Change the Conversation

I was a freshman in high school the year of the Columbine shooting. That day, my world changed. The term “trench-coat mafia” suddenly had colloquial meaning. A new threat of violence in the form of outcast, troubled teenagers emerged in a space where suburban white high schools were formerly immune from attack. There were no metal detectors in our neighborhood. That stuff didn’t happen to us.

A decade later I went to a “violence prevention” training for my job in high school counseling. The discussion focused on identifying and serving youth at a “high-risk” for perpetrating school shootings and related behavior. I found most of it to be outdated and out-of-touch, taking me back to the days after Columbine, the countless news reports chronicling the lives of the shooters: who were these kids? who were their parents? where did they live? what did they do?

All questions about their individual identities. All questions about their individual actions. All questions looking outward, seeking an explanation. Pointing fingers, placing blame.

In the years since Columbine, more tragedy. Virginia Tech,  Tuscon Arizona, Aurora Colorado, smaller acts of violence in between. Each time, we cry out, feel fear, express sadness.

The media digs into the life of “the person responsible,” drudging up anecdotes from old neighbors, girlfriends and childhood acquintances. Speculation swarms about mental illness and a violent past. Some of us mourn with compassion for the darkness in the heart of the person who is moved to do unthinkable things. Some of us judge the actions of a criminal and the hopelessness of humanity. Some of us grow quiet and contemplative, some get loud with rage.

Political blogs go off about gun control and the second amendment. Twitter pours forth with sympathy and solidarity. We tune into dateline and CNN. We hug our families and tell them we love them. We post a heartfelt Facebook status. Or an angry, reactionary one.

Then in a week and a half we go on with our lives. Until the next catastrophe, when we begin again.

As I sit with the shooting in Connecticut, I call to mind lessons from my spiritual practice:

1. Times of darkness and deep pain present our greatest opportunity for growth.

Now is such a time for our country.

2. Growth Requires Change.

Creating a new outcome demands changing the behaviors, attitudes and perspective that produced the old one. Ask new questions. Reveal new answers.

Change the conversation.

3. Change comes from within

Maybe it’s time to investigate ourselves.

4. Everything is connected.

These unimaginable tragedies aren’t happening in a vacuum. This exact incarnation of violence isn’t recurring everywhere in the world. It is a reflection of our culture and connected to everything in it.

To talk about “gun-control” is an oversimplification. It may be true that more restrictive gun laws won’t end gun-violence, but it’s hard to ignore the way the two things intersect. There is no natural order of gun-ownership. It is a value choice. We value the individual right to gun ownership over the possibility of a gun-free country. That value projects a message. That message shapes our culture.

To talk about mental-illness is a starting point, not a solution. We acknowledge its existence but don’t always respond in a meaningful way. We know people need help, but don’t always  ensure they get it. We debate about “entitlement spending” and complain about higher taxes. Mental Health resources cost money, but we are unwilling to pay.  There is no natural order of how to treat the neediest in our population. It is a value choice. Our social services are minimal, and ever-diminishing. That value projects a message. That message shapes our culture.

There are other value choices, too.

We dead-bolt our doors and alarm our homes. We glorify individualism.We say awful things to our neighbors, families and friends. We judge others for how they dress, vote, pray and raise their kids. We consume violence: movies, video games, tv, the internet-our children do the same. We pay lawyers millions, and educators nothing. We campaign for democratic elections with hateful speech and character assassinations. We lock people up, or kill them, for doing wrong.

I’ve been working with Kindergarten through Fourth graders my entire adult life. They forgive easily and love openly. Until the world teaches them not to, they readily accept themselves, and others, no matter what. They are problem solvers with limitless creativity. Their lives, bodies, and environment change rapidly and they willingly adapt. When something isn’t working, they find a different way.

My heart breaks for the community at Sandy Hook Elementary. I can’t even wrap my mind around the loss of those kids. I can think of at least one powerful way to honor their memory: to recover from this tragedy just as they would. With open hearts. With curiosity. With courage and introspection.

Listening. Learning. Growing. Changing.

So we don’t have to relive this cycle, again.

My Love Affair with Chris Christie

Leadership is sexy.

For as far back as I can remember, I’ve fallen hard for a man in charge. I got giggly and flushed as a fourth grader in my first student government meetings. I was hyper verbal and unusually articulate for my age, but I’d crumble to pieces when called on by the charming, long-haired sixth grader who commanded the room.

In junior high, I lusted after my fourth period P.E. T.A., but only when he was holding the clipboard.
In high school, I made my first plans to marry a lawyer. I fantasized about a man in an expensive suit with an Ivy League diploma. I was on a fierce and narrow man hunt to trap the other half of the power couple I was destined to become.

I tried to date the program director of UniCamp my first summer as a counselor. And my second. My college boyfriend had more charisma than Bill Clinton.

I can usually see an attraction coming. I had predictable crushes on arrogant professors in both college and law school. When Senator Barack Obama gave his first famous speech at the DNC in 2004, I thought, “damn. that guy is fine.” I’ve loved alpha male frat-boys and outspoken social organizers. No matter what he looks like, I’m reliably hot for the most animated man in the room. My affection for authority transcends the boundaries of typical female taste and preference. But for all the difference and variation, one thing seemed certain.

I could never love a Republican.

Until now.

The morning after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the east coast, it was love at first sight. I saw him speaking soberly to Matt Lauer on the Today show. He was grieving, but grounded. Stoic, but vulnerable. He was humbly clad in a dark blue half-zip, speaking earnestly and openly to his broken community.

I felt swept up by his sincerity. Like we were making real-life eye contact. The type that imprints you with its intensity. The type you can still feel an hour after you’ve both looked away. I felt his hands reach out, grab mine with purpose and tell me with conviction, “it’ll all be o.k.”

Since then, I’ve been following him on twitter. I know some lowly staff intern writes his tweets, but he pours his soul into the message. He is mindful and direct. Encouraging, but no-nonsense.

I’m captivated by him. His strength, his determination, his resolution to rebuild. The way he told his party to fuck off when they said he cost Romney the election. I admire his honesty, and transparency. I cried when I watched the coverage of him walking the streets of New Jersey with the President. I saw him meeting his people, really feeling their fear. Their loss.  Their desperation. It was so human, and so beautiful.

The two of us are an unlikely pair.  I doubt he eats much vegetarian or spends any time in chatturanga. He probably scoffs at organic produce and laughs about “global warming.”

But we could be great together. I’d teach him about west-coast healthy living and he’d defend old- school fiscal conservatism. I’d take up eating seafood and he’d wear Lululemon. We’d yell at each other about politics. He’d call me young and naive. I’d call him old and out of touch. But in the end it wouldn’t matter. We’d hug and laugh and raise our glasses of red wine in celebration of the chance to have unique perspectives.

My love affair with Chris Christie got me thinking about bipartisanship. About a polarized country that’s suffering in the aftermath of an economic hurricane. About how each of us already has the solution to the issues, the controversies, the fiscal cliff and the unemployment rate.
It’s the ability to acknowledge and embrace our sameness. The ability to look at each other with a feeling of gratitude, admiration and love. When I watch Chris Christie lead, I don’t care how he feels about abortion, contraception or prayer in schools. I feel moved and inspired by the sense that he’s leading from his heart, not his party platform. That in the midst of crisis he can’t help but make the decisions that are best for his people.

I haven’t imagined myself in politics since I was a kid. I’d probably be chased out of town for my lack of husband and moderate views. I’m a little too eccentric and outspoken. I’m not as tough as I used to be.  Public life would be hard on my ego and sad for my mom.

But if Chris Christie called me to be his running mate, or his second wife, I wouldn’t turn him down.