It is not THIS house, but in my dreaming, it is a place where I’ve been living for a long, long time. And it is empty, except for a few random rags, some paper, a damaged box or two. There are gleaming blonde wood floors, white walls, low, slanted ceilings.
I do not know what’s going on. Where is my son? Where is my furniture? Where, I realize suddenly, standing there in my rumpled pajamas, are my CLOTHES?
Mark suddenly appears, beckoning. We climb into a car that is packed full. Jim is in the back seat, much younger, maybe ten, nestled between a television and a narrow cardboard box. He greets me halfheartedly, and then we are moving, on a strange trip that involves meeting people we know, some dead, some living, some nearby, some far away. We also stop to talk with strangers who are quickly woven into whatever story this is.
Sometimes we walk. Sometimes we get back in the car and drive. Endlessly.
Always I am embarrassed by my bare feet and jammies.
When we finally arrive at the new place, in a town I don’t recognize, it is almost empty.
“Don’t WORRY,” says Mark. “Your clothes are here. Somewhere.”
We come home from a shopping trip; I am driving.
“Hey!” I say as we pull up the drive.
Jim pulls out his earbuds. “What?” he and Mark reply, in unison.
“Look at the rhododendrons.”
I stop, level with the bushes, and we look at the row of blooms, magenta and cheerful, among the lower branches.
“Isn’t that weird?” I say. “Rhodies in the fall?”
The boyos make noncommittal, sympathetic noises.
We unpack the groceries and put them away. Just before dark falls, I go out and clip some blossoms, make a little bouquet.
“Weird,” I think again. I wonder if global climate change has even hit my shrubbery.
Another dream. With Mark and Jim and—wait. Is that my father???–I walk into my house—which seems, I realize, to be an apartment. It is full of people I don’t know, sitting in a huge living room. We stop, staring at the crowd.
A woman jumps up, bustles over. She reminds us that we share this space. And she is having a party. She invites us to join in a meal. Puzzled, we decline, and go off to find our rooms.
We discover the space is in an old city block building. We open a door and walk beyond the finished living space and come into a work area. It smells like saw dust and the kind of oil people use to lubricate heavy iron machines; there are woodchips on the floor. Work tables are lined up throughout the room, hunkered under things like drill presses and enormous table saws.
The saws look scary. I grab Jim’s arm; in this dream, he is about five, I think.
Mark and my father—it IS my father—yell in delight and they move forward to explore those worktables, to experiment with those tools.
“Where ARE we?” I ask, out loud, and Jim looks at me, worried.
I am driving to teach with the radio on. The President is making a speech…in Wisconsin? In Houston? He says that he will be giving the middle class a tax cut of ten per cent next week.
The audio cuts to commentary, and the newscaster asks an expert if this sudden tax cut is possible.
The expert says, Well, no: Congress is not in session next week.
So he’s lying? Asks the newscaster.
There’s a long pause, and then slowly, reluctantly, the expert says, Well, yes.
They cut back to the tape and we listen to the crowd cheering.
Chilled, I turn up the heat in the car.
Later that week, the promised tax reduction is modified to a probable tax cut resolution.
One night I dream I live in a house I inhabited long, long ago, but again, there are people there—and there are animals there—that I don’t know. It seems I am always asking, “Where AM I?” in my dreams these days.
I avoid it as long as I can, turning the newspaper over when I sit at the table, shifting quickly to academic websites, ruthlessly culling my email, taking a book upstairs to read when the news is on.
I so badly want to pretend, to not know.
But I have to know, of course. On a quiet morning, days after the event, with Mark and Jim both at work, I open my computer and read what happened in Pittsburgh.
“All Jews must die!” shouted the killer as he burst into the Tree of Life temple and unloaded into the crowd assembled there. Eleven people attending the bris, the baby-naming ceremony, died. The dead were between the ages of 54 and 97. The 97-year-old, Rose Mallinger, was quickly reported as being a Holocaust survivor, which was not true. But she was a devoted temple attendee who lived through the horrors of World War II and she certainly did not deserve to die at a gunman’s hand.
Nor does anyone, not any one of us. What is going on?
Six people, including first responders, were injured. The shooter survived several gun shots and will stand trial. The news reported this morning that he pleads ‘not guilty.’
It is a gray, rainy, cold day, and I start a fire in the fireplace. I shut off my thoughts and I wrap up in a blanket, and I open the book I’ve halfway finished. I huddle and I hide.
I am reading the wrong book, Stephen Markley’s Ohio, which takes place in a thinly veiled version of the town we called home for ten years. The pretty people in the book are, some of them, smiling cold killers. It takes me a while before I get it: the legends are true, and the missing may be the dead.
Too close, I think, too close to home. The Florida shooting hurt kids my niece’s kids know. The Pittsburgh shooting is less than three hours away; a friend texts that she was in that neighborhood the day before, that she keeps having these weird grief feelings.
We did not know these people hurt, but their lives rub up against ours; they touched people who touched people we know. And we are, all, interconnected, anyway. Remember the butterfly in Tibet? The same applies to anguish in Pittsburgh.
I am an idiot, an optimistic idiot. I always think it will get better. I always think we’ll be all right. I always think that tragedies have meaning, that they teach us something, that those who are left behind will rise stronger and wiser and more clear-eyed. That we will prevent this kind of hate-filled evil from happening again.
I read about Pittsburgh, and the belief that things will be okay slides off my back like a tattered plastic rain coat. It huddles on the ground and I walk further and further away.
I go to sleep, exhausted, and wake up abruptly. Sticky shreds of nightmare cling. I have been in a strange house, I have neglected two dogs and a pony and left them starving in a basement. I put a toddler in a bathtub with the water running and forgot to stay by his side.
How could you? the head voices say, and I vault out of bed, make tea. I find a different book, a light and wryly funny book, and I sip the tea and read the blurry pages until sleep comes back to find me.
Where am I? I think. What should I be doing?
Is there any point?
I attend the breakfast meeting because I am on the board of an organization that ensures people with mental health and addiction challenges get the help they need. On this early morning, ordinary regular folk like me mingle with criminal justice and social work professionals. There are community volunteers there, and not-for-profit leaders and judges and wardens, sheriffs and nurses and social workers and CEOs.
They talk about grants they’ve received…monies that will help pregnant women with addiction and their babies, that will help inmates with mental illness and the disease of addiction get the help they need while they are incarcerated, and then link firmly to services when they are released. They tell us about specialty docket courts. They discuss intervention programs that keep people with substance use and mental health issues out of the criminal justice system. The programs get people, at least during their first brush with the legal machine, connected to services that can help them become, as one speaker says, productive community members.
Two people get up to speak, respected professionals, and reveal that they were helped by just such programs.
Advocates talk about services for those who’ve served in the military forces. People exchange cards and the sheriff thanks the mental health community for the help they provide law enforcement. A swell of thanks rises up, flows back toward him, spreads through the room.
There is a kind of weaving going on, I think to myself; among people of different politics and widely varied beliefs, a net is being fabricated. It will catch a lot of people.
Of course, it is being woven as people are already falling in front of its progress, but the weavers’ hands are flying. The epidemic, the creeping stain, was not predicted, but caring people have banded together, and they are making a significant impact.
I drive home slowly, thinking. The streets are slick with rain and empty. Yellow leaves flutter down; one sticks to my windshield wiper, and I let it rest there. I leave the radio off, and I let my thoughts settle.
The pain in Pittsburgh seems like a final pain, the Last Thing before the turning of the corner. It is the splash of vinegar on the dirty window. I can’t help but see it now.
This is where we are.
This is who we are.
I am sick with the need to acknowledge that we are, none of us, safe from hatred and violence. It is not a time for cock-eyed optimism.
But that meeting. That blending of very different people of good will into one tapestry of caring, one active force.
Not a time for optimism, maybe, but certainly a time for action. I will explore this week, discerning just what I can do, and then I’ll find a way to be part of the action taking place.
“Where am I?” I think, and I can’t escape that there are terrifying things in the not-too-distant shadows. Can I help to illuminate those shadows?
Maybe I can add my hands to those that are already working, even if, at first, I just hold a lantern to light an unfamiliar place.