“For you shall be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you...” —Isaiah 55:12
“Another one.” “When will change finally happen?” “When will this stop?” “How much longer?”
After the March 22 shooting in Boulder, I heard these words from my Colorado friends and I resonated with their grief-stricken, yet unsurprised, reactions to the tragedy. Then again, when the shooting happened in Indiana on April 16, this same lament of anger and overwhelming sadness wailed within me. When will the violence stop?
My friends and I, who grew up in the wake of Columbine, hold the knowledge of mass shooting violence in our bones. There was a shooting in Highlands Ranch, Colo., two years ago that left one student dead. The school is three minutes from my home. My mom, an art teacher, organized an art therapy gathering at our local library for families to create, vent, cry, and be together. The elementary-aged kids created drawings for their teachers and school staff that said, “Thank you for bringing us out of there.” “Thank you for being there for us.” “Thank you for helping us.” “Thank you for saving us, I appreciate it.” Butterflies hug each other with rainbow wings in one of the drawings.
We carry the trauma of mass shooting violence in our bodies. News cycles and vigils, songs and prayers, phone calls and words that fail are the things we carry. Every time we drive by a school, movie theater, or grocery store where there was a shooting, we remember. We remember our friends, our communities, our siblings — whose absence is so acute that at times we would prefer to remain silent than to speak their names in the face of loss.
I remember one particular hours-long lockdown during a shooting at Arapahoe High School my sophomore year. My choir-mates and I stood around the piano in our practice room, checking our phones, crying, sighing, shaking, waiting. It was getting dark. After a long bout of silence, someone said, “Let’s sing something for Arapahoe.” So that’s what we did — we sang. We sang through our tear-choked throats and we held onto each other because that’s all we knew how to do. We put words to the profound absence.
Images of weapons and anxiety are everywhere around me. God feels absent in it all. I am tired. I close my eyes and center myself with a question: What do I know to be true in this terrible, beautiful world?
Not a lot. But I know the Rockies. I know their steady, reliable presence to the west. I know Boulder’s striking and ancient red rocks. I know the smell of sun-soaked vanilla pine. I know the sound of snow when it crackles and melts in rushing rivers on a sunny winter afternoon. I know the way the mountains glow in moonlight.
I know the solace and stillness I find in nature, in that which is so much bigger than I am. And when the pain of gun violence begins to overwhelm me, I remember nature, that it groans with us and sings with us. Even the rocks cry out. When our hearts are cracked open from the weight of witnessing so much human suffering, we can steady ourselves in one true thing — the dirt beneath our feet, the moon in the sky, the mountain silhouette — these things that are comfortingly always there, always true.
Remembering nature is how I am able to pray when words don’t come easily and when God feels so far away. I imagine God as the quiet stronghold of the Rockies that surround and hold my home state. I think of God as the reliably vast prairie plains and endless sky. This same true steadiness that we find in nature, I believe, is also within us, allowing us to keep going and keep loving and keep fighting for justice after heartbreaking tragedies.
For those impacted by gun violence, when nothing makes sense and when words don't come easy, may we allow ourselves to cry out with the rocks. May we be gentle with ourselves like butterfly wings and blankets of snowfall. May we be reminded of our radical, holy, and irreplaceable existence on this earth, remembering and carrying with us the lives of those we lose to gun violence. May we hold each other like the Rocky Mountains hold us, giving us permission to just be, in all our emotion, reminding us we are not alone. Let’s sing something for Indiana, for Boulder. Let’s sing and let’s hold on for all those impacted by gun violence.