It’s a quiet, cold November night and I’m preparing to disappoint about a dozen or so people tomorrow. I’ve been publishing these essays every two weeks since my birthday in April. Being on this schedule has been great for my work ethic. I’ve had the chance to hone my craft on a deadline and for that, I am grateful. The problem with schedules is that life tends to not behave as we would like and this can cause problems.
Actually, I’m sugar-coating it.
Shit happens and even though it may not affect you directly, it can throw one hell of a wrench into your machine. Right now my machine is a little jammed. The events in Paris weigh heavily. Yesterday, too many people died for a senseless purpose in a country I’ve never visited, and in this space we share, I find myself unable to talk about anything else. But with all of the voices crying out, what is there left for me to say? I’ve never been to Paris. Perhaps saying nothing is better? A respectful silence. Postponing my schedule is what I want to do, but my gut won’t let me. It’s complicated.
I am a seven layer nacho dip of guilt.
In the morning, I planned on publishing a breezy essay about riding in the car with Grandma, but my heart’s not in it. Instead, something else may have to take its place. What started as a brief preface has become a full on interruption. Sorry. I’m working through some things.
On a meta-level, this interruption began when I wrote “Yesterday, too many people died for a senseless purpose in a country I’ve never visited.” and I realized that line is true every day.
Every single day people die from the utter inhumanity of others. We all know this. I know this and I normally publish my pieces without a thought towards respecting the suffering of others. This realization conducts my train of thought to the “Well if violent massacres happen everyday, then why does this one in Paris matter more?” station. This is not a fun station to arrive at because it’s damp and calls into question all of one’s prejudiced, selfish beliefs. You know, those squishy, intangible values we never want to air out in the open because then what would people think?
I’ll happily be the first person to tell you that I don’t care what people think. I also fib.
And yet, when I consider that it took a horrible event happening to a familiar country, instead of the usual horror in less familiar places, to give me pause in publishing, I get that sinking feeling in my chest. I try to shake it off, remembering what I’ve been taught by the jungle. Suffering is an indelible part of life. There’s always tragedy and it’s what we do after that matters. This leads me to an obvious conclusion.
If I postpone, I’m admitting all of those squishy things I fear about myself are true, so I should just go ahead and publish my Grandma essay, right?
Nope. “There’s always tragedy” doesn’t cut it. Not for the sunken chest feeling, apparently.
Trapped between admitting I’m a self-centered, provincial thinker (postponing) and promoting a story about marbles at Tamarack while we’re still reeling from the violence in Paris (publishing), I am compelled to scoop deeper through this layered dip of guilt. Moving past the question of why not all of these other terrible events, one is left with the simple question.
What about this place resonates with me in the way that Syria or Ukraine or ________ hasn’t yet?
The only way I can think to answer this is to list all of the things I associate with Paris.
When I was younger, and going through the American boy phase of being really into World War 2 history, I remember getting hung up on the fact that the French forces surrendered Paris to prevent its destruction. The absurdity that two nations in lethal conflict could agree on the beauty of a city hasn’t left me. I suppose I’m assuming the Germans thought it was pretty. Maybe they didn’t. There’s plenty of nuance missing from a kid’s perspective.
The next thing that comes to mind about Paris is an episode of chef Anthony Bourdain’s travel show. From what I can recall, after drinking wine and smoking, he concludes that the best way to enjoy Paris is to sit at a cafe and people-watch. While that’s a lifestyle I can get behind, the memory pales in emotional clarity to the third Parisian association it brings up. In light of the recent events, it might be the one you thought of first.
Back in January, Paris suffered another violent assault. At the time, I was in the hospital with asthma, so I had little to do but watch the people on the news. It brought me back to the first time I watched tragedy unfold on the news and was unable to look away.
It’s a normal September morning and I’m walking into Algebra class when my friend Wes tells me the Pentagon has been attacked. Both of us are going through the American Boy phase of being really into Tom Clancy novels, and so the first thing out of my mouth is denial. No way. Surely the Pentagon would have defenses against this. I half-believed Washington DC to be loaded with military defensive weapons. I still do. Wes insists it’s true, the Pentagon was attacked and also the Towers in New York City.
Together, with the rest of the class, we watch the news footage of the Towers burning. I know this is a big deal, and I know I care that people are dying, but another thought creeps up in my eighth-grade brain. It haunts me to this day. We are watching the news quietly when someone asks if the tower will fall. In my head, I ask the morbid follow-up.
If the tower falls, will it be enough to cancel school?
There! Now that I’ve written it down it doesn’t seem so bad. Or maybe it does. I’ve been carrying this nugget of shame with me ever since September 11th. It’s the bottom layer, I believe, of my nacho cheese guilt dip. Like a rock in your shoe, I feel this small secret in every step of my reaction to the Paris attacks. I feel it when I want to deny that I’m not biased about my tolerance for human suffering. I feel it when anger urges me to declare a reckoning on the perpetrators of that suffering. I feel it when I suggest we let go of freedom in the name of security. I feel it when sorrow clutches me so that I cannot think beyond the moment. And I feel it when I accept my own helplessness to stop the pain of others.
I feel it when I remember that I watched an event where hundreds of people died and all I could think about was getting out of class. A quiet, personal fall from grace. Gone in a moment, but never forgotten.
The horror at my own cold calculations has faded somewhat in the golden light of maturity, but there’s still a sense of purpose in leaving that metaphorical rock in my figurative shoe. It keeps me grounded. It reminds me to feel. And it gives me comfort that despite all of the terrible things going on in other lands, there’s probably at least one kid, adjacent to the tragedy, wondering if it’s going to get him out of school.
Too many people died for a senseless purpose in a country I’ve never visited.
When from our thoughts you fall, forgive us.