#UmpquaStrong?

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What is the role of strength in grieving? Billboards and t-shirts exhort us to be “Umpqua Strong.” Many on campus embody this mantra and blaze onward…”We’re here, we’re alive, and we owe it to those who died to keep moving, to do great things.”

Yet others are still trembling, their steps not quite so sure.

I sat in on a group meeting the other day. It helped to find that I’m not the only one who feels flat, who has a dark place deep within that seems to suck all warmth from my surroundings. #UmpquaStrong? More like #UmpquaNumb.

I sense some impatience, and a lack of understanding and empathy towards those who are more tentative, who are less certain of being okay. I saw a friend today who said he was fine in the immediate aftermath, but this week cannot stop shaking. There may be more of us feeling less okay as time goes by. Grief is an odd thing, and the only certain thing is how unpredictable it is.

What message does #UmpquaStrong send to those who are feeling unsteady? For myself, rather than feeling pride and belonging, I feel shame. I feel worn out. I feel like going back home and crawling under blanket and not coming out until next June.

#UmpquaStrong is a worthwhile goal. But for some of us #UmpquaDoingTheBestWeCan is all we’ve got right now.

Playlist for Healing

Right now, I am sitting in my faculty office. The door is open to a studio, which contains a handful of students. Michael Franti’s voice is wafting through the space. It is a glorious day, of a type we are so often blessed with here in the Pacific Northwest. Deep cobalt blue sky, leaves beginning to turn. The beauty of the day seems to mock the horror of what has transpired.

The unimaginable has happened to my beautiful college campus. One colleague and eight students dead, several more students injured. An entire college and community shattered.

The angry voices spitting venom from the television–loud people, dealing with their grief as best they can. But they are speaking things that do not represent me, do not represent many of us who live here, who teach here, who still believe that a school MUST be a place where one should not have to carry a weapon in order to be safe.

There is no playbook for dealing with emotions, which swing wildly from numbness to rage to just quietly shivering because it seems that I can never get warm. A friend asked how I am doing. “I’m just holding tight and going along for the ride,” I told her.

I am not a first responder. I was not one pinned down in a building. I feel like a fraud because I am traumatized by this–how dare I feel that way? I wasn’t ever in danger, although several of my dearest friends were.

I went to my personal studio this morning and grabbed every bottle of paint I own, plus glue sticks and paper. Then I drove towards the campus. I took the old highway, and things seemed to feel almost normal, like a regular day in a second week of a term in which I am just barely beginning to learn my students’ names.

It seemed okay and it was okay until I turned onto the college property, and burst into tears at the checkpoint guarded by four sheriff’s deputies. They hovered in concern, and one said “you do not need to be here today.”

“Yes, I do,” I told him. Nothing else makes sense.

So I parked in my usual spot. Two deputies followed to check on me, and volunteered to help me lug art supplies upstairs.

I opened the studio and set up as if for a class. Piles of paper, rows of paint.

Soon a couple of students drifted in–students I don’t know. They apologized, they aren’t art students, but wondered if they could hang out. I set them to work painting–they stayed for four hours.

Others came, and as they did, I had them paint.

It was quiet, almost too quiet. I asked if they’d like some music, they nodded assent. I grabbed my phone and a speaker, and started scrolling through my music library. I flinched as one seemingly horrible musical choice after another presented itself. I could easily put together a playlist for an apocalypse…but how do you build a playlist for healing?

I selected what felt comforting to me, and hit shuffle.

So now we’re listening to the sound of sunshine. Thankfully, today, it is louder than the sound of gunshots.

–Susan Rochester, Associate Professor of Art, Umpqua Community College