On Saturday evening, less than an hour after sunset, I stood on my family’s porch and looked skyward. Stepping away from the glow of the kitchen, my body shivered against the cold and my eyes strained towards the darkness. Then, near the crescent moon in the west-southwest, it appeared: slower than a meteor, faster than a satellite, the International Space Station arced towards the eastern horizon. Although the station is rarely visible, at that moment anyone could plainly see its metal hull, reflecting the light of the sun. A clear example of the genius of the human imagination, I imagined its residents looking down, a dream returning my gaze.
Inside, the clink of plates signaled that dinner would soon be served. In my family, meals are usually filled with lightness and humor, but as the space station dipped behind a hill of pines, there was a palpable silence. Even as the conversation marched on, the unspoken became louder and louder.
We had all heard the news from Newtown, Connecticut. The images were as inescapable as the questions…Why it had to happen, why it had to happen at a school, why it had to happen in a classroom of six year-olds… I am sure we were each all grappling for answers, but we had also made the choice to turn the television and radio off, to stop checking our laptops and phones. The event was too horrible to invite in. Despite our best efforts, however, the questions were still present, each a silent dinner guest.
As they settled in, they shifted; if an answer or an explanation emerged, it soon changed shape, like mist. In the end, making sense of something this senseless may be as impossible as containing fog. Unless we breathe it in. And we can only hold our breath for so long.
A text from a friend came in on Friday night: “Want to go into the woods and pray?” It was clear what she was feeling. In those words were the desire to pull away, the need to draw nearer to a place that reminds us, lovingly, just how small we are. The words also held a greater gravity. How safe are we? How safe are our children? I pictured the hundreds of Newtown parents, each wrapped in a tourniquet of anguish and pulsing with fear as they rushed towards the chaos, hundreds of cars accelerating and swerving towards Sandy Hook Elementary. A half-mile from the school, when the traffic stopped, they abandoned their cars by the roadside, doors left swinging, and covered the rest of the distance on foot. Hundreds of footfalls echoed on pavement and frozen grass.
My own grief runs in the same direction. A nation’s pain is now threaded into the fabric of that small town. I want to take whatever love I have and send it gliding down the Champlain Valley, down the valley of the Hudson. I don’t need to know who receives it, just as long as it arrives.
And yet, just as forcefully as those parents ran to their children’s school, another part of me wants to sprint the other direction, to pull out entirely. I can feel the revulsion, I can feel what that part wants to run from–though I’m not sure in what direction it is headed. To a safer place? To home-school my child? To hide? A voice whispers “Anywhere but here…” I can’t imagine I’m the only one who hears it.
And yet public schools have always been the place where the complex, beautiful, and ugly work of democracy unfolds. They are the place where, nearly sixty years ago, we finally decided that equality requires being, and learning, together. They remain the last place where all of our communities, every group and every corner, arrives each morning and sets to work building our collective future. Public schools are our last remaining commons, before each of us disperse, before we get to choose who to share our lives with, and who to write off or cut out. They also may be the last place that can blow gently on the ember of pluralism–the idea that we can disagree with respect, care, curiosity, and grace. To run from that feels like the abandonment of the only hope we have–a hope we can only build together.
A tragedy of proportions that are impossible to imagine, then, may offer a chance to reinvest in what matters. Meanwhile, overhead, something otherworldly: a glowing arc, a feat of space-age engineering that was designed as a symbol of our shared humanity, across borders and despite differences. In this time of darkness, a glowing orbit reminds me of what really matters: the planet that we all share, and the first-graders who will inherit it, carry it, and–someday–share its fragile beauty with children of their own.