Creativity and joy have been put on hold for a while now because of a certain sense of grief. Senseless tragedy happens daily, and perhaps “senseless” is a relative term, but bad things which fill news headlines continue to fill our collective psyche and burrow deep into the piece of my consciousness which is supposed to unquestioningly earn money and push my DNA onward in this world. The fittest may survive, but they are not always fit enough to relate to the outside world in a neat and rational way. And then there is the question of the evolutionary function of honor.
Because the tragedies which most fill my mind these days are the headline-grabbing mass shootings in Las Vegas and in Sutherland Springs, events at which people were going about their business only to feel the prick of bullets in their arms and abdomens, where the crack of gunfire came with none of the explanation that we receive in tidy breaking news bulletins, where husbands laid over wives and absorbed bullets, where strangers ran back towards the shots to drag the wounded out of harm’s way. This is an impulse which does not fit into our absolute theories and scientific morality, an action which does not fit neatly into the agnostic collective conscious which demands legal recourse as consolation for inexplicable body counts.
This is not the first time that tangible grief has interrupted a brooding reverie, where my own overactive mind was falling down the chute of despair while my situational reality was relatively good. Consider the high relief of waking up in a plush bed in Colorado, feeling somewhat sorry for myself about the ways I’d missed out on or messed up every romantic relationship that’s ever come my way and unlocking my phone while the alarm clock rang, only to find mentions of a “tragedy in Vegas” amidst the angry posts saying “thoughts and prayers don’t work” and the usual irreverent collection of memes and curated lifestyle imagery. A lingering virus had wrapped its tentacles around my energy level and my mood, and I woke up groggy from my first time sleeping consecutive nights in the same real bed in weeks. I squinted at the bright LCD screen while Hank groaned and yawned and I read about the hail of bullets that rained down on a crowd of Sunday night concertgoers. These were people who were probably better at living happily in the moment than me, people who did not make a distinction between “real country” and “pop country” because they had no desire to create an invisible barrier of intellect and taste in their fragile senses of self. And now, their fragile selves had bled out slowly or quickly, with no understanding of what had hit them or why. Two months later, all of us are still left with no understanding of why this happened, for there was no clear ideological enemy to blame, no creed or even obvious domestic dispute to blame for the horror.
While drafting these thoughts, I was asked what I was writing about by someone in the coffee shop, and I was forced to pause and contort my face. “The recent mass shootings,” I answered, and some of the air was sucked out of the high-ceilinged café space. Indeed, reminders of such happenings after the accepted mourning period has passed are a bit of a social taboo. And at times I find that much of my writing and even conversation topics are the same way. Nobody wants to be reminded that there are blurry fringes to our moral resolve and our scientific understanding, that the concepts of infinity and eternity and oblivion are so tenuous that too much pondering can cause a migraine or worse. And yet, I was made, or birthed, or otherwise descended, in such a way that it is all I can think about. I cannot pursue a simple pleasure without thinking of the root cause of that impulse, and I cannot think about the root cause without wondering at the billions of other people who have similar or different impulses and how we’ll never really be able to discuss them. I will still change the radio station when Jason Aldean comes on, but not before the searing pain of inexplicable loss flashes through my psyche and haunts the rest of the day, at least until I can lose myself for a moment or two in a more straightforward occupation. I would like to be writing about Alaska, I wish I were having productive thoughts about what sort of narrative I could string together into a book that a few of you may even buy. But that is not what I’m doing.
I am so vividly disturbed by these happenings not because of the weapons or the inability to reason with God or Reason, but because I have felt that moment when the entirety of life and my own frail inability to process and live it has drained away too soon, when I wished so desperately to keep my eyes open and do one thing or everything differently, and yet no willpower or breathing exercise helped me. I felt the heavy darkness of unconsciousness flood over my mind and body while my soul went blank. There was no assuaging light or warm wave of eternal promise. There was no sense of accomplishment or serenity. Just unpaid toll bills and cycling acquaintances and firefighters and a girlfriend I didn’t deserve all swirling helplessly around me as it faded to black. I woke up later staring at an ambulance ceiling, but I had already processed what not waking up felt like, and it was not good.
Perhaps I did not see the heavens because I was not medically dead but simply unconscious from shock, but that fadeout was far more sinister than any other I’ve experienced, far more gripping and final than a casual concussive blow or lightheaded slink to the floor. And it was unreasonable and unexpected, the result of a careless driver swerving into the bike lane and slamming on the brakes and hooking a U-turn, all while I felt my normal daily routine going painfully south at twenty-five miles per hour. I imagine these people, resolutely brave in their faith or horrified at how rapidly they lost their tenuously balanced worldview, and I feel blank and stoic. I should not be laughing at that comedic television show, I should not be fruitlessly pursuing romance, I should not be toiling over which car is fractionally better for me to buy. Not when that happened.
* * *
I find beauty and hope in the individual and collective human ability to defy the odds. I am also radically overwhelmed by it. Isn’t our existence a miracle that should be revered? Aren’t we preposterously fleeting? Should we take things less seriously? Is it possible to take things seriously enough?
I think about standing blankly on the shores of the Arctic Ocean or dizzily atop a high and relatively unknown pass inside of Banff National Park, moments which made my existence feel temporarily understandable, when I could simultaneously grieve all that was and believe in all that is yet to be. There was no sense that I was disappointing people who it is not my business to disappoint or not, no fear that I was sinning against my vague ethics which ebb and flow with along with waves of nihilism, no desire for pleasures of the flesh or comforts of the same. I remember stepping over bear scat north of the Arctic Circle and feeling my human existence come into razor-sharp focus, filled with a visceral fear that we are lacking in modern society, which makes tragedies come as a blindsiding surprise and not simply a consequence of existing. Being eaten by a bear in the bush is an almost-expected consequence of living that life; being hit by a bus while walking to work is an unconscionable accident, an affront on a life we are entitled to live.
I contrast this clarity with the moments of muddled confusion that have followed. Moments in which back-to-back shootings forced me to grapple with the human instinct to grieve, moments in which another empty conversation of societal muckity-mucking made me feel alone and unknown in a room full of people, moments of sitting still in the too-familiar confines of my childhood home, feeling too exhausted by my soul’s desires warring with society’s expectations to do anything at all. Every time I consider conformity for want of better options, I am energized by the slightest reminder of one person’s appreciative words to me or another’s encouragement while I openly admitted temporary defeat. And then it all starts again.
Sometimes, our desire to grieve is hazy until it is given an acute reason to let tears flow shamelessly, to let irreconcilable pain have its place in our lives. Sometimes, we need to feel a hurt so much worse than our own that we can return to the truths we hold dear and begin overcoming the not-insurmountable hurdles that prevent us from doing the things which matter. I can offer no doctrinal truth, no theological wisdom in uncertain times. I am no prophet nor sage, merely a person whose capacity and propensity for melodramatic anguish is somewhat above average and who also knows the fleeting, soaring highs that come from knowing such deep lows. I am willing to lay bare my life and sacrifice potential popularity for the sake of a single meaningful conversation or impactful paragraph. I am all too eager to obsess over the piquant hurt of a hurting world, to dwell on the loss of strangers long after the world has mastered moving on, to profoundly love people in theory who I will never be able to love in practice.
At times, I am all too aware that my own nature prevents me from being happier in the simplest sense of the word, and yet there is nothing I can do to change that fact. I have been reluctant to write because of the horror in this world, and desperate to write about it, and enveloped in far too much overcomplicated thought about tragedy and to-do lists and the way sharing myself in word alters my earnest relationships with the people I know to finally load myself into my car and drive the four hours to Sutherland Springs, to stand and face the all-too-plain scene where this scene in our collective history unfolded. I feel shackled by a perverse duty to the complications of the world to do the more straightforward task of living in it. Laundry remains unfolded, texts go unanswered, progress is not made. People find me exasperating, or utterly relatable, and either reaction is not quite right.
* * *
On Friday night, I attended a concert at Billy Bob’s Texas (The World’s Largest Honky Tonk), where I felt an immediate kinship to all the showgoers and two-steppers, where one can drink a Shiner and be ribbed by perfect strangers and listen to plaintive tunes and grow misty-eyed among grown men and strong women. I recognized the more-than-passing similarity of this crowd to the one ambushed in Las Vegas and I admired their absolute commitment to enjoying the evening. Men with no-nonsense demeanors led their partners around their dancefloor in an intoxicating combination of skill, mindlessness, and candor. They have no shame to knowing every move to the Footloose line dance, nor a sense of morbidity at being gathered in a large crowd of country music fans in an uncertain world. There is no creepy subtext to elderly men rhythmically twirling gorgeous young girls around the hardwood, no irony to the bedazzled blue jeans and stiff Stetson hats that fill the room. I was approached by a pair of true cowboys who set me up to dance with their nineteen-year-old sister who promptly embarrassed me and discovered my two left hiking-shoe-laden feet. I wished desperately that I’d spent more of my life dancing and less of it being too serious to learn how to dance.
In a room such as this, there is an earnest certainty to individual convictions and a plainspoken honesty to personal confusion. “I don’t understand things like that,” is a profound truth which does not require hours of verbal gymnastics, and it invokes an exchange I had recently in West, Texas, the scene of the horrifying 2013 fertilizer factory explosion which killed fifteen, injured over one hundred and sixty, and permanently altered the small central Texas community.
* * *
I was checking out at the lesser-known of the two Czech bakeries which straddle I-35, both of which were packed on the Sunday leading up to Thanksgiving week. I was buying two strawberry cream cheese kolaches and letting Hank out for a run in the bakery-gas station-convenience store’s dog park, and when it was my turn to pay, the cashier greeted me by name (because it was written on my order ticket, not because I am on a first-name-basis with the denizens of West) and told me that I could now swipe my card.
“When the screen goes blank, that means it’s thinkin’ real hard,” she said.
“Oh man, I know the feeling.”
“I do, too. You know? Sometimes I think hard on something all day and I still don’t make any sense of it.”
“That pretty much always happens to me.” The card reader chimed and said my meager payment of $2.77 was approved. “I’m jealous of this machine! It always has an answer.”
“I heard that, John. You have a wonderful Sunday.”
These interactions are woven into the fabric of life in Texas. There is a laconic wisdom, a certain way in which everyone hides behind their accents lest they betray their rich inner workings. And these rich inner workings may be struggling as much with the senseless world as I am, though they have better poker faces and stronger accents and more skill at appreciating life at face value. Or they may not see the connection between seemingly disjointed events which share little more than the presence of ammunition or the lack of explanation.
They may not visit Mount Carmel, the site of the Branch Davidian siege and massacre, as a sort of proxy for the further-away Sutherland Springs which remains unvisited. They may not imagine in great detail what it must have felt like to be trapped, by the ATF or an unstable lone wolf, to bleed out and look into an old friend’s eyes with a certain conviction that heaven was waiting. And yet, they are probably better prepared for such moments than I am. Heaven may feel more real to them, they will laugh louder and more often, they will appear better adjusted and will certainly respond more favorably to social cues. They are sure that their friends are good, that they are not simply acting good for personal gain.
There may be no difference. But I will most definitely dwell on it for all my days.