I remember the morning the towers fell. The phone rang and my roommate’s frantic mother told me that her brother was fine, which seemed like mundane news to wake me with at 6am. He worked in New York and I was in Seattle. I turned on the TV just in time to see the second tower fall. My first rational thought was, “I can’t believe people live with this every day.” So many countries have endured terrorism and violence for their entire history, and we have defining events: The Boomers remember where they were when Kennedy was shot. Gen X remembers the Challenger explosion. We all remember 9/11.
President Bush finally made his statement and I was ready to hear about this newfound compassion, this empathy for those we defend. It did not occur to me that he might take a fresh angle. “A quiet unyielding anger…”
No. Not what I felt. Grief, desperation, fear, heartbreak, disorientation. Urgent curiosity- Why? What did we do, what did we say? It was the first time I shifted my frame to inside the lives of people living in countries we “defend” with violence. Our terrorists struck capitalism, imperialism and democracy. We strike communism and fascism. Right or wrong, innocent lives are lost and traumatized.
I went to my campus on 9/11 and sat in the garden with classmates. When I got home, my neighbor came down and said, “We figured you shouldn’t just watch alone.” The reports of people in New York were of groups of people walking together. Lined up on railings, descending the stairs inside the burning towers. Shoulder to shoulder, walking away from downtown, crossing the bridges on foot. Talking or not talking, just standing and walking, above ground because the subways were closed, together. When the Challenger exploded I was in 6th grade, watching in my classroom. After we asked what the Y shaped cloud meant, the nun turned off the TV and the Principal led a prayer over the intercom.
When Newtown happened, I heard the news, scrolling through radio stations in my car, coming in and out of broadcasts, out of step with a coherent account. When the details crystalized, I drove to my daughter’s school. For 45 minutes, before I could reasonably head inside to get her, I sat in the parking lot, crying and jumping at every person that walked by. I couldn’t look up at any other person and I hugged my daughter tight and carried her out of the school once I had her.
Now I can’t keep track of the number of times I have fought tears, or sighed a deep sigh and struggled to breathe through the day. Today it was Sunday morning in Pride month, and it is setting records.
My quiet, unyielding emotion is not anger. It is a resolve to be stronger. I have this window now, looking into the lives of people who have navigated this private hell their whole lives. Gun violence is new to white, middle and upper class Americans, but too many people have known their consequences since childhood.
I need to be physically strong. I think about the women leaving the club in Orlando who carried a wounded man to safety. I think of the well marathoners who carried the wounded marathoners to the tents in Boston. I hope I never do, but if I need to carry someone, I want to know I can.
I need the moral strength to work for equality and justice. Not Feel-the-Bern style, where I lazily protest The Man on social media, but at my level. Giving and accepting in equal measure. I want my kids to grow up with their window open, seeing what their neighbors live through; knowing that their choices keep their neighbors safe, or don’t. And that the neighbors who look the least like them may need the most protection.
I seek the emotional strength to make eye contact with my neighbors, fellow parents, survivors of these tragedies. I must walk bravely into conversations to both hear and speak. I must be strong enough to know when I am oppressing, and courageous enough to change.
Most important of all, I cannot, I must not yield in helping to build stronger community. When we moved to our new town, we were embraced by it. People helped take my kids to activities and told me where to find stores and resources. They give when there is need for someone in town, and they forgive when there are differences. I have not had this kind of community everywhere I have lived and its power is incredible.
We must learn the names of every person on our block, and accept their well being as intertwined with our own. This is no longer able to be inconvenient, weird, uncomfortable, or uninteresting. This is what we must do to protect our world. Side by side, responsible for one another and accountable for our actions, we can walk out of this dark time and finally know peace.