We can change the heartbreak if we choose…
The image of a Christmas tree with unopened presents piled underneath is heart breaking because of what will not happen for twenty families in Newtown, Connecticut on Christmas morning. The parents who bought and wrapped the presents for their children won’t be able to watch them open their gifts. Their children went to school on December 14, 2012, and they never came home because a gunman entered their school and twenty of them died along with their principal, the school psychologist, and several teachers.
By the end of that Friday, a week and three days before Christmas, the news of the Sandy Hook School murders and the suicide of the gunman had spread across the country and around the world. There are no words to capture the horror and tragedy at the school. Even the tears of the entire world cannot adequately mourn this kind of senseless violence.
How Can This Keep Happening?
The pattern of our reactions to the mass shootings is getting to be as horrifyingly predictable as the shootings themselves. Americans use words to describe their actions and reactions to this senseless violence. Many of these words are horrified, heartbroken, traumatized, disbelieving. We are horrified, we ask ‘how can this keep happening,’ we pray, we mourn, we remember, we call for action, and then the horror fades into everyday life and we move on with our lives.
In conversation and in Internet comments and essays, Americans are already debating in words, sometimes vitriolic, uncompromising words, what they believe caused this latest mass shooting tragedy in America. The gun control and anti-gun control forces often overlook the victims and continue their passionate debate before the victims are buried.
We are a Society Steeped in Violence
Americans and violence, especially gun violence, walk hand in hand. In 2010, nearly 5.5 million firearms were manufactured in the United States, 95 percent of them for the domestic market. Support for handguns has grown over the decades. In 1969, a Gallup Poll reported that 60 percent of Americans supported a handgun ban, but by 2011, only 26 percent of Americans favored such a ban.
Between 2001 and 2010, about 270,000 Americans died in shootings, including homicide, suicide, and accidents. According to the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the Centers for Disease Control, America averages 87 gun deaths every day, 31,672 a year in 2010, with an average of 183 people injured. The Chicago Crime Lab’s research estimates that gun violence costs society $100 billion dollars a year.
Even mass killings don’t seem to make a dent in the gun culture. According to the Washington Post and Mother Jones, there have been at least 61 mass murders with firearms across America in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. In most cases the murders legally acquired their weapons. A week after Jared Loughner shot and severely wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six other people in Tucson, Arizona on January 8, 2011, thousands of people attended a gun show in Tucson. Some of them bought semiautomatic handguns similar to the one that Loughner used to fire 31 rounds into the crowd gathered outside a supermarket to meet with Congresswoman Giffords.
The escalating number of mass killings doesn’t seem to soften hardened words and attitudes or inspire people to rethink their attitudes toward guns. In 2012 alone, mass killings took place at a movie theater in Colorado, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a mall in Oregon, and an elementary school in Connecticut.
Are Mentally Ill People on a Decades-Long Rampage?
A superficial reading of the backgrounds of some of the mass shooters might tempt us to conclude that they were all mentally ill, evil people and we as a country need not concern ourselves with them except to despise and condemn them. A blanket condemnation of mentally ill people or locking them or their guns away will not eliminate mass shootings in America.
Studies by Fazel & Grann, 2006 and Swanson, 1994 suggest only 3% – 5% of violent acts are attributable to serious mental illness, and most don’t involve firearms. Not all mentally ill people are dangerous and science has not come up with a method to predict which ones will become violent.
Research shows that people with mental health problems for the most part do not contribute to gun violence. Studies by Fazel & Grann, 2006 and Swanson, 1994 suggest that even if we completely eliminated mental illness as a violence risk factor, less than four percent of mentally ill people turn violent. A three part science blog from the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard cites study findings that suggest that bringing suicide into the gun violence picture transforms mental illness into an important component in formulating a policy to prevent firearm violence.
The Center for Disease Control in estimates that suicides account for 61 percent of all firearm fatalities in the United States in 2010, that is for 19,393 of the 31,672 gun deaths recorded. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in Americans aged 15-24, the age group that goes to college, joins the military and in some cases experience the first episode of a major mental illness. Most suicide victims in this age group had diagnosed mental health problems and some even had some treatment.
Many states, including Maryland already have bans on gun sales to people with mental disorders or who have a history of violence. A study by Appelbaum & Swanson – 2010- examined federal and state laws to restrict access to firearms among people mentally ill people and they concluded that laws and restrictions don’t have much measurable impact.
How did the mentally ill person get a gun is a crucial question to answer, but an equally crucial question for society is “what treatment did this person have and why didn’t it work? Do we need to improve our methods of identifying and treating mentally ill people who have the potential to be violent?”
To See Ourselves as the World Sees Us?
The world sent condolences to the United States after the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado on Friday, July 20, 2012, but newspapers around the globe expressed surprise and dismay that the United States did not act more forcefully to curb gun violence. A list in the Atlantic Wire of July 2012 compiled some of the world reaction. The Berliner Zeitung noted that in the United States the probability of being shot is 40 times greater than in Canada, England or Germany, but “politicians are too afraid to challenge the gun lobby. The reaction is always the same: shock, disbelief, sadness, prayers, repression. How can it be?”
The Guardian in Britain wrote that there was little hope of changing American gun laws and the difficulty wasn’t just checks, balances, and partisanship, but also in many of the American people’s love of guns. Columnist Alex Slater asked: “How many gun deaths does it take for American politicians to crack down on the availability of deadly weapons? Seemingly no number is high enough.”
The list of six and seven year olds from Sandy Hook School and their principal and teachers is far too high a number. It is time to stare at the violence nose to nose and see ourselves reflected there.
To See Ourselves as We Are
We need to argue the legality and illegality of guns with each other with the goal of moderating the violence, not creating more violence towards each other. We need to acknowledge that people kill with legal guns and well as illegal guns. We need to discuss whether or not arming more people will prevent future massacres and curtail the gun violence. We need to examine the concealed carry argument in all of its nuances. We need to debate the pros and cons of Congress reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. We need to use stiletto words to question Congress and the National Rifle Association about even limited gun control and demand answers.
In a study called Firearms and Violence the National Academy of Sciences reported that it found no evidence that increased legal access to guns is related to increases in gun violence. The study suggests that an increasing body of evidence reveals that right to carry laws lead to less gun violence.
Joan Ozanne-Smith of Monash University in Australia and her researchers studied fire arm deaths over a period of 22 years in Australia. They noted a significant drop in deaths, especially suicides after Australia instituted strict gun control laws in the late 1980s and mid 1990s. The United States has different variables than Australia, but the research proves that gun control prevents deaths.
We need to discuss and debate these pro and con studies and find a middle ground.
A significant point to ponder is that the level of non-gun homicide is higher in the United States than in other countries of the world. Perhaps a high level of violence is the cause of a high level of firearms available instead of the other way around. Further studies about this premise would reveal much about us and our country.
People use words that interpret the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the “right to keep and bear arms,” amendment. Some people contend that the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to keep and bear arms to protect themselves against the hostile government. They believe an armed citizenry is an essential defense against dictatorship, gun wielding criminals and unbalanced, sociopathic people who perpetrate massacres.
Others interpret the Second Amendment differently in the context of the time it was written and the necessity for states to create and maintain militias with the hostile government being Great Britain. It is a stretch of the imagination to think that the Founding Fathers could have foreseen assault weapons and Americans killing each other by the thousands. Many people don’t want to give up their guns, but they want to curtail the use of guns to kill people.
We need to moderate our words and our violence.
Words Can Bring Hope and Healing as Well as Hatred and Havoc
Children are forever gifts and they are our future. Heated words, arguments, and even reconciliation and a reduction in violence won’t bring back the ones we have lost. Words are lost in the enormity of evil acts and bottomless loss. Not even twenty-first century medical science can bring back people we have lost to gun violence, and there are no adequate words to express this kind of loss and sorrow.
We can find the words to stop at least some of the violence, to talk to each other, and to vanquish violence. We can rediscover words like Outrage, Resolve, and Courage, and apply them to reduce gun and other violence and save lives. If we act on these words, eventually we will be able to wrap our victories against violence as Christmas presents, put them under the Christmas tree, and the children of the future will be there to open them as a loving legacy.
Thanks to the feline capers of Bob and Harry, my Christmas tree has listed south since the day after I put it up. Twice I have been jolted awake by a nocturnal crash – yes, Bob and Harry are nocturnal cats-and when I investigated I discovered the tree sprawled across the floor in a prone, submissive position.
The tree ornaments have been scattered, stashed under furniture for later, baptized in the bathtub and buried under the rug. They have been placed and replaced and taped back together. The wooden manger underneath the tree has a row of teeth marks that look like a beaver chewed it for lunch. Threats of permanent exile and temporary deportation in the snow hover in the air above the sounds of Christmas carols.
Bob and Harry sleep on the couch, after stashing a few stray ornaments underneath for later in the day, blissfully unaware of Christmas tree transgressions and the peril to their collective eighteen lives.
The Yearly Battle of the Christmas Cats
Each year when I put up my Christmas tree, I repeat the mantra of their Christmas tree transgressions and my cat safety commandments for cat and Christmas Tree survival. Veterinarians and pet experts do have some suggestions to keep your cat and your Christmas trees safe.
Avoid using tinsel. Veterinarians warn that Tinsel lures cats with its glitter, but if cats swallow tinsel, it can do much damage to their digestive systems. There isn’t a strand of tinsel in the house. Sigh of relief.
Spray light cords with bitter apple spray to discourage cats from chewing on them. Aerosol deodorant or antiperspirant sprays work too.
Bob thinks bitter apple is catnip and acts accordingly. He isn’t as enthusiastic about tape. Sigh of frustration.
Protect Tree Water. The tree water keeps a Christmas tree from drying out, but thirsty pets want to drink it too. Drinking tree water isn’t good for pets. It can make them sick. Protect your tree water with screen or mesh fabric duct taped over the pan. I have an artificial tree, so I don’t worry about water. Sigh of weariness.
Clean up pine needles if you have a live tree. Eating pine needles can disrupt and seriously harm a cat’s digestive system. My tree is fabric green branch artificial, so I just have to restrain Harry from nipping off branches and eating them like a chicken leg. Sigh of relief.
Avoid edible ornaments like candy canes. Cats know they are there and relentlessly hunt them down. One year when I was still becoming cat savvy, I put candy canes on the tree and over two nights acquired a new brand of candy cane, the teeth marks clearly visible among the stripes. Sigh of amusement.
Use a strong and steady tree stand. Put a small hook on the ceiling and attach a fishing string from the top of the tree to the hook. My tree stand has the strength of ten, but Bob and Harry combined are an eleven. Sigh of Resignation.
Avoid fresh mistletoe with its tempting red berries. Mistletoe and its red berries means a sweet treat instead of a kiss to cats and eating the leaves and berries can cause drops in blood pressure.
Avoid live holly and ivy. Ivy can give cats diarrhea, convulsions and occasionally even kill them if they eat large amounts of it.
Avoid Poinsettias as they can cause digestive harm to your cat. Poinsettias have large, red, white, pink or mottled leaves and they contain a thick milky, irritating sap. Veterinarians say that a cat would have to eat a large amount of poinsettia leaves or stems to harm your cat. Signs of poinsettia reaction include vomiting, anorexia, and depression. Other authorities say that they are not toxic to most cats. I wouldn’t take a chance on Bob and Harry’s Poinsettia self discipline or speculative the effects of ingested poinsettias on their digestive systems.
Christmas Tree Survival
Some cats don’t like the way aluminum foil feels. To protect your Christmas tree, wrap the lower trunk of the tree in foil and extend the foil to make a tree skirt. Foil comes in a variety of colors and sparkles in the light, so it looks like part of the holiday décor.
Generally speaking, cats don’t like the feel of pine cones. Pile pine cones around the base of your Christmas tree to keep cats away.
Some cats don’t like the scent or oranges. Placing orange peels under and around the base of your Christmas tree might keep the cats away.
Use unbreakable ornaments. If you do put glass ornaments on your Christmas tree, place them closer to the top so it will be more difficult for your cats to reach them.
Unplug Christmas lights when you are not using them. Inspect them periodically for chew marks.
Use a baby gate to fence off your Christmas tree or keep it in a closed off room.
Bob and Harry’s Feedback
Bob and Harry find the tree survival tip about using a baby gate to protect your Christmas tree particularly hilarious. They can zip to the top of the Christmas tree quicker than a ho ho ho, and bury themselves securely under the bed at a change in voice from indulgent to irate.
The Christmas Tree Will Survive, Bedraggled, but Recognizable and so Will Bob and Harry
I sit in the rocking chair by the Christmas tree after a long, hard day of snatching pieces of it back from the paws and jaws of Bob and Harry. I touch the tree with one glance and Bob and Harry with the other, and I think about the meaning of Christmas. The cats, the Christmas tree, and I are bathed in the light and meaning of Christmas. We all survive another year.
Davis, Ann. The Wonderful World of Christmas Trees. Mid-Prairie Books,
Hill, Lewis. Christmas Trees: Growing and Selling Trees, Wreaths, and Greens. Storey Publishing, LL, 1989
Rey, H.A. Curious George Christmas Countdown. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2009
by Kathy Warnes
My small daughter Amy and I come to live with Carol in October when the oak and maple trees around her house are shedding their leaves and preparing for their long winter’s nap. My mind is on Santa Claus awakening from his long summer’s nap and delivering his Christmas gifts. Will I be able to make sure there were several gifts for Amy in Santa’s pack? I’m not too certain. Five years ago, Amy’s father and my husband pursues a dream and a blonde and does not bother to contact us again. My wallet is as flat as my hopes and dreams and emotions. Then Carol and her Christmas trees come into our lives.
During the Christmas season, people in Carol’s neighborhood decorate their evergreens and arrange outdoor lights in artistic patterns in windows and on lawn displays. In front of Carol’s house stately evergreens survey the neighborhood with an aristocratic gaze. Inside of Carol’s house, the scraggly Christmas tree shouts "Merry Christmas" like a worn out Santa with his hat over one eye and toys spilling out of his pack. It tilts in the bay window so the birds and squirrels at the feeder outside of the window can laugh and point gleefully at the straight trees growing around them.
Family stories have it that every year Carol vows that she will pick out a better tree this time. She vows that she will reject the tree that looks bald because the branches are spaced in light year distances. She vows she will reject the tree with branches so thick that it looks like a one-tree forest. Carol vows she will reject the tree with dandruff needles and also the tree with finger fat needles. Every year Carol vows she will pick out the perfect tree and every year Carol brings home the tree that cries out for rescue from the Christmas tree lot.
Every year Carol vows that she will not listen to the feeble Help from a forsaken tree the tree and every year she rescues one from the Christmas tree lot. One year someone practices saw surgery on the stump of a tree and puts it back as too lopsided to be able to decorate. Carol takes it home, puts it in a Christmas tree stand, stands it up, and decorates it. She laughs while people lean sideways and compliment her tree.
Our first Christmas at Carol’s my daughter Amy is six. She loves to cut out paper snowflakes and other decorations and she and Carol spend a happy Saturday together cutting and pasting while I fret and worry and dart out to do one bag shopping. That evening Carol pops popcorn in the fireplace and we – mostly she and Amy – make popcorn strings to put on the tree, which looks like a green and white checkerboard. I watch them laughing together and scowl. I know I am using the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge for my role model, but I tell myself I don’t care. It’s better to be known as crotchety than heartbroken. As they string the popcorn around the tree, the crooked end leans over too far and the entire tree topples over on the floor.
"Amy, would you go into the kitchen and get me some string?" Carol asks my daughter. Eagerly, Amy runs to the kitchen.
"Grinch!" Carol mutters loud enough for me to hear.
"That’s Christmas for you," I mutter back.
Carol frowns at me, her golden blonde hair glinting in the firelight. Then she walks over and puts a Christmas carol on the record turntable.
Carol picks up the tree, takes the string that Amy brings her from the kitchen, and together they repair the tree and work on it so it will be able to stand on its own. Ashamed of myself, I help them retrieve the decorations and together we put them back on the tree.
The idea filters through my mind as I help them put the last popcorn chain on the lopsided Christmas tree. It’s how you work on an imperfect object or situation that counts. It’s how you shape it and decorate it like the crooked Christmas tree that loving input and eyes make beautiful. It’s loving someone enough to help them stand on their own, whether it’s a Christmas tree or a friend down on her luck.
This year will be Carol’s first Christmas in heaven, the place where Christmas trees, too, are supposed to be perfect. But I know Carol’s won’t be, because her love is still shaping crooked Christmas trees here on earth.
Merry Christmas from one of your crooked Christmas trees, Carol!
I’m Proud of You, Mom
It never occurred to me during those long ago summer days when I wore my blond hair tightly braided so I could play baseball more efficiently that my soul was braided just as tightly.
I like to think that every child starts out that way, but as he or she grows their compassion and their humanity grow along with them. I forgot about my teenage years. The older me fingers my blond again – natural after years of being mousy brown but now mixed with gray –hair and it reminds me when I was eleven playing baseball in the vacant lot beside the Zawoysky house on Goodell Street. (It’s now filled with a house, sigh!!) All of the neighborhood kids played baseball in that lot and it didn’t matter what color your hair or skin was as long as you were a good player at least most of the time.
I imagined that those long summer afternoons of playing ball and trading insults and baseball cards and drinking Koolaide would last forever. Growing up loomed like a thunderstorm over the horizon but as long as the thunder remained distant, I was content.I braided my hair as tightly as I could to preserve the status quo.
Two years later we didn’t play ball at the vacant lot any longer. We went to dances at school and were in involved in young people’s activities at church. We were immersed in the process of growing up. Bouffant hairdos were in and I teased my hair along with the rest of the girls and sprayed its free flying masses with hairspray, but my soul was still braided.
Two years later, my Mom decided to finish the one year of high school she had left so that she could receive her diploma. Instead of discretely going at night, she decided to attend day classes. I was mortified. Passing her in the hall, I pretended I didn’t know her. When the few teachers that had taught both her and my father before inheriting their children said something about her courage, I tossed my long hair and tuned them out. My Mom graduated, but she didn’t attend commencement so I thought her achievement was over and I could go on being a teenager with a selective memory.
Forty years later and twenty years after her death, I am far beyond being a teenager and my hair is more gray than blond until I decide to consult Lady Clairol.
But my soul is gradually becoming unbraided. I am proud of you, mom!!