We still don’t know. Last week I spent six hours listening to Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed. Despite a great title (sure had a ring to it, but a cursory Google search did not spit it out till a reader friend pointed me to Amazing Grace. Shame on you, Google!) and an intriguing premise built around the Columbine shootings, the book was hopelessly bloated and poorly structured. So I quit listening.
However, it got me thinking about THAT DAY, as well as all the reading I’ve done since about Columbine. And the shootings since. Something like 12 or 13 in Obama’s terms alone, many others since Columbine. I thought about the phenomenal novel I read last year, Wolf in White Van, in which a would-be shooter turns the gun on himself, and hideously survives. As an adult he thinks back, trying to uncover his motives. Of which there aren’t any, not really, not any we can tease apart into anything easily articulated, and yet… also anything that we can’t recognize, if we’re honest.
And then, now, South Carolina.
Each of these events is a little different, and each a little the same, and guns and guns and guns. But as I mulled, having ejected The Hour I First Believed from my CD player and still having a few hours to drive, what I really went back to regarding THAT DAY, and some of these other shootings, was this other thing about us Americans, besides guns.
That we didn’t know what to do.
How could we know, you might ask? It was the first time. Or one of the first. Columbine. We were in shock. How could we have known? And what was there for us to have done?
But it was very simple. We should have come together. Cried if we needed to. And then gone home to our families. We should have known, instinctively, what to do, with and for one another, when something bad happened to others, something so bad that it affected us all very deeply. WHAT IS IT about our culture that we don’t know. Instead we just freeze. Even now, we don’t know. We glue ourselves, separately, to social media, and opine, prematurely. We form little mobs, little schools of fishes, darting this way and that, when we should touch skin. Meet eyes. Go for walks. Talk with our tongues rather than with our keyboards. Dine together. If there’s a shooting at a church, we should go to one nearby even if we don’t believe in God. If something happens at a school, we should go get our kids—even if we’re in another state—and take them to a playground. All together. Later we should form opinions and find a way to share them.
What the hell is wrong with us? Why don’t we just know this? How is it that our leadership doesn’t know, that our bosses don’t come into the hallways and a) gather us first and b) tell everyone to go on home now?
I started writing this poem, which didn’t turn out very well, which doesn’t mean I won’t go back to it. But here’s a draft for now.
It may not have been the first but it was the first
for me. The CFO grabbed me in the hallway,
dragged me into his office, shut and locked
the door and we listened to his scratchy radio.
It was a radio, not streaming, we were still
just on the edge of streaming then. I was
sweating, partly from what we were hearing and partly
from what was in the room, the not knowing,
the time it was taking to parse those words, high school,
where the hell Littleton was, guns, dead.
And why the hell he picked me, what he wanted me
to say, was I supposed to cry, what we
should do, what should we do. It was midafternoon,
or anyway, it was after lunch, I’d been for my run,
or to the climbing gym, I’d not had a shower,
It was Columbine.
It seems to me it was a snowy day,
gray in Boulder, but I don’t now think this
was true. It seems to me I was thinking how messy
the roads would be, how hard to drive
home, how hard to get to my son’s school.
Obviously, I was distancing myself. We were
definitely thinking of our children in school.
My son was in second grade. In North Boulder.
What had that to do with a high school in South
Denver? He was at a Waldorf school, where they
were taught to believe in fairies and King Arthur.
I couldn’t imagine Littleton. Imagine it, said the
CFO, there in the office with me.
He was a short, nervous man, pale, with glasses,
the way accountants are. Why did he pick me?
Imagine it, trying to get to your kids, he said.
By now we’ve all imagined it dozens of times.
By now we’ve lost count. But That Day
it was just him and me locked in that office
looking out at roller bladers on the Boulder Creek Path.
Though I’d swear it was snowing. Big, fat spring flakes.
It seemed very dark in that room. His lips were flat
and he was staring at me, wanting something.
Tears? I am terrible at those, when people want them
from me. If I could get away. If I could go down
to the river, by myself, and sit under a willow
and watch the imaginary snow fall, watch the eddies
and the rapids for just a while, maybe ten minutes,
then I would probably cry. After that, if I
could go and get my son, just see him first,
then call it a day, take him home, read a book—
we might have been reading Pippi That Day.
Why did he bring me into his office, why did
he close the door? Why didn’t he go, instead,
to the other executives, why not weep with them?
They had children, all of them. After their tears,
why did they not call a meeting. It was a small
company. Why did they not let all of us cry,
or gather in hallways, go down to the river, in small
clumps, to wash our faces, to touch one another,
and to remind ourselves, together, of beauty? And then,
why did they not send those of us, who wanted
to leave, to our children’s schools, or home, or to families
or friends, or just to the mountains, to weep, or to pray?
Why did the CFO and I just sit
there awkwardly, in that locked office, pressed
to the radio, unable to cry, keeping our colleagues
in the dark, waiting to go home at the regular time?