“The mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses it.”
I had the opportunity to connect with a renown naturopathic doctor friend of mine, who just happens to live locally; and we touched on the stress people are feeling following the floods. A light bulb went off when she said that this can manifest in different ways–even in physical injury.
I excused myself from the small gathering and called home right away. My youngest answered the phone and brought it outside to his father who was chopping wood.
“You know how Aidan has been hurting himself so much lately,” I said. “Maybe give him a little extra attention tonight. It could be fallout from the floods.”
My doctor friend also touched on nutritional and supplemental support for post traumatic stress, which hadn’t occurred to me, and I wondered if the Co-op might put together a end cap display of products for that. Between the murder and the flooding, they could use the extra support themselves.
Unlike my friend the doctor, I didn’t watch the flood come across the road and into my house; and unlike my new colleague at work, I didn’t see it take out my entire road. I also wasn’t there at the Co-op Tuesday morning a month ago when a shot was fired inside.
And yet, I am emotionally and physically spent from August as if I had been everywhere.
What do I need, I ask myself. What would soothe me?
…some soft music, a cup of chai, time walking with a friend.
It was ten years ago this month, when I had to rock myself into letting go of the heartbreaking strain of 9/11. I walked my dirt roads, soaked in the changing colors, and restored my sense of self and place.
May we all find what soothes us as we rock ourselves into the changes life brings.
I can’t concentrate at work. Each day I am more tired. And even though I am eating right, getting exercise, spending time in quiet, I’m feeling the toll of so many days of angst.
Today, I drive through West Brattleboro, for the first time since the flood, and I am surprised, and almost sickened, to see edges of black top missing, dangling into run off, yellow line and all.
I haven’t been on Route 9 since the days I walked it with dozens of other neighbors to take in the devastation; and this neglect of Western Avenue leading to Route 9 brings the trauma of that pilgrimage back.
“Road Closed,”says the sign at the base of the road, and so I turn my car around, and then roll down my window to check in with another driver who looks perplexed.
“What am I supposed to do?” he says. “When I came down from the college to go to the store, that sign wasn’t there.”
“You know the back way, don’t you?” I ask. And he shakes his head ; so I say, “Follow me.”
I always feel better when I help someone. It gets me out of myself, and channels my grief into something that moves, instead of puddles.
Ames Hill was nightmarish then, with only a single, rugged lane, flanked by deep caverns beneath the jagged edges where the road had been eaten away.
Once we made the decision to proceed, there was no turning back or pulling over; and if we abandoned our car, which I would have liked to do, emergency vehicles wouldn’t have been able to get through.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of this. I was making sure that the young man in the van with out of state plates was following me–past Lilac Ridge with the bright sunflowers, and around the turn to head up toward the Robb Family Farm where the cows used to moo.
It was then that my body began to re-live the tension of that nightmare ride home, even though there was a boy playing ball on the lawn in the afternoon light instead of a car dangling over a deep ditch in the dark.
I noticed my stomach tighten, without any thoughts, and I realized that my body had some more letting go to do, even if my mind didn’t.
I tried to get onto Route 9 this morning too, but there was work going on, and I didn’t want to interrupt it, so I turned around and took the long way again.
As I passed the post office, I realized that it had been days since we fetched the mail, and so I stopped, and heard how Marshall spent three hours trying to get to work last week, and finally headed back home to Brattleboro, where he took a long walk with his wife, and saw all kinds of unusual things in the water: propane tanks bobbing, an actual car, and even a house, upside down, floating like a boat on its attic.
Perhaps we need to get my friend Susie and other artists to create a large canvass upon which we can all release what we have seen.
Another Lisa took a trip down the Augur Hole yesterday to help Peggy move back in, and Lisa’s stricken face said more than any words to describe what it was to see that road missing, and the wide, rocky stream bed that was now it its place.
I haven’t been to Wilmington, but having lived there for several years, I feel a strong kinship to that community. I can’t imagine what it must be to see the devastation downtown.
As I climbed the stairs to second floor office this morning, my legs were heavy with this grief–and that of Texas, and of Japan, and I noticed that the flood had carved out much more room inside of me for compassion, and that it was taking more energy than I was used to giving.
And yet, as I come down MacArthur Road, past John’s place, and Jason’s apple trees, and Gail’s berries, and Robin’s sky, I notice that the sun, though hidden by the clouds, is shimmering its way through in a perfect offering of light.
A reporter for the New York Times has been in Brattleboro for the past two days interviewing townspeople about you know what. Our murders.
Murders happen everywhere, but what’s different about ours is the response.
While we can’t change what happened in the Co-op, we are responsible for how we respond; and I know that many like me are moved by how much grief and compassion has been expressed.
In my mind, this vulnerability defines the strength of this community. We aren’t perfect, but neither are we numb or blind. We feel. We hurt. We question. We respond.
Sabine Rhyne, the Shareholder and Community Relations Manager at the Co-op, had this to share about our community’s response:
“I wish you had been by my side on Thursday morning when we opened. First, there were a small group of people milling around outside, regulars, who wanted to be there as soon as the doors opened. Then, two long-time co-op shareholders walked in, carrying a large box full of vases of flowers from their garden to set on each checkout counter. Then, a delivery of bagels and cream cheese from our friends at the vitamin company across town arrived for the staff. And bit by bit, the store filled with people and flowers and cards, many folks touching and hugging, almost all smiling and tearing up simultaneously.“
After the initial news frenzy, there hasn’t been much in the coverage about the Co-op tragedy; but beginning last night, at the two-week mark, I noticed new headlines–this time with a community focus:
“Co-op copes with shooting aftermath”
“Co-ops across the country send support to Brattleboro”
“Vt. co-op receives support after fatal shooting”
When the New York Times reporter asked me how we would rid ourselves of this tragedy, I replied that we couldn’t; that it had become part of who we are; part of our history.
When she asked how we would move on, I said that I didn’t know; but that I trusted that with the abundant heart and creativity and compassion of this community, we would find our way, one step at a time.
When she asked what I felt most strongly about–whether it was that someone I knew committed such a crime–or that it happened at the Co-op, I said that it was both of those things in the beginning; but now my attention has shifted to the community–how we respond, how we support the Co-op staff, and how we compost such a horrid act.
In exactly two weeks, “BFC Tragedy” climbs its way to the top of the list of writing topics on the sidebar of this Vermont blog–from a tiny thing at the bottom, to where it sits now–boldface, beside the prominent category of “Autumn.”
In retrospect, I wish I’d tagged this collection “BFC Healing” instead of “tragedy,” but at the time I never imagined that so much compassion would flow from murder.
Doesn’t it seem like a lifetime passed since the Co-op mutated from haven to hell in an instant?
Earlier this afternoon I passed tourists at the corner of Elliott and Main–two moms and a young son looking for a place to eat. I recommended the Co-op; and then wondered if I’d made a mistake. If I was visiting, would I want to take my kids there?
I’ve left my own kids at home, but my husband has accompanied me again. I watch with tenderness as he approaches one Co-op staffer after another to offer an embrace or a pat on the shoulder.
I feel too shy to do the same, and wish I could wear a button that says, “I gave at my blog.”
“At least go see Tony in the wine department,” my husband says, over a bowl of soup.
Instead I suggest that I come back with cookies or candy–something easier to share than sentiment.
Perhaps the staff has grown weary of compassion anyway, I argue internally. Maybe they’re trying to move on. But the truth is that my biggest concern is that they would feel that we’ve moved on–without them.
Whenever I’m faced with uncertainty around connecting with those in grief, I think back to my friend Trish whose 18 year old brother was killed in an accident the summer we all worked together at the shore. Everyone at the Crab House was heartbroken, but they avoided talking about Tommy so as not to make it harder on Trish.
Finally I asked her. “Does it make it worse when I talk about him?”
“No,” she answered. “I couldn’t feel any worse, and he’s on my mind all the time.”
Maybe it’s that way for everyone at the Co-op. Maybe this tragedy is always on their minds whether we acknowledge it or not.
I wonder how long it will take until I walk into that store and it’s no longer on mine.
It feels good to be relieved of the burden of shock, but is that truly a good thing? Is surrendering to murder akin to accepting it, to tolerating it, to allowing it to become a norm?
I know that I cannot go through my days somber and distraught, but how can I shop in my grocery store without feeling the bloodshed spilled there? Won’t I be dishonoring the man whose life was stolen when I talk to friends in the aisles as if it never happened?
It’s not just the Co-op that’s tainted from this murder. My own community of Marlboro is too. Last night I stood under the stars with friends at an annual summer party, but I couldn’t get our neighbor, Richard Gagnon, out of my head.
When I pulled into the pond this morning for brunch, I cringed at the thought of the tennis courts where Richard played with his wife; and later that afternoon, I cringed again, when I thought I saw him walking across the beach with two friends.
Am I afraid of Richard? Of someone like Richard? Or am I simply traumatized by the fact that someone among us carried out such an act? That someone else could?
For the first time ever, murder is a topic at our family dinner table. “Are you talking about Richard?” My eleven year old asks. “No,” I reply. “We’re talking about the other murder.”
The other murder.
How is that phrase spoken in our home? That we can talk about it at all feels good, because until now it hurt too much to admit that it had crept into our world.
Maybe that is why we all walk down the aisles of the grocery store, or gather at the pond, or under the stars without saying much about the crushing loss we must accept if we are to endure.
This tragedy does call into question so many things, that indeed should be questioned:
Why did we grieve the second murder but not the first?
How can we claim to have such a strong community when we kill each other?
What could we have done to make a difference?
What could the Co-op have done?
I felt compelled to write about this tragedy when I discovered that someone I knew had been taken into custody. I continued to write each day after, trying to make sense of how this happened. As the days passed, the comments grew, and it is the readers who grapple with this question; and I watch, ever so slowly, as grace and grief are replaced with blame. It is my teenage son who labels it so.
“Did you ever see the South Park episode when a house is burning down and the community stands around asking what happened?” he said. “The kids tug on the parents, saying–Shouldn’t we help? But the parents answer–No, the important thing is to find out who is to blame.”
I think it’s good to tell each other who we blame, for no other reason than to let it drain from our minds so that we are better prepared to help. But our blame must be conscious in order to be healing, otherwise we will dwell in it at the expense of actually doing something to make things better.
Hindsight makes it easy to blame as is evidenced by the subtext of the readers’ comments I see:
If only Michael Martin had never been hired.
If only Richard Gagnon had been fired a long time ago.
If only the Co-op had done something to mediate sooner.
It is only natural that we want to find someway to escape this pain, and blame is a strong distraction.
“Captain Hindsight always appears just in time,” my son says, recounting another South Park episode. “He’s the Super Hero who tells people what they did wrong and how they could have avoided it. This makes people feel better even though it doesn’t change anything.”
But the truth is that there is no escaping grief if you intend to heal; and if you don’t, you add more suffering to the world.
I had been writing incessantly for over a week since the shooting at the Co-op, and with my latest post, I felt that I might be finished. Instead, I found my anguish stirred rather than soothed by last night’s performance, particularly when the poetry of the Romanian poet Eminescu was read.
Unto the Star
‘Tis such a long way to the star Rising above our shore It took its light to come so far Thousands of years and more.
It may have long died on its way Into the distant blue And only now appears its ray To shine for us as true.
We see its icon slowly rise And climb the canopy; It lived when still unknown to eyes, We see what ceased to be.
And so it is when yearning love Dies into depth of night: Extinct its flame, still glows above And haunts us with its light.
~Mihai Eminescu (1850-1889)/translated by Adrian Sahlean