The Courage to Change–a child’s response to the Sandy Hook massacre

“There are too many men with enough courage to kill one another,

and not enough men with the courage to stop the violence.”

Lee van Laer

jkLGW

On Friday, when I learned of the shooting, I wanted to drive to the elementary school in my own town and retrieve my son.  It wasn’t that I was afraid.  We live over a hundred miles away from Newtown, CT.  I just wanted to bring him home. Because I could.

Instead, I let him finish the day and enjoy his long-awaited “Friday Free Time” with classmates. While I endured the wait, my heart broke for the parents who wouldn’t welcome home their children that day. Or any day after.

When my own son finally walked through the door, I exhaled, and drew him onto my lap to explain why I had been crying. His tears silently joined mine, and then so did his anger.

When we had exhausted both, I suggested we light a candle…
but instead of one, Aidan dashed around the house to collect a candle for each child, for each life lost, including the prinicipal. He loves his principal too.

Even as far as Pakistan, fellow school boys were lighting candles for the lives stolen.

The President reflected on this global mourning during the Prayer Service in Newtown last night:

I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart.

He went on to say that our first job is caring for our children:

If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

But we aren’t getting it right. And to be honest, I’m not sure we can, especially when I witness us reach back for the comfort of Mr. Roger’s words or when we over-reach toward heroes.

It’s time to sober up with the facts–not only about guns: 94,871 people shot in this country this year, but also about ourselves: We believe in killing. It’s part of our national fabric. We celebrate it in history, in video games, in theaters, and in warfare around the world.

And yet, I don’t believe the situation is hopeless; because I don’t think that we have the right to collapse into such self-pity after first-graders were murdered during morning circle.

Yes, it is complex. It is terribly complex. But one component is simple. Let’s start there.

Compare the U.S. to Japan, where almost no one owns a gun:

In 2008, the U.S. had over 12 thousand firearm-related homicides while Japan had only 11–about half of how many children lost their lives in a few moments in Newtown. Incidentally, 587 Americans (including children) were killed in 2008 just by guns that had discharged accidentally. (Read more.)

We don’t even need to go anywhere near the extreme of Japan when it comes to fireaarms. We can look at Australia, where they only banned assault weapons.

In the 18 years before the law, Australia suffered 13 mass shootings – but not one in the 14 years after the law took full effect.  (Read more.)

I know that some in our country are too afraid to give up their rights to weaponry. They cite a history of domination by dictators in the face of unarmed civilians around the world. I feel their fear. I understand it. They want to protect us.

What they won’t face is that our greatest enemy is–within. We are actually killing each other (and ourselves) with the weapons we claim as our protection:

  • A gun in the home is more likely to be used in a homicide, suicide, or unintentional shooting than to be used in self-defense.
  • Of youths who committed suicide with firearms, 82% obtained the firearm from their home.
  • The risk of homicide is three times higher in homes with firearms.
  • Gun death rates are 7 times higher in the states with the highest household gun ownership.(Read more.)
  • More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides in six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. (Read more.)

So the real question is this: Will we stop pretending that this is about our right to protection?

Or are we prepared, as President Obama asked, to say this:

Such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom.

“NO!” my 12-year-old cries out to his President.

Aidan isn’t interested in “freedom” that takes his life at the school and at the mall and in the movie theater and at the mosque; nor does he want the the honor of meeting the President of the United States in response to the random death of his little sister or mother or grandmother or teacher.

This freedom for violence disgraces us as a Nation:

Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.

Isn’t it ironic how many uniformed men, with impressive weaponry, appeared at Sandy Hook–too late.  How devastating to be prepared–for nothing. My heart breaks for them and for the fathers who weren’t there to protect their daughters. For the mothers who couldn’t comfort their sons as they lay bleeding. For the first-responders who found almost no one there to rescue.

Though dozens of ambulances raced toward the school, only a few departed with such purpose. The hospital was readily prepared to care for massive casualties, but only two adults and two children arrived–the latter pronounced dead inside their doors. There was nothing for the highly trained doctors and nurses to do.

Contrast that with what happened in Central China on the same day: 22 school children were attacked by a man wielding a knife. Some of the injuries were serious. The act of violence despicable. The terror horrifying.

While this readily points to the truth that madmen can always challenge our resources, this doesn’t mean that we can’t limit theirs.  The bodies of those 22 children are being cared for–in a hospital–instead of deposited–in the ground.

If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.

“You GO!” my son hollers to his President.

In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.

Can we admit to ourselves that this kind of violence has become routine?

By the end of this day, two-hundred and forty-four people will have been shot; an average so common place as not to receive national attention.

The massacre in Newtown simply brings to light what happens in the land of the “free” every day:

There have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

“Yes…” my son whispers back, as he embraces me.

(Kelly Salasin, December 17, 2012)

More on guns and the USA:

Batman & Bullets

Death as Entertainment (murder in schools)

Which Wolf (Co-op Murder)

My Favorite Republicans (Obama & gun laws)

Parenting without Power (or a gun)

The Magic of Travel

Do you know the scene from the film, Mary Poppins, where they all jump into one of Bert’s chalk drawings on the sidewalks of London?

This is exactly how I felt when I found myself inside one of the photographs from a travel book that has sits on my coffee table.

The family and I have drooled over the pages in this volume ever since we received it two Christmases ago. When I found out that I would be spending a week in Japan for work, my youngest insisted I search out his favorite–the Golden Pavilion; while I had long been intrigued by a red-gated shrine.

To my surprise, both of these treasured locations were in the town that I visited after my work in Japan was finished.

On my second day in Kyoto, I headed out early to make the long journey to the outskirts of the city to find Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine.

Once off the train, I followed others up a steep hill, past tiny shops, and homes, until I saw a single red gated entrance ahead.

That’s not how it’s supposed to look, I thought; but soon I came to the place that I had seen in my book, and I felt a bubbling up inside.

I began my stroll through the gates, tentatively, giddily, in absolute awe of my surroundings and good fortune; and shortly discovered there were more gates than I ever imagined.

Some travelers quickly turned around and headed back, but I continued, and continued and continued–drawn forward by the embrace of the gates and what lie ahead.

But what I hadn’t seen in my coffee table book was this: these beautiful red gates went on for miles, eventually winding up a steep mountainside.  So I climbed, and climbed, and climbed, certain to reach the top at any moment, but only to find another turn, another set of steep stairs, and another stretch of gates–which were beginning to loose their charm.

One post was being repainted and another repaired. There were buckets of paint, and drop cloths, and tools. These aren’t so special after all, I thought.

But still, I continued.

Up and up and up I huffed, cursing myself for skipping breakfast. Suddenly I came to a landing, and to my disbelief, there where two small shops, here in the middle of nowhere.

I dismissed these as overpriced concession stands, until I heard the cry of a baby overhead and realized that these were homes to families who served meals to travelers like me.

Soon after I caught sight of a delivery boy running up and down the steep steps with packages in hand, and later I saw more than one sweat-soaked man carrying propane tanks on their backs.

I continued on, dismissing food, suspecting that the end would come soon, but just like my childhood climb of the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, the “end” was a constant illusion.

By the time I made the final approach to the last set of stairs which led to a mountain top shrine, I resented Mary Poppins for ever suggesting that I jump into a picture.

I begrudgingly climbed the last bit, dismissed the garden of relics, and dragged myself around the top of the mountain for a unique view of the city; which I quickly deemed unworthy of such a climb.

To salvage the journey, I decided to take another route down the mountain, instead of returning the way I’d come as I had seen others endure.

The backside of the mountain, though very wooded, had its own set of gates which definitely headed down; and I quickly applauded myself for such cleverness.

On the way down, I only passed one other pair of hikers, and they were unlikely tourists; but this was an adventure, and I was eager for the challenge.

Soon I left the gates behind me, but I needn’t have worried because there was yet another small shop up ahead, beside another shrine; though when I looked inside, it was eerily empty.

After this, the path, turned into just that, a path, and a dirt one at that, which grew narrower and narrower, until I was surrounded by wildness and woods.

This is so cool, I thought; so much better than the gated stairs and all the other tourists.

Maybe I would even see one of those wild monkeys that they took the trouble to translate about.

Should I look for them?

Should I not?

Is that what I was hearing in the trees?

Should I be worried?

Should I really be hiking down this mountain alone?

Forget wild monkeys, did Japan have snakes?

Just as winded my way down steep hill and considered turning around, a long golden brown serpent slithered in front of my feet and I yelped; turned on my sandals, and ran–all the way up the path, past the empty shop, up the steep stairs and the winding gates on the back side of the shrine, past the sweaty men hoisting propane tanks, and back to the top; and down the gated path I had come.

My shortcut cost me another hour of hiking, particularly as I took a few wrong turns along my pioneering way.

I sat down at the first restaurant for ice cream cone, forgoing breakfast.  I made myself sit until the cone was almost finished, (as the Japanese are rarely seen walking with food), and then I began the trek down the mountain; which surprisingly was much harder on my trembling legs than climbing had been.

Toward the bottom, I met up with some traveling friends from New Zealand; who I had met earlier in the week at the market.  They asked how far it was to the top and whether it was worth it, and I don’t remember exactly how I replied; except that I felt triumphant and satisfied, and this may have encouraged them to go on.

Along the way up and down this journey, I had made other friends too, or at least said, Konnichiwa or Ohayou Gozaimasu, or simply smiled at:

Small groups of young men in sports uniforms running the gates for training.

A middle-aged man in a head band, stretching, with whom I shared the mountaintop view of the city.

A well prepared group of businessmen–on vacation–who passed me with sturdy packs on their backs and hiking boots on their feet.

A retired couple from England with whom I shared a bench beside a pond. (They had seen more of my country than I had.)

Couples. Holding hands. Giggling. With young women hiking the steps in shockingly spiked heels–without complaint. (Maybe they hadn’t known about the climb either.)

From time to time, the gates would grow hushed, and I’d come upon lone photographers, pausing in the stillness, waiting to capture the magic of this stunning creation–into which we had miraculously fallen.

Kelly Salasin, May 2012

 

10 Things I’ll Miss Most About Japan

Of all the things I’ll miss about Japan, I embarrassed to admit that number one is their exceptional:

1. Toilet

I’ll never forget the welcoming embrace of a heated seat; nor the myriad of options available to the user while seated: rinsing, spraying, drying, deodorizing and sound.  Some toilets had temperature controls, not only for the seat, but also for the bidet or “posterior” rinse; while the speed of the spray and the manner of spray could also be adjusted; as well as the volume of the “buffering” sound.

Whether I was in the airport or in a hotel or in a public restroom on a street corner, one feature was ubiquitous: privacy.  Instead of “stalls” the Japanese provided “rooms” with floor to ceiling doors to support that most intimate of needs; and for that, they have my undying admiration.

2. Consideration of Children

I was dismayed to see that several infants and toddlers were to share the same cabin on my overnight flight to Tokyo. Instead of fussing, however, my attention was directed to how carefully these young families were nurtured by the flight attendants who could be seen heating up milk, providing pillows and blankets, delighting babies in their arms and frequently checking in on their mothers.

In the airport, there were mini-playgrounds to be found and specially equipped nursing rooms with cribs and rocking chairs and even cots. Well done Japan!

3. Passion for Detail

There are countless testimonies to the Japanese aesthetic, but one unexpected consideration stands out for me: the welcoming morning sight of a beautifully folded pink paper flower placed on the corner counter of the JAL airline bathroom after 200 of us shared its use for 12+ hours. (And check out the fresh flowers that line the walkway in the airport terminal.)

4. Containers

Breakfast in Japan, Kelly Salasin, 2012

A box and bag and all kind of container lover like me is in heaven in Japan. The box lunches that I’ve experienced at Chinese restaurants only approximate the creative way in which the Japanese contain and present almost everything, especially food!

5. VARIETY!

Every Japanese meal was a feast for attention–from the ceramic bowls, to the miniature spoons, to the varieties of pickles and rice and even salts.  Breakfast included!  Check out these rolls (the black ones are charcoal; the orange pumpkin.)

6. Diet

As I ate my way through Kobe, and Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, I kept thinking, my doctor will be so proud of me: seaweeds, fermented foods, miso, rice and always–vegetables.

Even when ordering a decidedly Western breakfast of eggs and toast, they can’t help but draw our attention to better balance: adding a large salad to the plate of only a single egg.

Every Japanese meal was finished by miso broth–to enhance digestion. Even on the plane.  On the return flight, they served us Clam Chowder to better prepare us for Boston; but along with it came a mustard green salad, pickles and bean paste (and miso broth.)  Most notable were two delicate pink rice crackers shaped like flowers–with directions given to each passenger to crumble them into the soup.  (Step aside, oyster cracker.)

7. Language & Kindness

I went to Japan (ashamedly) without any language; but even so I was able to travel on my own with the generous help of so many Japanese–who went so far as to leave their shops or offices to show me the way to another market or to a shrine or to point me toward home.

Of the few phrases I picked up there, my favorite was what they said as they answered their phones: “Moshi, moshi.”

8. One-ness

Kyoto Subway Kimono, Kelly Salasin, 2012

I was only in Japan for two weeks and mostly for business so I’m sure to make many assumptions that may not prove to be entirely true, but what I witnessed in the Japanese was a consolidation of living instead of a separation of it.

While traveling on the subway, for instance, many (of all ages) used the minutes to catch up on sleep (respectfully using only the space beneath their chin instead of drooling on a neighbor’s shoulder.)

Even when working, intensely, most seemed to allow room for humor, for kindness, and for moments of connection; even in the most demanding situations.

It’s difficult to capture this orientation toward life, and it’s foolish to assign a glimpse to an entire nation, but there was something about the people, from all walks, which was precious to me–in their willingness to be available to so much more in each moment.

9.  One-ness, continued

Perhaps another illustration of the above is this: in my explorations of Kyoto, for instance, I would stumble upon ancient shrines and temples smack in the middle of shopping streets or back alleyways or intersections.

The Japanese seemed able to evoke reverence no matter what the surroundings–even in a bar where they shoes were to be removed.

10.  Kelly san

Imagine a world where everyone bows to one another; and what it feels like the first time your Japanese colleague calls you, not just “Kelly”–but “Kelly san.”

Kelly Salasin, May 2012

An Apology

I can’t place it, but I know that today is something other than the day before my birthday–and then I remember: Pearl Harbor—and then Michael Moore posts from Hiroshima on Twitter, saying:

In Hiroshima 2 day. Coincidentally, it’s Pearl Harbor Day. I hear from back home the pundits beating the drums again 4 war. Nothing changes.

His discouraging words bring me back to President Obama’s speech at West Point last month.  I listened to it  from my Facebook account at the doctor’s office where I can snag a high speed connection.

Is that live?” another patient asks, overhearing the President’s voice. I explain that it’s not, and that I’m just getting to it now because I don’t have television reception at home.

The doctor asks the receptionist to leave her office door open so that she can listen too. “I caught part of it in the airport,” she calls out from her desk,  “But I’d like to hear more.”

I love the sound of his voice,” says another patient.

In response, I complain that as much as I want to pay attention, speeches always put me to sleep.

As an educator, it occurs to me that politicians might be able to make these moments more participatory.  They could split everyone into pairs and have them ask each other:

What would you do?

Then Obama could call on a few people to share their wisdom and take a survey of hands to see who agrees.

After the speech, my politically astute teen gets word of the increase of troops to Afghanistan and confides to his father on the drive home from school that he’s worried about the draft. He’s only 14.   But I think about it too.  We’ve never even let him play with guns.

I no longer hold full responsibility for the world my beloved child inherits–as  his choices have begun to define it too.  An older classmate is in Afghanistan right now.  My son asks about the “action” that this guy might get to see.  He figures times of peace must be pretty boring for soldiers.

I think back to a conversation on war I had with some women friends.  One, a documentarist, suggests that we simply bring all the soldiers home and see what happens.

But that won’t address the hunger some have for fighting,” I offer, adding that I think we need to find other channels for that warrior energy.

I wonder how it might look if our armed forces directed the youth’s need for action into combating other threats– like disaster, environmental degradation, poverty.

But what of the thirst for killing, I wonder?

This week a 17 year old boy was tried as an adult for the murder of his ten-year old brother.  The parents didn’t attend the trial, but they supported the conviction at which they lost a second son.  The boys had been wrestling and the teen strangled his younger brother in a hold–to satiate a desire to kill.

Is Michael Moore right?  Has nothing changed?  Will nothing change?

I don’t know, but I do know that we cannot collapse into defeat.  As Gandhi says, We must  be the change we want to see in the world—and that begins in our own hearts.

My memory turns toward a tiny park on a hill in the Berkshires of Massachusetts—where my own troubled mind was filled with the hope of peace.

I sit on a bench beside a young Japanese woman named Seiko.  She and I are among 25 students training to be YogaDance instructors at Kripalu’s Healing Center in Lenox.

We have been assigned as partners with the task of supporting each other with our journey at Kripalu by taking a walk together.

On the path through the woods, Seiko tells me that she has been unable to find the song, “Over the Rainbow.” She asks if I can sing it for her so that she can practice the dance prayer she has created for our class.

I laugh at the thought of me singing while she dances, but I agree, especially because Seiko is a ballerina and I’d enjoy the treat of watching her move to that beautiful tune.

We come to a tiny park with a single bench under the shade of a thickly-trunked tree.  Before we begin, I tell Seiko that there is something I must say.  There among the mountains, I turn toward my new Japanese friend, and timidly offer,

I want to apologize for dropping the bomb on your country.

Seiko is taken aback by my unexpected words.  She asks me to repeat myself.  And I do– with tears stinging my eyes.  Although I am twenty years her elder, Seiko responds to me with a the tenderness of a mother,

You don’t have to apologize for that, Kelly.  You and I weren’t even born.

I know,” I say, “but it’s important for me to say these words to someone from your country.”

Tears fill Seiko’s eyes as she replies in a whisper,

No one has ever apologized to me for that before, thank you…

I begin to sing, and Seiko begins to dance under the broad branches of a firmly rooted tree,

Somewhere over the rainbow…


Kelly Salasin


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