After the Newtown shooting even our favorite commentators agreed there was nothing to say. Yes words do fail. Action strikes us dumb.
I tell new writers. "When you're grief stricken, shocked all words have fled, just pick up an object at hand, something manageable you haven't noticed -- describe it. Words will creep by."
I turned all of television. Look at the mugs where I keep pencils. This one is Terra Cotta once held mustard. Write about this mug. And what mustard means to me -- the smell of the mustard my grandfather liked on his latkes. The trace of mustard on his trim beard as he spoke of the silver rim on the family mustard pot on his mother's dinner table in Riga. That pot, and everything else, had been left behind when the family fled from the pogroms in Poland to New York. I'd reached out my finger to wipe away the mustard then. I was around six. Grandpa was elegant; a violinist. He would not want mustard on the violin.
"No!" my mother said. She handed her father her napkin. I'd wanted to dab away the mustard myself. Only grown-ups are afraid to touch old people.
Now I am back to where I am.
Why didn't I react like a nice person, say 'thank you for your concern," when a friend called to tell me there was a shooting in Connecticut; I should call my daughter to see if my grandchildren were okay.
"They're way up north and much older," I snapped. Then I turned on the television back on. I froze. I couldn't call anyone. It was after midnight when I started to write about the mustard pot. Didn't get very far.
Then I noticed my friend, Barri Clark, who writes detective novels, had left her scarf at my house yesterday. It was draped right here over the red rocking chair. The scarf is long, dark grey, with black borders and abstract butterflies or peonies printed in violent slashes, spread across the silk. Beautiful life forms, all torn up, ripped apart. Gone.
Last week Barri and I went to hear our friend read from her novel. It was the first night of Hanukkah, but Marina needed us to be there. Barri drove. She prefers her driving to mine. She's right about that. I left my car at her place and we wandered around South Pasadena, ate supper at a café, (mini latkes with shredded brisket, applesauce and mustard. A jazz guitarist was playing. He looked like an Orthodox Jew with his hat, the salt and pepper beard like my grandpa's. This made me feel better about not being with family. I mean here he is tapping out his rhythm, giving what he does so well. And we were going to cheer a devoted writer.
Somehow in all of this, I lost my car keys. Barri took that in with quiet cool. We looked everywhere we'd been. Then I noticed the hole in the pocket of this trench coat. Yeah. I called Triple A. The key maker (locksmith -- there, that's the word) rumbled by in around forty minutes; in his van, a computer office on wheels. This is L.A. I do portable writer's workshops; rumble over, to hear them; all around L.A.
So, Ralph, I think his name was, worked on making me a key, without grumbling, for about an hour. It was a cold and soggy night. Ralph explained he couldn't legally make a key for a car without the owner being there. So Barri went inside and brought out a winter coat for me and one for her, and we stood there for another forty-five minutes.
"So," I asked Ralph about his accent, "where are you from?"
"Israel," he said.
"It's nice of you to do this. It's the first night of Hanukkah."
"So what am I gonna do? Leave you here without a key to your car?"
Barri stood there with me, warm and easy. The significant friend is the one who doesn't get bugged.
This last weekend, Barri came to a gathering of writers and some of my family. This was no longer a party. Our feelings had been transformed by the shootings. I made a lot of chicken soup; friends brought other things to eat. There were around twenty-five people in my small flat. Everyone was subdued, careful, and aware. Eager to help out, to bring a cup of tea to someone who just arrived. To pass the bowl of red rice to someone across the table.
Eager for something to do. Yes, here was a place where for even a moment the helpless pit of grief was not quite as deep. Very few people knew each other, but they reached out, as one does when strangers are drawn together to celebrate, to protest, or to grieve.
"You have a lot of chairs," someone pointed out. True. A lot of old rocking chairs and director's chairs. People sat and talked quietly. One writer mentioned that "in the Mayan Calendar, December 21, 2012 is supposed to be the end of the world."
But Lucas, a young writer, said "on that day, some spiritualists say there'll be a turn in the human psyche and it will be positive."
I'm looking here at the patterns on Barri's scarf, all shifting in the silk arena framed in black. Could these be bluebirds flying off? And here's a peacock's tail; no, this is no drowning daffodil, but a sunrise coming up behind the savage storm. Sometimes our lives seem truly bordered by grief. There's no purpose to a moment, a day, a life, or a death. No sense. Gargantuan events seem out of proposition to anything we have ever heard of.
Soothsayer's lay out answers; patterns to decipher. There are no answers. Or rather the answers there are, the patterns we see pictures, say, of brain waves, are unacceptable. We get together; shake hands with a real grip. Tear up some bread to dip in mustard, then in the soup. (Gives it a bit of Lark.)
We stay close. We hang on. The positive turn in the psyche will define humanity's survival.
Just after the middle of the last century, we had the third major assassination. I was running a two-way radio show on KLAC. The news about Robert Kennedy came up. "We're not playing commercials," I declared. "Today we're not selling stuff. We're going to talk about what's become of 'America;' leaders just shot down like this."
I was fired right away.
"You can say anything. But you can't mess around with our sponsors!" And now the right to bear arms seems to rule the right to life. America was formed by people who fled lands where the aristocracy ruled. What is this, the new industrial aristocracy, suggesting teachers carry arms? Will they market armor for children? Is our President's vision of America paralyzed by the industrial aristocracy? Is our Senate and Congress frozen from action by the NRA- its morality hand-cuffed.