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Saturday night I attended a monthly open mic event called The Coffeehouse. It took place in the basement of a local church, which is also where our Tai Chi group meets. People came from far and wide to participate. I was there to tell stories for the first time since I came to Maine.
My partner came with me, and I knew two other people there from Tai Chi. Otherwise, everyone was a stranger. I sat quietly in a corner and watched the place gradually fill up. I could see many of these folks were old friends. In fact, during the course of the evening I learned that The Coffeehouse has been happening for more than 20 years in that very basement, hosted by the same man since the beginning. I heard stories, both on mic and off, of cancer, divorces, moves, jobs, remarriage and grandchildren.
Cases were opened and out came guitars of every description. Musicians sat together, teaching one another chords and fingering, and playing together. Ragged sheet music, song lyrics and notes lay on every table. In front of the mic, I heard about being a cafe musician, playing music for weddings, and stories from a couple who composes, writes and performs music together, splitting their time between Arizona and Maine.
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One man stood up and read a short story he’d written. Another gave a hilarious rendition of a Shel Silverstein poem I used to read aloud myself as an elementary school librarian. Yet another read one of his own poems in between playing his guitar. A woman performed on her autoharp.
Many of the performers expressed nervousness, but each was volubly supported by the audience. Jokes were cracked, stories exchanged. Everyone was applauded warmly, including me.
When it was my turn, I stood before them, my heart throbbing uncomfortably in my chest, looking out at a roomful of faces I’d never seen before. I introduced myself briefly and told a short peace tale from China, followed by a longer story from Jane Yolen. The audience was generous, attentive. The poignant memory of other, more familiar audiences in my old place caught at my throat. As I wove the stories, I looked from face to face, speaking directly to each one as though we were alone. Their expressions softened as they entered into the stories with me, seeing what I was seeing and feeling what I was feeling. I know my own face wore exactly that expression as I listened to their music and songs.
Each performer took his or her fifteen minutes or so to share their art. It was a long night. In fact, it started about the same time I like to be heading for bed. Yet that evening fed something in me that’s been starving for three years. I had a strange sense of coming home, of belonging and kinship.
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My partner and I talk a lot about community, how essential it is, how to create it, how to join it and how to support it. I believe, as humans, we must find some kind of community to meet our connection needs if we want to live well. We’re social animals, and I think we’re beginning to see the high cost of isolation and disconnection play out in suicide rates, violence and addiction.
The Coffeehouse clarified for me an aspect of community I haven’t really discerned before. Right now, the world is chaotic and increasingly complex. We’re faced with serious issues and changes we’re ill-equipped to deal with. I’ve been thinking about the local food movement, grassroots politics, permaculture, and alternative energy and housing through the lens of community. All of those issues are vitally important, and becoming more so by the day, but I’ve been skipping over the most important thing community can give us, the aspect that must be present, supported and nurtured before any kind of problem solving or effective organization can happen.
The Coffeehouse is, essentially, an adult playgroup. I heard nothing about diet, gun control, immigration, politics or climate change. I heard nothing about social justice or gender politics. We all shared the same bathroom, the same coffee and snacks. We all put a voluntary donation in the basket. Instruments were shared. We shared time, microphones, personal stories and creativity. There was no talk of cultural appropriation.
We laughed together.
We played together.
We were kind and generous with each other.
We took turns.
As I sat there watching it unfold, it occurred to me to wonder how we’re ever going to manage to address all the pressing problems in the world today if we can’t come together as human beings and play with one another first. How do we find our way to collaboration and cooperation unless we build trust and respect and are able to just have fun together? The Coffeehouse showed me humans at their best. Heck, I was at my best. In such a warm and supportive atmosphere, my social anxiety was not disabling. People talked to me, welcomed me, expressed appreciation for the stories and received my appreciation for their contribution in return. I recognized several who performed were more nervous than I was. None of us were hiding behind technological screens. There was no escaping a forgotten lyric, the wrong chord or symptoms of performance anxiety. One of the musicians talked ruefully about a new tremor in his hands that impeded his playing. We could all see it. He played anyway.
In the days since The Coffeehouse, I know I’ve found something I’ve been looking for since I came to Maine. I thought I just wanted a place to share stories again, and I do, but this gathering is about something much bigger than that. This is about mutual authenticity, creativity, contribution and play. It’s about friends. It’s about celebration and connection in the midst of a dark and stormy time.
I can hardly wait for the next one.
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Sometimes being a writer is a pain in the ass.
I had several ideas for this week’s post, but when it came down to it all I produced was something I didn’t want to think about, remember or write about at all. I tried to stop and go back to one of my original ideas, but no matter where I went I ended up in the same place.
I’m old enough to know it’s much easier to ride the horse in the direction it’s going, so I’m writing the damn thing, but I want you to know I’m resentful about it.
Two seeds contributed to this piece. The first is that my partner will be attending his fiftieth high school reunion this summer, and deciding whether or not to accompany him has been a thing for me.
The second seed is the latest (as of this writing) school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, and the story about the girl (who was killed) who allegedly rejected the shooter and how that may or may not have been part of the motive.
I don’t know what happened between these two young people, of course. I certainly don’t believe everything I read. Perhaps the shooter was bullied. Perhaps he wasn’t. Maybe the girl simply said no, and some people interpret that as bullying. Maybe he refused to take no for an answer and the girl was trying to get the message across with ever-increasing force. I’ve been in a position like that myself. I don’t know, and for the purposes of this post it doesn’t matter.
I think we all can agree we have a problem with school shootings in this country, even if we don’t agree on causes and solutions. I also believe the data gathering, debate and problem solving around this issue is extremely important. Along with everybody else, I have my own opinions about how we got here and what we might do about it, but my opinion isn’t part of this post, either.
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The reason I’m writing about it (the shooting, one of the alleged triggers for the shooting, and the entire problem of school violence) at all is because of the way it makes me feel.
Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.
These are the same feelings I’ve had about the entirely trivial decision about whether or not to attend my partner’s high school reunion.
My days in high school were a black time I’ve worked hard to forget. I led a strangely reversed life then, like a photographic negative. My real life was the volunteer fire and rescue work I was doing, my family (including many animals) and reading, the frame around the central core of school. The fire and rescue work often took place at night, of course, and I well remember the fellowship, the macabre hilarity, the practical jokes, and the heartbreak, terror and death we saw on the highway. There were impromptu middle-of-the-night meals at Denny’s after delivering a patient to the hospital, when we were stinking of gasoline and had glass splinters in the knees of our jeans. I was the baby, the youngest, but I was trained and certified and did everything I could to pull my weight.
It was the first time I ever felt I belonged anywhere, or was of any use to the world.
School days, by contrast, were endless bleak hours of clocks, bells, the metallic slam of lockers, figuring out what was necessary in order to maintain straight A’s (which thankfully did not involve much attendance in most cases), and fatigue.
I can’t remember eating a single school lunch in either junior high or high school. Isn’t that strange? I must have, but I have no memory of doing so, or of the cafeterias. What I do remember is the high school library, where there were rows of study carrels — remember those? They were 3-sided square boxes on the desks so that each student was cut off and private, in his or her own little undistracted and unobserved space. I had one particular favorite, the farthest away from the librarian and activity, out of sight, out of mind. It was where I slept. I wore an old hand-me-down men’s quilted navy blue coat that I cherished, and I wadded part of it up as a pillow, pulled the rest over my head and slept for long stretches through lunch and classes.
I was (and am) very organized. I knew what my teachers expected. I always showed up for tests and did all my homework. Papers and projects were planned and completed well before they were due. I did all the reading, homework and classwork. If extra credit work was available, I did that. When I could take AP classes, I did. I never ditched AP English, which I loved. I also went to Latin, another favorite. German was fun, too. I was never any kind of a problem, in class or out of it. Most of the time, I was numb with boredom.
I wished only to remain invisible and maintain a 4.0 grade average. The invisibility was for myself. The grade average was because it was expected of me, and it was easier to just do it than to rebel. Also, I wanted to be finished with school as soon as possible, and the quickest way out was to pass all my classes.
Most of the teachers and all of the students were alien species. I moved among them like a ghost, a wisp of fog. I hardly opened my mouth. I occasionally raised my hand in class for the teachers who required participation for an A, but I’d learned in grade school not to volunteer too many answers, even if I did know them. I dawdled over my tests so as not to be the first one finished. I took pains to keep most of the teachers at a distance so as not to be identified as a “teacher’s pet,” another lesson from grade school.
I was never bullied, though I saw and heard bullying every day. I was adept at blending in and attracting no attention, positive or negative. I didn’t hate the other kids. I didn’t think much about them at all. I didn’t hate the teachers. I even respected a couple of them. I was angry all the time, but it wasn’t focused on anyone in particular, and I only recognize it in retrospect. I didn’t blame the teachers, the kids or my parents for the hell I was in. It never occurred to me there was any other option. Everyone had to go to school, period. My parents were busy people with lives of their own. There wasn’t anything they could have done and I saw no point in whining and complaining.
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The school day was bracketed by a 40-minute bus ride morning and evening, and I did my homework on the bus, which effectively shut out the noisy horseplay, teasing and other socialization happening on it. I always chose a window seat somewhere in the middle and immediately set to work, never looking up from my notebook and books even if someone sat down next to me. If I had no homework, I read.
When I was a senior I finally learned to drive, somewhat unwillingly. I’d seen too much trauma on the highway by then to be enamored of driving. In the end, though, I learned and sometimes I drove our old Chevy truck to and from school, a battered tank of a thing that could cope with any kind of weather and wouldn’t crumple like a tin can at the slightest bump or ding. It was a faded brick red. If I had the truck, I abandoned the library and stretched out on the seat to sleep after parking on a quiet side street, cracking the windows and locking the doors. It felt very safe.
I do remember, as a great treat to myself, buying lunch in town when I had the truck, either at McDonald’s or a little health food store that made wonderful egg salad sandwiches.
Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.
I remember one student I graduated with. One. I think I remember him because he was also a friend of my brother’s, who was a year behind me, and he was on the summer swim team with me. He was in my AP classes and became a scientist. He wasn’t a friend. He’s just the only one I remember.
On the other hand, I remember the fire station very well, and the rescue barn. I remember the smell of exhaust from the ambulances and big trucks. I remember the little offices where the phone and radio sat on the counter. I remember the meetings, the folding chairs, the scarred tables and the pancake breakfasts. I remember the battered coffee urns and the stained sinks, the water fights, the endless and hilarious practical jokes, the laughter, the weekly meals at the local diner, the parties, the trainings and the people. I later married two of the men I volunteered with in those days (not at the same time, of course!) I remember running up and down ladders for training, the impossible weight of portable water pumps (we called them Indian pumps) for fighting brush fires, the eerie sight of burning trees crowning in a blossom of flame against a dark sky and watching a house burn to the ground. I remember the sour smell of cooling “hot spots” after a brush fire. I remember the live feeling and weight of a charged firehose, enough to knock me over, and the way it peeled the shirt off you during a water fight.
For this treasured, meaningful part of my life, though, there was no acknowledgment. Rather the reverse. It wasn’t quite nice, a teenage girl running around with a bunch of older boys and rowdy, often bawdy volunteers, never mind that I took First Aid, CPR, EMT and IV training and loved it all. It also meant I occasionally showed up in the company of the police at wild parties where someone got hurt or overdosed, which did not endear me to my high school peers. Not to mention that the first dead body I ever saw happened to be one of my schoolmates. I’ll never forget the broken-doll look of him as he lay on the highway, broken glass glittering in his hair under the emergency lights. The only reason it was possible for me to do that work was that my mother did it too. She was quite a good paramedic, in fact.
My experience with high school took place in the late 70s and early 80s. We had a completely open campus. Certainly, things are different now in terms of security, at least. I wonder, though, how many kids are sitting in public schools across the country this very minute who are largely unseen, unheard and simply trying to survive.
Every time a shooting happens we get hours and hours of interviews, social media posts and videos of parents, teachers and students and their perceptions of the perpetrators, and I always wonder — did anyone, does anyone, can anyone really know their student, brother, son, teammate or classmate? How well does a high-school-age kid know him or herself? How much perspective can they have, how much experience in the amazing ways life can change over time? What has been their experience of connection with themselves and others? What is the level of their willingness and ability to communicate? Have they ever, in their whole lives, been given a reason to believe asking for help or telling the truth is useful, rather than making everything much, much worse?
My family cared about me. I remember going to counseling once or twice, both in school and out of it. Do you know what happens to kids who get in-school counseling? They get pulled out of class, right in front of God and everyone. Every single student and teacher in that class knows where they’re going. Not exactly a help when you’re trying to remain invisible. Also, the counselors are just as worn-out and frayed as all the other adults in a school, with an endless array of troubled kids, emergencies, difficult or distraught parents, and they’re trying to support the teachers as well. I was ashamed to be part of their burden and take up any of their time.
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We say some of these at-risk kids who become shooters are identified and “in the system,” and I think many components of “the system” have an honest desire to make a positive difference and work usefully with young people. That doesn’t mean the young person is able to avail him or herself of the support, though. I trusted no one at that point in my life. I wouldn’t have ever told the truth about my private thoughts and feelings. I’d already learned the danger of rocking boats, and I also knew I was privileged because I was smart, we were comparatively wealthy and I had a family that loved me. I had nothing to complain about, and I didn’t. Nothing would have induced me to shame my parents and my extremely intelligent, talented and much more normal and attractive younger brother.
Now, thirty years later, kids are dying, and teachers, and school staff, as well as an occasional parent. We’re trying to understand. Some are trying to find someone to blame, as though that fixes things. But the parents of the shooters aren’t killing these kids. Neither are teachers or security personnel. Bullies and peers aren’t killing these kids. “The system” isn’t killing them, either, or the NRA. The one who pulls the trigger is the killer. I think it’s important to be clear about who’s ultimately responsible. The question is, what came before the trigger was pulled? What are all the intricacies and complexities leading to that moment of choice, and how do we begin to explore that terrain without the input of the shooter, who might or might not survive, and if alive, might or might not tell? If we can ever fully understand, how do we make changes in the roots of parenting, emotional intelligence (or lack thereof), public education (so-called), and our culture’s broken sense of connection and ability to be authentic?
If my school records could be magically produced, what would they show? Straight A’s. Honors student. Maybe a counseling note or two: Isolated, frequent absences, no behavior problems, no sign of abuse or cutting, not a danger to self or others,
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People, that’s a paper doll, not a person. I’m smarter than most people I know. If I’d been a danger to self or others (and I was a certainly actively suicidal), do you think I’d have told anyone? Come on. I know we have social media now, but how much of what shows up on a teen’s social media is Truth? Teens compete, exaggerate, dramatize and make stuff up, just like the rest of us. Often there are clues, but they’re a lot easier to see after the fact, and that’s not much help, is it? It takes years to develop self-knowledge and insight, even if we’re willing to.
Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.
I’m a parent. When my two sons were teenagers, I worked at the same school they attended. It was a small school and I knew every student, every staff member and most of the parents. I had a whole reality in my head about who my kids were and how they were doing. I loved them with my whole heart. I absolutely trusted them. I frequently knew when they were ditching school, smoking weed or leaving the house in the middle of the night. I didn’t bail them out of consequences or micromanage them. I was a single mom, working desperately hard to keep us afloat and trying to deal with my own experience.
I knew I wasn’t okay, but I wanted to believe they were. I was doing the best I could, loving them as hard as I could and making sure they knew it.
They did know it, just like they knew I wasn’t okay. They weren’t okay, either, but they knew I was doing my best, they didn’t want to burden me and they didn’t really know what they needed for things to get better anyway. Exactly the same position I’d been in two decades earlier.
The truth is, given the right circumstances, either of my boys could have been victims — or shooters. So, in fact, could I. That’s a hard thing to believe and a harder thing to write, but it’s true. Every single one of us has a snapping point, whether we admit it or not. High school can be a place of prison and torture, a place of no hope, an infinite incarceration, a daily experience of humiliation or fear. It can be a nihilistic experience, a daily exercise in powerlessness, in making oneself small, in concealment, in survival.
Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.
And then there’s the other side of high school. Some amazing people in every class go to endless work and trouble to keep track of their classmates and plan and organize class reunions. For someone like me, this is both astounding and appalling. When my partner told me about his reunion this summer and asked me to come with him, it took me a minute to understand he was serious. Sure, and then can we go get our legs chopped off with a dull blade? Please, oh please?
But I know many people have great memories of clubs and sports teams, teachers and classes, proms and homecomings. My partner has lifelong friendships from high school. Imagine it, 50-year-old friendships! I met my closest friend when I was 30. What would it be like to have that kind of history with another person, that kind of intimacy? What would it be like to know someone liked you enough to be friends with you for 50 years?
Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.
High school. Guns and reunions. Looking for quick, inexpensive, politically attractive fixes. Heated debates. Demonstrations and walk-outs. Active shooter drills for schools and law enforcement and mass trauma drills for hospitals. Blameshifting, fear, mistrust, profiling. Blood, vigils, funerals and graves. Bullying, mental illness and lasting trauma. Lost kids. Disconnected kids. Dead kids.
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The cacophony of debate, press conferences, social media, opinions, interviews, political maneuvering, nonstop news feeds and raw videos goes on and on, and somewhere in the center of the maelstrom is the core of the problem — the young people who shoot, who die and who witness. Some of them have been swept into the hurricane, but I wonder how many are simply sheltering in place, trying to survive another bewildering, hopeless, pointless day of tech, teachers, rules, grades and peers. I know they’re there, because I was one. They could tell us a lot about futility, despair and disconnection. They’re keeping painful secrets. Are we willing to hear their truth? Do we deserve their trust? Do we have time or energy for them? Can we change anything for the better? Or would we tell them to get over it, that everyone has to do things they don’t want to do, that high school will be over one day? Do we paste a neat label on them and write a prescription? Do we insert them into a “system,” because that’s the best we have, and turn away to deal with our own jobs, responsibilities, stresses, scar tissue, labels and prescriptions?
I’m back where I started.
Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.
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