Connecticut Begins with Connect: On Grieving and Laying Down Arms

That we can be injured, that others can be injured, that we are subject to death at the whim of another, are all reasons for both fear and grief. What is less certain, however, is whether the experiences of vulnerability and loss have to lead straightaway to…retribution. There are other passages. If we are interested in arresting cycles of violence to produce less vigilant outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war” —Judith Butler (Precarious Life xii)

I don’t check the news.

I will just be honest with you. I find it depressing and sometimes self-indulgent. I am of the opinion that we sometimes mistake being well informed for understanding the suffering of others, being worldly for being of the world. Mine is not a perfect logic, but it’s the only one I have.

Like many people, I presume, I get most of my news from social networks. It’s not very sophisticated but it alerts me to many of the biggest headlines. That’s how I first knew of today’s shooting.

I followed a link to a news article.

There I read it.

Bald.

The headline: Over twenty, mostly children, were slain in a small-town Connecticut elementary school.

I was sitting in my car, that piece of shit Volkswagen with the standing inch of water on the passenger side floor and growing smell of mold in the air. My chitty-chitty bang bang engine made its normal burping and farting noises, which suddenly struck me as distasteful.

I wanted silence.

Reverence.

Some sort of quiet to help me re-read the words.

My boyfriend, K, reemerged from his house. I was taking him to the airport so that he can visit family on the east coast for three weeks. Ours is a new love and is in that delicate tissue paper stage in which our connection is fragile and beautiful all at once. Three weeks is a long time for a new love.

So my heart was already drenched and swollen.

When I first read the headline, I thought of how I learned to spell Connecticut. I cannot even see the word without remembering the mnemonic, “Connecticut begins with ‘connect.’” I learned this in second grade. I learned this in school. I learned this because a teacher taught me. I am not one of those people who can remember every teacher they’ve ever had, partially because I was a child with the typical Swiss cheese memory and partially because these aren’t always times I want to remember. Yet, the lessons of these ambiguous teachers remain, indelibly.

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Connecticut begins with connect.

I told K in the car. I just bumbled it out, almost selfishly. I knew he was nervous and anxious to travel, but I needed someone else to be in this with me. I needed him to be in this with me.

Last night we were at the mall and there were at least six cop cars by the side entrance. Inside of the mall, security guards and police in uniform were at almost every turn. “They’re here because of the shooting,” I said in a paranoid fashion to K. A couple of days ago, a gunman walked into a nearby mall and opened fire. Our city is still reeling from this. We are still imagining this terror and the sound of these gunshots.

There is a certain vulnerability in remembering how exposed our bodies are to the world. The social contract that says, “I don’t kill you, you don’t kill me” is a tenuous one at best.

“I am scared to be in the mall right now,” I admitted to K. “There always seem to be copycats after one of these mass murders.”

In the car home, I brought it up again, the fear of mass shootings that I’ve carried with me since Columbine. “At the college I teach at, we are required to tell students about the emergency plan in case of a school shooting. I am supposed to lock the door, turn off the lights and keep everyone in the room and away from the windows.” I took a deep breath when I say this because I am grappling with my role in the classroom and my duty to my students, even in the face of total terror. K is an elementary school teacher, so he nodded in understanding.

K then told me that in elementary schools they have drills in which they get the students under the desks and have them practice being quiet.

My whole body cringed at the thought of children being forced to learn how to duck and cover in case someone with a gun decides to shoot them.

When I was a kid in the 80s, I told K, we were taught to fear AIDS. As early as second grade, we learned that our bodies could be deadly. I knew to use a condom for sex long before I knew what sex really was. So I can relate to being taught to fear what you do not understand. But this, this teaching young children how to protect themselves against murder, this is too much for me.

When I drove away from K at the airport, I didn’t remember this conversation from the night before. I don’t even know if I was able to think about anything coherently.

Connecticut begins with connect.

I have not felt this exact same way since Sept. 11th 2001—this almost primal tie to people I’ve never met. We all know what happened that day. Most of us remember what it was like in those days following the attacks. We were all New Yorkers. The injury against them was an injury against us all. We had a moment in which we could actually see the lines stitching us to New York, even if we had never been. We were all New Yorkers.

Back then, we had a vengeful president. He called for war. He called for violence. He called for blood. The tone he set for the nation was one of anger and retribution. Our president told us to buck up. To not give into the terrorists. He told us to shop, to keep the economy strong. Much like a stoic football coach, he told us to walk it off. He told us not to show weakness. And he, essentially, told us not to grieve.

And to be fair, in the days and years following the attacks, it seems North Americans didn’t know quite what to grieve. Should we grieve our loss of security? The loss of lives? The loss of freedoms?

Days after the attacks, Slavoj Zizek wrote,

“Now, in the days immediately following the bombings, it is as if we dwell in the unique time between a traumatic event and its symbolic impact – like in those brief moments after we are deeply cut, and before the full extent of the pain strikes us – it is open how the events will be symbolized, what their symbolic efficiency will be, what acts they will be evoked to justify” (Welcome to the Desert of the Real).

 Here, Zizek emphasizes the significance of that time between the shock of trauma and the symbolic meaning we will come to apply to it. This “unique” moment may inspire us towards anger and attack or it could encourage us to grieve and mourn.

This idea of mourning was carried on by Judith Butler in her post-Sept. 11th text, Precarious Lives.

“When grieving is something to be feared, our fears can give rise to the impulse to resolve it quickly, to banish it in the name of an action…Is there something to be gained,” Butler asks, “from grieving, from tarrying with grief, from remaining exposed to its unbearability and not endeavoring to seek a resolution from grief with violence?” (29-30).

Butler is concerned with the idea of national grief and she posits that it is the lack of mourning in North America coloring our inability to withstand our emotions. Instead, she argues, we go to war. We wage violence and turn to anger.

In a speech delivered one year after the North American Sept. 11th attacks, Arundahti Roy decried,

“It’s not a clever-enough subject to speak of from a public platform, but what I would really love to talk to you about is Loss. Loss and losing. Grief, failure, brokenness, numbness, uncertainty, fear, the death of feeling, the death of dreaming. The absolute relentless, endless, habitual, unfairness of the world. What does loss mean to individuals? What does it mean to whole cultures, whole people who have learned to live with it as a constant companion?” (Come September, 3).

In this speech, Roy presented the view of global suffering—of 9-11s across the world and decades. She reminded North Americans that we are not alone in our terror, but also nudged us for thinking solely about ourselves. “This historical dredging,” (of events ranging from General Pinochet’s Sept. 11th, 1973 overthrow of the Chilean government to 1990 Sept. 11th decision of George Bush Sr. to go to war with Iraq), “is not offered as an accusation or provocation,” she warned, “but just to share the grief of history…to say to the citizens of America, in the gentlest, most human way, ‘Welcome to the world’” (3).

Connecticut begins with connect.

Over a decade later, things appear ostensibly different, following the reign of a president who declared, merely 11 days after the attacks, that the time for grieving was over and the time for war had begun. In contrast, our current president noticeably teared up in a press release in which he spoke about the victims of today’s shooting ranging from 5-10 years of age. “We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years,” Obama lamented. “And each time I learn the news I react not as a President, but as anybody else would — as a parent. And that was especially true today.  I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do,” (emphasis my own).

And although we have a president who openly weeps and invokes the notion of “grief,” he, too, moved quickly into a call for “meaningful action.” It seems that a bad habit is hard to break and we are too often prepared to act rather than grieve.

Today, as the posts about the Connecticut shootings piled up, I quickly noticed that many talked of mental illness and access to care. Still others spoke of gun reform. But a few, perhaps not coincidentally mostly my friends who have children, reminded us to grieve. These were children, they beseeched. These were the teachers who devoted and perhaps gave their lives for these children, they appealed. We must mourn this too, they reminded.

A couple of days ago, a man entered a shopping mall and let loose his semi-automatic fury on a crowd of strangers, killing two of them. On this day a young man reportedly killed his mother and then entered an elementary school and killed more than 20 children. A man in China waited outside a primary school and stabbed more than 20 children with a knife. These things are the same and not the same.

The shooting in the mall, the violence against children in Connecticut and China, they each expose us the vulnerability of our bodies, to the selfishness of the few, to the illness of the world.

You see, there is a connection here between these events, between you and I, between the deaths of school children in America and the stabbing of those in China. The connection is not one that is easy to name. It’s not just that we are all humans, because today’s shooter was a human as well. But it could be that we are all vulnerable to death. And, at the end of the day, today too many parents lost their children, too many students their teachers. Doubly sad to me is that fact that too many of us have lost the realization that our nation handled Sept. 11th grief abysmally, if at all. We remain too quick to act and too slow to mourn. How, we may ask ourselves, is our lack of grief today, or about the 17 year Chilean massacres, or Sept. 11th related? How are we turning to anger and action before we’ve even had the chance to mourn the lives truncated as they barely began.

After I read the news and dropped K off at the airport, I drove almost thoughtlessly to the store. I walked through the aisles with tears openly coursing down my face. My whole body felt as if it were under a lead blanket. I imagined that the bodies of my fellow shoppers felt the same. I went to the store because I wanted a project. I wanted to throw myself into something that would take me out of my sadness. I knew I wanted a puzzle—a big one. I didn’t just pick a puzzle off the shelf—I treated the decision with seriousness. I wanted to spend the next couple of days with this puzzle, just meditating over it. Finally, after visiting two stores, I found the right one, or it found me. It is a nature painting with three deer near a river. There is a gentle sunset dappling over the water and the orange-red leaves of fall on the trees. The eyes of the deer are aimed straight at the painter. There is no fear in their eyes, but they look interrupted, caught. When it comes to capturing their expression, there is, I realize now, only the thinnest difference between the vantage point from a rifle’s crosshairs and that of the artist at her easel. Yet, one view is designed to kill and the other to merely memorialize.

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Today, instead of thinking about gun legislation or mental healthcare reform, admittedly truly significant political concerns, I must memorialize these children. In my mind, I must remember their faces, even though I’ve never seen them.

Connecticut begins with Connect.

And because I once was a school child, because I do not want to alchemize my mourning into immediate action, because I may someday have children of my own and will fear this for them, I must acknowledge this connection between us. Because today, with this sadness, with this heaviness, this connection is the only thing I’ve got.

But tomorrow, tomorrow, we can pick up our axes to grind, our phones, our emails to lobbyists. We can fight; we can make change.

But today, I grieve.

I ugly cry in the bathtub and in the aisles of the supermarket.

I acknowledge the loss.

And I admit that I am terrified to lose any more of you.

I want to hold you each to my chest, safe.

I want to tell you bedtime stories and watch you grow up.

I want to be your favorite aunt, the one who takes you to your first punk show.

I want to earn your trust.

I want to love you.

I want to keep this connection alive.

And so, like a painter, I will set up my easel in front of you. I will paint all night and in the morning, your face will be there too, interrupted, caught, but connected with mine forever.

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Published in: on December 15, 2012 at 2:17 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you, Renee. Now I can feel connected to YOU, sharing grief, from my vacation in the East Coast. It’s been surreal, poignant and painful to have started this trip at a national meeting of federal partners working to help communities prevent and respond to children’s exposure to violence, as direct victims or as witnesses. I was in DC when the attempted robbery with a loaded gun by a 7 and 11 year old took place in Portland, and still there when the mall shooting took place. My vacation had just officially started when we learned about the school tragedy. It’s been near impossible to grieve what’s in my heart while with these in-laws, so I’ve not yet had the chance to fully unravel, chain by chain. This writing helps me. Radical empathy. I’m reading the Dear Sugar book on the trip, and it’s timely. There’s so much to lose in loving each other, and yet it remains worth the risk. I love you, Renee.

  2. Hola! I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from
    New Caney Texas! Just wanted to say keep up the fantastic work!


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