Please forgive my absence. I have been been transitioning for the past few weeks from being the mother of three students to two, plus a semi-gainfully employed, college-educated adult. I will not lie: It has been difficult. Thing 1‘s graduation from JohnS Hopkins University (yes, that is an “s” at the end of John) was beyond bittersweet. So, grab your Sbux and I’ll pour forth my thoughts on JHU graduation, Baltimore, and race. Please also forgive me also if this post offends you – that is not my intention. I no longer see with American eyes and, depending on your viewpoint, some of these topics may be either a whole lot clearer or cloudier to you. Feel free to stop reading at any point. I will not be offended.
When I wrote my last post, Baltimore was experiencing a tenuous quiet in the aftermath of “The Troubles”, as the period of time following the death of Freddie Gray is now being called by Baltimoreians. Thing 1 was about to graduate from Johns Hopkins University and was considering a position with an NGO in Baltimore, a decision we urged her to weigh carefully. (I was rather looking forward to her living in my basement, for a variety of reasons). Of all the cities in America, Baltimore could be considered her hometown. She was “made” in nearby Towson (TMI, I know) and we made annual pilgrimages to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in the years after leaving Baltimore for her medical appointments. Mr. Understanding grew up in Baltimore County and I worked as an insurance adjuster in the Woodlawn area of Baltimore for a year or so before Thing 1’s birth. So, although I have not lived and worked in the so-called “Charm City” in a long time, I do have “standing”. The health and welfare of my beautiful daughter, who is seriously just trying to make the world a better place, is my concern today.
Graduation at Johns Hopkins University took place last week during a storm, book-ending a college experience that started with an earthquake and hurricane. I will not go into the myriad ways the university could have improved the experience. Let’s just say that for an education whose price tag is a quarter of a million dollars, there was vast room for improvement. But thank you for the “free” rain poncho and bottle of water!
What I was not grateful for were the pandering, pedantic, and political speeches given by the president and various other speakers, most notably Elijah Cummings, U.S. Congressional Representative for Maryland’s 7th District. The president of JHU, Ron Daniels, shared two words as relating to graduates: critical juncture. Duh. Truly uninspiring speeches and unparalleled ass-kissing. The speeches matched the weather – blustery, drippy, and gray. The best advice given to graduates, by honorary degree recipient Leon Fleisher was “Procrastination saves time.” If you have three hours to listen to drivel, Google the YouTube video and see if your impression matches mine. I can’t bear to do it again.
Political as it was, it was, in fact, interesting to listen to Rep. Cummings. Hailing from the lower-middle class district in which he grew up, he regularly returns to there to visit his constituents; his message was timely and unique and this was no soundbite. It was at this critical juncture where it fell apart for me. Rep. Cummings, in his best bully pulpit voice, basically talked about how terrible America was: power, oppression, poverty, blah blah blah. Which left me asking: WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING IN YOUR DISTRICT LO’ THESE MANY YEARS??? WHERE DID ALL THE MONEY GO? An opportunity to discuss racial reconciliation, practical solutions, and loving your neighbor went by the wayside. Most of the students are not sticking around to relationship build in any event. Over the weekend while my family was there, NINE murders went down. NINE. Another two were added this week, one a seven year old boy. Depraved heart indeed.
The day after graduation we had a “do over” photo shoot on campus. The sun was shining and we got photos with all the family members and honored guest. Afterward, some of us went to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which is adjacent to the university. Inside is the Cone Collection, the largest collection of Matisse paintings in the world. This museum is FREE. TO EVERYONE. After years of forking over dough to visit art museums all over the world, this was a gift to me from the city. Matisse’s paintings are always full of joy and light, vivid colors, and simple settings. The painting, Woman With Bangs, by Picasso, featured above, from his Blue Period was hung nearby. It did not speak to me. Which do you prefer?
Ironically, I saw Rep. Cummings on Sunday morning at the Village Square Cafe (on the very edge of his district) in the quiet off of Falls Road and our eyes locked. I wanted to share a few words – Benghazi, Baltimore and Tax Scandal – with him but decided to leave him in peace. Shalom. According to the owner of the cafe, he likes to be left alone and I get that.
As we got into the minivan to head home to Ohio, Thing 3 remarked that she had not experienced racism until moving to the United States. (I myself never experienced racism until I myself moved to Baltimore). I asked her what she meant by that statement. She said that she had never noticed a person’s skin color as relating to a person until she moved to Ohio and other people pointed it out. This after four foreign countries where she was the minority. Probing her further, she commented that, as relates to our former (black) Brazilian housekeeper Nilda, she did not ever think of her as “other”. She just loved her. Why? Because Nilda is an absolutely wonderful human being. An absolutely wonderful human being who grew up in abject poverty. Thing 3 had been color blind and America put on the not-so-rose colored color goggles.
Yesterday was Nilda’s 53rd birthday. We call her every year on her birthday. Things 1 & 2 spoke fluent Portuguese while I struggled with my Portunol. (Sadly, Thing 3 did not join the conversation as she was scooping poop at her job at the kennel.) Nilda and I both laughed – we still understood each other’s humor. To Thing 3‘s point: I could hear Nilda’s sweet, unvarnished soul through the telephone.
I caught a glimpse of Elijah Cummings’s heart on stage last week, which made me feel better about him. In that heart of his, I am not sure he really knows what to do about the situation in his Western District. Perhaps resignation reigns and he just wants to keep an eye on the situation because he feels hopeless. Hopefully, he prays. I don’t know. But I would like to meet him for coffee, discuss Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid, and figure out a way to resurrect Baltimore*. Thing 1 will still be his constituent and post eye surgery, her Bachelor of Sciences in hand, her vision will be calibrated to infinity, focused on the light, the colorful, the grace that does exist in the universe. I don’t think Jesus cares where one goes to college but He cares greatly what one does with one’s education, especially given the expense and sacrifice of health and wealth.
This morning, Mr. Understanding, Thing 1 and I drove south to Wilmington, OH to a Homes For Our Troops event, a charity we support similar to Habitat for Humanity except the focus is wounded veterans. In the middle of lush, green beautiful farmland, Corporal Joshua Sams was given the keys to his new home. His legs had been blown off January 12, 2012 in Afghanistan. Under a blue sky, flags were flown and speeches were made by the corporate sponsors of the house, veterans, his best friend, his former football coach, and the mayor. Laughter and tears were meted out in equal measure. Illuminating, educating, encouraging words came from the mouths of the most humble people – heartfelt and real. After walking through the house, I thought to myself, “Only in America.” Only in America with a loving community that’s got your back. Am I happy that my daughter is returning to Baltimore? No. Am I thankful that she is going to make a big difference in the world? Yes. I pray that the city of Baltimore has my daughter’s back and can open its own heart to healing. Baltimore can truly BMore.
*P.S. I am sure the NSA can give him my number.