Saturday our rural internet started feeling like we should be attaching rabbit ears to our modem, so I went to work at the round table with the red and white checkered table cloth at back of our local country store, parking myself next to the deli case, compete with a view of the giant rolltop desk that sits in front of a sign that reads, “If we don’t have it you don’t need it.”
Most Saturdays what I need, in addition to the internet, are soda and vittles from the deli, but there are other things I need from our country store that aren’t on any shelf — and they can’t be had any place else.
Yesterday, the store’s proprietress sat at the desk working on an order for the summer season, and we chatted as we both worked and visited with neighbors stopping in for groceries or a coffee break.
Around lunchtime, the owner’s granddaughter came in for her shift. Her son toddled behind her, continuing a time-honored tradition of ‘helping’ at the family business. Kids love the sights and constant flow of friends and family in and out, and this toddler did an excited two-step, giving a little squeal whenever someone he knew came through the door.
While his mom worked in the office, he darted between her and his great-grandmother. Occasional soft whimpers began signaling the need for a nap , and his great-grandmother reached out, inviting him to snuggle with her for short nap. He went happily to her outstretched arms and, with a little help, climbed onto her lap, resting his head on her shoulder and looking as contented as a person can be.
It took only a moment to draw enough energy from that hug before he got back to the business of being a toddler. I watched him explore thinking how nice it is that somethings can still be made right with a hug, which was exactly what I needed.
The picture on the 27” screen had just switched to views of the Oregon area as Kindergarten Cop went from a loud, violent sequence to a more lighthearted part of the movie. The room was dark and shots of green hills and blue sky made the console TV look like a window to better places in the world than this house where I knew I should not be. I was thinking about grabbing the purse I had just bought at the Indian artifacts store in the mall and leaving when the front door banged open.
Afternoon sun poured into the hallway next to the front room making the mustard and gold shag carpet look clean for just a moment before two stark shadows darkened it purple. The shadows moved barely 2 steps before morphing into two very young men pointing guns at the seven people in the room. To this day, I don’t know the types, but I can remember black cylinders pointed at us as we were told to give them our valuables.
I tried not to look at one of the thieves as I handed him my purse strap. He took a wallet from the man sitting next to me next. Another girl at the gathering asked if she could get something out of her purse first, and, I knew we were all going to die.
Only an hour before this nightmare began, she had pulled from it a handgun to boast of the recent gift from a boyfriend. I knew I should’ve walked out of the party immediately. Now I stared down at the beer-stained shag carpet, realizing it might be the last thing I saw because i’d lacked the fortitude to do the right thing at the right time.
The boys/men unwittingly spared all of us shouting “No” and grabbed her bag. It took less than two minutes for them to collect our valuables, and then they told us to lie down on the floor. There had been other robberies in the area in the last few weeks that had ended with fatalities, and I wondered if it would be better to be shot in the head and die instantly or in the back and be paralyzed.
The boys apparently having chosen their target because they knew the house’s tenant was also engaged in criminal activity (the full extent of which I later discovered) and would not be calling the police, left without firing a shot.
Two hours later locksmith had made a new key for our cars. Knowing our assailants had my license and apartment keys, I drove to a friends house, and hid in their basement TV room for a month. For years I told no one I loved what had happened since I knew I was to blame for having stayed in the wrong place with the wrong people.
That was over 25 years ago, but those two minutes changed the trajectory of my life. They changed forever the way I dealt with people, with crowds, even with jobs. I stopped trusting anyone, especially myself. For years, every decision was made out of fear that sometimes metastasized into hate for the world. The Big Guy and the arrival of Thing moved me in a more positive direction, but I lost a lot of years and productivity to fear and hate.
I think about that impact every time word of another school or church shooting comes across the news. The people on the receiving end of this horrific violence have all been in the right place. They’ve been at school opening their minds or in their places of worship opening their hearts when some hate-filled person decides to take revenge on the world around him. And, as we have seen on the news, everyone in the presence of that violence is touched by it. It doesn’t matter if the bullets actually hit them, they will be scarred by them.
Some survivors, such as Emily Gonzalez, an eloquent and passionate advocate for the right of her contemporaries to go to school in peace, take of their post-ordeal trajectories in ways that become beacons of hope. My guess, however, is that even those with the strength to channel their pain into something productive will carry the wounds on their psyches for the rest of their lives.
Some scars may fade into tiny lines, blending in with those normal lines we all acquire. The psychic wounds inflicted on the children in this country may be increasingly common, but they are not normal. There are kids in war-torn and impoverished parts of the world who are acquiring far worse and more frequent wounds to body and mind, but that should not be the benchmark.
As I write, I’m watching 11-year-old Thing2 take apart an electronic toy to build a lightsaber. He’s at the beginning of his Age of Discovery. I know this is when his spark will be fanned into a flame. I also know he will acquire a few mental and physical scars over the next few years. That’s part of growing up. But, every day now I think about all the ways to protect Thing1 and Thing2 from the scars that should not be part of any childhood.
I know I’m in good company as more than one conversation with other parents over the last few years has evinced a common fear that any morning school drop off could be the last. We laughed nervously at what statistics tell us is our paranoia. Then a day after Parkland we heard news of a narrowly averted but similar shooting at a school two towns away. The conversations have since turned in earnest to school security, regulating certain guns and would-be owners, and even leaving the schools for homeschooling.
As I’ve entertained homeschooling for T2 and online college for T2 I realized my experience is still exercising its impact, trying to straitjacket their potential. That the fear isn’t irrational doesn’t make it less damaging to their futures, but I genuinely don’t know how to keep them from experiencing that fear while our country seems willing to normalize schools, churches, malls and theaters as war zones.
My personal feeling is that this issue won’t be resolved with a single magic pill. I don’t believe better school security or improved mental health support or better background checks alone will fix this, I think the answer will involve a combination of many solutions, but none of them will happen until we decide that all our children’s futures are worth working together.
It’s spring and a young man’s thoughts turn to visions of popcorn -at least around here. Thing2 has become a dedicated foodie, as interested in making it as he is in eating it.
For me, spring is the beginning of the craft fair season. They’re moderately profitable, and there are worse ways to spend a sunny day in Vermont than sitting in a meadow surrounded by other artists. Thing2 loves to come and help me set up. He loves arranging things. He usually brings his own sketchbook to keep busy, and there are always other kids at the other booths to play with.
This year he’s more serious, wanting to start his own booth. In addition to selling Icelandic style hotdogs that we discovered on our trip, he’s decided to start selling flavored popcorn. he’s been testing recipes for the last couple weeks, and we been finding stray popcorn everywhere. It’s a small price to pay for doing our part to help small business in America.
It feels like March outside, but on the first sunny day in weeks, May seems to be rallying.
I’ve been trying to warm to the water pens in anticipation of a trip to Iceland this summer which will require traveling light, but so far I’m not enamored. I’m determined, though. I’m doing a mini-painting a day in my moleskin journal to get revved up for summer shows and trips and hoping the weather will give us something inspirational soon.
There are two ways to get to the top of Mount Equinox in Manchester Vermont. You can pay your money to take the Skyline drive to the summit, or you can find your way to the no-traffic light town of Sandgate and go up the back.
You can’t drive the whole way (Sandgate’s dirt road eventually turns into a wide leaf-covered path). Once on foot, you’ll eventually get to the gate of a monastery run by the Carthusian monks (who also, incidentally, govern access to the skyline Drive). There’s a sign warning away trespassers, so we’ve never actually made it to the top of the Equinox without paying our money down, but along with that once-beaten path on the backside of the mountain, we’ve discovered something equally interesting.
When we first hiked that road, we wondered about its origins. There were easier ways to get to the monks and the top of the Equinox, but it was clear the road had once been in use frequently enough to leave its mark on the mountain. Shortly after the ‘real’ dirt road ended, we found our answer.
Thing1 was our distractor-in-chief at the time, occasionally luring us away from the path, and about a mile and a half past the end of the town road, he discovered an abandoned barn we HAD to see.
The barn roof was disintegrating, and we saw no other evidence (save for a few headstones that we almost tripped over) that a farm or homestead had ever existed. The carving on the headstones was so worn down we couldn’t read the names on them. As I was wondering what catastrophe that had driven surviving family members away from the farm, I realized this almost abandoned road had been made by and for hooves and feet, not rubber and steel.
At first I had thought these languishing headstones in this isolated part of the mountain were a sad statement about precarious nature of rural life (then and now). However, as we walked to and from the monastery gate with its no trespassing sign, passing the old homestead again, the late afternoon sun dipped low enough to bathe the woods in gold. I remember the branches were naked on that hike, but the forest, guarding its little cemetery, was warm and absolutely peaceful in the sun.
Modern rural life can be very hard, and I don’t cling to any romantic notions that life on the back of a mountain in Vermont was any easier a 100 years ago, but this quiet resting place was a testament to more than just hardship. It reminded me that people still come to these hard-to-live-in places because a life away from the madding crowd brings with it freedom and (in spite of the long winters and minimal economic opportunities) peace.