Sometimes horrible things happen and I’m not sure how to respond. Yesterday I was at work getting frustrated about an email and office politics, wondering what I was going to eat for lunch, laughing over some stupid cat picture, and planning for the night ahead. Then I saw the news and read about children dying, I watched the president’s address, and saw the picture of little kids crying while holding hands in a line. It was hard to fit this new piece of reality into my day. To know what to think about it and what to say when there was still the business of living to attend to.
When I was in high school we used to have these lock-down drills. I think we only did it once or twice but I remember them well. They’d call the drill over the loud speaker–the same one we used for morning announcements about football games, soccer practice, and spirit week–and the teacher would turn out all the lights, lock the door of the classroom, and tell us to get in the far corner of the room because it was the least visible spot if you were standing at the door. We’d sit there in the corner huddled together in the dark–thirty plus teenagers and our teacher. We’d talk about our weekends, the upcoming test, what we were doing that night. A few of us would giggle nervously over our close proximity. Some girls were sitting on boys’ laps. Others were crouched on the floor holding our knees. I remember one time we talked about the Oscars and what movies were coming out. Another time we tried to remember old songs from outdoor school and even sang a few. While we were sitting there someone would come by the door with a flashlight and shine it through the little window. We’d all get quiet, scrunch ourselves up tighter and closer, get as small as we could, and shrink together into one silent mass in the corner of an otherwise empty classroom. The light would shine on a couple frozen faces but none of us really thought about what that meant or would mean. We were 15 and 16. I had holes in my jeans, was obsessed with Dawson’s Creek, and used to write long bad poems on my dad’s yellow legal pads. We voted for homecoming, wrote stories for the school paper, and skipped class to take all three lunches. This was just one more thing we did. This was just how we prepared ourselves for extreme acts of violence–a bunch of children sitting together in the dark.
Sometimes, when I get out of the MUNI station downtown I’ll be taking the escalator up to the street level and I’ll begin to hear music from some street player’s violin or guitar. The closer I get to the top the louder the music gets so it feels like I’m getting closer to something important or like something great is going to happen to me when I finally get outside into the day. It’s a lovely way to start the morning but last week when I got to the top the music suddenly stopped. An old man with a grey tattered beanie put down his violin and coughed into his hand twice. It was a deep cough, a little gross, and too close to my face for comfort but when he was done he picked right back up and the music started again. It wasn’t the greeting I expected but something about it seemed right.
I don’t like guns. I have always thought they were useless and unnecessary for my life. I don’t understand why anyone would want one. I grew up in Oregon so I understand hunting. I have friends who hunt and they are people I care about and respect and I think it’s great that they hunt and fish and eat what they catch. I can understand that. They treat their guns with respect and it’s not a big deal. I still don’t want to be there. I don’t want to fire a gun or hear it. That’s not a big deal either.
I had a boyfriend who went to a gun range with a friend after we had been dating for a while. He came home after a fun day and wanted to get a gun. I made fun of him. I probably wasn’t very nice or fair about it, but he knew me well enough to know that was how I’d react. He went out and bought a dart gun. It was a fancy dart gun that looked like a real gun–long and grey with a black handle–and it shot little darts with yellow and red feathers on the end of them. I don’t remember him shooting it or practicing with it. I think he used to shoot at the wood paneling in his apartment. I think I may have shot it too. I know he used it as a prop for his Halloween costume. There are pictures of him holding it while wearing a fedora and a grey suit. I was a pirate and had a fake knife. He was a great guy and a good man, I’m sure he still is, but whenever he played with that gun he looked like a little boy to me.
I signed onto Facebook for a moment this morning and next to pictures of my friends’ sleeping children, holiday sweater parties, and cooked dinners there were long paragraphs about gun control, rants about how inappropriate it is to talk about politics while people are hurting, angry outbursts about how cruel people are and how senseless everything is, prayers for those who were lost or those who are missing those who are lost, and messages about hugging our kids just a little bit tighter. I just felt glad and oddly grateful to know all these people, that we all care so much about something that didn’t just happen to a small town in Connecticut but that happened to all of us. I don’t really have anything else to add to this conversation. I don’t know what to say. I have nothing to offer except my own confusion. I’m just writing this because it’s what I do when I don’t know what to do.
When you live in a big city you see people more, you’re forced into the same spaces with them, and it gets uncomfortable and weird. Sometimes people make mistakes. They don’t give up seats on trains or they order wrong from the coffee counter. You hear peoples’ conversations and some of them make you sick. Other times you listen in and find yourself wanting to tear up at the sweet things we sometimes say and do to each other. There is a woman with a cane who gets on my train about four stops after me. She gets around really well and is obviously very spry but every single time she gets on the train she yells, really yells, “Can you give me a seat!” to the people sitting closest to the door. She is terrifying but I love her. Once I was in the seat closest to the door and saw her get on and stood up before she had a chance to say anything and gave her my seat. She looked at me in surprise. We’ve been on the same train for months and months, almost a year, and I don’t think she recognized me. I don’t think she ever really looked at me before. But she did then and she said thank you. She seemed dazed and confused as she sat down. It felt like I had just gotten an A on a paper or a good job email from my boss. It was the smallest of gold stars but it was nice. Really nice. Especially because it came from her.
A few close friends of mine have lost their parents recently. We’re getting to the age where this happens sometimes. I’m not ready for it. None of us are.
I’ve been memorizing Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats and I’ve almost got it all down. I don’t know what made me start doing this but I was reading a lot of Ray Bradbury and started thinking about the oral tradition, about the last scene of Fahrenheit 451 where there are a bunch of people standing around fires collecting their thoughts and telling beautiful stories that had all been burned. I wanted something I could do to exercise my mind while also slowing it down. When my train goes into the tunnel, my music stops streaming, and the world grows quiet. This is when I recite it in my head. My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains… It calms me somehow. It reminds me of things. Of who I want to be. Of deaths and life. Of both the power and meaninglessness of words.
I’m not sure what any of this means. I don’t think it does mean anything. It’s just me talking about things I don’t understand. About things I couldn’t possibly.