Mar 22 2012

Just a Minute

It happens unfortunately rather often these days, a lone gunman goes postal, sending a battery of bullets into a crowd full of innocent people. It’s horrible; a dreaded disbelief grips me when I hear this kind of news. There’s an extra groan when it happens at a school or involves small children. Then there’s proximity, when it’s closer to home it’s a real wake up call. Bad things can and do happen. It could have happened right next door.

On Monday De-facto made lunch and turned on the television – his ritual moment for absorbing local news – and we learned of the fatal shooting of four people, including three students, at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

Given that we live in one of the Jewish sections of Paris, it’s easy for me to imagine this happening. Almost every school in our neighborhood has a plaque posted near the door, often adorned with flowers and tri-color ribbons, commemorating the young students who were deported to the Nazi concentration camps. The maternelle school just behind our apartment building, where Short-pants and Buddy-roo both started, is often selected to host the somber ceremonies of remembrance for government dignitaries. The school our children attend now has a Catholic flavor – though in typical French style you can opt out of the religion part – but I could imagine them being at the wrong place and the wrong time here in our very own neighborhood and being caught in the crossfire.

We didn’t mention anything to the girls. That wasn’t a deliberate decision. De-facto left for a business trip shortly after lunch that day, and I was busy preparing to leave for my own voyage d’affaires the next morning. I still had to prepare my valise, and with De-facto already gone it also meant attempting to get Buddy-roo ahead on her homework, leaving notes for babysitters and organizing the next day’s wardrobe and backpacks for an early-morning-drop-off at a neighbor’s house so I could make a train that left Paris before school started. In the flurry of activity, I didn’t bring it up.

In my hotel room on Tuesday night, I read and watched the news, with poignant images of the vigil in Paris and mention of a minute of silence in the schools across France. I was only in Luxembourg, a short trip on a fast train, but all this made me feel too far away. I do appreciate the break from my children, except when something happens that makes you want – need – to put your hands on them and hold them close.

Last night I dropped my small suitcase – my mother’s old little rollaway gets a lot of use – in the foyer and was rewarded with the stampede of bare, just-bathed feet down the stairs and young girls pummeling themselves against me. That welcome home hug is worth every travel hassle you have to endure, and it felt especially comforting this time.

I beckoned them to sit on the couch with me, one on each side, and I turned back and forth, asking about the two days of their lives I missed – how the geography test went (Buddy-roo had to map out the mountain ranges of France), how was the spelling coming (Short-pants has nearly memorized 12 pages of spelling words), and then my big question.

“Did you have a minute of silence at school?”

Lots of nodding yes.

“Did they tell you what it was for?”

Lots of nodding no. Then the two of them talking at me at the same time with different stories. After settling the debate about who would go first, here’s what I learned: One teacher simply said that this was something being observed at all the schools in France, so Short-pants had no idea she why she was participating in a minute of silence. Though Buddy-roo’s teacher referred to the event in Toulouse, it was obvious that she still didn’t really understand what had happened. One of her classmates was cited as a source of additional information; you can imagine the facts were jumbled, though reported to me with enthusiastic certainty.

I don’t want to conjure up unnecessary fear in their young minds about a lack of security at school or in the neighborhood. I don’t want to impose the weight of a terrorist act on them. To speak to children of such atrocities feels unfair, like I’m robbing them too soon of their innocence, tarnishing their sheer belief in the goodness of people and the world. But to shield them from what happened seems equally unfair, especially if it means they hear snippets from someone else, someone ill-informed or ill-equipped to inform them with the age-appropriate sensitivity.

I asked them if they wanted to know the reason that there was a minute of silence in school the day before. They’ve said no to questions like this before, for instance when I was explaining the birds and bees to Short-pants and at some point I said, “Is this enough, or do you want to know more?” With just a few seconds of reflection she said, “That’s enough for now. You can tell me more later.”

They did want to know why, so I told them about how a really crazy guy, someone not right in the head, had taken out a gun and shot at the people in front of a school, how the moment of silence was to honor the four people who were killed, to think of their families who were grieving. Of course I was bombarded with whys, and I did my best to explain in simple terms the idiocy of religious and racial violence.

“But it’s all the same God,” said Short-pants, “what does it matter?”

Then a barrage of questions about guns. “Why do people have guns? Why were guns even invented? Why would someone take a gun to a school, and shoot children?”

I couldn’t come up with a good answer, at least not one I believed myself. “That’s another reason to have a minute of silence,” I told her, “so that maybe people will ask themselves just those kinds of questions.”

This morning after dropping the girls off at school, I stopped at the nearby café where parents who don’t have to rush to work gather every morning and catch up over coffee. I brought up the minute of silence, which met with mixed reactions about how the school and the teachers had handled it. One parent referenced interviews with French psychologists saying that there’s no reason to burden young children with this news event. But how can you avoid the inevitability that they’ll hear about it and be terrorized more by what they don’t know than by what they do know?

For a minute, I wondered if I did the right thing, explaining it to the girls? I guess I made a choice to respect my kids rather than protect them. There’s probably no single right answer to that question. I just wish it was one we didn’t have to ask.


Apr 19 2010

The Sound of Chaos

While volcanic ash reached across Europe like a gray blanket, I was nearly oblivious to it, sequestered with colleagues and friends who meet every year to attend an annual European Creativity Conference known as CREA. Last year, I was here without De-facto and the girls, and though the week was filled with planning and preparing and running an intense core program, I still had room to connect with old friends and colleagues who, like me, return to CREA each year. I had time to breathe around the edges.

But this year, I arrived à la masse. Suitcases packed haphazardly, things I’d hoped to plan in advance were left to plan on the fly. I even forgot my rings and my watch – always present on my hands and wrist – at home by the bathroom sink. It took almost the entire 10-hour drive through France and into Italy to recover from our chaotic departure.

Not that this is so very unusual. Just watch me run around like a frenzied woman most days of my life. Pursued by a to-do list that stalks me – my own ugly shadow creeping behind my back with Sharpie in hand, adding small boxes to the bottom of the Post-it notes strewn about my life. Despite any determination to be grounded and centered and somehow effortlessly juggling it all, I am too often hurrying. I am too greedy; I want to experience all the interesting invitations life offers. I forget the limits of my stamina.

Chaos

My colleague brought a recording he’d made, one that suggested the sound of chaos. We used it in our workshop, for an exercise about sound, silence and memory. The sound was a dissonant mash-up of noise, primordial, and lacking order or pattern. Still within it I could find some sporadic harmonic quality. It was a music that asked nothing of me, but rather, for a those moments that I closed my eyes and let it fill up my chattering mind, the sound of chaos pushed all those busy thoughts out and left me with the temporary calm that I seem always to yearn for. Could chaos be useful?

Silence

How scarce is silence. Rare and almost impossible. It is no wonder I am so distracted. I can close and cover my eyes to be in darkness, but it is impossible to be in absence of sound. A tone rings and finishes but the white noise of the background persists; the ventilation, the cars outside driving by with their aggressive engines, muffled but audible. Each building has its own hums and hems and haws. The noise of the world around us is relentless. We are never left in peace.

Except my mother, who lived for the last half of her life with a significant hearing loss. What was her silence like? Was it quieter than mine? And why didn’t I ever ask her this question?

Memory

The sound of the furnace in my childhood home, revisited this winter as I slept on the couch beside my mother. The familiar cadence as the motor kicked in and buzzed and vibrated the walls, a noisy old engine heating the tired old house that protects my memories. Another memory marked by sound: that of an iron releasing steam as it is set upright, the rhythm and moan of my mother’s ironing. All these sound-ful memories to do with my mother. Is this natural, because she’s gone? Or is much of memory to do with the maternal?

Which makes me wonder what will be the sound of the memories I leave to my daughters? Will it be the sound of my chaos?