When I heard about the shootings in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I cried.
Time stood still (as it is said) and yet the morning became early afternoon, then evening, and I was still watching the reports, switching from channel to channel, taking it all in, and then taking it in again, and again. The news reports became repetitious but still I kept watching. Psychologists might say that is part of “processing” the event, though I am not sure whether rubbing at a sore spot qualifies as “processing” the hurt.
I wanted to contact my loved ones, as if they were in danger, even though they were NOT in danger, being nowhere near where it happened. I called a friend who has family in Squirrel Hill, the community where it happened. Everyone was fine, she reported. But a cousin was “sheltering in place.” (A decade ago, the phrase “shelter in place” didn’t exist, as far as most of us knew.). What is it about us that we want to connect ourselves to the horrific event, if only at a remove? It is like touching a live wire, but we cannot leave it alone. I listened for the stories of survival, narrow escapes, “if onlys” which saved people who might have, if they had arrived minutes earlier, be dead. I tried to imagine how they feel about escaping death so narrowly. Will the “processing” end up with them having a new lease on life? On deciding to do something for others, or for themselves? In what way will it change them? Will they feel guilt at having survived? Or be deeply depressed at how far we have come from the days when no one shot at innocent people to the days of contemplating pistol packing teachers and rabbis?
I think the instinct to connect with the people directly involved is a human impulse, a way of getting out of ourselves and in some way becoming more. The phrase “fellow feeling” comes to mind.
What I definitely don’t want to do right now is assign blame. I don’t want to argue about whether we should protect ourselves by making fortifications of our schools and places of worship. Right now, I want to think about the people who were killed, and their families, and put myself voluntarily onto the mourning bench, and sit shiva.
It is autumn, and everywhere I turn, I see the red, yellow, orange, rust and brown of the dying leaves. They hang on the high limbs and the low as long as they can, then float and flutter to earth, turning on all their brilliance before they die. And though it is death, it makes me think of life, as well.
And that makes me think of something I heard at a memorial service, where the clergyman talked about celebrating someone’s life rather than mourning his death, and instead of feeling sorrow for his loss, feel joy in having had him for however long. Is it only a matter of our own natures, whether we can do one or the other? Are we born glass-empty or glass-full kind of people? Are we nurtured to be one or the other? Or is it in the nature of the people or things that we mourn? Are they two sides of the same coin? Life and death, joy and sorrow?
Both my parents died in the autumn long years ago, and my best friend, too, more recently, so it is always a time of sorrow and reflection, and now more than ever. But it is also a time of such immense beauty in the world, in the flaming exuberance of the dying trees and even in the busy scurrying we all do, to squirrel away comfort for the winter. And though I am a pretty glass-empty kind of person, I have always found autumn, with its deathly echoes, beautiful and profound. Especially now, can I take a lesson from nature?