My daughter crinkles paper, blows
on the tree to make it live, festoons
herself with silver.
So far she has no use for gifts.
What can I give her,
what armor, invincible
sword or magic trick, when that year comes?
How can I teach her
some way of being human
that won’t destroy her?
I would like to tell her, Love
is enough. I would like to say,
Find shelter in another skin.
I would like to say, Dance
and be happy. Instead I will say
in my crone’s voice, Be
ruthless when you have to, tell
the truth when you can,
when you can see it.
Iron talismans, and ugly, but
more loyal than mirrors.
from “Solstice Poem”, Margaret Atwood
On the radio this morning, the hushed voices of NPR reporters break the news that the largest mass shooting the country has ever seen happened overnight. The details are still sparse, but I wait for the body count. In the back seat, Baba babbles about the birds she heard singing, while I wonder what new words she’ll pick up from the radio this time.
After the barest details turn into empty radio filler, I turn down the volume. There is time later to obsess about the increasingly competitive rampages of men with guns who want to die over and over again on the front page of every newspaper. And we fall into the trap, as we must, feting the murders on every radio station and in every newspaper in terse and gently probing tones. The President issues a speech that manages not to insult anyone. On social media, the cringey and meaningless posts about thoughts and prayers are echoed over and over.
We are helpless. We are hopeless. But yet, we want to be seen having compassion for people we would not know walking down the street, because the situation is so terrible that we must be observed to publicly mourn to protect our decency. And so we perform our grief, but it feels false. How can you have grief left to give to strangers, when we’ve done this show so many times?
This season, it doesn’t even have an intermission. Hurricane, hurricane, horror, hurricane, slow response, mass shooting, horror.
Later in the day, Tom Petty dies, because how could such a well-loved American artist live out this terrible day? Although we know by now that it is simply not safe to go to work or ride a train or dance in a night club, music had been safe. If you weren’t French. Now, thanks to yet another white man with far more guns than anyone should ever own, that too has been defiled. Even Tom Petty’s death is ruined, because our thoughts and prayers are already taken.
Tomorrow, his record sales are sure to spike, because that is what happens every time. And we will do nothing else. Nothing and nothing and nothing.
About a month ago, I told Baba that it was time to leave to go to school.
She says, “No, Mama. I no go school. I have to murder my tiger.”
“You have to what?” I ask, as I walk into the living room, where I find her holding a long piece of plastic across the throat of a stuffed Disney-shaped lion that we have yet to identify.
“Ehm,” I say.
“Ehm,” I say a little louder.
Baba interrupts her sawing and looks up with curiosity on her sweet and feral face.
“You seem to be murdering,” I say, in what must the epitome of good parenting.
“Yes, Mama,” she says happily. “See, I murder my tiger! Like this! You want murder my tiger too?”
“No, baby. Murder is not nice.”
“Murder is not nic-CEEEEEE?” she asks, cocking her head with an overdone smile that usually makes me laugh.
“No love, murder is not nice. Tell your tiger that you’re sorry, honey. Then we need to go.”
We have a madness that we cannot seem to shake off. Already the old conversation about gun control has started. I think more about personal risk. I don’t worry for myself, because I have walked through high-risk halls on my way to work so many years that I long ago accepted the chance that some violent man will take my life. After all, I ride trains. And, in 2017, we all know that bombs and trains go along very well.
Hopefully not my one, but you never know.
But no parent considers sending their child to school without also imagining the day when that decision became deadly. Because you never know.
And this is the world that I must explain to Baba. Now she is so young that her innocence about the world constantly surprises me.
One day she took down our Bernie Sanders card from the bathroom mirror and said, “Who dat?”
“That’s Bernie Sanders, love. He reminds us to look out for one another.”
“Who Ernie Sandbars?”
I thought a while about how to explain it. “He’s a man who wants to make sure that everyone can go to the doctor if they get sick,” I said.
“Why you no can go doctor?” she asked.
“Well…” I said, at a loss for words.
What a world I have to give you, my Baba, my innocent and feral child. And that is my deepest grief. All I can arm you with are the words and poems of the fighters and the heroes and hope that you stay as courageous
as you were born.
And do better, child. Do better than me.