San Bernardino, and bird by bird

I’m a news junkie. After 9/11, even while cradling baby Bun Bun in my arms, I watched and read the news relentlessly. After Paris two weeks ago, the same. I kept wanting to write something, but everywhere – newspapers and blogs, Twitter and Facebook – each notion and opinion of mine was covered except, I thought, the one I couldn’t share, the idea I didn’t want to speak out loud. If I give it a voice, it might happen. I don’t want to scare my kids.  san bernardino copy

And then today, the New York Times printed it. Just as a twelve-step program succeeds by gathering the like-minded to tell of their secrets in an attempt to diminish their power, I feel morosely more comfortable knowing others are specifically afraid of the same thing as I: death by gunshot. “Fear in the Air, Americans Look Over Their Shoulders” covers it.

Because of San Bernardino.

We went to New York City Thanksgiving week, ten days after the Paris shootings. Before we left, a dozen people told me to “be safe, be careful.” They were thinly veiled warnings to look out for terrorists…so I did. In the subway, I studied the crowd. At the Macy’s Parade, I scanned those around me and above and took comfort in the expanded police presence. I created escape routes in my mind for the girls. I imagined covering their bodies and playing dead. There. I said it.

We returned to Los Angeles without incident. LA is not NYC. It’s dense, but not centralized. Friends attending concerts or games at Staples Center expressed trepidation, but the rest of us are in our cars, in our homes, or at benign restaurants that represent nothing. In Los Angeles, that’s what we’ve told ourselves.

And then San Bernardino.

If this were any other post, I’d joke about its shortcomings. The girls have played more soccer games there than I can count and I’ve had to bring my own coffee because Starbucks, being totemic of my world, is non-existent in San Bernardino.   What happened there on Wednesday is tragically ridiculous. That the shooters likely had ties to ISIS and targeted a holiday party for public workers is insane. It’s crazy and I’m afraid.

I’ll be honest and tell you my fear is fleeting. The pang is there in the morning when I say good-bye to the girls, and then quickly dissipates while I run. Most everyone I know is too busy to contemplate random tragedy and besides, we can’t live our lives that way. But San Bernardino? Are you kidding?

Now, we can all admit we’re looking over our shoulders.

“In recent months, the F.B.I. has been particularly concerned that so-called homegrown extremists might be inspired by the Islamic State to stage attacks in the United States, law enforcement officials say.” (New York Times, December 4, 2015)

And of course, Muslims in America have almost as much to fear right now as non-Muslims. There is hysteria surrounding all of it and no one really knows what to do. But, in the words of Nicholas Kristof, “We’re not even trying.”

I could write 10,000 words about guns and gun control. Twenty-thousand. I would be repeating what you’ve all read and heard before. I could rant and rave about the counter-productive and immoral policies Republicans want to implement pertaining to Syrian refugees. Their incendiary rhetoric about Planned Parenthood is reprehensible.


(And do not tell me that what Australia has done won’t work here!  Lives have been saved Down Under!  Do not talk to me about freedom!  We give up pieces of it every day for the sake of life and the pursuit of happiness!)

But Kristof is correct. I’m not even trying to do anything about these issues because deep down, for now anyway, I’ve given up. I’ve written just under forty posts that mention gun control, either prominently or in passing. I’ve emailed Congress. Newtown happened. We’ve all seen the photo of the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned. We know that Planned Parenthood is 97% about helping women, usually poor and without insurance, screen for cancer or obtain advice and/or contraception so they can plan a family. Still, there’s man’s inhumanity to man. What the hell am I supposed to do?

I’ve just now deleted five hundred words from this post because I was going nowhere with any of it. I don’t know what to write, or what to say, or what to tell my kids. When they have to tackle a big project and are feeling overwhelmed before they start, I quote Anne Lamott’s father*, “Just take it bird by bird.”

But I don’t know where or what the first bird is. Do you?

I’m going for a run.



* “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life


Be Sociable, Share!


  1. Sara Bazant says

    I’m so glad you’re writing again, Joann! I feel the same way you do about guns and gun control. But I just wish our leaders would admit that we don’t know what the hell we’re doing when it comes to minimizing gun violence in the U.S. Yes, we may be the leader of the free world but it’s time to look to what other countries are doing…take an analytical approach and really identify “best practices” in other countries. I know the presence of the NRA would complicate the implementation of any ideas but I don’t get the sense that anyone has truly studied what other countries are doing…or at least no one has reported on it. And I think intelligent Americans would be willing to try any other model at this point!

  2. Janet Fontaine says

    Dearest JoAnn,

    Thank you for your post and sharing your incredible wisdom and insight, I am afraid and sad, and dare I say it, angry too! For me the first bird is Kindness, always Kindness and the second bird is Hope!!!! Never lose it, hold it tight, grasp it with all your might, never let anyone wrestle it away from you.

    With huge gratitude, Janet

  3. John Walter says

    So. I developed a blood clot and had to go to the ER at Kaiser/Sunset around 10:45 Wednesday morning. By 11:00, the clot was not what bothered me most.

    I lay in the hospital room watching the most unconscionable events occur live on tv. Out my east-facing window, less than 60 miles away, the carnage was rapidly unfolding. Bad enough when it’s Paris or Colorado Springs, but this is home territory.

    As Head of a school, how can I now be certain that I have really done everything to protect my charges – all the innocent kids for whom news like this is becoming the norm rather than the exception. The reality is, if they’ll blow up a holiday party at a government help center, I guess there are no humane limits.

    What do I tell them? What do I tell their anxious parents? I just don’t know because to quote JoAnn and Mr. Kristof, we as a nation are not even trying to do anything. I’m not one to sit around waiting for the next person to act first, but I sure could use some advice on what direction to take from here – for the sake of all my kids, their teachers, their families, and the future of this horrific new reality.

    Thank you, JoAnn. And I’m angry, too.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *