Friday, September 13, 2019

On Luck

In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf writes, "She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day."

Clarissa Dalloway and I are in agreement on this one.

* * *

This was the first year that I talked to my kids about September 11. They must have discussed it at Zuzu's school--from what I could gather, they read a book about helpers and about the sun coming up on September 12. At any rate, she had questions about the towers and the dust when they fell and why the airplanes ran into them.

It was a pretty heavy conversation for before school on a Thursday.

I don't shy away from heavy conversations really--I think we probably talk about death more than most families with young kids. We've been talking about cancer and cancer research with Pedal the Cause coming up. We talk about systemic racism and segregation and white privilege and the way poverty gets criminalized. And we've It's Not the Stork! and had conversations about gender and how babies are made and born. I'm not claiming my kids totally GET these concepts (in fact, there have been some REALLY problematic misunderstandings!), but we value honesty and giving them the whole picture. I generally let them lead the conversation and answer their questions as honestly as possible.

But I found a catch in my throat when Zuzu said, "Wait, the people on the airplanes died?"

And then, after a pause, "Wait, were there kids on the plane?"

And then, after a shorter pause, her small voice coming from the backseat, "But where were their parents?"

* * *

I still can't read WWII books. I just don't have the stomach for it. It makes my heart race to imagine being in a situation where there is nothing I can do to protect my children. I feel desperate and powerless at the same time, which is agonizing.

I feel the same way when I think about climate change and our government's refusal to address it. Is it still genocide when we're killing ourselves?

* * *

September 11 happened my senior year of college and I can't center myself in that disaster, but it did seem suddenly and painfully clear that the world was far more dangerous than my limited universe had ever let on. In fact, it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.

I saw on FB a collection of statements about what happened after September 11, and I know it's far too simple to say "The country came together!" Yes, there was a lot of that. But also our government failed to adequately compensate and care for the first responders whose health problems developed over time after breathing in the dust on 9/11. Also innocent Muslims were attacked simply because they shared a religion with the terrorists--as though we are all culpable for crimes committed by another person who claims to share our faith.

Perhaps it's more accurate to say that 9/11 stripped us bare and in doing so revealed the best and the worst in us.


On September 11, I went to a bar called the Heidelberg and huddled in a booth with friends from my hometown, drinking a pitcher of beer and watching the televised progression of skyscrapers becoming rubble.

There was a new tea shop and cafe a few doors down. It had opened over the summer and then business had boomed when the college students had moved back to town. I'd been there once, just a few days earlier. It was buzzing with conversations and tables were full of students with headphones and laptops. I'd sat down and talked with my favorite professor and his wife about graduate school applications.

That cafe went out of business weeks later. It was called Osama's.


I heard on NPR that 9/11 was the day our country lost its innocence. The commentator explained that when the first plane hit the tower, we all collectively assumed it had to be a terrible accident--a pilot had a heart attack. Someone in an air traffic control tower made a fatal error. People continued on to work, even those in New York, because it was a terribly unfortunate thing, but that's all it was.

Now, the commentator continued, a motorcycle backfires in Times Square and people panic, running for their lives. This is the difference, eighteen years later. We're no longer innocent. We're more afraid.

I wanted to object. It's not the same, is it? That motorcycling backfiring, that fear of a mass shooting, that's homegrown, domestic terror, isn't it? We're afraid of angry white men with guns, not Muslim terrorists. At least, if I had to bet who was more likely to kill a bunch of people in this country tomorrow, I'd put my money on an angry white man.

But I guess it's still terrorism. It's just that going to Wal-Mart now feels more dangerous than flying in an airplane. And maybe that's because a terrible thing happened and 3,000 innocent people died, and we changed EVERYTHING about how we fly on airplanes.

But now terrible things keep happening. Kids in schools are forced to hide from imaginary intruders who are all too real. Seventeen children in St. Louis died from gun violence last month. And we're not changing anything about how we regulate guns. We're just relying on luck to keep us safe. And that does not feel like enough.

* * *

I've been following an artist on Instagram whose seven-year-old daughter has suffered a traumatic brain injury from which she may never recover.

She fell off a golf cart.

She was a bright, giggly, imaginative second grader with strawberry blonde hair and big brown eyes and now she is a shell of a little girl who may never wake up again and even if she does regain consciousness, she is unlikely to be who she was before.

Her father is convinced that God is working a miracle in his daughter and that she will wake, fully recovered, to astonish the medical community.

I want him to be right. I want him to get his miracle. I want that little girl to wake up and be herself again.

I'm not convinced that God works the way he believes God works, but I'm still praying for his miracle. Because that could be my little girl. Because they're all miracles. Because it's so dangerous to be alive in this world. Even for a day.

* * *

I read an article about luck on 9/11--about how a minor decision to change a necktie or pick up a cup of coffee changed everything. It literally determined who lived and who died in the World Trade Center. A typo on a travel itinerary made someone miss their plane. And then that plane hit the pentagon.

How do we account for luck? And when is one person's good fortune another person's terrible fate?

Luck is such a precarious thing on which to build a life.

I remember being so angry after Eliza died when a friend of a friend narrowly avoided being hit by a car while crossing the road and someone attributed that to the hand of God. I was furious that God might reach out a hand to save this person and turn away from my baby dying.

It's easier for me to wrap my head around the idea of luck than of some kind of God who carelessly knots umbilical cords and nudges little girls off golf carts and lets bullets torpedo their way onto quiet front porches on warm summer nights.

But what's terrifying about luck is the implicit acknowledgment of how little in this life we can control.

* * *

In Hamlet, Hamlet and his buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have a jokey little exchange in which Hamlet asks how it's going and they say that it's fine because they're not at the top of Fortune's cap, but they're not under her feet either. They're somewhere in middle--nestled around her nether regions, which the three of them find funny. One of them calls Fortune a strumpet. Last semester, I asked my students what a strumpet is (it's footnoted in our text: a whore) and then I asked them if they had any ideas about why Fortune is personified as a woman instead of a man.

One student raised his hand and said, "Because she's always changing her mind?"

* * *

Almost every night when all three girls are asleep, we check on them a final time before getting into bed and David will invariably look at sleeping baby G and say to me, "We are so lucky."

And I know what he means. Of course we are lucky in the first world, white privilege, middle-class, access to quality education and healthcare kind of way. These are blessings that we don't deserve any more than any other person on this earth, though they are denied to many. We acknowledge that luck, too.

But what he means when we gaze on the round cheeks and soft eyelashes of three sleeping girls is that we're lucky because in a world full of golf carts and stray bullets and grapes that close off airways and planes that fall from the sky and all of the other dramatic and mundane ways that life can end, we made it through another day relatively unscathed.

It is very, very dangerous to live even one day, although we don't really have the energy to reckon with that danger every moment. We put it out of our minds and we go about our business trusting that we'll ride out the day somewhere around Fortune's midsection.

And at the end of the day, here we are--thanking our lucky stars that we can wake up and do it all again tomorrow.


  1. This genuinely brought tears to my eyes. That multiple governments D or R repeatedly and wilfully take no action to stop the terrifying mass shootings. I live in Canada,sure we have gun violence too, but nothing compared to the alarming incidents of child murder there. I’m not minimizing the impact on the families of the victims here, but the fact that lockdown procedures need to be taught to elementary kids really makes me wonder and worry for the future.

  2. YES. All of this. Beautifully said, Brooke. <3

  3. You think it’s luck that you have an education and healthcare and not that your parents worked hard to afford to bring you up that way and then you and your husband worked hard to get jobs that provide healthcare. You’re so delusional!!! It’s too bad you’re bringing up three little girls to believe they suffer from ‘white privilege’

    1. Acknowledging that we exist in a world where the starting line is not the same for every person does in no way diminish the efforts individuals make to work hard, build a family, or contribute to their community. We need more people raising their children to understand this. We need less children raised with a sense of entitlement for unearned power bestowed upon them for merely existing in the correct skin or zip code.

    2. What Kristin said! Very glad you are raising your little girls with a horizon beyond their own circumstances Brooke!

  4. Loribeth flagged your post on Mel's Roundup. This is brilliant. So many different memories, emotions, thoughts. I loved it all. Especially this: "Perhaps it's more accurate to say that 9/11 stripped us bare and in doing so revealed the best and the worst in us."

    ^ Many of us are still lucky for the families we were born into, for the circumstances outside our control that benefited us.

  6. I agree with all of this. As a social worker who serves at risk populations, I do believe that many things in life are based upon luck. And white privilege. I'm a white woman with biracial children, and I see white privilege in a new light now that I have kids. Thank you for raising your girls to be aware of this.

  7. It terrifies me when I think too much about how someone can be here today or gone tomorrow based on simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or some minor decision. I've also spent many hours wondering at why God seems to help some people but not others. I don't have a good answer

  8. So beautifully put Brooke, please write that book!