Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Bomb Threat

Even when you know it's probably a hoax, you can't get it out of your head that it could be real. My legs were shaking on the stairs, as I was swept up in the wave of people fleeing the 8th and 9th floors.  At every flight, others joined us, streaming onto the stairs, eerily silent except for our feet shuffling on the concrete steps. I was clinging to the rail as I went so the silly trembling of my knees would not cause me to misstep and fall forward into the woman in front of me. 

Outside the rain spattered our faces as we clustered near the door, repeating the same fragment of news we all knew, the emergency message we had all received: Evacuation due to threats on campus. Immediately evacuate all buildings. Get as far away from buildings as possible.

Someone walked by, shouting, "Get away from the buildings! We're supposed to get away from all buildings." I looked up and almost laughed.  Three buildings hulked around and behind us, tall, beige matchy-matchy numbers whose sprawling, interlocking shadow we would have all been in, had the sun broken through the clouds that morning.  In front of us, a small field that housed a massive metal sculpture bordered the busy street.  The footbridge over the street just led to more buildings wedged in, end to end.  Real estate is expensive here; it just makes sense to squeeze the buildings you need into the space you have.

Except, of course, when someone is threatening to blow one on those buildings up.

No one was using the word bomb yet, but the word was thrumming in my mind, and I realized then I was listening carefully for something beyond the conversations around me, actively listening for the deep bass of catastrophe to rattle the pavement and rise, screaming up the EQ scale until it rent the still air in a shower of brick and glass.  If it was a bomb, I thought, we wouldn't get warning.  If someone was going to blow us up, they wouldn't tell us first.

It was a hoax, I told myself, as I stood there in the rain and felt nothing rumble the ground beneath my feet.  Word spread through the crowd: Go home, leave campus altogether.  Get in your car and drive, if you can.  If you don't have a car here, just start walking.  And, suddenly, standing in a cluster of buildings that might explode at any moment seemed sheer madness. 

As I walked to the car, I had to pass between two buildings, their parallel walls facing off silently, as they had for decades.  I walked quickly between their feud, hoping this would not be the moment that one would lunge forward to make contact with its old foe.  I didn't realize until I passed through to the parking lot that I had been holding my breath, and when I finally got out in the open and sucked in some air, I laughed nervously that I was acting like I'd passed through the valley of death.

And as I drove away in a slow line of fellow evacuees, when I should have been sighing relief and calling people to tell them I was fine, instead I was looking at buildings and, in my head, seeing them explode.  Not imagining it, per se, just waiting for it to happen, knowing what it would look like.  Because we all know what that looks like.  We've seen it in the movies a million times.  We've even seen it on the news.  These images are not foreign to us. 

Two years ago, the university was on lock down because there was a shooter on campus.  Yesterday, we were evacuated because there was a bomb threat.  We are not strangers to violence.  On Tuesday, we marked the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.  On Wednesday, we watched an American ambassador be murdered over a distasteful movie.  Before that, there was the Texas A&M shooting, the Sikh temple, the movie theater. 

Driving home yesterday, I felt not relief but resignation.  It may not be the buildings I walk between on the way to my car.  It may not be on the campus where I go to work everyday.  But somewhere, right now, someone is turning the ache inside them into a weapon aimed at the world.  Someone is funneling their anger through a gun barrel or siphoning their hurt into a bomb.  Someone is taking the brokenness in their spirit and twisting it into a way to break others.

And when I think of that, I want to pray to the vending machine God from my youth, the one where you put in a prayer, or a dollar, or an hour of service and get a blessing in return.  I want that God back so that I can beg Him to stop the blood flow, to end the endless stream of violence that is the world we know.  I want the simple God of ask-and-ye-shall-receive to swoop in and protect the faithful.  

But the funny thing about growing out of the infancy of your faith, about finding a grown-up kind of faith, is that you stop believing in easy answers.  You stop looking for formulas and empty assurances and step-by-step instructions because you realize that this life is a series of experiences, not answers.  The ambiguity is built in, part of the package. 

You learn, slowly, that the easiest thing in the world to do is take your aching soul and look for the wrong things to soothe it, look for the easy answers to make it all better.  You learn that it seems so easy to fill the black hole inside you with food or liquor or sex or prestige or money or violence.  You learn that they are all different dialects of the same language, that they are all trying to fix the same problem, and that they are all like pouring gasoline on an open flame. 

The other funny thing about growing out of your childhood faith is that by the time you realize that all of these solutions are bound to fail, all of these terrible ideas we have to silence the emptiness we feel at times, you realize you don't have the script anymore to pray your way out of them. You close your eyes and don't even know what to ask anymore.  You realize you are just as hurt, just as broken, as the people who are turning their hurt into weapons.  You realize that the only difference between them and you is that you have given up trying to fashion a solution from the tools of this world; you have laid yourself in the arms of something bigger and admitted defeat.  I cannot do this alone, you have said, I need some guidance here.

I'm not always sure it's enough, this new kind of prayer, but I say it over and over again.  Day in and day out, I say it with all the faith that is left in me.  I cannot do this alone, I need some guidance here.  The admission of defeat, the wringing of hands, seems to be the key.  There may not be answers, but there is peace in letting go of the reins.  Each day, so far, it has carried me through.  And in this world of confusion and grief, though it feels like thin armor, it is the rock to which I am tethered. I cannot do this alone, I need some guidance here.

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