On April 28, 2015 I was scheduled to speak at Grand Rounds at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. I woke up that morning feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and directionless – much like many of my fellow neighbors. I didn’t want to be leaving, even for the few hours I planned to be gone, and the further the train took me from Baltimore, the more homesick I felt.
That morning, April 28th, was the morning after the Baltimore Uprising. Though at the time I felt totally helpless, I didn’t want to be helpless in NYC, I wanted to be helpless in Baltimore. I reluctantly acknowledged the best I could do was stay up to date, and looking back now it seems like my trip from one Penn Station to the other was a blur of text messages, Twitter, CNN, and Instagram. Really, I’d say I only have two significant memories of the day.
Memory One: I struggled to get through my presentation on crisis and grief, consumed by my own internal crisis and grief. (no big surprise there)
Memory Two: during the obligatory meet-and-greet after my lecture I found myself face to face with the look.
If grief brought you to WYG, you are probably quite familiar with the look. It goes a little something like this: you share a deep personal tragedy or loss with someone and a look of pity washes over them as their head simultaneously tilts to the side as though there is a sudden magnetic pull between their ear and shoulder. The only good thing about the look is that it prepares you for the uncomfortable pity-sigh or infuriating platitude that is bound to follow: everything happens for a reason. . . time heals all wounds . . . heaven needed another angel. Oh please, head-tilted friend, tell me more.
Before April 28th, I had only experienced a handful of head-tilt inciting personal circumstances. Here is a quick personal history:
The look and I meet for the first time: My dad dies when I am 18. The look abounds – from the young, from the old, from friends, from acquaintances, from teachers, from the girl who works at the snowball stand.
The look returns: In my early twenties my sister is battling a heroin addiction and her boyfriend, who is like family, dies of a drug overdose. The look, I realize, has gotten no less prevalent and no less infuriating.
The look makes itself at home: Eleanor and I meet the look again when we start telling people that we run a grief blog. This brand of the look has less of a pity-tilt and a more that-sounds-like-the-worst-job-ever tilt, with a smidge of a how-fast-can-I-run-away? tilt. But categorically, it remains the look.
On April 28th at Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC I stood face to face with the look again, but this time with a new ooohhhh-living-in-Baltimore-must-be-so-hard tilt. No surprise, it was followed by the relentless pity-sighs and platitudes.
You are probably starting to wonder what today’s post is about, aside from the look, which as a griever is nothing new to you. Fair enough. Let me backtrack to what got me thinking about this.
A few weeks ago the Baltimore Sun put a challenge out to local bloggers. The prompt: write about your wish, prediction or message for Baltimore’s future. I saw the challenge, thought ‘that’s nice’, and moved on. We’re not really joiners around here, so joining a blog challenge was not at the top of my to-do list. Then a day or two ago I noticed the challenge again and I started to question myself. We write about grief, crisis, and trauma. We live in Baltimore; we love Baltimore. I was born and raised here and Baltimore is part of my identity in more ways that I realized until recently. It seemed just a wee bit strange that we had written-off this challenge so quickly. In fact, as I thought about it, I realized it was probably a little odd we hadn’t written about Baltimore at all since the uprising.
Why not do the challenge? I guess for the same reason why I hadn’t written something already: I wasn’t willing to open myself up to anymore tilty-heads when it came to Baltimore, virtual or otherwise. I was not interested in revealing my thoughts, feelings, and pain because I wasn’t interested in hearing perspectives from people I perceived as outsiders, unable to understand the pain and complexity of everything going on here. I know, I know, this avoidance goes against everything a social worker should do.
My message to Baltimore isn’t grand and it isn’t revolutionary. My message comes from my own mistakes, from the sad reality that I had written about Baltimore’s grief and pain before April of this year, but then went silent because I didn’t want to see the tilty-heads or hear the judgements from people I believed didn’t know or understand what was going on here. I did everything I would normally tell myself and others not to do: I avoided an amazing space for dialogue.
When we are at our lowest, as individuals and as communities, our tendency to avoid is incredibly powerful. We stay silent, we don’t open up out of fear or frustration, and we swap the hard conversations for the easy ones. We stop listening to others because we are consumed by our own pain. When we lose someone or something, when we live through trauma or abuse, when we struggle with mental illness or substance abuse, when we feel disenfranchised and isolated, we often suffer alone and in silence. We assume there is no purpose in dialogue if the other person will not validate us in the way we hope or expect, and all this does is drive us further into pain and isolation.
My message to Baltimore is the same as my wish, and it is simple: keep talking. Keep the dialogue happening, no matter how hard it is.
We could never point to one single issue of concern here in our communities, but there is no question our avoidance of collective issues has not done us any favors. Whether as individuals or communities, we can only avoid for so long before our problems and our pain bubble to the surface. It is in the moment when we stop avoiding that we allow the pain to move out of the shadows so something new can arise.
We aren’t really about rainbows, butterflies and silver-linings around here. If we were, maybe my wish or prediction would be grander. But I suspect what we need is not something grand, rather something simple. We need to create and foster human connection and communication, even when it is painful and difficult, so we can grow through dialogue. It will never be easy or perfect; it won’t solve every problem and it won’t be fast, but it will keep us moving in a direction of community healing.
And may we remember the guidance of Pema Chodron:
“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
Baltimore Sun challenged us, so we challenge you: what is your wish, prediction or message for Baltimore’s future? What is your wish for your own future? Leave a comment to let us know.