Potter Gray Elementary School. Bowling Green, Kentucky.
The kind of school they make movies and TV shows about. The kind of school where the moms are in a perpetual state of cupcake baking and party planning. Where the dads show up no matter what. Where the sixth grade goes to Space Camp and the parents fund raise to make sure Every. Single. Kid. is on that bus when it heads south for Huntsville, Alabama.
The kind of school you wish every child in America went to.
Four of our five children spent at least some of their early academic days within these walls. That’s where the three oldest, the “big girls”, were on the exact day of the first school shooting I can ever remember.
March 13, 1996.
I can’t recall a single solitary thing about that day other than finding out an atrocity had occurred somewhere far away.
Dunblane. A primary school in Scotland. A little place not much different than our own Potter Gray.
That night my husband and I looked at each other across four rowdy heads. I touched my belly and thought about the fifth little Pennington we would meet in a few short months.
Scotland was so far away. But was it, really? So we talked to them: we talked to our kids about something we believed, we hoped, could never occur.
We told them what gunfire sounds like. “Firecrackers popping off all around.”
We taught them to lie down. Wherever they were. Whatever they were doing.
We said to them, “Play dead. No matter what happens. No matter what you see or hear. Play dead. Don’t make a sound.”
Then we role played, in a gruesome and macabre after-dinner game that horrified and sickened me.
I looked away with tears in my eyes.
Tears for stealing their innocence far too soon. Tears for the mothers in Scotland who couldn’t feed their kids supper, or run their baths, or check the calendar for dentist appointments they would never need.
Tears for this world into which our own soon-to-be-five rowdy heads would go, without us. Who knew what, or whom, they would meet?
Then April 20, 1999.
How could this be? What is this world?
I don’t remember where I was when I heard, or what we said to the kids. What I do remember is us and a friend, sitting up far too late on a week night, transfixed before news coverage, too sick to do anything but share the same space, breathe the same air.
There is no desk, no door, no playing dead, sufficient to save them. Did any parent sleep that night?
Or after Heath High School, a few short miles down the road in western Kentucky? Newtown? Parkland? You know the names. And those are just the first ones that pop into my mind.
May 24, 2022. Robb Elementary School.
One day earlier we celebrated with our grandson at a happy, music-filled festivity complete with cupcakes at his own movie-worthy school in Nashville.
And then my phone ignited with the fear, the torment, of young mothers terrified for their children. Those same girls we taught to play dead are mothers of their own rowdy heads, and what has changed?
There’s precious little innocence left in this world.
We adults have done–are doing–precious little to protect it.
Boy howdy, we sure can blast into the new year…just whip up another tornado and kick the 2021 holiday season to the curb with real style.
Mid-day Saturday, January 1. Should have been an average, post-New Year’s Eve afternoon with sale shopping, football watching, maybe a burrito.
Instead, PTSD was popping off people like sparks on a live wire. Phones buzzed. Facebook groups blew up.
It was fast and, fortunately, covered far less ground than our December 11 debacle, but when the photos started filling up our feeds we knew it was unbelievably true.
Follow up that adrenalin surge with a Sunday full of sleet and freezing rain. A winter’s worth of dull, cold, wet gray in one afternoon.
But today we had sunshine. Blessed sunshine.
So, for the first time in at least a month, I walked my usual route. A route that was fortunately, miraculously, somewhat spared. By going the usual way I had, unintentionally, saved the worst for last.
When I round this final corner I’m heading for home, on the last leg of a four mile trek. Every single time I pass by I think about the person, or people, who live in this house on that corner. I don’t know them. For some reason I’ve always thought they were older, although these days that word is a highly relative term.
I had not seen this corner in post-tornado daylight until this afternoon. It took my breath away.
This little kitchen. That little cabinet. Those sturdy little shelves.
There used to be a window over what would have been the sink, where my imaginary woman would have busied herself in hot, sudsy water. Sometimes a red glow spilled out from that window onto the darkening world: an illuminated WKU sign that never failed to make me smile, because I thought about the woman in there at that sink who will be a Hilltopper until the day she dies.
My sunny day spirits sank right into that puddle of muddy water. There was no hiding it: our small spot here on planet Earth is forever changed.
I stood there, rooted on that muddy sidewalk, for a good long while.
But I still had a mile to go, so go I did.
The walking wasn’t as easy now. The going not so pleasant. I began to wish I had just stayed put, indoors, where the real world was easier to forget.
Then I saw them. These men, their vests a tropical brilliance in our wintry, storm-scarred landscape, two huddled on the ground in a nest of debris, one perched high in the branches of what was left of our trees. The sun touched them and the light winked back at me.
Then, a single chair, facing the mother of all chairs, a tree that has done her due.
And then, thankfully, the singular sound of progress after a storm. Rooftop voices in casual conversation, the silhouette of backs bent to labor, the steady, confident ping of hammer on nail.
Almost home now. The light fades. A man stands by the bed of his truck, makes some notes in his phone, loads his extension ladder.
I have to watch my step–no easy going here–dodging cables as thick as my wrist, weaving in and out of debris, end-of-day commuters, bags of sodden things no one wanted to discard.
Then I see this.
An insulator, embedded in dirt, far-flung from its place in the sky. When my husband was a boy in western Kentucky he collected them, some naval blue, some earth brown, some watery turquoise. The sight of it is familiar to me, in a way that feels like home.
I pick it up. Its weight is steady. It feels good and right in my hand.
My pace quickens, my feet move more surely.
Moments ago I was ready to forever change my route. There are other, less painful ways to clock four miles.
But then I would miss the good stuff that comes after the storm.
Our daughter, struggling to process a recent loss, wrote these words in a text: “I’d rather wear black and go back to days of mourning where you were allowed to at least show you were sad.”
Yes, I thought. Yes.
Later, as I considered her words, I wondered–
When did I first know that people long ago had dressed in mourning? Ten years old, in a dark seat at the brightly lit, single screen, Capitol Theatre in Madisonville, Kentucky.
Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.
Perhaps never has a character so little deserved to wear mourning than Scarlett, with her little tap dancing feet barely concealed behind a counter, and then the ripples of shock that ran through the socially (and racially) restrictive people of Atlanta, when she took Rhett Butler’s hand to twirl across the dance floor, mourning be damned.
In spite of Scarlett’s unfeeling and self-centered lack of grief, the idea of wearing weeds during a time of mourning stuck in my ten year-old brain. Even then, as a child, it seemed to make sense.
Now, some fifty years later, I know it makes sense. The concept of wearing outward signs of inward mourning is a sound one, or so it seems to me.
What if we went back to wearing some simple sign of grief? Would it be so bad to send out a little test balloon to the world in the form of a strip of cloth, or a ribbon, or pin, that says, “Hey. I lost someone who means a lot to me. Maybe they meant the world. Can you make eye contact for more than a millisecond so I know I’m not wandering the planet by myself today?”
Such a small thing: eye contact. Two hands touching for the briefest of seconds.
We could do that even for people we do not know. It takes a mere moment. It costs us nothing—nothing but the inner courage to face what we all must face—the absolutely certain knowledge that if we love anyone or anything at all in this life, we are guaranteed to grieve.
No matter how much body armor we strap on, or bubble wrap we stuff around our hearts, no matter how much we drink, or eat, or watch TV, or run, or talk, or go to sporting events, or shop, or sort through our mountains of stuff: we will mourn.
Wouldn’t it make sense that we do it together? Even if it’s just a nod from a stranger, a look of comfort from a passerby, a touch from someone in the checkout lane. We may not know the specifics of the other’s loss, but what does it matter?
We are fellow humans, scurrying about on this planet—we love, and we lose. We remember, and we mourn.
Why don’t we do it together?
Not for an hour, or a day, or a week, or even a month. For as long as it takes. For as deep as it goes.
For poet Natasha Trethewey, who was nineteen when her mother was murdered by her then stepfather, the grief is with her still, powering her writing in ways that are both universally understandable and so painfully specific as to take one’s breath away.
Here, she reads from the work of yet another poet, Lisel Mueller, a poem that is a reminder for us all that no matter how normal the world may seem, no matter the hustle, the bustle, the trees, the leaves: for the mourner, all is forever changed
Close your eyes. Imagine your hometown, wherever that may be. The spot where, this very night, you will rest your head, or the place to which you most long to return.
Think about your main drag. Everybody has one. For us, it’s Scottsville Road.
Okay. Got it?
Now imagine that road, no matter how populous or remote, has been bombed to smithereens.
Or, perhaps much harder to wrap our minds around, think about this:
What if we all got up tomorrow morning and some people we don’t know in a building somewhere across the globe have, for reasons we may not comprehend or ever even know, decided to rip our special place asunder.
It has hereby been declared to those on the east side of 231, or Main Street, or I-65, or Route 66, or the Mississippi: you will forever have to remain here.
Those on the west, there you will stay.
No comingling. No sharing of language, of faith, of resources, of centuries-old customs, memories, mores, and loves.
How do we think that would land in the home of the free and the brave? I’d say not.
Maybe in a few months, years, weeks or even days, people with guns come and hunt you down because you’re on the wrong side of that line. There’s coal or oil under the land that has been in your family for three generations and they want it.
Maybe there’s access to fresh water, or a seaport, or a railroad, or a gigantic reservoir.
Maybe there’s the wrong kind of church, or no church at all.
Maybe they just want it because they want it.
You have two choices: stay and risk death (or worse), to yourself, your children, your precious wee ones and the delicate elders. Or flee, desperate just to stay alive.
You don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave. It’s my special place. It’s in my blood and bone.
But to save my blood and bone, and that of every person I love, leave I must.
An arbitrary post-WWII decision such as this, many years before he was born, launched Albert Mbanfu on his own journey from Cameroon to Atlanta, and ultimately, to Bowling Green, where he has worked for eight years as the Executive Director of the International Center of Kentucky.
Right now, this is where he spends countless hours each day working to prepare a home for the several hundred Afghan refugees who are somewhere, on military bases across the globe, preparing to come here.
To our little spot, to this land we love so much.
Mr. Mbanfu is a boots-on-the-ground hardworking man who understands what it takes to help people get started in a new place.
And he knows the pain of leaving his homeland behind. Of saying goodbye to his elderly father, the Reverend Peter Fangha, a Baptist minister.
He reveres and misses his father every single day, and he has not seen him in six years due to violence in his own home country that would threaten them both if he were to return.
He knows the guilt of a family left behind, of a loss so painful it haunts him to this day, a loss he would have done everything in his power to prevent, had he just been able to stay home.
But he doesn’t look back.
Instead he answers the phone, he goes on the hunt, he works the boardrooms and the churches and the federal agencies, and the national news organizations, gaining attention and finding resources for the travellers who are heading this way.
Only this time “the situation is very fluid, and it changes throughout the hour”. Federal aid will be late in arrival and homes must be secured, furnishings provided, rent and deposits paid.
A plea is made. People in the community do step up.
But there are “some people who call with very nasty language and no number/anonymous. The threats, the abuse. We are used to it. But it’s only one percent who are nasty.”
For Mr. Mbanfu, “there are two things that cause them to behave that way. One is ignorance, and one is just bad faith. [He’s] experienced both.”
He takes the calls, every single one, no matter how bad they may be. He answers the questions. Sometimes, after much time and work, it ends better than it began.
A recent thirty-minute conversation with a particularly aggressive voice on the line concluded with an ally, when the man offered to bring childrens’ clothing to the center. Albert thanked him, for the offer and for the call. One mind changed: victory.
Worldwide less than ONE percent of all 80 million displaced refugees are resettled: that is less than one percent resettled in all nations (not just the U.S.). Which means over NINETY-NINE percent will live out their days in a camp or refugee settlement.
Albert is one of the less than one percent. So are the two hundred Afghans coming to make their home with us.
Close your eyes again. Think about your special place. The main drag. Whatever it is that makes it special, no matter how small.
Imagine never seeing it again, for as long as you live. Imagine your children never knowing their grandparents, the place you grew up, the smell of the air, the sound of the birds in the evening.
Then choose to be one of those who reach out a hand. One of those who say, “Welcome.”
Since its first anniversary was marked in 2002, it seems there is no day throughout the year when our thoughts turn more to peace than on 9/11.
We have a collective experience of that day that will never perish.
We are stilled by a shared grief that haunts us even now.
We have a communal memory of a country that seemed to be, at least for a time, united.
But so often these days, both in the internet world and in conversation with each other, we bemoan the lack of civility. We yearn for that unity. We proclaim its passing, predict the end of our union as one people, plan for what would seem to be the irrevocable division of us all.
We fear we are far too divided, polarized, different one from the other, for that to ever be.
I say no.
A few days ago our small-ish town found out we are one of the lucky communities across our country who will welcome refugees from Afghanistan.
Many folks don’t know that Bowling Green, Kentucky is a bustling hub of international activity. Our town is enriched by folks from all across the globe: the Congo, Cambodia, Vietnam, Russia, Bosnia, Senegal, Burma, Serbia, Micronesia, Iraq, and many more.
In the last two decades our International Center has helped resettle over twelve thousand people.
Ninety different languages are spoken in our public schools.
We boast four mosques/Islamic centers and a Hindu temple.
This in the heart of the Bible belt.
Has every single Warren Countian treated our new residents warmly and with respect? I would guess, probably not. But, more importantly, the majority of us have.
Are each of the refugees who land here going to be terrific citizens? I would guess, probably not (note the terrorist attack planned by two from Iraq who settled here, stored weapons here, and were foiled here). But, more importantly, the majority of them are good citizens.
And when the announcement was made that two hundred people seeking safe harbor from what has now become Afghanistan were on their way, our community started stepping up.
But. But, you say.
People are prejudiced. People are hateful. People are loathe to accept those unlike themselves and this will never work.
Yes, some people are all of those things. But, at their core,
People. Are. People.
Last week we attended a small family birthday celebration at Percy Priest Lake near Nashville.
The sky was blue. The water was clear. The park was bustling with activity, with gatherings at every single picnic table, and more on blankets.
The mood: humming with human interaction at its best. Quiet, but happy.
Many different ethnic groups enjoyed this public space.
Many different religions did as well. A white-robed group speaking a language uncommon to my ears performed baptisms in the lake water, each ceremony heralded by blasts from a large, curved horn while, within shouting distance, Muslim families gathered together for their own picnics and celebrations.
You know what I saw that day, in that park?
We weren’t all sitting together at the exact same table, but we were in the exact same space.
Under the same sky. In the shade of the same trees. Beside the same, clear blue water.
It was a perfect moment of America at its best.
But. But. But, you say.
Our cynical disbelief that this vision can be true is, perhaps more than anything else, the biggest threat to the American dream. It’s cool to be cynical, doubtful, suspicious. Some believe it’s saccharine Pollyanna, pie-in-the-sky unwillingness to face reality to believe this could be possible.
It’s not only possible. It’s already happening.
We can live in the same communities. We already ARE.
We can share life in the same space. We already ARE.
Is it perfect? No.
Is there any place on earth that is? No.
But the foundation is here. Let’s get to work and keep building on it.
If you’ve seen any news this week, I don’t have to tell you what is happening in Afghanistan, especially since I don’t really know. Anything I might say would be based on the most superficial information there is. The only people who really know are the ones who are there.
But we have all seen the photographs. We have all watched the videos. For most of us, in our comfortable lives, that is enough.
The sight of those people, captured in photos, their mouths open in silent, frozen screams.
The sound of those videos. The frantic, high-pitched keening of hundreds, thousands, of desperate people running for their lives. Driven to leave their own homeland. The country many of them have been working so hard for so many years to make better. To make freer. To build into the home they want and deserve.
But this week, I also saw something most of you did not. I heard things most of us never hear as we go about our comfortable lives.
Because the exact week Afghanistan fell, our son-in-law graduated from Air Assault School at Fort Campbell.
Twenty years ago this September 11, Tavis was eleven years old. Our own son was seven, our daughters, thirteen, eleven, ten, and five. An entire nation of children remember that day. They always will.
As horrific as it was for every child, for some, that day held the certain, unshakeable knowledge that their parents would be deployed. While Tavis sat in a sixth grade classroom in Jacksonville, Illinois, the public school-issue television turned to coverage of what would forever change our lives, that was the only thing in his mind.
And he was right. His father, Colonel David Ciochetty, left some six months later, for Afghanistan, on his seventh deployment.
Three weeks after his first child was born and seventeen years after 9/11, Tavis commissioned into the U.S. Army. We celebrated his service. Helped them pack. Watched them move. Then helped them move back, this time to Fort Campbell.
I braced myself. “We’re in the real Army now,” I couldn’t help but think.
This week slammed up against just how real it is, when we stood with our daughter and his parents to watch him become officially Air Assault qualified, only hours after completing his pre-dawn, twelve-mile ruck march with a forty pound pack.
We stood and watched while our granddaughter held her hand over her little heart during the National Anthem.
We stood and watched while Black Hawk helicopters flew overhead, not as a special tribute, but as matter of mere routine. Training for what we always seem to ask them to do.
We stood and listened while hundreds of rounds of ammunition were discharged all around us. Again, no tribute. Simply men and women at work, preparing for what apparently, given human nature, is the inevitable.
We stood and watched, while Afghanistan fell. While at the exact same moment, our soldiers prepared themselves to go wherever we ask, whenever we need.
The words our then-eight year old son wrote all those years ago after 9/11 hold true today. And they always will.
But as much as we thank them, all of them, for their service, and pray for their safe return, even more I challenge every single one of us to pay attention.
When the men and women in D.C. power suits make decisions in air conditioned rooms, it is beholden on us, the people who put them in those seats of authority, to make sure they are measured, controlled, and most of all, that they are motivated by unselfish, apolitical aims.
It is beholden on us, because we are beholden to them.
We all have it. Don’t lie and say you don’t know what I’m talking about. That your brain is fine. Everything’s fine. Nothing to see here. Move along.
It’s okay. You don’t have to fake it ‘til you make it. Not around me, since my faking days are over.
Your brain is not fine. Everything is not okay. There is too much to see.
And no, please don’t move along, because this is just weird, and nobody knows anything, and we all are running scared.
Move over here, next to me. Only six feet away. That’s the new next to me.
Put your phone down. Turn off the radio. Throw away that newspaper (does anybody still carry a newspaper?). And for everyone’s sake, turn off the television (unless you’re watching infinite numbers of mind-numbing Gilmore Girls reruns. Then by all means, carry on).
The hospitals are full, people. It’s a four letter word I thought we would never see applied to hospitals in twenty-first century America. Which is where we live.
And it’s not just the little hospitals in rural areas of Kentucky. The kind who didn’t even have physical therapy thirty years ago, when we were young pups ourselves, and just starting out in the business of getting rehab out there where no rehab had ever gone before.
It’s the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
The University of Alabama hospital complexes.
The Dallas-Fort Worth hospital systems.
It’s the biggest trauma centers all across our country.
No matter how you feel about this virus. No matter what you think about masks. No matter if you’re vaccinated or not, that word should scare all of us.
Doctors run ragged. Nurses barely able to function.
Babies unable to be babied in Peds ICU. Grannies unable to be grannied in CCU. Daddies who need stents in their hearts unable to be stented, so they can go on to become granddaddies to even more babies.
Uncles in car wrecks who can’t get put back together. Aunts who can’t get their breast cancer treatment. Teenagers with acute leukemia who can’t get chemo.
I’m not pointing fingers or holding up a protest sign, even though, like everybody else, I’ve got a lot of dogs in this fight. And some of them are pretty cute little pups; a lot of them are pretty special old hounds. At least they are to me, just like yours are to you. Show me your pics later. I can’t wait to see’em.
I got the shot, but I’m not going to tell anybody else they have to. Both days I felt that needle go into my arm, I had the most serious case of COVID brain yet.
Overjoyed to be getting it. Terrified to be getting it.
I’m a fairly sane (relative term to those who know me well) person. But that day I was seeing my life in a funhouse mirror, and it looked pretty warped.
There I was. There everybody else was. We all were either getting shots, or giving shots, or waiting the obligatory fifteen minutes to see if our lips were going to swell and our throats close up.
Fifteen minutes is nothing compared to the rest of your life with that shot in your system.
So I get it.
But I was also overjoyed when I felt that needle pierce my flesh. Even as I quivered in my chair.
Because I believed then, and I believe now, that it’s our best shot (ha! See what my COVID brain did there?) to maybe getting out of this with all my hound dogs, big and little, still with us.
But I won’t tell you that you HAVE to get a shot.
Just like I don’t drink, but I won’t tell you that you can’t. I will, however, respectfully ask that you abide by what I think is a pretty darn logical concept, and not drink and drive.
That seems like a pretty easy minimum to hold up for our fellow man.
So, this is about all my COVID brain can muster.
Let’s just do whatever our personal barest minimum is for each other. Kind of like putting on clothes (for some of us that’s a completely new, influencer-worthy outfit every single day, seven days a week. For others it’s a Sam’s Club shirt loosely categorizable as ath-leisure, that was just dug out of the laundry hamper).
We brush our teeth. We take showers (hopefully…still can’t wrap my brain around this Hollywood trend of going unbathed, and why?).
We wear our seatbelts.
That’s one that really only helps ourselves, but in the long run it helps everybody, because if I wear my seatbelt, maybe I won’t end up needing care for the rest of my days in a government funded facility. Maybe I can keep changing the water in my own pups’ water bowls, and shaking out their kibble, so nobody else has to do it for me, all on somebody else’s dime.
Whatever, those seatbelts help all of us.
Maybe it’s wearing a mask. Which, again, I’m not telling you that you have to.
Even though I fully support my kiddos wearing them at school. If the littlest can do it, then so can the biggest. At least that seems to make sense to me.
And it’s not going to be forever.
I stopped wearing my mask for a nice long time. And now it’s back.
Because why? The hospitals are FULL.
Still, my COVID brain jumps all over the place on this one. Like, I wear it when I’m holding a brand new baby.
Then I put the baby down, walk all the way across the room (which, granted, it’s a fairly big room), take it off and gulp down my Diet Coke.
See? COVID brain. But for right now, for this day, for these minutes, it’s the only way my brain can continue to function so that I can continue to function. I’m not even talking about long term healthy function.
I’m just talking about today.
And if anybody out there has connections to Washington, D.C., send them this message:
Stop acting like a bunch of idiots, running around arguing and fighting and grabbing all the toys for your side of the sandbox. All sides are pretty disgusting these days. No badge of honor there. Not for anybody. No trophy for participation.
Stop getting on TV or YouTube or Twitter and riling up your people on BOTH sides of the aisle.
There isn’t any aisle. We don’t have the luxury of an aisle, which implies an orderly chamber where men and women act like grown-ups.
When you’re in a crisis (that’s what this is…a crisis), There. Is. No. Aisle. It’s just one gigantic place called America and we ALL are in it together.
I’d like to keep all of us in it together until, whenever that day may be, we start shuffling on off to whatever hereafter awaits us beyond this mortal coil.
I don’t want COVID to be what’s speeding up our shuffle. We still have stuff to do.
I don’t want the friends I have in those hospitals, giving their all, day and night, to get pushed off either.
I don’t want COVID to win. I know you don’t.
So do your minimum. I’ll do mine. Just please make sure your minimum isn’t simply business as usual, because there’s nothing usual about these days. These days require all of us to do something, so that we still have some days.
That way maybe none of us will have to give to the max.
And that’s about the best my old, nearly senile, COVID-befuddled brain can do.