Connecticut-Broken: Lamott, Tolkien, and (Maybe) Peace and Joy

I wasn’t going to blog again until Sunday, the day of Advent Joy. I already wrote about how Peace and Joy are hard for me in these dark times, and I wanted to write something happier, something a little funny and light. I was going to write a list of things that give me joy.

I still will, probably, but I might do so with a unconscious sense of guilt. Since I wrote about 12/12/12 and the need for peace like a river with fish of joy, the world has only gotten darker. So much darker.

On Tuesday, as I mentioned, a young man ran into a nearby mall food court and killed two people and injured another, before killing himself. None of his friends or family saw it coming, describing him as a funny and sweet guy.

And then on Wednesday, my small town suffered a major loss, when the small pet store in town caught fire. This shop was a gathering place for the community and the university, always letting patrons play with animals when college students missed their dogs back home or a child’s mom wouldn’t let her get a cat. We mourned the loss of innocent animals who couldn’t escape the smoke, the winged friends we lost and the Christmas gifts that will not be.

And when we thought it couldn’t get darker, this morning happened. I saw it on my computer screen, covered my mouth, and cried. I couldn’t stop reading articles and watching news reports, and so all day I was on edge, a word away from tears, on the brink of falling into the precipice. I’m not good at expressing my emotions in a healthy way, and today the emotions were so deep and dark and inexpressible. I hope people saw it in my eyes, what I couldn’t say.

The children, oh God, the children who went to school to learn about Christmas and Hanukkah, math and stories. How will I possibly be able to see the photos of children, age five, age ten, and read their obituaries? How can my heart take the facts: “She loved to draw.” “He wanted to be a fireman or a superhero.” “She enjoyed riding her bike to the park.”

It’s more than I can handle, more than I can even process or understand or cope with. I am on a different coast. I am a young single childless woman. And I am grieving. I can’t even comprehend the crevasses that have opened up inside mothers and fathers in Connecticut. This morning, they had children. Now, they don’t.

I know you all are feeling these things too. We saw our president speak to us today with tears in his eyes, so overcome with emotion that he had to pause for many moments. I was grateful for his emotional vulnerability. It shows he’s human, that he feels broken in the face of this unspeakable event.

As always, I find solace in story. On my commutes, I’m listening to Anne Lamott read Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, and this morning, she raged against former President Bush and the (at that time) impending war in Iraq. She talked about how much despair she felt, how it was like a heavy rain and “all the universe was flinching and flailing. And you couldn’t fix anything. All you could do is set up MASH units in your own life and tend to people through the sacrament of cocoa and videos.”

I heard this description before I knew what was happening in Connecticut; maybe I heard it at the same time as the terror and the destruction and the death. I shudder at the hypothetical timing, but now I know that utter, dark despair in my soul.

Lamott asked her friend Father Tom, “How are we going to get through all this craziness?” After a moment, he responded:

“Left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe.”

I hate that that’s the answer. I hate that school has now become a scary place, where before it was sacred, or at least a sanctuary. I saw the heart of every parent I know clench today, and they won’t unclench for a very long time, perhaps never. Every child I see I want to kiss, and pray over, though today it feels like it makes no difference.

I want to keep the Big Guy out of it, because I’m mad at him. I’m mad that this happened at Christmas, and this holiday and all of the ones to come for a few hundred schoolchildren will be tainted with screams and shots and bloodstains. This is the season of new life, new hope, of peace and joy. How can we possibly find those things now? How can I?

By telling myself that peace is a current, rushing through my body. It is not dependent on circumstances. And the joy-fish jump, because life is still beautiful in the midst of the crushing pain.

“It gets darker and darker and darker…and then Jesus is born.”

We gathered today at work, in the hallway to eat pizza, a desperate unspoken communion. I attempted conversation about Christmas carols and sizes of pizzas, when everything within me screamed that life was coming apart at the seams, ripping and tearing. I didn’t know if anyone else felt the same, but regardless, we were determined to eat together with a semblance of community. And it helped. We got through the rest of the day.

When I got home after work, I took the night off. Because today is broken, and this world is torn asunder, and our hearts are damaged, I left the dishes in the sink, the portfolios ungraded on the table, and my coat on the floor. I didn’t watch the news; instead, I put on my sweatpants, ate terrible food (lots of cookies; it’s how I deal), and watched holiday chick flicks that didn’t make me feel better, but at least made me smile.

Another author I’m reading right now, J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote a conversation between a small scared person and a wise and scared wizard in The Fellowship of the Ring. We’re small scared people right now, and I felt my heart echoing Frodo’s words.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

And already, Frodo, our time is beginning to look black. The Enemy is fast becoming very strong. His plans are far from ripe, I think, but they are ripening. We shall be hard put to it.”

I realized today that the first half of the quote is often taken out of context. It’s not a YOLO quote, like all the kids are saying. It’s not about doing crazy things because life is short.

It’s about living in a terrible, horrible time and hating that you’re here, wishing that you didn’t have to be strong. Wishing that this time and all of its despair didn’t belong to us.

But also realizing that we were given this time and this world. We did not decide that we would live at this time, nor did we decide that our hearts would be so broken. These are not things we decide. All we decide is how to survive in this harsh world where children are murdered in their classrooms: how to survive with soft hearts that are constantly torn apart and with mercy and love for those around us who are hurting in every possible way.

Our time is bleak. It’s bleaker than it was yesterday, far bleaker than last Sunday. We are hard put to it, my friends. It is a frightening endeavor, this life. I can’t brush over that, since shoppers died Tuesday, animals died yesterday, and children died today—and that’s just national news, not mentioning those murdered overseas on a daily basis.

But this time is a gift. This world is a gift. The people in it are crazy and violent and occasionally rude, but they can be a gift too. And it’s almost Christmas, my friends. Advent is for adults. It’s for practicing those things we’re terrible at eleven months out of the year.

It’s not all better. It won’t be all better. But what can we do?

“Left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe.”  Over and over again until we’re walking and breathing normally. Until then, take care of each other’s hearts, minds, and bodies. This is our time that we have been gifted. We’ll only survive if we’re together.

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