What’s a (Grand)Mother to do?

Variations on a Surreal Scene of Violence

Show me the country, where the bombs had to fall
Show me the ruins of the buildings, once so tall
And I’ll show you a young land
With so many reasons why
And there but for fortune go you and I, you and I.

Phil Ochs

1. This is personal

I am a first generation American Jew. I am here by a fluke, by the accident of my mother’s survival, the miracle that she was not exterminated by the complacency, conciliation and paralysis that killed 6 million of her co-religionists and at least 5 million of her co-Europeans over a period of less than six years.

As the child of that happenstance, I owe a huge debt to my grandchildren. It is absolutely necessary that I not keep my mouth shut, that I not stand by and watch as Rome burns, that I not look the other way when society and government conspire to allow rampant murder to take over the country. It is time I look you in the eye and say aloud that if we do not find a way to stop mass murderers from infiltrating our schools and theaters and shopping centers and lives, each of us is complicit in the deaths and/or maiming of every victim.
All right. I’ve spoken. I’m probably preaching to the choir. Our voices join in outrage.

Now what?

Trouble is – and I’ll bet this is what happened to a lot of folks who might have wanted to change things in the 1920’s, 30’s and ‘40’s – I don’t know what we should DO. I have a perseverant Facebook friend who posts every few days that she may be only one voice, but she will keep saying how terrible it is that kids die in places like Newtown. But a voice, a post on FB, is not enough. What action can we take?

Well, to begin with, we might attempt to take down the gun lobby, get them to back off their insane stance that assault weaponry belongs in American homes, that armaments equal liberty. There is no question that the idiocy that prevails over our legislative bodies needs to be tempered with something like intelligence. It would be a good place to start, but we all know that even controlled guns, like controlled substances, can be lethal. The weaponry used in the Newtown slaughter was duly registered to the mother of the assassin. Further, in Canada where guns stand at the ready in every corner, there are no mass murders akin to ours.

Clearly, gun laws are not The Cure. Yes, we need stronger enforcement of more stringent laws, but the American black market is a cornucopia of easily obtained ill-gotten gains; gun laws won’t stop the killings. What else?

We need better health insurance and a medical community equipped to fully treat mental illness rather than stuffing sufferers with pills and telling them to call in the morning once every six months. We require a national societal outlook that accepts that mental disorders are as honorable as any other; no one hides diabetes in the family closet, but few are willing to talk openly about the schizophrenic who lives upstairs. That has to change.

We need more empowered and more effective training for law enforcers. When the Isla Vista murderer was reported to local police for his stash of weaponry and his menacing, disturbing videos, the police found him “polite” and “well-mannered” so they left him to his diabolical planning. That boy’s red flags were waving all over the Internet, all over his lifestyle, all over his face, and no one took him seriously because he was polite and well mannered? Who trained those investigators?

We need sensitivity to the vagaries of iconoclasm. Perhaps rather than labeling some of the perpetrators, if their communities had found a way to embrace them, they might have facitated ways to work out anxieties and anger. As a drama teacher, I often saw misfits find satisfying niches that turned their outsider statuses to a special kind of belonging, and I know that drama’s sister arts – music, individual sports, crafts, visual arts, etc. – are equally adept at “normalizing” weirdness.

We need mitigation of the violence we call entertainment and/or to understand why mad violence is so compelling to us all. A favorite character on the unremittingly brutal Game of Thrones is stabbed in the eyes, and everyone shudders but no one fails to tune in next time to see who’ll be the next prolific spewer of blood. Life on television and in video games is a bowl of splayed intestines, relentlessly devoid of sanctity. But while video games, television drama and even the news might inure our youngsters to the savagery around them, it is not the reason some carry AKAs into elementary schools and shoot five- and six-year-olds.

I could go on, but the point is clear: there is no one way to stem the tide. And even if every item on the list suddenly appeared in our communal midst, the ill might not be cured.

Because the one thing we need absolutely is a way for all of us who decry the violence to work together. We need organizations that send us out into the communities to preach and teach and listen and learn. We need to host meetings where kids and their parents and the disgruntled and the disenfranchised might come together for group support. We need to create a movement through which we are empowered to act.

A few groups do exist that claim to be fighting the madness, but when I try to get involved, they offer me no action; they simply ask for money. I have none. I can write, and I can speak, and I’m experienced in working with people; I want to put my skills to work making a difference. It should not matter that I am not solvent enough to contribute financially.

I am as baffled by it all as the next one. But other countries with problems far worse than ours, with cultures that have far less aversion to violence than ours, do not suborn the kind of terror we seem to be witnessing with increasing frequency here all over the country. I do not want my legacy to be my silence. I do not want my descendants to judge me complacent.

There must be something we can DO. Now.

What about we start with a mass protest meeting? We all join on Skype or Google or some common space online, and we have a huge symposium to brainstorm solutions. We sign a promise to sling no blame. We vow to listen to all suggestions, make no judgments, and we select volunteers to compile our ideas and to schedule follow-ups until we have plans of action, at which point we set about implementing them.

Anyone have another suggestion? It’s time. While we still have some.

2. Nobody is Safe

I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend May these days. May’s not her name, but everything else I write about her will be faithful to the person I knew.

May and I taught together in a fairly small English department in a mid-sized town in Connecticut. She was a veteran by the time I began teaching, though we were nearly the same age. She is one of those exceptional people called to teaching, and while I did not agree with her approaches, she was undeniably driven to spend her life in a classroom. She loved her work, loved her school, loved her students.

But more than that she loved her family. Her husband was a semi-retired business owner, and together they kept horses, which both enjoyed riding. They had a daughter whose disabilities made her dependent on them for life, but whom May adored with unfettered warmth. But the light of May’s life was her talented, intelligent son.

Because I had a son a few years younger than hers, and because my son was a very accomplished young man who attended our school, May never tired of sharing photos and mementos from her son’s glory days in high school, then college; and when I left my position as a teacher in the room down the hall from May’s, that son was about to be married to a girl May adored. May was beside herself with joy. Grandchildren were on her horizon, and she was thrilled.

I didn’t see May for a lot of years. I left that school, moved to another one and then left teaching altogether; I hardly thought about her. But when Newtown happened, I saw that one of the children murdered there had her last name. Unwilling to imagine the bottomless pain of being a parent of a Newtown parent, I dismissed the name as a coincidence until a week after, when someone I knew from that town wrote me to tell me that the child whose name I had noticed was indeed May’s grandson.

Connecticut is a small town, and May’s was not the only family I knew pummeled by the awful rubble. But having reached grand-motherhood myself, having spent so many hours hearing the golden son stories, the news of May’s loss struck me like a serrated knife slicing away the edges of my heart. I couldn’t even write to her. I hadn’t been in touch with her for over twenty years; it would have seemed to her disingenuous to write of sympathy, of love.  I was dumbstruck.

There is no bottom to the kind of despair I envision in the wake of such a loss. And today, for the 75th time since that horrific day in Connecticut, another grandmother’s life has been strangled by a duly registered semiautomatic pistol aimed pointlessly at her child’s child.

It is time to stand up as a nation and say ENOUGH. We will take no more. We will make it stop. And we must do it now. We have no time to lose. We are all being watched through the sights of those guns aimed at our loved ones. Those guns must be hobbled.


It Tolls for Thee

Redux . . . http://abcnews.go.com/US/oregon-school-shooter-15-heavily-armed/story?id=24093516

Too many martyrs and too many dead
Too many lies, too many empty words were said
Too many times for too many angry men
Oh, let it never be again.
Phil OchsA U.S. flag flies at half staff in front of the Reed Intermediate School in Newtown, Connecticut, following a shooting nearby at Sandy Hook Elementary School

I was in my classroom when the call came.

The school was brand new, a vast industrial, accidentally brutalist building, with long, silent corridors, poorly lit because bulbs were forever burning out.  Video monitors in every hallway streamed endless loops of Channel 1 News, but except at passing time, the halls were empty.  No one monitored the comings and goings at the multiple entrances and exits, and no stood watch to ask if a newcomer belonged there.

The day of our incident, just before the holiday, I remember many of my own students being absent.  The four or five present members of my drama class and I were watching a film, whiling away the countdown to early dismissal.  And then my phone rang.

“This is Principal M____.” My usually friendly boss spoke from what sounded like a great distance,  in a manner that was forced, cold.  She was actually talking to every classroom at once, trying to be quiet so that she stirred no reprisal, caused no reactions.  “You are to lock your door from the inside, sit with your students on the floor, and stay put until further notice.”  She paused.  “There is a gunman in the building.  No shots have been fired, but we are working to apprehend him without incident.”

As is my wont in crises, I did not feel any specific emotion right away.  I made light of the situation, sat with my kids playing a game.  I was distracted by the niggling, infuriating awareness of the myriad inconveniences this could portend.  My children required transportation to and from their destinations, my husband’s dinner needed preparing, and I had no way to let anyone know what was going on.  All the mundane chores of the day loomed ahead, and I chafed at being delayed while I fretted that the kids might hear reports of the disturbance and worry for my safety.  Only then did I even begin to think about the gunman roaming the halls.

A shot rang out.  Well, we assumed it was a shot fired. Through the institutional walls, the sound could have come just as well from outside and been a car backfiring, but we knew it was a gun.  The kids huddled close to one another and trembled.  Some of the girls were sobbing.  The two boys in the class were tapping their feet, drumming, flicking lighters imbedded in their pockets.  I was impatient, thinking about catching up with my life.

The end result was an anticlimax.  Altogether, we heard three shots fired, none aimed at human beings, and then no sounds at all.  After a couple hours, the person was apprehended, and we were released.  Physically released anyway.

Columbine had happened only a few months before, and as the realities sank in, the images of that day began to play over and over in every level of my consciousness.  By the time I got home, I found myself shaking.  I was furious, disempowered, terrified.  That night brought the first of many nightmare-disrupted sleeps, my dreams perverted by the many possible consequences my waking brain refused to acknowledge.

I left teaching soon thereafter, and I am sure that the afternoon of the gun propelled my premature exit from the profession; I couldn’t continue to face the terrible vulnerability that visited me in those horrific nightmares.   My then husband scoffed at my dread, reminded me endlessly that nothing had happened.  And that was how I knew I couldn’t live with him anymore.

My memory of that trauma haunts me still, and I am willing to bet that it haunts every person who was there that day.  Looking into the eye of violence is unforgettably agonizing.

I cannot imagine what it feels like to have survived in Newtown today.  I would be willing to bet that there is no one in that town or its environs who will go about his/her life unscathed.   The events in that elementary school, where a troubled young man killed the hopes and dreams of twenty-nine families in less than ten minutes are senseless, infuriating, immobilizing.  No words adequately describe any of it, though newspeople, texters, im-ers, FB subscribers, bloggers will keep trying to find some. Because to capture this giant poison and get it into a verbal jar helps us sort through, seek the peace we will probably never find.

What makes it hardest of all is that the solutions are not clear.  President Obama is criticized for giving lip service to the horror, but the truth is that that is all we have. imgres-1

The knee-jerk reaction of the liberals among us was to scream for gun control, to decry the hold the NRA has on the nation.  I’m one of those hippies who wouldn’t give my children toy guns; no one is more anti-gun than I am.  But the sad truth is that gun control would not have prevented Newtown.  The guns were duly registered in the name of the gunman’s mother, who was legally entitled to own the gun that killed her.

The second reaction among us was to blame the health care system.  A friend of mine, who is a health care professional with a family history of mental illness, sobbed, “The system puts these kids out of treatment, out of physicians’ watchful eyes as soon as they are 18, turning them into health care orphans.”  She is right.  Our health care system is terrible, but, again, in this case, the shooter was not without support and care.

The problem is deeply ensconced somewhere in our American psyche, perhaps in the cowboy/mafia/noir fetishes we have nurtured in ourselves, perhaps in our collective isolation from the civilizations across the waters.  I don’t know where it is or what causes it, but I do know that in other countries where citizens own guns, crimes like Newtown, like the Oregon mall, like Aurora are far less frequent, and the threat of violence is far less omnipresent.   I spent a month in Thailand, and at no time when I was walking did anyone point his car at me and threaten to kill me as a man did here in New York the other day.  There is an anger, a seething ire that bubbles forth in unthinkable ways.  And it explodes, kills our children and grandparents and uncles and friends not only with guns but with vehicles driven drunkenly, with fists wielded in stadium fights, with cruel words that drive the fragile to suicide.

What can we do to stop the violence when we hardly understand it and have no remedies at hand?

For one thing, we can admit that we are all in this struggle together and cling to one another in more loving, positive ways.  What happened in Newtown was not perpetrated by an “other” out there threatening us; the devastation was wrought from within our own ranks, and we need to look within ourselves for ways to create a more loving environment with less alienation.  I realize I sound like a character in Volunteers, and I should be singing “We shall overcome,” but shouldn’t we at least begin here?

Then, too, we can reach out to the people of Newtown and let them know that we acknowledge that every one among them is a victim.  Every one of them has been traumatized and forced to carry a burden no one deserves.  Every man, woman and child in that community has been scarred for life.  Because there is no way to quantify grief, it is not for any of us who were spared to judge whose grief is heavier.  The people whose families are in tact tonight can be in as much pain as those who must bury theirs.  Acknowledging all the sufferers, validating the throbbing ache each will endure from now on must contribute to their healing.  Everyone touched by today’s horror needs to be heard, needs to be comforted, needs to be reassured that they will face no malice, no recrimination for having lived.

Of course, we must begin to seek ways to heal the ills that afflict the misguided, violently solipsistic people who solve their malaise by pointing guns.  If they are ill, their illnesses need to be recognized and dealt with before they explode; if they are simply grotesquely entitled, they need to be educated in how to become citizens.

Further, it is vital that we point our attention to a system that gives money and time to gun lobbyists but takes money and time away from education. Many an alienated soul has been saved by an arts education program, has discovered therein a way to express the need to murder and create without bloodshed.

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. . . .