I walked the usual way through Pittsburgh to my martial arts lesson on Saturday morning, at the usual time. The lesson starts at 10:30 in Bloomfield, and I leave my house in Greenfield at 9:20. At 9:50 a.m., I reached the intersection of Wilkins and Shady avenues. To my left, as always, was the Tree of Life Synagogue.
The synagogue’s walls are high, beige, and clean; the grounds are well manicured; across the street are brick single-family homes, peeking from behind bushes and hedges. This time there was a ring of yellow caution tape around the entrance, and blue canopies covering a memorial bursting with dying flowers. A temporary steel partition rerouted the sidewalk into the street, forcing passing cars and the 64 bus to creep through the intersection. Inside the barrier, a crowd of people listened to a rabbi.
Down to the minute, it was exactly one week, according to the timeline published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, since Robert Bowers walked into the lobby of the synagogue armed with a Colt AR-15 assault rifle and three Glock .357 handguns. Had I been following my typical Saturday routine that morning, I might have seen him enter; I would have heard the first shots fired.
Instead, I’d spent that weekend in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’d been at a three-day training to be an end-of-life doula, someone who works alongside hospice nurses, social workers, and home health aides to assist people and their families as they approach death. I had learned about their existence when I read Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. When people ask me why I’m studying to become one, I tell them I wanted to learn how to better support people who are experiencing death, because, well, experiencing death is hard and American culture does a poor job preparing us for its realities. I say that offering support to people having a hard time seems like a kind thing to do.
My private reason is that by learning how to provide non-medical, non-judgmental care for dying persons and their families, I hoped to learn how to live while being surrounded by reminders that every day I careen headfirst toward a death of some kind.
Around 8:15 a.m., on the second day of that training weekend, I was making myself a yogurt parfait when another participant approached me. I’ll call her Lara. The day before, during introductions, I’d said that I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. Lara told me she grew up in Squirrel Hill. Her childhood home was directly across from the Tree of Life; she and her family regularly attended services and events there. She asked me if I knew it. Excitedly, I told her I walked past her old house every Saturday morning. We shook our heads and smiled at the awesome coincidence, then went to find our seats, ready for the morning session on the emotional needs of the dying and their family.
When we broke for lunch, I turned on my phone. There was an alert from the university: Shots fired at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Wilkins Ave. Police operations are ongoing. Avoid the Squirrel Hill/Shadyside area. By then it was over. While we’d learned about the emotional needs of a dying person and their family, Bowers had been murdering 11 people and wounding six more.
I found Lara by the tea station. She was inundated with calls and text messages. We confirmed our connection from earlier: This city of Pittsburgh, this corner. We held each other’s gaze in silence, shaking our heads again.
After lunch, we studied the myths of grieving, and comfort measures for the bereaved. I am not a religious person, nor am I particularly spiritual. I do not believe things happen for a reason. I believe a life consists of a series of happy and unhappy coincidences beyond our limited conscious capacity for understanding; I do not believe these coincidences hold intrinsic meaning—I share the belief we, persons, make meaning out of coincidence, individually and collectively.
Sitting there, I tried to make some meaning. This was a mass shooting that happened in the city to which I would return Monday evening; it happened in the building I would walk past on the way to my lesson this coming Saturday morning; it happened across the street from the childhood home of a woman I had met hours earlier. The facts appear to mock coincidence.
We were in Michigan to learn about how people face oncoming death, with the benefit of time to come to terms with it. I imagined the families of Daniel Stein, Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, the brothers Cecil Rosenthal and David Rosenthal, husband and wife Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger, left to feel the thundershock of sudden loss, with no sense of control and with the knowledge of the brutality of the death.
Before that, though, came my own personal reaction: I was feeling lucky I had not been walking past that corner at 9:50 am. I felt lucky I was not a target, felt lucky I would not likely have been a target, though Jews and Blacks tend to be lumped in similar undesirable categories. I felt lucky the names of people I know in Pittsburgh were not that list.
I feel I got lucky, this time. If there is one thing I know for sure it is that there is no such thing as safety in America. There is no place in this country you can go and know for absolute certain someone cannot come in and shoot you dead. I experience, at all times, a constant low riding sense of anxiety and apprehension. I believe it is only a matter of time before my number gets called, or the number of someone I love. I am frequently embarrassed by my fear—I was taught to always be brave. I was taught to believe shame and anxiety a weakness of character; I feel embarrassed and shamed at my own smallness and impotence; I feel pressure to say, “At least we’re in America, it’s worse in other places.”
But in America we have our very own natural disaster. I choke on our special flavor of irony, and I feel despair. Before each session of the Comp 101 class I teach, I remind myself that any of my students, or anyone they know, might decide to shoot up our classroom. I feel dread. I feel physically and emotionally fried; I feel the hands of my biological clock thumping in my chest; I feel like calling my partner and saying when I get home lets make a baby right now before we eat an impersonal bullet; I feel guilty, selfish, and self-centered; I feel like I am lugging around a well of shame. And I feel so much rage. I am worn thin from all this feeling. I struggle to reconcile the paralysis I feel from my own impotence, with a desire to be part of some effort to mitigate the disasters.
During his assault on the synagogue, Bower reportedly called for the death of all Jews. Reports on his social media activity indicate Bower held strong white nationalist beliefs; of note is his belief that Jews present an existential threat to white people like himself. While receiving medical treatment, he reportedly claimed Jews were committing genocide against his people.
The conviction with which he holds this belief alarms me more than the actions he took in accordance to what he believed. Our legal and legislative processes cannot prevent or address, mount a substantive and proportional response to his belief system, a belief system shared by a considerable number of Americans. Bower’s howls betray a deeply held feeling: he feels under attack; he feels the mass death of the group with whom he identifies is coming, indeed, is happening; with the death of his group he will loss of his personal sense of identify, which is to say, his sense of self, and further, his life—he feels like he is fighting for his own life.
This is how he imagines and experiences his reality—shaped in large part by the media he consumes and the communities in which he participates, all of which serve as a feedback loop that operates alongside and in tension with other feedback loops. One consequence of living in a culture that valorizes a weird admixture of individualism and tribalism is that common facts are difficult to come by. It becomes nearly impossible to imagine connecting to people who experience a reality different than yours.
The one indisputable common fact is that we will all die. Another fact is mass shootings kill more people in America than annual hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and earthquakes. They burst on the landscape about as often as gnarly thunderstorms do in springtime in Nebraska.
Outside the Tree of Life, a girl in pigtails laid down a bouquet of fresh daisies. “There’s so much about this I don’t understand,” the rabbi said. “As tough as it is, we will move forward.” I cannot tell if he means we must move on and through the grief over the many lives lost in Bower’s attack, or if he means we should show strength and resilience from one storm of feelings and guns to the next. His prescription is better suited for the former: grief is a natural and unavoidable response everyone experiences when they experience a death. At the doula training, I learned grief is also an abyss that can kill you if you get stuck. To live, you must climb out, stride forward.
But by resuming the daily acts of living, by refusing to just stop the engine of this country, we have successfully incorporated mass shooting events into the ebb and flow of American life—to die in one is as natural as dying from advanced aging. I watch the steady stream of cars creep through the intersection, at the discretion of a traffic cop. Most of the people riding the 64 look down, swiping at their phone screens; a few take pictures or video of the crowd and the synagogue with their phones. I check my watch—it is 10:10. If I leave now, I can still make my lesson.