Mary Lou Sanelli
February 2023 [Text Wrapping Break]
Once a month or so, I walk with a small group of women. It’s one of many routines that keep me sane and steady or at least help keep me sane and steady. We meet for company and exercise, of course, but we also like to blow off steam about the state of the world. There is always much to talk about among us. Often, we don’t really know what to think, what to feel, what we want to think or want to feel, or even what to believe until we share what’s on our minds. [Text Wrapping Break]
These talks are like coming up for air. Without them, life would be boring.
Unspoken rule number one, though, is that we air personal matters first. I believe in the therapeutic effect of sharing our plights with people we trust. It’s the best help out there, as far as I’m concerned.
Today, one of us (we all have names, but I promised) talks about how hard it’s been to make decisions about her aging parents’ care and comfort, and I know that each of us is wondering what more we might do to help her get past the worst of it. “Unfortunately, this is all part of life, there’s no way around it,” she says in a way that sounds as if she’s said it a lot lately, like a coping chant, and I can see the dark vales under her eyes where all the indecision has gathered. She turns away to give herself a chance to collect herself, and we walk, quiet for a long moment, knowing these kinds of decisions won’t get easier as our lives move forward. I give her a hug from the side to remind her that we have all been in her shoes or will be soon. To brighten the mood, I say, “Everyday, I’m going to do what I love. I’m going to write and dance and bicycle and swim. Even if the chlorine is ruining my hair.” [Text Wrapping Break]
“It’s just hair,” our oldest walker says. Hair does not, in her view, bear too much examination. [Text Wrapping Break]
After a chat about learning to savor the minutes, we start in on the news, and believe me; we have as much to say about the Bryan Kohbergers of the world as we do the Putins. But that’s not the point. The point is, once we hit the news front, our eyes become more focused and our expressions more absorbed.
“I have to figure out how to sleep again,” another says, “and if I do fall asleep, I startle myself awake.” She stops to watch two crows groom each other. One stretches out its neck, inviting the other to prime its feathers, and we pause to take in the display. Birds have never let her down and never will, she told us once. At the time, she was “celebrating” her divorce, that’s how she put it, and her tone was light that sun-drenched afternoon when she said she wouldn’t mind finding someone else eventually, but for now, she just wants to be alooone (oh, how she drew out the word). “I mean, I’d like to have a better relationship with a man before I’m done for, as long as he’s self-supporting, has a sense of humor, and isn’t a jerk,” she smiled, “even though it’s my personal belief that he doesn’t exist.”
Her tone, though, is not light today.
[Text Wrapping Break]Her tone is not light because the past two months have been horrible. Her daughter goes to Washington State University in Pullman, where the man charged with the Moscow, Idaho, stabbings was a graduate student. She is afraid for her daughter in a way she never was before. “I try not to stress about it,” she says, “by working a lot, staying busy. Shopping online, that’s the worst escape.” She pauses. “Or the best.” And though you can tell she doesn’t want to look as if she’s enjoyed her joke too much, she can’t help herself, she laughs, and we laugh, too, which leads to us to walk a little closer together, a physical instinct, like something primordial, moves us nearer to each other. Nestling is the word that comes to mind.
But no one tries to find consolation or meaning in anything that occurred that awful early morning in Idaho. We know when it’s best to just let one of us hate something about the world when we need to and that sometimes we just can’t make things better, safer, easier, than they really are. I’ve often wondered what it must be like to live in Pullman or Moscow these days, to deal with a crisis that is so much more menacing than the average small-town tragedy. I think how important these walks are because you can’t ease your fearfulness with your own fearfulness. You can’t do it alone. Our skin is not as thick as we wish to believe.
The weight of the stabbings in Moscow continues to wash over us, removing any desire I have to bring up the story that made me say aloud to a complete stranger sitting next to me at the ferry terminal, “Oh my god I can’t believe this.” Which made her look at my New York Times and say, “What now?”
The headline read: Six-Year-Old Shoots Teacher At Virginia Elementary School. And before leaving the house to come on this walk, I did a little homework to add to the conversation I had intended to bring up: how nine states have now instituted an assault weapons ban. Which is so important because, remember (is what I would have said), the Highland Park shooter was able to buy multiple assault weapons despite two incidents in 2019 in which he threatened to kill himself and his family. I was also going to share a quote I read in The Seattle Times: “In Seattle alone, the data shows violent crime rising so fast that thirty years of progress may be undone in a blink.” And I’m sure the fact that there were thirty-eight mass shootings in the first twenty-one days of this new year would have come up quickly, how much it troubles us that this is America, 2023. [Text Wrapping Break]
I don’t know if all the shootings are because we have such a long history of both owning guns in this country and manufacturing them, or that we’ve grown desensitized to the misery and havoc they wreak, or that there is such a stigma about mental health issues and too little money appropriated for mental health support, or, as I believe, they have something to do with all the violent video games played by so many boys so that eventually they may want to try the real thing, or the crazy, miss-informed websites and chat rooms, or that we as a people refuse to admit that things have gone so wrong, or some combination of any or all of the above, but if I think too long and too hard about any one of these reasons, I sink right down into the abyss of dread.
And I don’t really want to bring the others down with me, not now, not today, for another reason, as well: one of us invited a friend to join us today, a woman I know, well, tried to know and decided, no. [Text Wrapping Break]
Though for years, without knowing why, I was drawn to her.
I don’t remember which horrible school shooting had just occurred, pick one, when she and I sat next to each other at Eleven Winery on Bainbridge Island one Sunday afternoon, and against my better judgment, when she brought up the subject of gun control, I was honest.
Quite soon after, so was she.
So, I learned that she is not exactly “pro-gun” so much as she is “anti-take-our-guns-away,” and she is passionately opinionated about gun rights. I’m passionately opinionated, too, so that’s not why I don’t want to bring up the story. I don’t want to bring it up with someone, anyone, who just might say what she said that day in a winery shining with sun, one wall completely open to the spring weather. After she spoke, dread rose in my throat that I tried to tamp down so that I would not make a scene in a public space in such a small town, but I could feel anger slipping through all of my sealed rifts. I left thinking, how—why—can someone still say there is no connection between the number of guns out there, so easily obtained, and the number of children who have been killed because of them? Guns don’t lie. Facts about guns don’t lie. People lie. To themselves. To the world.
There’s an image on my phone of us smiling that day. I’m leaning toward her, showing that I had been trying for closeness because I have felt like this around her at times. Relatively few times, but still, I was trying, though I can tell by my eyes that I was trying too hard. It’s delicate—and nearly impossible for me—to be open and honest while you are also starting to hold back, afraid to say too much about yourself, your work, and your likes and dislikes because you are slowly realizing that the person you are talking to is not such a good fit after all. [Text Wrapping Break]
Now, wait, yes, there is room for all sides of an issue, or there should be. And, yes, I’m as tired of the us versus them mindset as the next person. And, yes, yes, we should listen to and respect opposing viewpoints; it’s the only way to heal division, to mend what is broken.
But on this issue, when I think of all the children who have been shot at school (at school!), I’m afraid I can’t make room for all the guns and all the people who say we should own as many of them as we like. I’ve lost all elasticity of grasp. I know, have known since the Amish School Shooting, that on this matter, I draw the line. I can’t listen to anything more about guns from the point of view of a gun-rights advocate. I can’t listen to anything more about guns from the eyes of someone who chooses guns over children. Nor does any part of me want to repeat the way I insulted a colleague about this issue, but I don’t trust myself not to. It was the last word I used, not even a real word, a mere syllable, that made her hang up, spoken with too much scorn; I know this, but it’s too late: “Take away the gun and all you have is another lonely, angry person who needs help, but without the ability to kill so many people so fast! Dah.”
So, today we will just have to leave our discussion with a knife. In Moscow. That hasn’t been found. Yet. And leave guns for another time.
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Which doesn’t mean my mind hasn’t been forming these lines because one way I handle stress is to write about my day-to-day experience. I believe every story, for every writer (whether they want to use the word “personal” or not), is like this.[Text Wrapping Break]
I don’t know why I need to explain this.
Well, yes, I do. I explain it because writing is really about finding out something more about ourselves and others, and there is always something more. Like when our quietest walker, who usually looks at the bright side and never, ever swears, threw her head back and yelled, “if I hear one more person talk about their f****ing thoughts and prayers!” right after the deadly shooting in Virginia at Walmart, I think it was, but frankly, I’ve lost tract. (Again, pick one.) We agreed that those are words that have come to mean exactly what they will achieve: nothing. [Text Wrapping Break]
A woman walks by, absorbed in her phone, prompting our oldest walker to speak again, “Has she looked at the mountains? Has she looked at the sky?” More than once, we’ve discussed this because we are worried that people won’t look after the natural world if they no longer take the time to really see it, study it, be moved by it, even on a walk. It’s a Sunday, so I ask the group if they’ve heard that in France, it is now strictly forbidden, except in food manufacturing and entertainment, to work on weekends? As if the woman can hear us, she looks up at the scenery. It captures her attention for, like, a millisecond, then eyes right back down.
“Write about that,” our friend says. So I did.