I remember the first time I saw piles of flowers and candles on a sidewalk. I was thirteen and the news came from Paris that the people’s princess had been killed in a car accident. Elton John’s song, two young princes on parade behind the casket; I remember it all seemed to happen at once. Through the TV, Britain’s tragedy became our own. And for a long time after Paparazzi were what we talked about, the really bad men whose motives seemed unclear and whose extremism never made sense to me. They killed our princess although it’s unclear that anything but the high speeds caused it. In the end it’s not something we can make sense of. A song about Marline Monroe was rewritten and somehow we grieved through it.
There was a time in Morocco when I was walking in the footsteps of a favorite author Burroughs. It was an adventure and it was full of kindness, all the shopkeepers assumed I was French and luckily I knew enough – my kindergarten French – to pass. I broke a rule I’d read about in guidebooks to beware of the false tour guides, they only wanted money. But I didn’t have any more money in my pocket than I was willing to lose. My false tour guide was sweet and walked me through the city pointing out landmarks – there is where James lives, he’s British, he drinks. He took me to a rooftop to really see the city. We parted ways at an overlook. I gave him some money. The next day as I was passing through the same alleyways and one of the shopkeepers, in the middle of haggling over the price of a souvenir I was buying, told me the man I was with the day before was dead. His English wasn’t good enough for an explanation of what happened. Was it the money I’d given him? I’ve written this into a dozen essays and fictions trying somehow to heal it. Nothing has worked yet.
A few years later I was driving to a reading in LA’s Chinatown when I got a text from a classmate saying that David Foster Wallace had died. I remember that street and to this day whenever I drive on it I remember him and that moment. David Foster Wallace had been a pseudo-idol, one of the few authors’ I’d loved who also made me feel like I could never write. A complicated feeling of admiration, joy, and discouragement. In the weeks after details of his suicide came out, he had hung himself, he had been getting professional medical help for his mental health but a doctor took him off a medication and tried something else gradually putting him on and off different medications. It didn’t work. Something somewhere had gone wrong. It didn’t make sense to me how someone who was a genius on the page could struggle so much, it still doesn’t. Now as someone trained in suicide counseling, I wonder what I would have said to him if he had texted into Crisis Text Line. I would have asked him his name, how and when he was planning on ending his life, I would have told him I care about his safety. I imagine we’d talk about his dogs.
On Friday I went home from work, let the dog out, changed into comfy clothes and when I checked Facebook I saw what had happened in Paris. One of the first things I saw was the hand drawn image of the Eiffel tower making up the tines of a peace sign. The art had replaced the news, or became more important than the news. Something had gone wrong but the drawing of the peace sign was an equal force. Facebook became what I saw this tragedy through replacing the TV that had shown me Princess Diana decades ago. It seemed like over the weekend it all happened at once; the safety alert and the profile picture French flag overlay, my friends posting pictures of themselves in France. Then the debate over Beirut and whether changing your profile picture is trite or provides reasonable solace. As more facts come in it makes less and less sense. Why would anyone create tragedy like this? What is there to gain? ISIS is evil and our Facebook profile pictures help, I don’t know how. I just know you relate how you relate.
I saw a video today of a French news program interviewing a little boy on his dad’s lap near a vigil of flowers and candles just like the ones I’ve seen on TV over the last couple decades. The little boy tells the interviewer about the really really bad guys with guns. He says they have to move away because of the bad guys and his dad calmly and sincerely tells his son that there is no need to move, we have flowers. But they have guns, the little boy challenges. We have flowers and candles, they both look off camera to the piles of flowers and candles and he says again they have guns but we have flowers those are for us. The interviewer pulls the mic back to ask a question and the expression on the dad’s face is beautifully pleading for the interviewer not to reveal that flowers don’t stop guns and also pleading to the universe that flowers could stop guns. The interviewer asked the little boy if he felt better now. He said he did.
Senseless tragedies will always happen, very few death will ever make sense, but what does is there will always be flowers, music, writing, art, that follows, that protects us, that fights the guns and makes us feel better.