“A riot is the language of the unheard.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
From my bedroom in my big house at the top of a hill, I can hear many things: the rush of the highway like a river, concerts at the racetrack down the hill, the marching band and cheers at high school football games. Bird song in spring, insect orchestra in autumn.
And this spring, sirens. Sirens that seemed to go on and on through the day and the night.
This house was built as a summer home at the turn of the last century. It was meant to offer respite from the hot, dirty streets of the city. It is set just so in a park-like neighborhood so that cool breezes waft across a big-eaved porch looking west. Since that time, the city has grown to include the neighborhood and it is no longer a suburb. That’s one of the things I love about it – “living in the city.”
A few weeks ago, my son came home from college up north to attend the Preakness. He relaxed as he arrived, the beauty of his home, draped in cherry and dogwood, embracing him. And off he went to the races with his sister.
The “city” he knows is not the one his friends back at school read about. It is better, and worse. The city we live in, and the city we can hear in the distance, are two very different places. These days those differences are manifest in a way that is impossible to ignore, and should be. Just like the sirens.
I spent race day working in my yard, sowing grass seed to make my lawn richer and greener than it already is. At the same time I mowed the dandelions – once they’re mixed in with the grass, they don’t look so bad. I listened to the music in the distance, imagined the jockeys in their azalea pink silks, the ladies in their hats. I thought about the people just outside the gates. And I held my breath the whole day. For my kids, for my city.
Once, a young man asked me – having no idea where I lived – didn’t the folks worry, in their pretty houses, in their so-so-much way of life, that someday there would be a reckoning? I never forget that. Especially now.
Maybe the recent riots have forced people to listen. Even to what they don’t want to hear. But I wonder, as the debris is cleared, as our moment in the national spotlight fades, how soon we will become inured again.
Spring proceeds apace and the killings accrue. The horses have raced away and the track might too.
We must tend to Baltimore and keep tending to it. I hoped on Preakness Saturday, as I planted my grass seed, that it would grow – even as I hoped the million dandelion seeds I sent flying through the air with my mower, wouldn’t. I must do better; we must.
Each weed of distrust will have to be carefully pulled. And every seed of hope that is planted will have to be watered, watched, and nurtured. It is time to act, to get on our knees in the dirt, and to make change. Anything else will simply perpetuate the illusion that things are ok.
Christine Kouwenhoven is a writer living in Roland Park. She has an M.A. from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and serves as Director of Communications & Grants at Baltimore School for the Arts.
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