Once a month most months,I make the roundtrip drive from Westminster West,Vermont to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York (where I spend a week with my 97-year-old mother, Charlotte Zolotow). Leave Vermont, cross Massachusetts, cross Connecticut, reach New York. And then reverse it. Exit after exit, I read the names of the towns and have my semi-mindless associations with them. Chappaqua, New York; Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have a home there; Pleasantville, New York, my late Aunt Dot's late long-time companion, Jim, who had a home there; Elmsford, New York; that Persian restaurant I like.
Last Thursday, December 13, 2012, I was coming up 84 to Hartford, had almost reached the point in the tangle of lanes where I knew I needed to get to the right to pick up 91 North. Had passed the Connecticut exits with their associations: Waterbury, where I once got fuel, drove off without removing my wallet from where it was resting on the car, and, miraculously, someone turned it in to the local police and I was able to pick it up intact from them. Newtown; I once stopped at an "easy-on easy-off" diner there late at night and had some really not-good lemon meringue pie. Meriden; that's where Ken, who I dated briefly, used to live.
Usually I drive our late model Subaru Forester, but occasionally I drive the crap car: a 2001 Dodge Neon, so low-end that it actually has roll-up (with a crank) windows. I was driving the crap car on Thursday.
It was almost rush-hour as I approached Hartford, a time/place continuum I try hard to avoid on this commute. There was more traffic than I prefer, but I'd still be on the other side of Hartford before it hit full spate. I changed lanes to position myself for the split to 91 North, braking slightly.
I considered for maybe 3 seconds trying to pull off on the nearest ramp and get to a service station. Then in far less time than it takes to write this account, I ran through the impossible odds of being able to end up at a service station without hitting anyone or anything, off an unknown exit, near rush hour, in downtown Hartford. I realized, "NO."
I was in the right lane. I pulled off onto the shoulder --- narrow, but wide enough --- and glided to a stop. Safely.
I put on the flashers. I called David. I called AAA. I got right through to Roadside Assistance; they took my position seriously. "We're putting you on the top of the list."I called another friend. I sat in my car and waited for the tow-truck. I was not yet shaking at my close call, though the car shook with each 18-wheeler that passed. I was relatively still, against the loud white noise of the non-stop traffic stream. I simply couldn't believe I was fine. Alive, unhurt, had not hurt anyone else, had not even dented the crap car. And I was overwhelmed by gratitude and amazement.
The rest of the story --- how I got home, the nice guys at Cameron's Auto Service, David picking up the repaired crap car --- does not really matter.
What matters is, there I was, swimming --- that day and the next --- in astonished gratitude that my life had been spared in Hartford, Connecticut, when I heard the news of the massacre in Newtown. Many other lives, twenty of them the lives of six- and seven-year-olds, had not been spared.
I can make no sense of any of this, on any level. While Rilke advises us to "be patient towards all that is unanswered in your heart, and learn to love the questions themselves," there are some questions, the most profound and fundamental "why" questions, which are simply not lovable and towards which we cannot and perhaps should not and must not be patient.
On one level, the "why" in the case of this slaughter must be addressed. Guns, and the culture of violence so prevalent and glorified in America. Guns and their licensing, or lack of same: I just don't GET why you have to take a test (not only written but in an actual vehicle, with a policeman no less), to get a drivers license; then document, tag and title, at each and every point of sale for a car, which is a transportation machine (though it can certainly kill you) but not for a gun, which is a killing machine (though it cannot transport you anywhere, except, possibly, to the next world). Mental health care, and access to it. Causal factors in mental health, including funding cuts not only to clinics and veteran's hospitals, but to programs like Head Start; nutrition and the prevalence of fast food and its effects on mental and emotional state, violence and abuse in the home, and education.
Lord knows these "whys" are complex enough, and faceted, and interrelated. That's the great lesson of ecology: everything affects everything else. As conservationist John Muir famously said, "Pull any thread in nature and the whole unravels." Humans are part of nature. Pull the thread of a human action, sacred or profane, horrific or heroic, and our understanding begins to unravel, deepen, and grow forever more unanswerably perplexing... and "there but for fortune go I."
But even if we could address these sorts of "whys" in the case of this massacre, even if we could alter the legislative and behavioral factors that led to Newtown --- which will now forever bear the crosses of the murdered innocents, which will now forever twist the hearts of even those who casually pass the green and white sign announcing its exit off 84 --- the bigger why remains.
Why are some saved and some lost?
I just don't get how our wonderful, gorgeous, one and only world can be so chockablock with hate, evil, ignorance, violence. But, how can anyone get it? It is ungettable.
That being so, what do we do with such events?
Permeable, responsive on a practical level whenever and however we can... and yet "immunized emotionally" to the extent that we don't wholly lose our equipoise no matter what.
And when we lose it, as we will, as we must, as we should, in response to things like the deaths at Sandy Hook... Well, I used to have a yoga teacher who would say, on the tricky balance poses as half the class was falling over, "Let your coming and out of the pose be part of the pose."
Not blocking out the world; yet neither so losing ourselves in its infinite painful and horrific 24/7 news cycle, the endless stories, both new and repeated, that we are flattened and incapacitated.
Not easy. But the alternatives (being flattened by pain or hardening one's heart to it, becoming impermeable) are worse.
My own brush with mortality the day before filled me with gratitude; the news of the innocents' deaths, so nearby, the following day, with heaviness, despair. Yet in one sense both tell the same story: that our lives are on loan to us, and may be recalled at any time. That the veil between life and death may be opaque, but is paper-thin. That, in the end, we must make our lives worthy of the privilege of having been given this precious loan. That we must stay permeable and balanced, the better to do whatever work has our name on it. That this work should be generous --- as generous as the giver of that mysterious gift of our individual loaned lives as been to us.
And the 'what does one do with such events' question takes on another dimension if we are writers. We must write about this, however imperfectly and inadequately. We must try to speak the unspeakble.
It is the tiniest of ways we can not let those small bright lives have been wasted.
This poem comes from Wislawa Syzmborska's book View With a Grain of Sand, translated Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1996)
It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you. You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny. You were in luck -- there was a forest.
You were in luck -- there were no trees.
You were in luck -- a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . . So you're here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn't be more shocked or
how your heart pounds inside me.