Like many people, I’ve been struggling with recent events in Baltimore. Words fail me.
Yet I think words are our only way forward. We tell small children “use your words” when they don’t. We’re asking them to do something that is hard even for us, especially when emotion is high and raw. But we all need to use our words right now. There are things that need to be said and things that need to be heard.
What is broken in Baltimore is more than windows or, God help us, spines. What is broken in Baltimore and so many other places is our social compact. What is broken is our shared humanity. The only way to fix that is to break one more thing: the silence. We need to use our words, even when they fail us, to tell the stories that need to be told. To hear the stories that are not like our own. To make very intentional choices, together, about the kinds of stories we want to be able to tell going forward together.
Last night, I attended a storytelling event in Baltimore. My friend J. spun an incredible tale of loss and recovery for one 97 year old Holocaust survivor. There were maybe 300 of us in a synagogue a few miles north of downtown, acutely conscious of but a world away from the barricades and Hummers I’d driven past on my way there. Tacked to the corner of the hand-painted mural that served as a set, a little sign proclaimed We All Have A Story To Tell.
Seven stories of love and hope and humility and just living life. We laughed together, we cried together. We rose together in a standing ovation for the survivor. The stories, so personal and diverse, felt universal and made us one.
Today, the glorious warmth and sunshine coaxed me outside. I walked to Arlington National Cemetery, a place I find both beautiful and evocative. Walking among markers for people who had fought for causes they may or may not have believed in, I thought we’re all caught in battles we may or may not believe in. Those wars are often silent, many unseen by others. Sometimes they go on and on and on.
I walked past countless stones marked June 1 and 2, 1864 and wondered what dreadful Civil War battle had been waged that day. What stories lay beneath my feet?
And then the graves had only names, no dates.
And then not even names, just “Unknown,” “Citizen.”
Then: “Rachel Evans, Civilian Child.”
What stories lay beneath my feet?
I may think I know the story behind what led to what feels like Freddie Gray’s murder, but I don’t. I may think I know how it feels to be disrespected to a point of violent frustration, but I don’t. I may think I know what paths brought each of those fresh-faced National Guard members to Fayette Street, but I don’t. And I should. We should.
We need to use our words. We need to tell and hear all of those stories until, through the telling and hearing and telling and hearing, we understand. Until we are changed.
I was so moved by Rachel Evans’ grave and the other “unknowns” in Section 27, that I did a little online research when I got home. This oldest portion of the cemetery was actually a place where many civilians of the time were buried — specifically, it seems, many African-American civilians, denizens of DC and the nearby Freeman’s Village.
I am reminded that we never know a whole story.
Life Lessons #12: We all have a story to tell. Probably more than one.