Have I Lost Optimism After Sandy Hook?

Sandy Hook Elementary SchoolUpdated 12/14/14

I have a new mantra. It’s a quote from the writer Joseph Conrad who said, “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.” It has become my reality check, my call to action to get over this feeling of inertia that has stood in my way like a cement wall, blocking me from writing in this space for – I can’t believe it – over a year.

I know I don’t have to explain to anyone why there’s a space of absence on this blog. I could simply start from here. Why would I want to call attention to the very thing I tell my clients they should never do if they want to have a credible online brand image?

It’s because I’m compelled to do it – to be honest with myself – and I realize now that for me to creatively move on I have to do what I’ve avoided doing – write about why. So here goes:

Shock

I stopped writing in this space the day 20 first-graders and six educators were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It wasn’t a conscious thing to stop. It’s just that what happened here, where I live, was so horrendous, so shocking, that I, like everyone else, was shattered. Work for clients was a distraction – but I simply didn’t have the ambition to write here.

Sadness

It’s still so hard to believe it happened in Newtown, yet there are reminders everywhere. Ribbons of green and white – the Sandy Hook School colors – still drape mailboxes, signposts, trees and utility poles. Sometimes bunches of bright balloons mark the roadsides to honor a single-digit birthday for one of the 20 children. Often they are left drifting for weeks. It seems no one has the heart to remove them.

Every day, in my neighborhood, I drive by the houses of two of the families. I don’t know them, but I see their homes and sense their loss, and cry for them at the oddest moments. It’s not the same living here.

Disbelief

And it’s all so close. My son and daughter went to Sandy Hook Elementary School. Though it was over 20 years ago, it seems like yesterday – the familiarity of it all.

It was a great school for my kids. They loved their principal and still remember all their teachers’ names. The friends they made there are still among their closest – and the parents of those friends are among ours. Wasn’t it a blink ago that the school mascot, the Jolly Green Giant, was smudging their noses with a thumbprint of green paint at the annual school fair?

Back then I was an active PTA parent. I was responsible for booking cultural arts programs to enhance the school’s curricula. It was very important to Principal Ron Vitarelli, himself a jazz guitarist, to instill a life-long appreciation for the arts in young children. As a creative, I was very proud of what I was doing for the school. My husband, a graphic artist, designed the posters announcing when theatre groups, dance ensembles, artists, musicians or writers were coming to visit. They were on display in the cafetorium for years.

It’s odd how you remember things, like when I was talking to a longtime Sandy Hook parent-friend about how our kids, now grown and on creative career paths, loved those programs. The memory triggered a vision of the posters hanging on the walls and I dreamily said, “I wonder if they’re still there.” As soon as I said it I felt the air suck right out of me. I flashed back and saw the school – its hallways, the offices and classrooms. I knew the layout of the building as well as the shooter did. Of course the posters are gone. The school is gone. Nothing is as it was.

Despair

Last winter I was reading a story in The Newtown Bee, our local paper, about a writer and an illustrator who collaborated months after the shootings to create a new children’s book. The illustrator, Steven Kellogg, had lived in Sandy Hook for 35 years and, like my family, has strong ties to the Sandy Hook community. Kellogg is renown here for his whimsical Newtown-influenced children’s book illustrations and his story-telling art demonstrations.

I read that the collaboration began after Kellogg had reached out to his friend, award-winning children’s author Patricia MacLachlan, and told her, “I think I have lost the optimism to do what I do.”

Kellogg and MacLaghlan helped each other work out their separate grief by creating “Snowflakes Fall,” a beautifully written and illustrated book in honor of the children. Kellogg said his illustrations for the book became his “celebration of the kind of childhood we provided our family in Sandy Hook.”

The story stuck with me. I thought about what Kellogg said about losing optimism after the shootings. Is that it? Have I lost optimism?

Anger

A general definition of “optimism” is a hopefulness that good things will happen. But I feel anger, given what I know about gun-industry politics, after each and every needless shooting that has happened since Sandy Hook. I guess the one good thing, (if you can call it that) coming out of our tragedy, is that more people are waking up to our society’s gun violence culture and are taking action to do something to achieve some measure of positive cultural change to help save innocent lives. It’s complicated. Am I hopeful? Not really.

And then I think about the idyllic innocence my children had growing up here in Sandy Hook – the carefree magic of childhood that Kellogg alluded to – and I am so angry to think that the shootings have compromised “that kind of childhood.” It will take years to know just how much.

Strength

What I do know is that collectively we are a strong and resilient community. The resolve of its citizens to not allow this horrific tragedy define Newtown – is inspiring.

I also understand that the cliché “life goes on” is profoundly true. I get that. In the midst of Newtown’s push to move on, we’ve all had personal stuff happen to us, too – births, milestones, illness and death. Good times, bad times, happy and sad. Grief is complex – but so is life.

Face It Quote Joseph Contrad

Facing It

Which is why, I must get back to doing for myself the very thing I love to do – write.

It’s time to face this inertia – to break down that cement wall and allow it to crumble away. “That’s the way to get through. Face it.” I know I can do it.

As for optimism – I’m working on it.

Update – December 14, 2014

It’s been two years since the Sandy Hook school shooting. The trauma has not faded, but instead invades our town like a storm cloud, darkening our holiday preparations. Today we can’t help but remember. Today is a sad day. That will never change.

Oddly for me,  Steven Kellogg, who has unkowingly helped me get back to my personal writing,  has once again influenced my sense of optimism with another article in The Newtown Bee. He wrote about why he felt it necessary to revise and re-illustrate one of his stories written 35 years ago, Pinkerton Behaves, about a Great Dane pup. The story included an illustration of a burglar with a gun. Kellogg wrote:

” In creating the burglar back in mid-1970s, I had patterned him after the stereotyped caricature of comic book bad guys I remembered from my childhood, and I portrayed him wielding an oversized pistol.”

“As time passed, the prevalence of domestic gun violence became a growing national concern, and the inclusion of that menacing gun elicited objections and protests from adult readers who were sharing the book with children in their lives. In light of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and the alarming statistics of gun violence (with more than 80 school shootings having occurred in the country since December 14, 2012), I recognized that my thinking had changed and the book must change.”

To mark the 35th anniversary of Pinkerton Behaves, Kellogg removed the gun.

“I was motivated by the conviction that caring citizens must try to reprogram their society for the safety and well-being of everyone, and authors and illustrators have an obligation to create the highest quality literature and art in order to enrich the lives of children.”

Things have changed since Sandy Hook. I’m thinking that maybe there is a reason for optimism. As we close out another year, perhaps this quote  from Alfred Lord Tennyson may inspire:

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.'”


Comments

Have I Lost Optimism After Sandy Hook? — 13 Comments

  1. Thank you for being so vulnerable as you work to move forward. Your sharing has helped me face my own creative blocks. Maybe I am not optimistic yet, but I will be more hopeful.
    Love you, my friend.

  2. One thing on top of another for your family. I am optimistic for Morganeve. I try to check in on her and she talks about the army of hers helping her along. I miss Dave.

    Mark tschirch

  3. Colleen – we touched on this briefly during our discussion; but after reading your most eloquent story – I now realize how this event left such a deep and indellable impression on your life. Thanks for sharing your personal experience in trying to deal with this horrible tragedy.

  4. Beautifully written Colleen! My love and support go out to your family. Know that I will always be there for you guys if you need it. See you soon! Erika (from Dr. Yoon’s office)

  5. Beautiful, and welcome back. ‘Optimism’ is such a weak word….”Hope” seems so much deeper, open to pain, and linked to two other virtues that sustain it and that it sustains: faith and love. I feel all three inside me for MorganEve and you and Ken, and HOPE that your writing will keep shedding light.

  6. This is powerful & real. My heart goes out to you & your community, our community. There are two sides to gun ‘rights’ but there are not two sides to mental illness. The system to provide help for the mentally ill does not function. In tragedies such as these, this is another issue that should be brought into public view. We must be willing to look at this issue before it can improve. People throw up their hands & say ‘nothing can be done’ but something CAN be done: doctors & therapists must be held accountable the way that teachers are ethically & legally held accountable . If you would like to discuss this further, please contact me. Thank you for being brave enough to write! ❤️

    • Thank you Karen, for your insights concerning a very complex issue. I suggest contacting Newtown Action Alliance and Sandy Hook Promise. They are doing good work to raise awareness for positive cultural change. Something can be done. And I now believe that there is reason for optimism after Sandy Hook. But it will take time. Thanks for reading.

  7. Pingback: The Unbelievable Reality of the Sandy Hook Shooting Three Years Later | Contént To Write Content

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