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July 23, 2015 | Thoughts From the Periphery (7.31.2015)

July 31, 2015

Something terrible happened. On Thursday evening, July 23, A man went to the theater in the middle of Lafayette, bought a ticket, sat down and 20 minutes into the comedy, stood up, picked out who he wanted to kill and shot at people. He killed two women. He injured 9 other people. He had planned to escape but there were cops in the parking lot. A teacher pulled a fire alarm. Everyone ran. When he saw the police storming in, he killed himself.

In the eight days since that happened there has been a deluge of varied reactions. Shock. Anger. Tributes. Plans. Vigils. Art projects. There are hashtags and facebook pages. Yard signs and t-shirts. Memorial concerts and funds established. There are calls to leave the politics aside and screams for change in public policy. The desire to understand, find meaning,…..to do something, to change something invades the atmosphere. We desire control when something so uncontrollable happens. So, we plan and do and sing and create and plant and……write.

In our attempts to control, to mourn, to honor, to change and to prevent we are trying to answer the question “Why?” We are trying to find meaning in a meaningless act.

Eight days later, three ideas have been floating in my head. One is about glittered skeleton heads on little trophies. One is about a woman in tears, telling the truth. And predictably, the other is an attempt to place one man’s actions into the whole of what we are as a culture.

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I used to make these little trophies to give out as prizes to kids at Halloween. I took little plastic skeleton heads and blinged them up in a Mexican Day-of-the-Dead style. I got really into it. A swimming trophy became a skeleton-headed fairy. A winged figure became comical with a bobbing, bedazzled skull in between it’s raised arms. I meticulously added tiny flowers and jewels, sequins and so much glitter. The kids loved them and I loved making them. So much so, I started to think maybe this could be an art form, a viable expression. Maybe I could give them away to friends and people would like them and put them on the shelves of their homes. Maybe I could even sell them.

But, I was convinced otherwise. It was a silly way to spend my time, I was told. It was not productive. What could possibly come from spending so much time creating such ridiculous items? So, I packed away the trophies, heads and craft nonsense and forgot about them.

What does this have to do with this horrible tragedy? To understand, you have to know about one of the women who lost her life.* Jillian was a incredible woman. I didn’t know her personally. I said hello to her a few times and told her how much I liked her work. She was an artist and graphic designer who had the crazy idea of opening a store downtown, with Lafayette and Louisiana-themed t-shirts and other items. And she did it with her brother and husband. Then she opened another store and then one in New Orleans. She sang. She was in bands. She worked to make her surroundings better. She was more to the people her knew her and to her community than I will ever know. She was one of those people who made Lafayette cool. She was 33.

How many times did she doubt that anyone would buy a shirt with the I-10 sign on it or prayer-style flags with Louisiana on them? How many people might have discouraged her from taking the huge risk of opening a store? How many times did she look at something she created and wonder, will anybody get it? Will other people like it as much as I do? But she did it anyway. She had to have been fearless to become the person she was.

I should make another skeleton head trophy.

Why would I not make skeleton head trophies?!

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On Saturday there was a vigil for the two women lost. The prayer flags people in the community made earlier that day were hanging around the gazebo downtown. The crowd was invited to go to the stage and speak. Caroline, a close friend and an amazing, talented women herself, struggled with tears and heavy breaths. After a pause she said, “All these things we’re saying about Jillian. They’re all true but we didn’t tell her.”

I was a little surprised by that admission. I started to cry when she said that. Have I told everyone in my life what they mean to me? Have I praised and held up my friends and family? Have you? How often do we criticize and blame? How often do we decide not to tell someone how we feel because we might get hurt. How many times do we take passive aggressive stabs at our friends when we think they are being foolish. How many times do we hush someone who is not singing the song we think they should sing? How many subtle ways do we tell people they are wrong, not good enough, ridiculous or stupid?

When you admire a painting in a gallery do you seek out the artist? When you dance all night to good music, do you tell the musicians? When your sister or daughter or friend is doubting herself, do you build them up? I’m as guilty as anyone of blurting things out with sarcasm or disdain. And I’ve been on the receiving end of sharp daggers of words. Words have power. Words are as much a creation as any art form.

I’m going to tell my son I’m proud of him. I’m going to tell my daughter she’s my bad-ass hero. I’m going to say “I love you,” as much as I want to. I’m probably still going to be a mean, sarcastic bitch sometimes, but I’m going to try to remember that it’s worth the effort to say,

“I really like your work.”

“You guys were great tonight.”

“You look amazing.”

“I like hanging out with you, you’re fun.”

“I love you and you mean a lot to me.”

“Will you be my best friend?” (Ok, maybe not that one. That’s just creepy.)

 

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Naturally, much of the initial reaction was political. Even the calls to leave politics out, is political in its own way. I had a poli-sci professor who used to say that politics is the negotiation and maintenance of power and everything is political. Follow the money, he told us. Everything has a market.

Some people say the problem is gun control, others say the lack of mental health care. Politicians and advocates seize the opportunity to promote their agendas, feigning compassion. We argue in social media, just a different way of finding control and searching desperately for the answer to “Why?” and a direction to go in that might make it better.

I know that when he was a little boy, he didn’t hate people. He didn’t hate women. He didn’t want to grow up to be a killer. Something went wrong. And while I will never know what that was, I know that his hatred found fertile ground in a culture that has fallen in love with ignorance.

We have become a culture of non-thinkers. Creative thought, critical thinking and logical reasoning are enemies. Where there is ignorance, there is fear and hate. And the people controlling the market, the money and therefore the power want it that way. They convince us that we are each other’s enemies. They tell us to fight for “rights,” arcane in their origins and important only because there is a market behind them. Not even the killing of our children can wake us up from the indoctrination.

Our cultural institutions teach righteousness which requires that someone be wrong. Maybe it’s another race, a different political view, the opposite gender, a different class….anyone who can become the “other.”

We reject science and abandon truth. Knowledge and education are meaningless in the face of sound bites and double speak. It is more comfortable to blindly judge and hate than to learn, change and love.

As long as we continue to breed a culture of ignorance and fear and ignore facts that teach us reasonable solutions, we will fail in our quest to become a more perfect union and we will continue to see this kind of violence.

He wasn’t born wanting to do this. I can’t discount the role that mental illness may have played in his actions, but his propensities found encouragement in some parts of American culture and institutions.

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It is cliché yet unavoidable to want to come out the other side of something like this with some lessons learned. Though the very idea of learning from something that quite simply should not have happened, something whose injustice in unbearable, is almost obscene. Nonetheless for me, from the periphery, I am telling myself these things:

Be weird. Make art, even if your words are your only creation.

Love the weirdness of everyone else and tell them that.

Think, listen, read, discuss and teach your children to do the same.

Do your best to approach every problem with love first.

As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that small groups of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

And never doubt the power that one person has to be good for the world.

And in Jillian’s own words, “Be kind. Do good work. Try hard. Listen. Love.”

 

 

 

 

 

*I write here about Jillian because I didn’t know Mayci Breaux, the other victim. The loss of her life is, of course no less tragic and horrifying. 

 

 

 

 

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