“I was born in Connecticut and grew up in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.”
That sentence, more than any other, is probably the one I’ve repeated most often in my adult life in response to those I’ve just met…as we meet and greet, and learn who we are and from whence we’ve come. All my life I’d had mixed feelings about that sentence. I was always proud to say I was born in Connecticut; my inner intellectual loved that I came from a quaint little New England town and spent my first four toddling years there, on a farm with my parents and baby sister. At the same time, I’d always felt a strange sense of distancing myself from the Gettysburg half of that sentence. It was a small, very white town. It was a tourist town. It was still suffering from racial problems. Thousands of people died there fighting for freedom and justice, and every Memorial Day I walked with my elementary school classmates among the graves of those fallen soldiers, spreading flowers for a ritual I barely understood while the adults looked on, knowing so much more than I did then.
My parents divorced there in Gettysburg, and my childhood was torn apart by it. My Battle of Gettysburg was more urgent and immediate to me as a little 8-year old (then, as a 9-, 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old) than any civil war I could then imagine. Their divorce upended my safety and security, and changed the course of my life in ways I’m only now beginning to understand.
But less than a week ago, everything about that sentence changed. Forever.
At first, that sentence is the only thing I can wrap my mind around after what happened. There is no way to wrap my mind around anything else. All I can see is that my sentence means something radically different now than it did before December 14, 2012.
I was born in Willimantic, Connecticut, about an hour and half drive from Newtown. I was born not far away in space, or even time, from something unspeakable. I found, early this week, that I leave the radio off, waiting to turn it on as soon as my young boys leave the house to go to school. I’ve never shielded them from the radio before. And when it comes on, and I hear the journalists at National Public Radio leading us through a darkness beyond all former ideas of what was possible, I sometimes cry with relief for their wisdom, their words, their humanity. On Saturday morning, I stood before dawn; head bent to Scott Simon’s somber voice, one son out with my husband at 6 o’clock that morning for the Christmas Bird Count, the other still fast asleep upstairs. How am I going to talk to them? Do I have to tell them? And Scott Simon saying something like, “As details emerge of yesterday’s shootings, some of us, many of us, will find them too much to bear.”
And I recognize in that moment, that he—and everyone touched by this and trying to walk through this somehow—are my family. We have all been leveled by Sandy Hook. And tears roll down my cheeks, and I remember how I’d lain awake that morning, trying to find some comparison, some measure of the unimaginable. It was a firing squad, a war zone brought deep and abrupt into the safest, cuddliest nest of love and support and community that I, or anyone, could imagine.
And my flailing mind comes back to my much easier to consider sentence, like it’s a grounding rod. I was born in Connecticut and grew up in Gettysburg. My dad told me a story recently about the time he took me and my sister when I was about 6 years old to Gettysburg College to do some research on the farm where we lived. It was an old farm house on 50 acres, with a barn. He soon discovered the barn had stood during the Civil War; that it had served as a hospital in the Battle. But, he tells me, that wasn’t the neat thing about this story. The memorable part was that when the librarian met with him, she, upon seeing me and my little sister, took us up to the archives with my dad, and led us into a quiet, darkly lit room. My dad tells me she whispered somewhat gleefully, maybe even conspiratorially to him, “Do you think they’d like to sit in Lincoln’s chair? It’s where he finished writing The Gettysburg Address.”
Perhaps in the barest, darkest crevasses of my mind, I can still touch the feeling of sitting in that chair—but it is so remote. There is a wisp of burnished wood, a hint of solemnity, a sense of grandeur surrounding the blank, clean polished wood at the desk upon which he worked. This loving, total stranger beckoned, and we two little girls sat on Lincoln’s lap, curled in with some of the most important and prophetic words ever written.
This story is new to me since my dad only recently told me about it. But there is another story from Gettysburg that settled deep inside me as I grew from child into adult; it was The High Watermark. Countless times I visited this very location—it is known also as “The Angle.” It is where Longstreet’s advance reached its culmination, where historians could look back and say “This was the turning point of the Civil War. This was as far as the Confederacy came.” My memories of this place are far crisper than Lincoln’s chair. I have an acute, almost visceral experience of being one with those soldiers—of seeing them coming towards the trees where I stood, of being both the Confederate and the Union men, of the anguish and brutality of their face-off, of being trapped in a time that would ask brother to fire into brother.
And I remember wondering, Did they know? Did they know their own turning point? Would they have felt just a little better if someone could whisper to them, This is over. It is ending. There will be no more war. We will fix this. Your brothers are safe. Cease your fire. Put down your guns. Go home to your mothers.
Something happened to us on December 14, 2012. Something more grim than we could ever have imagined. Ever. We live in a country whose freedoms have shielded us, insulated us, from some things it seems only “others” must confront. But with the long string of shootings and emerging statistics on violent American deaths relative to other industrialized nations, we see that we still have much to learn. And much to change.
But something else happened, too. The children became our children. Each tender little soul became urgently precious and irreplaceable to us in their mindboggling loss. The teachers suddenly were our own treasured mothers and sisters. We were not ready to say good-bye.
And though, truly, none of us can fathom the grief of their loved ones—they stand in a new, incomprehensible world—we are, all of us, standing with them.
On December 21, 2012, my husband and I will celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. I am amazed that we actually divorced each other, once, not so long ago. After what happened in Newtown, the idea of being divorced from my husband, the loving and generous father of my sons, is unthinkable. I’m not surprised when I learn that divorce rates plummeted after 9/11. Now I know why.
On December 21, 2012, we will see the end of the Mayan Calendar. It is regarded as the end date of a 5,125-year-long era, which will be ushered in by cataclysmic or transformative change. Many claim it will begin a new age on Earth marked by cohesion, love, harmony, peace, and amity across all the world’s people. Some believe it will be the end of the world.
On December 21, 2012, one week after losses too devastating for words, the world will light candles for 20 cherished children and six beloved adults, and perhaps even for one profoundly sick man and his mother. With those candles we will mark the end of an era.
We have all been leveled by Sandy Hook. Already, with our broken, broken hearts, world news of nine girls dying in a mine in Afghanistan, of a woman gang raped in India, of children attacked by knife in China, is sharper, more real, more urgent. It is coarse and abrasive and intolerable. Our hearts are broken… but they are also open in a way that we have never known before. We are compelled to stop this violence. We will never go back or forget; the particulars of this loss are too much, far too much.
The candles we light on December 21, 2012 will also light our embrace of one another, everywhere, as family. They already have. (see next page)
So remember, as you adopt whatever means of activism or change you decide upon—whether it is gun control, mental health support, baking cookies with your young children and holding them so very close, educating others about bullying, violence in society, or tools for compassionate action, or all of these and much more—you burn with the very same fierce light of resolve and love as those you may disagree with. Or who may disagree with you. Be gentle with them. Be vulnerable. Be willing to listen and ask questions. Find the fierce light you share: your common ground. Go from there.
We will fix this when we stop fighting with each other—that is violence—and start listening to one another, hearing one another out, reaching out to someone who might not have understood our love as we hurled grief-stricken information outwards in the immediate froth of our heartache. We will fix this when we ask science and reason to inform our cultural beliefs and mythologies. We will fix this when we try to wrap our hearts around those who have such intolerable pain and disease, give them the healing and support they need, and remove their potential for catastrophic violence. We will fix this when we open one another up with questions that connect us and show respect, rather than closing us down with suggestions or insinuations that I am right and you are wrong.
We will fix this when we see others as ourselves.
We will do this in remembrance of the children.
The end of the world as we know it is coming. It is the end of our separation, our historical and violent belief in “other.” When we, here, after 5,125 years of “us against them,” finally embrace one another as one human family, solutions will appear immediately: to gun violence, to health care, to mental illness, to war, to climate change, and to the long era of damage to the pale blue dot we share.
The unthinkable becomes America’s High Watermark and "we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."
This post is dedicated to those lost in Newtown and all their loved ones. It is also for my friend Roger and in memory of his beloved late wife Veronica. This post, in so many ways, was inspired by them.