering how to reconcile the beauty of humans together (which we see daily in our city) with the chaos of humans together (which we saw on Monday).

Why not wander towards each other so we can wonder out loud together?

#BeMoreCircles

Building bridges between communities, between generations, between races. Just. Between. …seems to be at least ONE solution towards the #OneBaltimore we are beginning to see emblazoned on poster board and message boards around our city and throughout social Media. To some, this may seem idealistic or unattainable, but there is a long standing method that facilitates this process…

…Speaking with each other.

Not speaking to or at or even for but WITH.

Too often when we gather with crowds, we go with our friends, and we stay with our friends. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that there is not a mechanism or space to make or invite new meaningful connections with others, even if we wanted to. Open spaces for dialogue surrounding public events could change that.

Summer of Peace
At my high school, we created community in the public space of our courtyards through sidewalk chalk and the question: “What does a blended school mean to you?”

So how might this look?

I can imagine myself trekking up to the Pagoda on a Sunday afternoon, finding some shade a decent distance from the concert stage, laying down a few more blankets than I need, and propping up a poster that simply says “#BeMoreCircles :Speak and Listen here”. People wander over. Share some snacks. And get to wondering.

Perhaps we have weekly “Points to Ponder” suggested on a #BeMoreCircles Facebook page. Perhaps we’ve established weekly themes, so there is some continuity between these organic conversations that might pop up around the city. And perhaps afterwards people can take their insights from that physical meeting and share them in that virtual space. Continue the connections there. Build upon these new relationships.

For some this may feel like TOO much. For some, not enough.

Think of all that might go wrong!

What if someone just takes my snacks?

What if someone sits down and never leaves?

What if folks start arguing?

What if..

These are fair concerns. Something else to consider is the simple fact that even if we are gathering in public spaces, we are gathering in “our” public spaces. We are venturing to the events in “our” park, but we are likely unaware or uncomfortable venturing into “other people’s” parks. Are they safe? Am I welcome?

Something like this takes courage…and perhaps at least a little training.

I might mention, here, that I have a degree in conflict resolution, training as a multi-cultural educator, and have spent hours in and beyond the classroom locally and internationally sitting with groups of people and asking questions around culture, creativity, and conflict.

I only say this to acknowledge that the commitment to peacemaking is indeed a long journey and we are all at different places as we seek to understand the roots of conflict in ourselves and our fellow human beings.

But on a picnic blanket adjacent to a concert seems like a safe place to start.

If you are intrigued by this possibility, reach out. I’ve tagged a number of my peacemaking sisters and brother in this post hoping to get a conversation started. Asking what we need. Who we might partner with. How we might train folks quickly for a Baltimore Summer of Peace.

I to Lance, America

The first black boy I ever looked in the eyes was already in prison.

He was 19. I was 21.

We sat across from one another, a foot between us, eyes closed, as the facilitator gave us the following instructions:

“Decide who is A and who is B.”

“This exercise will be done in silence. No talking, no laughing, no touching, no smiling or other facial gestures.”

 “A, keep your eyes closed throughout the next part. Your partner will be looking at you. Now B, open your eyes …”

I open my eyes and study the young man before me. With his eyes closed, he looks more like a boy then a man. Light brown skin, medium height. Handsome.

“Look at this person in front of you, who has the same desire you have to feel good and safe and loved, who has your same will to survive … the same desire you do to make sense of his or her life … Take this rare opportunity to look at this person without embarrassment …”

We are in a Minnesota correctional facility. I am here volunteering. He is not. I am a Senior at Carleton College, a semester from graduation. But this program has created a space where we can, for a moment, feel our true equality.

Look into his/her face; you may see clues that reveal traces of sadness, hope, fear, loss … like having loved someone who died, or left … We’ve all experienced these things, so find it in your partner’s face … Then realize that it’s in your face too … and it’s all right … See all the common experiences you share … of being hurt, of being lonely … of feeling shame, of being scared, of feeling worthless, of praying for help … of feeling guilty and ashamed, of looking for some kind of relief, some kind of peace … moments of joy, pride, satisfaction, and of the yearning we all have to love and be loved.”

We are both participating in an organization called the “Alternatives to Violence Project” (AVP). This organization was founded in the 1970’s through a collaboration between the Quakers and inmates at Greenhaven Prison in New York. The inmates there were, “ concerned with the ‘revolving door’ they clearly saw in their institution. Youth were appearing in prison for fairly minor offenses, only to return (sometimes multiple times) for increasingly more serious and violent crimes.” They were desperate to try something different. Their lives had been characterized by violence. They longed for peace. So they asked themselves who knew how to make peace…the answer was the Quakers.

See that your partner is like you … and appreciate that s/he trusts you enough to let you look at him/her while his/ her eyes are closed … What a gift! And realize that s/he can trust you — and you can trust him/her, because you see how much the same life is for both of you…

One of the most profoundly surprising things about AVP is the egalitarian power structure. One might assume that the instructors and facilitators of the program are the volunteers who have come into the prison to offer advice or guidance, that the students and participants in the program are the inmates. But I sit across from my partner as his equal. He may teach me. I may teach him.

… At a real level you know this person … s/he’s just like you … So allow your heart to soften and your compassion to grow as you recognize these things in your partner.”

For whatever reason, my partner and I shared an immediate affinity for one another from the onset of this two day seminar. So when we moved into this exercise called “Human to Human,” there was no question that we would choose each other as partners. Move through this powerful experience together.

“Now B, I want you to give your partner the greatest gift you can give him or her: I want you to keep looking at him or her, with total understanding … total forgiveness, total compassion for all that s/he’s experienced … for anything s/he could reveal to you … Whatever stupid, violent, ugly, shameful, crazy thing you could find out about him/her. You understand, don’t you? … Show him or her you understand through the power of that divine love in your eyes … Allow that compassion to beam from your eyes so that you’re bathing him/her in love … You don’t have to “try” to do anything; just relax and get your ego out of the way and let divine love shine through your eyes.”

I’m a crier. This has always been. When I was a child it was a source of constant embarrassment and vulnerability that I couldn’t hide the hurt of every slight, couldn’t hide the compassion for every creature. So now, as a grown woman, I sit across from this young man with tears in my eyes. It’s not pity. It’s love. Love for him. Love for humanity. Mourning, perhaps, the circumstances that divide our lives.

“Now A. what I want you to do now … before you open your eyes, is to bring to mind those things in your life that you want to let go of … all your burdens … your loneliness, pain, shame, fears, hopelessness, weariness, your secrets … all of it … Be prepared to let them all go. Because you can do that …

 Now. I want you to open your eyes and look straight into the eyes of love across from you …

 My partner, I suspect, is not a crier. But as we are given permission to see each other, gaze at each other, love each other unfettered, if only for a moment, he too begins to fight the tears that will betray his own vulnerability. I see him swallowing his emotions.

 Receive the compassion, understanding and forgiveness that are there … You can let go of those burdens now … all your pain and shame and secrets … Surrender it all into the eyes of love … Let it all go. Your partner understands … S/he really does … You can allow him/her to see the real you … maybe more than you’ve ever allowed yourself to be seen by anyone …maybe for the first time … Because it’s OK.”

I feel compelled to do all things we’ve been trained to do in the face of pain. Smile. Reach out. Look away. But I don’t do any of these things. Neither does he. We have committed to face our humanity in this moment, and neither of us break. Together we are courageous.

After the experience, we are allowed some time to process, but we both struggle to know what to say.

“When you looked at me…” my partner begins, but doesn’t finish. The question is implied.

Did we mean it? Was it real? Did it matter?

“Now, both of you close your eyes. We’re going to switch roles.”

Were it that easy.

After this experience, I walk out of the prison back to my life. My partner does not. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be my last AVP experience. I intended to do more. Intended to come back. But I had friends to tend to. Classes to finish.  Life offered me other paths. My degree opened other doors and opportunities.

He remains behind. He is my equal, his life as valuable, but our constraints cannot be exchanged.

I have thought of him often. Could never forget his face. His eyes. Somewhere along the way, though, I forgot his name.

It was not until this winter, in the wake of Ferguson, that a powerful compulsion came over me to remember his name. To tell this story. To tell mine. Because our story is not our own. Somehow, ours is America’s story. America’s Incident. America’s Tableau.

“Now, for just a minute. sit and just look into each other’s eyes, with no games, no pretense, no power trips, no staring competitions, no roles at all … without your act, your front, your present. Don’t smile or make any other facial gestures. You can relax and just be you and just human beings on the path, who have recognized each other.

I began pouring through my journals from college. Certain that somewhere within them I would find this young man who I carried with me. As I read various entries, I moved through this potent time in my life of deep loves, deep thinking, deep failings. I brought these journals with me over winter break.

One night I could not sleep. I left the warmth of my bed and in the darkness of my Great Aunt’s farmhouse, I once again delved into the past looking for that moment. Searching for him…and then, there he was. I found him.

Lance.

“Before you close your eyes again, give each other some nonverbal expression in appreciation for what you have just experienced together. “Now close your eyes. Feel that experience you just had. That deep sense of your common humanity. of the goodness that’s there in each one of us …”

I close my eyes and weep again. Lance. I’d found him again. Found his name. Loved his name.

Immediately the power of it struck me.

Lance: An instrument of attack. A method of healing.

America’s story. Our story.

Like the trust lift and the trust leap, this exercise calls for a huge amount of trust and community feeling in order to succeed. If the group has not built up that kind of environment, it will be uncomfortable to say the least, even traumatizing perhaps and probably should not be done. Since the exercise can be very powerful for people, we often schedule a break right afterward so they can have some silent processing. After the break, re-gather with a sharing about their experience of the exercise.

His name may be a symbol, but he is a man. A real man. I don’t know where he is. Don’t know where his life took him after that experience. I wish, though, he knew I carried him with me. Into Baltimore. Into St. Frances Academy. Into public schooling. Into diversity training. Into a degree in conflict resolution. Into Kibera Slum in Nairobi Kenya. Into parenthood. Into this moment.

America needs all her children.

Needs us to face ourselves.

Needs us to sit across from each other,

eyes closed,

then eyes opened.

Did we mean it? Was it real? Did it matter?

Lance.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

“Human to Human”

Purpose: To have an experience of Transforming Power, of our common humanity, and of the goodness within each of us. To experience empathy and trust. To learn to see self and others more clearly, beyond the masks.

Time: 30 to 40 minutes.

Materials: None.

(“Human to Human” Taken from AVP Manual for Second Level Course)

Melancholy Hour

Something happens late at night. Everyone has gone to bed…but you. You’re still up. You feel the quiet around you. Feel the absence of others. Feel alone.

I only have myself as a basis for judgment, but I suspect that this experience of being human in the dark is a universal one.

It is powerful.

It is terrifying.

If you’re sad already, the weight of the darkness can be crushing. Smothering. It’s hard to breathe. Hard to believe it will ever end. You are buried leagues under grief or anger or confusion and you don’t know how you’ll emerge.

If you’re content, balanced, at peace when you reach this state of darkness and quiet, it can be profoundly beautiful. You feel in the quiet as if everything is there. All of your thoughts are louder. They echo across this vast cavern of possibility. In the quiet you feel the universe and your small part in it.

Jesuit spirituality describes this spectrum of human experience as “Desolation” and “Consolation.”

Desolation is the valley. The path is unclear. The meaning of life seems illusive, non-existent, even. We can’t understand why things are happening to us. What we ought to do. We can cause a lot of damage to ourselves and others in this state…because all we want to do is escape the dark.

We may run. If we do, we will surely fall. This is sometimes called “the dark night of the soul.”

Consolation is the mountaintop. From this vista we can see our lives and the lives of others laid out in front of us. The harmony of the cosmos seems evident in every leaf. In every person. We see how it’s all connected. We can walk for days. We can offer guidance and comfort to others.

We are all moving through life in various states of confusion or clarity.

For those who are in a state of darkness right now, don’t run from it. The darkness can’t hurt you. Put one foot in front of the other. Take a rest. Put one foot in front of the other. Take a rest.

For those who can see the light, reassure those around you that it’s coming. Tell them what you see. Tell them not to be afraid. Wait for them to emerge.

Melancholy is an emotion that allows us to sit with the beauty of our grief. With the poignancy of struggle. Don’t run from it. Watch it as it rises. Watch it is it sets.

Rest.

Peace.

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