A Thousand Days

 

IMG_2761

Today is the third anniversary of the shooting at the community college where I am a professor. Three years since that class period when, during a video clip, we heard the first gunshots. Three years since we threw open the door and ran for safety. Three years of therapy and travel and finding a way for this event to settle, to become a chapter in the book of my life, not the entire story.

One of the most illuminating books I turned to in the aftermath was David Morris’s The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Morris served in Iraq as a soldier and then returned as a war correspondent. He takes the panoramic literary and spiritual view of trauma, remarking that earlier cultures perceived trauma not as pathological, but as proof that the witness had touched something ineffable: “as an experience of the boundary between life and death, trauma holds within it the potential for wisdom, a formulation one almost never hears today.” This is not to valorize suffering, because it does not necessarily ennoble. Nevertheless, the shooting, preceded six months earlier by another blindsiding event, has liberated me to a fuller, more accepting embrace of life and mortality. The worst has happened. What am I waiting for? What, really, is there to fear?

“As long as a memory is inaccessible, the mind is unable to change it. But as soon as a story starts being told, particularly if it is told repeatedly, it changes—the act of telling itself changes the tale. The mind cannot help but make meaning out of what it knows, and the meaning we make of our lives changes what and how we remember,” writes Bessel van der Kolk. So many other writers, in the midst of grief they could not assuage or tumult they could not calm, threw themselves the life raft of writing. A colleague recently asked me if writing this story was recuperative. Sometimes it is. But even when it’s exhausting and painful, I must believe that my story, and the stories of other teacher-survivors, are necessary and transformative.

I snapped the photo in this post in the woods near where I live. I’m holding my dog’s leash with one hand, and taking the picture with the other. It reminds me of one of Wendell Berry’s poems: The forest is mostly dark, its ways to be made anew day after day, the dark richer than the light and more blessed, provided we stay brave enough to keep on going in. The last thousand days have shown me that I am brave enough to keep going back in.

Guns, Identity, America

 

Jeb Bush posted this photo on Twitter two days ago, with a one-word caption: “America.” My first response was that the United States was the only country in the world where a presidential candidate could post a photo of his personalized gun, and simultaneously invoke the name of the country he hopes to lead, without apparently seeing anything offensive, contradictory, inaccurate, or insensitive about it.

There’s quite a lot to unpack here. Bush’s choice of this image is provocative but unsurprising. Had it come from another source, we might even read it as an indictment of the United States’ deadly romance with guns and gun culture. I doubt that Bush intended it that way, though; I think it’s proof positive of the imminent conclusion to his campaign. Regardless, choosing a gun to serve as an emblem of the United States taps into powerful sentiments, especially ones cherished by gun “rights” supporters: independence, self-reliance, and violent masculinity, a characteristic that depends on the “power” of guns for its own perpetuation.

Here are some facts about guns in America. “Once every sixteen hours, an American woman is fatally shot by a current or former romantic partner.” Twenty-five states do not evaluate one’s ability to shoot before issuing a concealed-carry permit (mine included). There are 20,000 gun suicides in the U.S. every year. The U.S. leads the world in school shootings. Check these numbers about the toddlers who killed or were killed in 2015. (Because the only thing that stops a bad toddler with a gun is…a good toddler with a gun? Guns don’t kill people, toddlers kill people?) America is a place where mass shootings happen in primary schools, churches, theaters, and clinics; where the costs of gun injuries top 200 billion dollars a year; where kids receive active shooter drills the same way I was instructed in tornado drills. None of these facts should inspire pride. Anyone who wants to be president should challenge us to get out of our twisted relationship with weaponry.

Imagine if Barack Obama had posted this while he was a presidential candidate. What would the outcry have been, given that he was labeled as un-American before he was even elected? Would his patriotism have been affirmed by posting such a photo?  Of course not. People like the ones currently supporting Bush, Cruz, or Trump would have interpreted such a photo as proof that Obama was a secret Muslim terrorist sympathizer whose ultimate goal was the destruction of the country. But Bush blithely utilizes this image to demonstrate his love for America.

Additionally, it’s yet another example of the conflation of guns and masculinity that I’ve written about here. I’ve just finished reading an article in which the writer argues, “the public display, the threat of or actual use of weapons is an intrinsic part of violent, militarized models of masculinity.” Look at my gun, Bush says. LOOK at it. It’s mine. It has my name on it. The use of a gun to symbolize the United States is a way for Bush to affirm his own masculinity in the same tired and ultimately damaging ways we see over and over and over and OVER again, and to align the U.S. with stereotypically masculine symbols and values like violence and intimidation. Not for the first time, I wish that more men in positions of authority would challenge gun imagery as an appropriate symbol of American manhood. Masculinity is far more than firepower, more than the ability to dominate. Every boy and man in America deserves an expansive, inclusive model of masculinity that makes space for strength, but also for tenderness and vulnerability.

Finally, Bush didn’t choose a bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls, or even the flag to serve as a stand-in for the nation. He chose a gun. (Digression: I’m so tired of the “guns are tools” BS. If they’re tools, what do you make with them? Can you use one to apply Spackle? Shoe a pony? Bake Amarula cupcakes? Didn’t think so. But you’re welcome for the recipe!)  Let’s assume that Bush wasn’t trying to soberly highlight the scourge of gun violence in the United States, and that he intended to communicate something upbeat and patriotic. Why on earth pick a gun when there are so many other images of America that one might use? Are we supposed to feel safe, seeing this? Is it meant to prove that he’s a “responsible gun owner,” or a trustworthy leader? How on earth does he think this photo shows anything admirable about his character? His tweet is pathetic pandering to the gun fanatics who regard any possible regulation of gun ownership as evidence that Democrats Are Coming To Take Their Guns, and utter cluelessness about the very real suffering that gun violence causes.

Fortunately, a number of people in the Twitterverse gleefully pounced on the tweet; this gives me hope that there’s a growing number who see that America’s relationship with guns is laughable at best. Still, Bush isn’t out of step with the rhetoric of the other Republican candidates. Marco Rubio bought a gun on Christmas Eve. Donald Trump said he could shoot people in the street and they’d still vote for him. These men’s associations with firearms are carefully scripted to strengthen public perceptions of their own invincibility and toughness. They normalize gun culture and gun violence and reinforce the idea that a real man arms himself, conveniently ignoring the indisputable research that guns do not protect us. One close call with gun violence is enough for me, thanks. I’ll keep working to ensure that no other educator has to experience a school shooting, and to remind everyone that there is absolutely nothing normal about America’s relationship to guns. If that’s the America that Bush envisions, we should all be frightened.

 

Dispatch from the Dept. of Obvious Studies, or, A Rhetorical Review for Republicans

I’m angry. Usually, I try not to write blog posts when I’m angry, but I’m going to break tradition today. I was watching CNN this morning and caught a segment about the Planned Parenthood murderer being formally charged. Then, the program switched to Carly Fiorina’s and Ted Cruz’s spins on this tragedy. Fiorina, as we’ve seen, has been responsible for factually inaccurate statements about Planned Parenthood, going so far as to call for its defunding. An article on MSNBC reads, “Asked on ‘Fox News Sunday’ whether rhetoric like hers against Planned Parenthood could incite violence, Fiorina said, ‘This is so typical of the left to immediately begin demonizing a messenger because they don’t agree with the message.'” Ted Cruz made similar, comically obtuse remarks: “Cruz rejected a potential connection between anti-abortion activism and the shooting, instead taking issue with ‘some vicious rhetoric on the left blaming those who are pro-life.'”

After the Charleston massacre this past summer, SC governor Nikki Haley Tweeted, “we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” Really, Governor Haley? A white man walked into a black church and said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.” I’m no sociologist, but he sounds like a racist with easy access to guns. The same goes for the Planned Parenthood murderer. The Chicago Tribune reports that “Police have declined to speculate on a motive for the attack.” Hmmm. A man walks into a Planned Parenthood clinic, murders three people, and makes a half-coherent statement to the police about “baby parts.” I suppose that he could actually have been a bank robber hiding in the clinic, but I’m going to wander out on a limb here and speculate that, given the news of his history of sexual and domestic assault, he was a violent anti-choice misogynist, also with easy access to guns.

What Cruz and Fiorina fail to see, but Dylann Roof and Robert Louis Dear understood all too well, is that words have power. Those murderers told us precisely why they did what they did. Their choice of venue, their language, and the fact that mass murders are meticulously planned, show us that they knew exactly what message they were sending. Fiorina and Cruz use the First Amendment to unleash their mendacious discourse, but wail about the injustice of being taken seriously. News flash, you two: If you become president, your words will assume momentous importance. You will be on the hook for every single statement you make about women, the poor, Muslims, climate, privacy, military strategy, and more. You’ll learn the hard way that words matter.

Anyone who teaches high school or college English knows how challenging it is to help students understand the power of words. Different terms, which might at first glance seem to be synonymous, are shaded with nuance and bias that alter our arguments in subtle but significant ways. I work every semester to help my students understand how powerful words are. Why on earth don’t these people who feel so entitled to the office of the Presidency understand what my college first-years do?

I remember an afternoon in the spring of 1993, nervously walking through the doors of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Main Street in Kent, Ohio with my high-school boyfriend. The clinician who met with us immediately put me at ease. She praised us for being responsible enough to come to the clinic in the first place. She said that it spoke volumes about who we were and what our relationship was like. I walked out of there a veritable fortress of contraception. She made me feel not like a shameless whore but like a responsible, caring adult woman capable of making healthy decisions about her body and spirit. That’s the kind of care that Planned Parenthood provides. That is what Cruz, Fiorina, and the murderer want to take away from the thousands of women and men who turn to Planned Parenthood: autonomy, bodily integrity, and dignified health care.

Words matter. Language is powerful. We are all accountable.

Men and Guns

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them, and women are afraid that men will kill them.” Margaret Atwood

Another weekend, another mass murder in the U.S., and another man pulling the trigger. Gun violence in the U.S. is glaringly masculine, but it is almost never named as such.

Consider: American women grow up in the same caustic brew of violent video games, TV and film, and school bullying as men. They too are subject to marketing strategies that diminish their value and intellect. They have the same access to weapons as men. Theoretically, they might have greater legal access to guns than men, since in my state, women comprise a much smaller percentage of people with felony convictions. The gun show loophole and ease of private gun sales, however, ensure that virtually anyone can buy whatever kind of gun they desire. Yet despite the similar cultural context and equal access to weaponry, women are, by an enormous margin, NOT the ones opening fire in supermarkets, high schools, middle schools, colleges, military bases, health clinics, theaters, or homes. Men are. The shooters in both recent Colorado Spring mass murders are male, as are 97% of school shooters, and 90% of perpetrators of murder-suicides, 89.5% of which are committed with a firearm. If we are going to achieve any meaningful change around gun violence in the United States, we have to look at norms of violent masculinity, which are destroying women and men alike.

More scholarly researchers than I have explored the links between masculinity and violence, and the incendiary quality of “aggrieved entitlement” that brings young men to commit acts of horrific violence. The invisibility of male privilege ensures that we rarely wrestle with the way that aggrieved entitlement is poisoning men themselves, and exploding into our culture at large. What a terrible box for a man to find himself in: so limited by nonviolent options to enact change in his own life or culture that he concludes his only option is to massacre others. Did this Planned Parenthood murderer really believe that the only way to stop abortion was to kill people? Why was he unable to imagine that working for improved access to contraception and prenatal care, or better parental leave policies, might have the same effect and actually improve the quality of life for many, many others? Why was Elliot Rodger (Isla Vista, CA, 2014) unable to see that his own actions (e.g. throwing coffee on women who didn’t return his smile) reinforced their negative perceptions of him, and to change his behavior accordingly? Those are not rhetorical questions. They are deadly serious. We have to learn why the gun becomes the primary way to make a point  rather than the last. For too many men, their imaginations are failing. Our lives–all our lives–depend on men’s ability to envision more possibilities than what a gun can offer.

This crisis places an additional burden on men. Men themselves have to be the ones who advocate for expansive, tolerant masculinities rather than violent and destructive ones. I know there are millions of such men out there. They’re in my family, my workplace, my circle of friends. This summer, I’m going to bind my life to DF, a man of incredible honor and integrity who is equally baffled and outraged by men who choose guns to express their power. Daily, his example inspires and reassures me that plenty of men derive their identity from qualities other than their aggressive potential. I met another one at the Moms Demand Action table in town this summer, a guy who works with other young men in his church about how their masculinity can protect and support rather than destroy. These men know that their power does not come from size or intimidation or from the presence of a gun at their hip. Unfortunately, I doubt that troubled men will hear this message from women, but they will, I hope, take other men seriously. They need other examples to aspire to, and those examples are walking among us all.

 

 

 

 

 

Guns and God

My beloved former priest sent me a link to this video, titled “Would Jesus Wear a Sidearm?” In it, an evangelical minister confronts the inconsistencies in that faith community, which proclaims an absolute value on “life,” yet regularly defends the right to own and carry weapons whose only purpose is to destroy.

This pastor’s faith bears almost no resemblance to mine, except for one commonality: religion is complicating his life. Instead of bringing him comforting bromides that absolve him from reflecting and evaluating facts, it’s brought him directly into conflict with his professed beliefs. This is what religion is to me as well, and I’ve had to defend it in this way to many agnostics and atheists who accuse me of finding easy answers and ersatz comfort in religious narratives. I’ll say it again: That is not my experience of faith. It does not give me any simple answers. It does not let me sleep easier at night. It does not instill confidence in my ability to handle pain or trouble. It does not explain mysteries. It does not disprove science. It does not make my life easier. On the contrary, following the basic tenets of Christianity is about the toughest thing we could ask of ourselves. Do unto others? Love thy neighbor as thyself? Notice that neither of those statements includes a dependent clause starting with “except________.” Except obnoxious students, unfaithful spouses, people who cut us off in traffic, adherents to different faiths, school shooters? Nope. They’re all in it too. In this video President Carter cites what is, for me, the most resonant Bible verse of all, Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Do justice; love kindness; walk humbly. That’s what I’ll aim for.

There are a few important things to notice in this mini-documentary, and one is the blinding whiteness and maleness of all the players in it. Every single person pictured is white, and most of them are men. I watched the director of Operation Rescue (an organization that supports bombing of abortion clinics and harassment of clinic employees) utter that ridiculous platitude about good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns. Contrast that certainty with the minister’s honest wrestling with what faith means in the face of daily gun violence. Moreover, I can’t help but look at all these white men and wonder what it is they fear most, that they endow a gun with the qualities of freedom, security, and protection. What are they protecting themselves against? Women? Black men? Muslims? Their perceived loss of power and authority? When I see men carrying guns openly in town, I try to remember that the choice to put that gun on every day and to insist that everyone look at it reveals the abject terror at these men’s hearts. Walking through the world unarmed requires real courage.

And there’s the priceless segment with Sarah Palin who speaks the line “Waterboarding is how we baptise terrorists.” Listen to that line again. Waterboarding is conflated here with baptism, a ritual that welcomes people into the fellowship of a faith community. Palin is making torture a sacrament. If other Christians let that narrative go unchallenged, we’re all on the hook for the consequences.

For me, living through a school shooting was a devastating and profound spiritual crisis. As I wrote in a previous entry about the Umpqua Community College massacre, “the sanctuary is in ruins.” So I looked for writers who connected gun violence with spiritual violence. In his incisive essay “Friendship, Love, and Mass Shootings: Toward a Theological Response for Gun Control,” Lyndon Shakespeare (seriously, that’s his real name) asks “What kind of community is needed in the face of rival accounts of human activity that accepts the use of assault weapons as both a legitimate human pastime, and a protected form of human freedom?” He writes too that “[Jesus’s] very humanity meant that he put up no barriers, no defenses against those he loved who hated him. He refused to evade the consequences of being human in our inhuman world.”

No barriers. No defenses. What is a gun except for the most fear-inducing, deadly barrier against vulnerability that humans have invented? The consequence of being human is that we all will die. Gun rights activists try to convince us otherwise, but for more than 80 people a day, a gun only hastens their mortality. Though I’m sure that there are no social issues Rev. Schenk and I agree on, I admire his willingness to express his internal faith conflict. He may not realize it, but he’s also “refusing to evade the consequences of being human.” He’s doing the hard work of being a thinking, changing person, and demonstrating that that struggle is not incompatible with belief.

Reflections on #FeesMustFall

Last week, many universities across South Africa closed as students protested proposed increases in fees. While the protests were most intense in Cape Town and Johannesburg, they spilled over to Bloemfontein, the town where I’m staying this year, and UFS closed last Wednesday through Friday as well. Last Friday, President Zuma’s office announced that there would be a 0% fee increase for the coming year, apparently conceding to the students’ demands. However, in the Sunday Times last week, Education Minister Blade Nzimande admitted that he did not know how the country would make up the R3bn needed to ensure that 0% increase.

Yesterday, I went to a student-focused meeting on campus with the Vice-Rector, Prof Jonathan Jansen, where he addressed some of the concerns of the Student Representative Council. I took videos of parts of the discussion, but I can’t upload them in .mov format, so the above link from the blog Africa is a Country will have to do. Among the UFS students’ demands:

  • consistent and credible academic advising
  • the use of identification numbers on tests, instead of names
  • uniform test policies across faculties
  • budget transparency across all sectors of the university
  • employment of more, and more effective, psychologists
  • removal of the campus statue of Marthinus Steyn, the last president of the Orange Free State
  • free access to unlimited WiFi
  • employment of more black staff and faculty in top-level positions
  • improved LGBTQ support

Prof Jansen addressed each one of the students’ demands, more often than not expressing agreement, but sometimes dissenting; for example, he reminded students that uniform test policies across faculties was impractical, given the differences in assessment for studio art versus agriculture. After Jansen finished, students were allowed to ask a few questions. This was when the discussion became extremely heated, with students accusing him of deception and outrlght lying.

I had several thoughts as I watched this event unfold. One, I was amazed at how concrete and academic the students’ demands were. (I’ve been consistently impressed with the critical thinking and insight that students have offered in a number of university fora, including sessions on the university language policy) I tried to think of what my students in the U.S. would ask of our college administration; what would be their top 27 demands? I struggled to imagine American college students asking for better advising, for example. I remembered stories of street riots on Halloween, and after football games, and wished that American college students could see the urgent fears and concerns of their counterparts here. Two, I was also impressed with how Prof Jansen conducted the meeting. He addressed each of the SRC’s concerns and explained what the university could support and how, as well as what the university could not sustain and why. In doing so, he took the students’ work and demands seriously. Even after the questions became personal and accusatory, he maintained a respectful tone while simultaneously reminding them that just because they think something doesn’t make it true. His manner demonstrated that he was treating them like responsible adults who could comprehend complex financial situations and distinguish inflammatory rhetoric from fact.

However, there came a point where I thought the students were holding the university accountable for failures that are really the responsibility of the national government. For example, a student expressed anger about needing to attend classes at UFS’s South Campus before being admitted to UFS proper (The South Campus offers distance learning as well as vocational training and higher education skills; in a way, it seems to have a similar mission to community colleges), while another talked about the stress of not being able to afford food. These are serious issues that have an obvious impact on students’ university success. But how does a university repair the substandard education that many South African students receive in high school? At my community college, we have students who are outraged because we require them to take remedial classes. Was it our responsibility to educate them in high school, or was it the responsibility of their own school district? What responsibility do lawmakers and voters who slash education budgets and base success only on standardized test performance bear? What about families who never read to their kids, or who deride students’ educational aspirations? Also, what can universities do about food prices? I don’t know how crop subsidies work in South Africa, but in the U.S., we know plenty about the artificially low prices of corn products and fast food as opposed to local and organic products. I couldn’t help but think, “If you’re outraged at the bigger picture, you need to vote in different people.” The ANC is notoriously corrupt (see Kenan Malik in the New York Times, Philip de Wet in the Mail & Guardian, and corruptionwatch.org.za) but it still holds a lot of moral legitimacy for voters. What, exactly, is the government’s plan to ensure that university fees will not rise? We haven’t seen that yet.

At first I thought that as an American, I had no dog in this fight. But on further reflection, I realize that it is in the world’s best interests that the most powerful country in Africa be governed transparently, that it educate all of its young people as well as possible, and that the people’s interests be elevated by the lawmakers they choose.

Later today, I’m attending a parallel session for staff and faculty, also with Prof Jansen. I’m curious to see how it will go. I’m so fortunate to not just have the chance to do important research here, but to witness the workings of a university that, I think, is striving to do right by all its members.

The Bravery of Being Out of Range

Last week, after the massacre at Umpqua Community College, presidential candidate Ben Carson said this:

https://www.youtube.com/embed/7UKCjDqwRIM“>ttp://

The title of this post came to me courtesy of DF (Dearest Fiance), who served in his country’s military for more than ten years and has been in unstable countries all over the world. The bravery of being out of range is arrogance borne of ignorance. We hear it whenever someone glibly says, “If I was______, then I would________.” Can you hear the unearned confidence in this statement? Can you hear how easy it is to say what you WOULD do, when you have never been in a particular situation and therefore have no knowledge of how your body and mind would respond in the moment? The ability to make such a comment points to a privilege of distance (temporal and spatial privilege, if we want to get academic about it). Carson can utter this cheap line, which impugns the victims and survivors at UCC and questions their reactions in the most desperate and terrifying moment some of them will ever experience, because it has never happened to him. He gets to don the cloak of bravery because he wasn’t there. We hear one another make these kinds of statements all the time in other contexts: about what we’d do if we discovered that our partners were unfaithful, if we were unjustly fired, if our child had a terminal illness. For all the disasters we can contemplate, we create an if-then statement. But the truth is that we can never know what we would do until it happens. I never imagined what I would do in a school shooting until it happened. And even then, in those moments I only acted. I did not stop to ponder the correct course of action; I only acted. The thinking, and the terror, came later.

Carson later delivered yet another incomprehensible statement about gun violence: “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” This sentence is almost impossible to believe coming from a surgeon. Is he really saying that the damage done to a body, the mutiny that bullets enact on our bones and tissues, is less horrifying than a waiting period to buy a gun? Or a mandatory background check? Or the prohibition of private sales at gun shows? Yes. Yes, that is exactly what he is saying. Please listen to him. There’s a wonderful phrase, variously attributed, that goes “When people show you who they are, believe them.” Ben Carson is showing us exactly who he is. He is a surgeon who values the so-called right to arm oneself more than protecting the physical integrity of the body. And, the fact that he’s currently running second to Donald Trump (see the HuffPost Pollster page at http://elections.huffingtonpost.com/pollster/2016-national-gop-primary) indicates that many other American voters are showing the rest of us precisely who they are, too. They too are dismissing the incalculable losses of gun violence survivors in the name of heroic fantasy, imagined demons, and abstract “rights.”

For me, and for the thousands of other people who have been in shooting situations, we actually can fill in the if-then statement. But we can only fill it in for our particular context. I can only say what I did in the moment that I was in class with my students when the gunfire began. When it happens again, I don’t know what I will do. It will be a different situation, a different context, and I may need to make different choices. There isn’t just one way to complete the if-then statement. There are thousands of ways, and we will only know the words to use when we are faced with the unimaginable.

The people who claim that they can lead the U.S. need to show some humility and respect for the people who have been savaged by gun violence. Their failure to do so tells us everything we need to know.

A Letter to the Faculty of Umpqua Community College

Dear colleagues,

I tore myself away from CNN Friday morning, after a sleepless night bearing witness to your grief, to write this. I too am a community college professor, and I too am a witness to a shooting on my campus. After the shooting, like a good academic, I scoured every database I could find for research on what happened to professors who had lived through rampage violence. I needed to know what had happened to all the people who had been burned in this fire before me, because I did not know whether I was normal. Were my nightmares typical? Would they stop? What should I say to my students about what had happened? Would I be able to continue teaching? Was this the price of being an educator in the 21st century? Could I pay it?

I was dismayed to find out that there was hardly any information on people like us. The absence of firsthand narratives of professor witnesses to school shootings feels like an inexcusable, baffling elision given the public and psychological power shootings exert. We argue ad infinitum about guns, and mental health, and security measures, all the logistical and political flash points that catalyze public discussions about gun violence. But when it comes to the professors who are in the classroom with their students when the shots pierce the air, professors who have to decide in an instant whether to flee or barricade, open the door or lock it, our voices are absent from academic literature and from public discourse. We are ciphers.

I address this letter to you, not to the students of UCC, because I know that while you are preoccupied with caring for them in this nightmarish time, I want to reassure you that I, and others who have been on this journey, are caring for you, even from continents away. I offer you the following small sentiments of consolation and perspective to take or discard as you wish.

Others will encourage you to move on, to let it go, to not let this event define you. Resist this distracting discourse of triumph. October 1 will not be the sum of all your years as professors, but it will not leave you unmarked. Nor should it. How could you be human beings otherwise, if this event did not rattle your bones with its senselessness? Writing for the web site Return Yoga, Karin Burke says, “The shadows will show up.  Go there.  Apathy, acedia, what Christian mystics called desolation, existentials call despair, moves when we move toward it.  It isn’t the passage of time that heals us, but the passing through experiences.” People who encourage you to move on are talking to themselves, not to you.

This experience is lonely and isolating. It halts conversations, even with your family members. Most people will not be able to say more than, “That must have been scary.” That is as far as they can follow you into the experience. You will feel like there is no one you can confide in, no one who can bear the additional burden of listening to you and helping to carry your grief. In his excellent book The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, David J. Morris, writing about his experiences in Iraq, reflects, “At times, my sense of alienation was so strong I seemed almost radiant with it, as if a stranger could look at me and tell that something was wrong.” You too will walk through the world feeling as though everyone can surmise what has happened to you, as though the damage is scattered across your faces. You will see your classroom in a different way; you will wonder how strong the glass is, or which direction you need to turn the lock in order to secure the door. You may look at your students’ faces and wonder which of them has the potential to do this. You may unconsciously look for the exit signs in every classroom, restaurant, and theater. You will learn to live in this new world where safety is an illusion.

If you are like me, you became professors because you recognized something sacred in learning; you experienced the challenge of changing your own mind, the revelation of new knowledge, the expansive worldview that education allowed you. And now, the place where those transformations take place has been violated in the worst way. The sanctuary is in ruin. But you can rebuild it, and in this endeavor your students are your allies. When you return to your classroom, you are taking a public stand. You are choosing to live and to honor learning. You are choosing to arm yourselves with faith in your students and in each other. Instead of shutting down, embrace vulnerability, because in doing so you will fend off cynicism, resignation, and fear. What do you have now to be afraid of?

Finally, it is possible to integrate this experience into your lives, in your own time. Morris writes, “Part of trauma’s corrosive power lies in its ability to destroy narrative,” and Isak Dinesen says, “All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story.” There is fertile ground for meaning and transformation in this experience. My mission now is to write the book I needed to read in the days and weeks after my school’s shooting, so that all the professors who come after me—like you—won’t do fruitless online searches and wonder why their experience isn’t worthy of inquiry and respect. You may discover a calling of your own, one that you could not have imagined before. You can choose how to tell this story of what has happened to you and your campus.

Whatever you choose, however you cope, you are not alone. You are seen. You are honored. You are understood.

Where I Went, and What I Went For

“I went to South Africa because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.” (with apologies to H.D.T.)

This is the most difficult post I think I will ever write.

I’ve struggled for a long time with writing about South Africa. I came here for the first time in 2007, and it is not an exaggeration to say that it took me at least a year to “get over” that month, to integrate it into my life in the United States. I remember sitting in the pre-departure orientation with State Department officials, one of whom told our group, “Some of you will never be able to leave Africa after this experience.” Yeah, yeah, I thought. The whole Westerner-goes-home-to-Mother-Africa B.S. I’d heard that before. True, I had applied for a Fulbright to South Africa not just because of the seminar focus, but because I thought that of all the choice countries, it would be the hardest, and I wanted to go somewhere that would be difficult.

We’ve all heard that proverb about being careful what you wish for. I got difficulty. I got life-shattering. I got life-rebuilding. I got a trajectory that would lead me back over and over again.

I find myself stopping and starting this. Go to Africa for a week, you can write a novel. Go to Africa for a month, you can write a short story. Go to Africa for a year, you can’t write anything.

After my return in 2007, I felt lonelier than I could have dreamed. I have one precious friend who had spent significant time in Africa, and who affirmed the natural-ness of my turmoil. I have another friend with roots in South Africa, who did the same. But I never wrote about it to anyone other than my journal. I didn’t know how to speak of the changes that I was seeing in myself and feeling in my physical body. Not a single day passed when I didn’t think about South Africa and the people I had met here. I remember sitting on a flight once with a group of people who were coming back from Malawi. They were all laughing and joking with one another, cheerful, upbeat. I listened to their chatter and wrote in my journal despairingly. What was wrong with me? Why was I so broken? Why couldn’t I let it be?

Before that first visit, I had been, if not a devout Christian, then at least a regular church-going one who believed in a kindly, interventionist God. When I came back, though, whatever faith I had had turned to ashes. I used to rail at God in my head as I drove to work: I defended you after 9/11, when everyone talked about how religion destroyed people. I stood up for you. And you let this happen? You let those barefoot kids in the township rummage through piles of trash? You let me come back to my stupid bathroom with eight bottles of shampoo and three kinds of soap when there are people who have none of that? How dare you let this happen? 

In her memoir Leaving Before the Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller writes “What did I know about the fifty-five (give or take) countries of Africa? I carried within me one deep personal thread of one small part of it, and it had changed and colored everything.”

I think the most important lesson that I learned here was that my own life in the U.S. was a choice: I could choose to forget the invisible privilege that came from my race, to ignore the things that had been done in the name of protecting women like me. I could choose to not pay attention to the brevity of life, to the certainty that our days are numbered. I could choose to sanitize death and close it off behind a clean white curtain. But South Africa, and then living through a school shooting, slapped sense into me. I couldn’t choose not to see any more. We are all teetering on the edge of the blade.

When I was deciding to come here for my sabbatical year, I lay awake at night worrying about money, my career, my pets. How could I walk away from my life in the U.S.? Was I making the biggest mistake of my life? Would I derail everything in order to have this pipe dream of really immersing myself in life here, and, at the risk of sounding utterly trite and naive, making a difference? In the end I decided that I had to come. Like H.D.T. had written, I did not want to wake up five years from now, ten years from now, wondering what I was doing and why I had not listened to that voice saying Go; living is so dear. At some point, I realized that in all my recriminations at God, I was never going to get an answer to “Why is it like this?” I could, however, get an answer to “What am I going to do about it?”

In another favorite book, The Secret History, the character Julian says “If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.” Here I am. Ready to look it in the face and be devoured, unstrung, reborn.