Life in the Gray: After Sandy Hook

17 12 2012

I’m writing to you from a ferry. Seated alone on a midday crossing, staring into a muted seascape. Ocean the green of beach glass, clouds shushing the sky; land’s faintest skeleton peeks through sheets of rain. Whitecaps the only bright spots in this world. “Lots of sheep out here today,” one of our fleet elders would say about the turbulent sea.

This relentless gray depresses some, but I embrace it, a reassuring companion for my eternal ambivalence. It’s here in the gray that I struggle to balance a precarious tower of contradiction.

Contradictions like my relationship with guns. On auto-answer, I would’ve told you I don’t have one. You know who I am, sweeties – tree hugging, tofu eating, feminist fisherman and all that. I don’t like guns. I don’t want to shoot shit. I don’t need one to feel safe; they invoke the opposite in me. I don’t want any part of guns or gun culture.

But that’s too black and white for someone living in the gray. Of course I have a relationship with guns. Born and largely raised in a state where over 60% of households have them, how could I not?

Early childhood in Wasilla. My parents – like most Alaskans – hunted. One of our family stories recalled leg cramps hobbling my dad on a caribou trip. My mom packed him, all their gear, and the meat back out.

Being a deckhand. Until recently, most of the boats I crewed on had guns aboard. My mom. Single men. Family boats. Folks who regularly served venison and wouldn’t go to the beach without a gun as bear protection. The single time I’ve fired a gun was on one of those boats, urged to join my shipmates in target shooting a can tossed in the water. Wish I could tell you we retrieved the can afterward.

The August night that my teenaged self paddled to a Sitka Sound island with a handful of other deckhands. We started drinking on the way out, passing the fifth of Jager between kayaks, wasted by dusk. We told fireside stories of the kushtaka, Tlingit lore’s shape-shifting otter-man. Spooked by a shadowy tree, one of the boys pulled a handgun from his backpack. Began waving it around. The rest of us suddenly sober, another grabbed the gun and put it away.

Still a teenager. Midnight cruising the back roads of Washington farmlands. When headlights appeared in the rearview, the jittery driver reached for the glove box. A handgun inside. His paranoia, certain that the car behind was “after us.” Making it home, shaken by what could have been. A year later, learning that boy killed a man.

The land job I had, where shotguns leaned against the truck shop walls, casually propped alongside broomsticks. When the boss’s temper snapped, he’d grab the closest one, stalk outside, and blast starlings off the power lines.

The contrast of people in my heart. I’m on this ferry traveling to a winter reunion with fishing friends. Almost everyone there will be a hunter – including the petite young woman who recently shot her first deer, a four-point – except for Joel and me. I don’t eat meat other than fish because I choose not to eat what I can’t take responsibility for putting on my plate. I don’t like killing fish, but I do it as humanely as possible, with gratitude and respect. Most of these hunters share those values. They talk of “bad kills” – shots where the deer suffered unduly – with disapproval and condemn waste. I respect their connection to the food on their tables. I’ll be happy to see each of them, while avoiding the fixed marble-eyed gaze of bucks long since passed through our hosts’ freezer, Santa hats perched jauntily on ears forever cocked.

But this isn’t just about guns.

Contradictions like the sudden urgency with which we talk about mental healthcare after a tragedy like Sandy Hook, and the reality of how we respond to those struggling among us. The conversations that inevitably follow, where we talk about mental illness the way some folks talk about Africa – like it’s one uniform place, rather than a continent of many countries, ethnicities, languages, religions, cultures. Mental illness is that continent, inclusive of millions of us and a broad spectrum of diagnoses, behaviors, challenges, and triumphs. Contradictions like my hope that this will be the tragedy to reframe our nation’s priorities, that we’ll veer towards valuing and investing in others’ wellness, squared off against antipathy for a discussion that stigmatizes all people in need as the next potential assailant.

Contradictions like friends’ posts on Facebook, where we communally grieve, rage, and process.

“It is one’s choice to act in a manner that will bring pain and suffering upon another,” wrote one. “Sadly, there isn’t anything we, as individuals and as a nation, will ever be able to do about the actions another chooses.”

Another said, “We live in a culture that is more oriented to competition than cooperation, to power than vulnerability; to materialism rather than sustainability; to defense rather than inquiry; to self-interest and individual rights rather than concern for the whole.”

I didn’t have the strength to weigh in. What could I say that hasn’t already been said about Sandy Hook… and Oregon… Tulare County… Minneapolis… New York… Wisconsin… Colorado… Seattle… Florida… Arizona… Ohio… Georgia… and Texas, in 2012 alone? Words are such worthless fragments, too small and brittle for this size of grief. What would they even matter?

Blogger Jim Wright’s readers were anxious to hear what the fiercely spoken Alaskan – a gun owning, military consulting, Navy veteran – would say about Newtown, but he wasn’t having it. “I may have something to say later, but at the moment, I’m not going to waste my time – and it’s exactly that, a complete and utter waste of my time because absolutely NOTHING has changed since the last bloody slaughter, since the last time a bunch of kids were mowed down by the insanity that is America and its bizarre obsession with guns and violence and blood. Nothing has changed. Not one goddamned thing. Exactly as I said five months ago. We can’t even have the conversation. Both sides were already rehashing the same old arguments before the blood was dry.”

I have two friends who didn’t rehash old arguments. They embraced action. “The only response is to organize,” the one in Seattle wrote. “I’ll be hosting a conversation today at 3 pm about possible next steps for those of us who want to ‘do something’ about gun violence. You don’t have to be any kind of expert – I’m not.”

The resulting group has scheduled bi-weekly meetings, open to anyone who wants to be involved. If you’d like to be, visit the Densmore Working Group.

The friend in Sitka didn’t waste any time, either: “I am sure that many of you are as furious, outraged, devastated, and so, so sad about the Connecticut shooting as I am,” she wrote. “I feel so strongly that SOMETHING needs to change in our nation, our states, and our communities. My personal step towards a solution is to invite people to a letter-writing campaign this Wednesday, December 19, at 6:30 pm at the Larkspur to send letters to our state senators, representatives, and president. The goal here is to do SOMETHING proactive to reduce these violent incidents.”

If you’re in Sitka, drop by the Larkspur Café, 6:30 to 8:30 pm, to participate. Those outside of Sitka can join in, too. I’ll be writing my letters in solidarity from Bellingham.

There aren’t a lot of easy answers here in the gray, but one sunbeam voice breaks through. My friend Laura posted this resource from Mr. Rogers, advising parents how to talk to children about traumatic events. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Good advice for all. May we look for the helpers… May we be the helpers. I’m thankful to have friends setting the example.




15 responses

18 12 2012
Kari Neumeyer

“What could I say that hasn’t already been said…” You just said it.

18 12 2012

A thoughtful, reflective insightful piece, Tele. You’ve captured the tumult of raw emotions that so many of us are feeling in the wake of unspeakable grief and sorrow.

18 12 2012

Thank you for saying what I was feeling but couldn’t find the words to say. The magnitude of this tragedy has left me speechless. I can’t even think about it, much less talk about it, but I’m glad you can and are.

18 12 2012

I’m glad if this resonated with you, Robin, but I can tell you that the words still didn’t come easily. I can’t imagine how this hits you and other parents of small children. Hugs to you and yours, friend.

18 12 2012

As always, your words have a way of reaching into me, though that’s not really what I’m here to talk about today. It’s your honesty that strikes me and your vision of ‘life in the gray.’ You don’t just acknowledge the various shades of a topic; you also are bound by your integrity to be real about how these things play out in your life – all our lives, for that matter. You observe, and while it’s clear you feel things at a great depth and model your own behavior after closely held values, you leave room for ‘the rest’, whatever that might look like. It’s a rare combination, Tele, and something I tremendously appreciate you for. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and encouraging your readers to think about ‘the gray.’

18 12 2012

You’re very generous, EBW, and I appreciate your kindness, but the truth is that it’s far easier to honor my values and those who differ from me here, with the luxury of days to consider stances, other angles, and frequent use of the delete button, than it is in real life. In person, I frequently fail at being the person you see – not only frequently, but pretty nearly ALL of the time with some family and friends. A long road ahead in that regard, one that I don’t seem to make any smoother. Maybe that’s just the way it is for many of us…

Regardless, thanks for your own thoughtful observations. Having such a encouraging community of readers/fellow writers really does make a difference – as I think you know, too. 🙂 I’m so glad to see you back out here and posting again.

30 12 2012

Your response only underscores my thoughts, though it might not seem so at a glance. Your struggle to be the person you think I (and your other readers) see is a large part of what I refer to when I say ‘you are bound by your integrity to be real about how these things play out in your life.’

You are honest and open about your struggles and the occasions you think you don’t live up to your values, and to my mind, there is no better example of life’s shades of gray.

18 12 2012
Karla Richardson

So many of the people I known in the fleet, are afraid of change. They dislike the idea of intervention for mental health issues. They dislike helpers. I hope this is changing as I have been off of the boat for many years now. My bachelor’s degree is in Human Services. I was the outstanding student in my program at WWU, in 2000. My degree has “helper” stamped all over it. The dilemma for me has been this, it is only possible to help others that want to be helped. I have relatives that have (or have had) gun issues. Control issues. Violence issues. I have asked them to get help, professional help, and they refused. They denigrated me for seeking professional help. It is documented, recorded, and has been part of the court system. And so much denial still exists. The words are within all of us. Words are powerful! There need be no fear.

19 12 2012

Thanks so much for these observations, Karla. As you so well know, we’re fisherfolk are a funny bunch… so dependent on one another in times of need, but ferociously independent as a general rule. I feel like there is a shift taking place in the fleet… but that may be wishful thinking on my part, or that some folks simply don’t talk about particular topics around me anymore. 🙂 Makes me smile to think that the Southeast troll fleet had had both you and I, two social work-y, touchy-feely, lefty women, to contend with.

You were just enough of a generation ahead of me that I didn’t get to know you on the docks, so I’m very thankful that the internets have given me this opportunity to understand what a gifted, generous advocate you are. There are indeed limits to the help we can extend; I’m happy that you committed to your own well-being over others’ fear. Hugs to you, Karla.

19 12 2012

I agree – you have so eloquently stated what so many of us have been thinking since Friday. I am so outraged by the pro-gun rhetoric that perpetuates fear and suggests conquering violence with more violence, but have realized that the best way to get things done is to quietly begin working in earnest to help elicit change in our country. Thank you for posting links to grassroots organizations who are endeavoring to do exactly what I am trying to get my readers, friends, and families to do. If you don’t mind, I’m going to write a simple post linking back here. I’d like to share what you’ve written, along with your advice to others. I couldn’t say anything any better than you have done here.
Thank you for this.

19 12 2012

Thanks for your thoughts and efforts, Dawn. I so appreciate the way you use your blog to advocate for healthier, kinder and more connected communities. I’d be honored with the link. Thanks for stopping by, and best holiday wishes to you and yours.

20 12 2012
Eric T. Van Cise

Thanks Tele for the soul searching thoughts on this topic. It is ironic the steps one takes (w/o protest) to obtain a driver’s license nationwide: documentation of who we are, written exam, road test, liability insurance, registration, title transfer etc. This includes laws that enable us to retain or lose it – often with fines and even incarceration. Sadly, if we thought same sex marriage and abortion gets the clue-less masses incensed, firearm reform measures will make those topics seem like a stroll on the beach. There are many deep layers to all of this it is a start. Regardless of the challenges to gain these reforms, I, like many of those who travel the same humanitarian road will not give up the fight for what is right – Life, love, equality and respect for all things on this great planet earth is the target where my aim is directed. Tele, thanks for being who you are – please keep that pen and mind of yours in action. Happy safe holidays to all.

21 12 2012

Eric, I’m glad to hear from you – was just thinking of you the other day, when I found a scrap of paper that had your safety training class details on it. (Hope we can make that happen this spring.) We’re on the same page, and I deeply appreciate your humanitarian commitments. Your comment is a great answer to Karla’s curiosity (above) about how – or if – the fleet’s thinking has shifted over the past 15+ years. It’s good to see that we’re a far more complex, socially mixed group than the pop culture caricatures of fishermen.

Thanks for chiming in, Eric. Best wishes to you and yours, too.

(Looks like I’ll be back in Sitka February 7 for a panel on women in fishing. If you’re around, it’d be lovely to finally meet you.)

22 12 2012
Eric T. Van Cise

Thanks Tele.
I do believe the troll fleet and country as a whole is slowly but surely evolving and moving forward on so many of these issues in regards to violence, human rights, peace, taking care of our neighbors, ourselves, planet earth and so much more. There is hope that society will one day see that it is by far easier to be kind than the work and destruction involved in being cruel. Many of those like myself from the Baby Boomer generation have witnessed too much for too long despite hard efforts to change course. I honestly believe that it has been the increased diversity of our population combined with a younger generation that is far more open minded and us older types who have battled on this for decades where we are finally gaining ground. Metaphorically I liken it to our efforts of rounding Cape Edgecumbe in a smoking Southwesterly trying to gain that tenuous lee side of safety at St. Lazaria Island. We get beat to hell physically and mentally by forces that defy words to describe. Yet through diligence, sheer will and raw determination we succeed. The hook is dropped and scope paid out, we lick our wounds and gather up the wreckage of our journey. For now we are safe yet we know that journey will continue through calm and storm. It is what we do because it is what we believe in. Peace and goodwill to you, Joel and all out there.
Eric F/V New Hope (I think she knows her lifelong name is meant to be)

P.S. I will drop an e-mail to you and Joel regarding the February visit.

26 12 2012
Karla Richardson

Eric, such a great metaphor of resiliency (running to precarious shelter & dropping the hook behind Lazaria in the teeth of a mean storm) in relation to bucking the current of societal oppression. So encouraging to hear your thoughts! Karla, Al & family – F/V Saint Jude (we thinks she knows she is named for the patron saint of lost causes)

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