People keep coming, bringing flowers, candles, notes, posters, photographs. Silent. Some sitting in the grass around the central of several the ever-growing altars. Some with their backs to the flowers and candles, turning instead to the chalk-covered wall of words. Others picking up pieces of chalk and adding their words to the “wall” that begins on the sidewalk near the street, past the gym that lines the Hollywood Transit Center, up the ramp walls and continues on the bridge to the steps down to the light rail Max stop. Others heading to catch the train, looking down and reading the words on the overpass under their feet.
I’ve seen little public altars before. They dot the highways with their white crosses, plastic flowers and little mementoes of lives cut suddenly short.
These spontaneous memorials are powerful altars. They hold so much: grief, an awareness of the beauty of life and the reality of death, memories, regrets, sadness, gratitude for gifts given long ago, lament, cries of the heart.
I have an altar at home. A multi-colored cloth spread over a small table in my office is set with a candle, a stick of incense, symbols of my faith, items of beauty that have meaning for me and symbols of people I love and am praying for. The items change as life moves on, but the altar remains.
Public and private altars are sacred places to sit with the huge mysteries of life and death, sacred and horrific. They help us stop and not rush through our feelings, giving grief and hope a chance to rest in our hearts and bones for a while.
There is talk that the Portland transit system will erect a permanent memorial here. The heartfelt impulse is beautiful, but that sort of official altar is more complicated.
Why a memorial here, and not at other places of death and heroism? Are some deaths more worth marking in public than others? Are some acts of heroism bigger than others? Is the undercurrent of cultural racism, ethnic bias or sexism within our culture influencing the decision of who/what gets honored?
These questions are too often unasked when our public hearts are broken and we want to “do something.” But they are questions that need to be asked as we as a nation seek to transform the very divisions that were at the heart of the tragedy that exploded at the Hollywood Transit Center. Sustainable and equitable partnership across our differences is the memorial I seek.