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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Make it Stop

St. John of the Cross / San Juan de la Cruz / St. Jean de la Croix

We spent the last week on Captiva Island, in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast.  It is a place of rustic beauty, largely overgrown by palms, sea grape and scrub pine. The weather somehow seems more "real" when not competing with traffic and neon and jet exhaust, so one can actually sense the subtle changes to light and wind and water each day. There are few people around during this "shoulder season" between the end of hurricane weather and the arrival of the snowbirds, most of them retirees from Minnesota and Wisconsin. It is not unusual to have a quarter-mile or more of shoreline completely to yourself, other than a bustling tide of sea birds who always seem to be working so busily that one feels almost enough guilt to reach for the corporate Blackberry. Almost.

"In one of the stars, I will be living. In one of them, I will be laughing. And so it will seem as if all the stars are laughing, when you look in the sky at night."
Thursday night, we made plans to watch the Geminid meteor shower from the beach.  With very little artificial light, it's possible to see an amazing array of celestial detail on Captiva, and the coincidental new moon meant we should be able to take in the show with very little interference.

Alas, when the time came, a swiss-cheese blanket of clouds had spread across the island.  Nevertheless, we took advantage of what gaps there were and glimpsed at least a handful of the quick darts of light the particles made as they zipped by.

Our last full day of vacation dawned warm and muggy, and the clouds cleared up by the time lunch was over, promising a solid beach afternoon to wrap up our week.  The youngest member of our party was my companion on boogie boards in the gentle surf until he found a buddy his own age and left me to seek company with the grown-up types.

We learned the news of the school shootings in Connecticut from passers-by, and instinctively reached for smart phones to see what was happening.  It was hard to reconcile the squeals of laughter from the kids at the water's edge with the nightmarish experience I knew other kids, very close to their age, had been through. As the details were pieced together, the predictable pattern of debate was playing out on Facebook walls and blog posts: gun control, mental health care, school prayer.... a kaleidoscope of speculation and rhetoric, all coming from a place of confusion and pain.  Because of course nobody, regardless of politics, would wish the scene in that school on a sworn enemy, let alone a first-grader.

I have my own thoughts about guns, and health care, and school prayer, and I was not immune from the impulse to share them in the raw voice of someone trying to process the unthinkable, in what appears to be an arms race of ever-escalating unthinkables, because we can't seem as a nation to figure out what's driving people to such acts.

That night, after trying to stay out of earshot of TV gunfire, I hit the beach again with a longtime friend and the dad of my little surfing buddy.  We didn't talk much as we scanned the much-clearer sky for laggard shooting stars we were told we might see.  Staring up at the bejeweled blitz overhead, I remembered what the Little Prince told his pilot friend after meeting the snake whose bite he knew was his destiny: "In one of the stars, I will be living. In one of them, I will be laughing. And so it will seem as if all the stars are laughing, when you look in the sky at night."

We saw one meteor each, and trudged home again with stiff necks for our trouble.

On a scrap of paper on my bulletin board at work are four words I scribbled to illustrate something to a co-worker who was coming to grips with a difficult family situation


People are calling for -- in addition to gun control -- stronger mental health systems which would ostensibly identify and separate the about-to-become-unhinged from our innocent kids. But -- to repeat an old adage I heard The Right Rev. Gene Robinson quote in a sermon -- it's not enough to keep pulling drowning people out of the water. We've got to head upstream and figure out who is throwing them in! I believe we should as a society take a closer look at how we treat each other, particularly how we treat those who don't fit the mold. Let's face it: we haven't exactly achieved the "kinder, gentler nation" we were promised back in 1988, right after I survived high school relatively unscathed. Instead it appears we have appointed Anne Robinson from The Weakest Link to determine who is smart, Simon Cowell to determine who is talented, and the Peter Pan chairman of Abercrombie & Fitch to determine who is attractive. In case you haven't noticed, these are not especially nice people, at least not the personas they wear for us.  It's not especially cool to be nice, is it? We trade casual put-downs with our friends and cheer at TV shows whose purpose seems to be to determine who can be the meanest.  And those who don't impress us or have anything to offer, we simply tune out.

If you are blessed with good looks, talent, and/or a good support system to constantly reassure you of your worth, you can survive the daily onslaught of unrealistic standards and "good-natured" barbs. But in the America of fractured homes and three-career families, where spend our days bumbling from one screen to another (I bought a week's worth of groceries today without interacting once with another human... is this really progress?), who's doing that for the people who aren't quite that strong? Who is noticing the misfit who eats his lunch alone? Whose job is it to compliment how well she draws on every surface that will take the marks of her pen?

 When I wrote about suicide a while back, I wondered if teachers have the bandwidth to understand the social dynamics of their classroom and keep anybody from falling through the cracks, but I don't think it can all fall on them. It's got to come from all of us. Nobody should be unworthy of a smile or an inquiry about their day. They may not respond in a way we would call grateful or even appropriate, but they were noticed, seen; they mattered, if even for a minute. Another Facebook poster railed that we should never mention these high-profile killers' names again, because recognition was all they were looking for. If that's true, if a tortured mind has been screaming to be heard to the point where it takes murder or suicide to get our attention, then shame on us. Maybe if they got it at age seven, we wouldn't be in this predicament. Maybe.