"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Thursday, December 27, 2012


I was an angel.  Just so you know.  I was never Mary in the Sunday school pageant, but that was okay because the angels, I  think, got better costumes.  Ceremoniously retrieved as a group from the church attic each December and laid out lovingly on the furniture in the Ladies Parlor, they were shimmering creations of sky blue, lemon yellow, pale green, peach, and white; they slipped in silken quickness over our heads and hung in stately, eddying folds, transforming us.  Mary had to stay in one place, too, kneeling, while we got to march with our halos down the aisles while the choir and congregation sang comforting hymns: "The First Noel," "We Three Kings," "Joy to the World," "Silent Night..."

But being taller than the other girls (and most of the boys) it was harder and harder each year to find a robe long enough to cover up my knee socks.  I stood out.  It didn't bother me, but one year, as our mothers milled around us tying cords, straightening wings and readying us for dress rehearsal, someone's mother cast a nasty glance our way and said "Hmmmm....isn't she a little tall to be an angel?"  I stood wide-eyed and mortified, and in instantaneous fury my mother turned from what she was doing and snapped "What's the matter?  Didn't you know that angels come in all sizes??!"

The 20 children killed a couple of weeks ago by a mad man in a bucolic New England town (about an hour from where I live) are being portrayed now as beautiful little angels.  Photos have surfaced quickly, and it is painful but also in some way so right to lay eyes upon them.  To a one, they are happy, smiling, beginning.  I did not give birth to these children nor have I ever met them or their families, but nonetheless, I bear the awful pain of their loss.  Yes -- I know that children are sick and starving in refugee camps.  I know that children are felled every day by bullets intended for other targets in fire fights and drug deals.  I know that children lie in cancer wards, hairless and bloated, fading from life as we speak, a miserable and unfair circumstance.  I know.  But these 20 kids in Newtown, Connecticut -- okay, go ahead and say it, white upper middle-class -- were my children.

Naturally there are no neutral posts on Facebook about Adam Lanza and what he did.  Every one, everywhere, is to one degree or another affected.  Cute cartoons, always good for an "LOL" or even a "LMFAO"  were for several days nonexistent.  We were not in the mood to laugh (I think we were incapable of it).  The animal welfare, shabby chic decorating and holiday baking pages I subscribe to were dark with grief.  Nevertheless there has been a great deal of activity.  There are discussions about the influence of violent video games and the effects on young minds nowadays.  There are painful posts about mental illness in young people -- how to recognize it, what to do about it (sadly, not many resources are available).  And there is, of course, dramatic polarization about gun control.

On one friend's page she posts how vehemently she is against owning a gun and how she feels that laws are too lax.  Under that is a comment from someone: "This is not the time to talk about gun control."  And my friend replies "If this is not a good time to talk about gun control, I don't know what is."  As more information surfaces we find that the shooter's mother (who was also killed by her son) owned the guns he used for this massacre -- and for whatever purpose, she owned them legally.  We also know that the shooter had oddities since childhood that set people to puzzling just what was wrong with him.  He was exceedingly intelligent, but also unable to look you in the eye; he didn't react to physical pain; he was finally pulled out of public school by that same mother who bought gun after gun after gun, taking him with her to target practice.  Maybe, suggests another friend, it was the only way she felt she could connect with him -- that he was spending more and more time isolated in his room and she couldn't "reach" him any more.  Guns, though...perhaps that wasn't wise?

I don't expect to ever own a gun.  Therefore I have never seen an application for a gun permit, so maybe this is already done, for all I know, but would it not be a good idea to do a family interview when a weapon is applied for, and ask if there is anyone unstable who also might have access to that gun and bullets -- and may potentially be apt to use them in an impulsive or violent way?  I am not talking background-checking the applicant; I am talking of an investigation into who might be apt to use this gun other than the applicant.
A teacher leads terrified students from the school.

The Governor of my state wept at a news conference the other day; the normally stoic spokesman for the Connecticut State Police finally broke down in tears.  I am sad, shocked, and angry myself, but I am also surprised at how visceral my reaction has been: the first day I felt as though I had been laid out by a series of blows, weak, aching, the second day I shook uncontrollably.  The children I myself have been privileged to help raise are 29, 22 and 22 now, nonetheless I turned inside out with wanting to hold them in my arms as if they were little again, because I love them more than life itself and yesterday, they were in kindergarten too.

The day after the tragedy my friend and I needed to do some errands at the local Walmart and our odd job lot store.  So close to Christmas, these stores would normally be clogged with people, furiously bustling through in high form.  There were shoppers, yes, but no ebullient kids running up and down the aisles or people quick-stepping through the last of their shopping lists, furious to finish, and the lines at check-out were manageable.  There was, in fact, a kind of somber quietness in the stores.  It was subdued and polite.  I had not seen this kind of public reaction even after September 11th.  There were not a lot of smiles.  And if I am not mistaken, a sense of fear -- small but tangible -- beat in our hearts.  We were, after all, out in a public place, in a crowd, never knowing if a madman with an assault rifle might be lurking in the shoe department, a person who might have been able to be stopped if not for a Perfect Storm of circumstance and ammunition.

I won't pretend to know the answer to this one, not even a little part of the answer.  I do know that when I was in kindergarten in 1961 the only worry I had was if I could snag the purple crayon out of the Crayola box before somebody else got it, and why my shoe wouldn't stay tied and could I get a chance in the swings at recess.  Couldn't tell you if there were less guns out in circulation then.  Couldn't tell you if there were less crazy people or better places to deal with them than there are today.  Couldn't tell you any of that.  But I can tell you that something is very badly wrong in this world right now.  

And yes, there are too frigging many guns in the wrong hands.  And yes, it is way too hard to get help for the mentally ill and way too easy to get a gun.  But in the last few days I've talked to a couple of friends who have another theory and I think they're right.  I think they're goddamn right:  we have lost the function of engaging with each other.  We don't know what's real any more. And the children especially.  Where are the children??

In the sixties we were outside swinging from tree branches, hitting wiffle balls or playing tag.  Or maybe inside playing with Matchbox cars or Barbie or Chinese checkers or a chemistry set.  Now you could live 4 or 5 years across the street from a family and never know they had kids.  Where are the kids?  Usually playing video games.  And I'm not talking Pac Man or Atari; I'm talking Grand Theft Auto or worse, where the simulation rivals that in training films for soldiers and police, and the object is to see how many people you can kill.  KILLING PEOPLE.  That's where the kids are.  Or maybe watching cable where the blood and guts and violence are spilling out into bedrooms and living rooms everywhere...by the time they're 8 or 9 these kids are desensitized to death.  We had cops-and-robbers and shoot 'em up cowboys-and-Indians and cartoons where animals are pummeled and people shoved off cliffs and dynamite is everywhere for the taking -- but then we had respite: dinner at the family table, Sunday rides in the country, finger paints.  I'm not saying that no Baby Boomers grew up to be murderers, thieves or rapists.  I'm just saying, we seemed to know reality better (in spite of the fact that many of us tried various substances to temporarily visit an unreal world)...and we looked each other in the eye.

"All those Hollywood liberals," said my friend Lester; "Gun control and all that crap they're always yakking about -- well, ask them not to do any more violent movies.  See what they say.  It's their bread and butter.  Talk about hypocrites."  He's quite right that movie stars aren't exactly putting their money where their mouths are, isn't he?  I never thought of it that way before.

So yes.  There is a problem with guns in this world, and I kind of think our founding fathers weren't envisioning semi-automatic rifles when they wrote the Second Amendment.  And yes, lord knows there is a terrible, terrifying lack of mental health care -- in my state alone, three institutions have closed in the last few decades; whether they were good or bad I (thankfully) don't know, they may have been the most Draconian halls to grace the Northeast, but nonetheless they're gone.  Just as the all-too-frequent horror stories of foster care painfully point out that perhaps orphanages weren't all that bad, incidents upon incidents demonstrate that mainstreaming the mentally ill might not be in society's best interests.

But quite possibly the bigger issue is knowing what's real in this life...knowing that you're not just knocking down 20 little clown faces in a game, that you are, in fact, annihilating the future of 20 families, real living families.  Make that 26; you killed six dedicated faculty too.  Look me in the eye.  Be human.  We need to know one another.  We need to engage.  If Adam Lanza couldn't do this he might have been better committed to an institution; at the very least he should certainly not have had access to guns.

I was an angel, but that was pretend; really I'm just made of flesh and blood.  Two days ago, on Christmas, those parents in Sandy Hook faced an impossible task -- having Christmas without their murdered children, making Christmas for their living ones.  No matter how cool the costume is I don't think, given a choice, the kids of Sandy Hook wanted to be real Christmas angels this year.  I think they wanted to make gingerbread houses and do puzzles.  I think they wanted that purple crayon and to get on a swing at recess.

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