It’s Still Tolling

. . . any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
John Donne 1624

Back in December, 2014, the day after the Newtown Massacre, I wrote about my own experience with a shooter in the building and the trauma I experienced from the anticlimactic event (“It Tolls For Thee,”). At the end of the piece, I lamented, “”This is not going away.  The people of Newtown, the people of Connecticut, the people of the East Coast, and by tomorrow, the people of the entire country will live in the shadow of this day forever. Question is, how can we protect the other Newtowns to come?  It’s already too late to begin, but better late than never. . . ”

Since then, there have been 201 more shootings in this country. When do we say E N O U G H??

Evangelicals, anti- or pseudo-intellectuals on left and right, special interest groups of all kinds, and untold millions of influencers put pressure on our legislators to ban books and art, outlaw drag shows, curb women’s rights, thwart equality for LGBTQ, legislate the teaching of science and history as myth and fairy tale. They succeed. All across America, poor Atlas is having a really hard time keeping the world balanced on his back as it threatens to topple over.

What feels like the final blow, what seems to be the thing that could push Atlas and his precious cargo right into the abyss forever is the problem of guns in our midst. All the marching for lives that matter, all the canceling of professorial opinion, all the revisionist rhetoric on both sides have ignored a REAL problem we ALL face. The one thing that should bind us together: finding a way to end the oppressive hold guns have on all our lives.

Every day parents send their children to school with no guarantee they’ll return. Every day children are forced to rehearse for the possibility that they will be targeted by an angry someone with no better outlet for their anger than kids in a school. Every day we throw up our hands and say, “What can we do?” And we blame the lawmakers and the NRA and the gun-toter machismo that seems to have a stranglehold on our collective sanity.

We can point fingers all we want. We all know who is really to blame. We are. We throw up our hands and sigh, we write thoughts and prayers and Imsosad on social media, we shake our heads and tzikkash, and we even send money to the coalitions of survivors’ parents who are out there trying to make it stop. But we don’t do enough.

We need to follow the example the French and Israelis have set this month. They shut down their countries to make their wishes known, and they are succeeding. Why? Because a country without services is a country at a standstill. A country at a standstill needs to appease those who are shutting it down in order to get it back up and running.

We need to shut this country down. To show our government — from the top down — that we really are at a point where we just can’t take it anymore. If every service provider said simply, I am not going to work until the government finds a way to rein in the violence, to control these weapons of mass destruction, to make our children safe not just from the bullets themselves but also from the anxiety of expecting to be hit and the trauma of the aftermath.

If we could the people could set aside our differences for just a few days and figure out a way to get the whole country on board to stop the trains, block the runways, brake the buses, close the schools, refuse to open clinics for well visits, how long do you think it would take before legislation would be in place to protect our kids?

I know. Dream on. I have to. The nightmare wants to consume me.

I have a grandchild who lives overseas. Whenever I go to visit him, people shake their heads and say, “Aren’t you scared for your kids there?” The State Department issues warnings about the country where he lives, suggesting that it’s not safe to go there. Yet the only people who carry guns there are the military, who stand guard at schools, airports, bus stations, et al., to ensure that no reign of terror succeeds in taking hold. No child is forced to spend valuable educational time practicing ways to avoid being shot by a maniacal interloper.

Every year I beg my kid to come back, to be near enough so my hugs don’t have to rely on Zoom for most of the year. The answer is always the same. “Not until I can feel safe sending them to school. . . . “

Can’t we make that happen?

From Motherless to Motherer

Rachel Louise Snyder’s Women We’ve Buried, Women We’ve Burned

One of my favorite workshops to teach is something I call “Acting for Writers.” It’s a class that investigates how to put ourselves in closer touch with our sense and emotional memory, the way actors do. After all, I explain, actors and writers are artists of the same cloth, who share clear objectives: to tell stories, to entertain, inform, enlighten, even sometimes warn an audience or to unburden themselves of secrets too heavy to hold onto.  In doing so, they seek to be authentic, honest, and believable.

Rachel Louise Snyder could teach my class simply by sharing her work.  What distinguishes that work is the way emotion emerges without being manipulative, the way observations and revelations illustrate how deeply a skilled writer can cut into the very center of human existence and bring it to life on the page.  I never fail to believe Rachel Louise Snyder. I never distrust her.  She is among the most reliable narrators I know. I take in her confidences, and I resolve to keep them in a safe place where they can continue to enlighten me.

So it is with Women We Buried, Women We Burned, Snyder’s soon-to-be-published memoir.  The story of Snyder’s life, beginning with childhood trauma – her mother’s death, her father’s embrace of evangelical fundamentalism – that led to hard-driving self-destructiveness, and then to total self-transformation might seem calculated and farfetched from a less ingenuous writer.  But Snyder’s writing is so stark, so clear, so unfettered by hyperbole of any kind that the saga resonates with irresistible urgency.

Snyder’s narrative journey begins when her mother dies. She hears her mother call out, “I can’t breathe,” and she recognizes even at the tender age of 9 that her mother desperately wants to live but has lost the battle with her disease. Rachel’s father, confused and helpless at the death of his young wife and the responsibility of raising two children nearing their teen years, tells Rachel that her Jewish mother has happily surrendered to death and resides now with Jesus in Heaven. He has almost immediately devolved to a religious self he never was before, and from that moment his young daughter intuits that she cannot trust her father to be the man her mother married, the father she used to know. 

Without warning, Rachel’s father submits himself to unforgiving religion, which he imposes on his family and enforces through the use of corporal punishment.  He loves by force of will and shows affection by exerting dominance. He marries a woman he easily controls, and Rachel’s only defense is willful defiance of everything he stands for. After she is expelled from the Christian school he has forced her into, he turns her out of the family home and refuses to let her back in. 

Endowed of remarkable resilience and empowered by ever-improving survival skills, Rachel wanders through her adolescence and experiences sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll until she finds herself in college, where she gets by, thanks to her superior intelligence and a little help from her friends.  To her surprise, she discovers a love of learning, fascination with history, and, most importantly, commonality with other women – battered and buried women, who have survived or who have been defeated. Then she binds herself to an abiding faith that she can make a difference. 

Ultimately, Rachel Louise Snyder’s story is one of evolving maternalism. The motherless child becomes mother of herself. The self-motherer becomes mother to her stepmother, to her remarkable daughter Jazz, and to the women whose stories without her might never be told.  Her story is a guide for us all.  She models the liberating power of self-acceptance and exemplifies the need for self-love.

I believe her. Every word.


It’s an odd thing to be a sister whose little brother has died.

The sister is not the wife who tended to him for 42 years, who devoted her existence to making sure he lived longer than anyone could have predicted.  The sister is not responsible for orchestrating his diabetes care, his two kidney transplants, his quintuple by-pass, or for guarding his limbs with her life so that he would die with most of himself intact.

The sister is not the adopted son, the boy-now-man who needed a father and found in the brother a gently adamant hand that guided him through the tumult of adolescence and into an altruistic career.

Nor is the sister the granddaughter he took in at her birth, whom he nurtured, fed, coddled, and adored while his wife, her grandmother, worked to support them all when he had been forced into early retirement.  The granddaughter who ran to her Poppi whenever her feelings were hurt or her path confused her.

Or the 9-year-old niece who came to visit and stayed till she graduated from college, married a surgeon, attended law school, and settled in the heartland.

The sister is peripheral.  She has no rights to the mourning.  She knows that the wife, the son, the granddaughter, and the niece own the wailing rights.  And who is this sister to suffer from his loss?

After all, all this sister is is the grown-up child into whose hands her grandmother placed this brother when he arrived home from the hospital on his fourth day of life.  She is the person who hardly remembers life before there was this brother, whom she didn’t always like but never failed to love.

It was she who caught him when he fell off the neighbor’s garage roof pretending to be Davy Crockett on the trail of Big Bad Mike Fink. She is the one who ran to get Daddy when little brother climbed a telephone pole in the aftermath of a hurricane and tried to use his new tool kit to fix a live electric wire.  It was she who walked him to school on his first day of Kindergarten, when his hearing was still returning from near-deafness. She stood guard over him while he played with gusto, alone and jubilant, on the playground. When the principal called them in, and he didn’t hear, the principal grabbed his ear to pull him inside.  It was the sister who pushed the woman’s hand away.  “Don’t you dare touch my little brother,” she screamed.  “He didn’t hear you.”

No. She didn’t always like him.  At times she hated him. He could be a tyrant, barging in on her bathroom time, teasing her about her appearance, robbing her of time alone when she wanted to write. Then there was her abject jealousy. He was more popular.  He had a broader grin.  He was cute and funny.  Which she was not.  And he got sick.  A lot. Which meant people took care of him.  That’s why she crawled into bed with him and licked his breakfast fork when he had the Asian flu. It was her turn, and though she nearly died for her trouble, she was never sorry.  For once the brother tended to her and brought her soup and news from the schoolyard.  He found her shivering and brought a cover from his own bed. 

She coaxed him to read, to write, to expound his wisdom.  In his last year in high school, he spent a week with her in her New York apartment working on an essay and a speech he was to give in a competition.  He won the contest and got an A on the paper, and she was not the least bit surprised.  She always knew he was smarter than he thought he was.

The sister’s life did not depend on his, but then she always thought he’d be somewhere she could reach him. He could be a great comfort . . . and he could be a painful cyst. Either way, he was there. She always knew he might precede her into the void. She just never believed it.

So odd to be the sister whose little brother has died.