Falling Awake: The walk

Mary Lou Sanelli

Mary Lou Sanelli

Once a month, I walk with a small group of women. It’s one of many routines that keeps me sane and steady, or at least helps keep me sane and steady. We meet for the company and exercise, but we also like to blow off a little steam about the state of the world. Without these talks, life would be boring.

Unspoken rule No. 1, though, is that we air personal matters first. I believe in the therapeutic effect of talking. It’s the best help out there, as far as I’m concerned.

Today, one of us says how hard it’s been to make decisions about her aging parents’ care, and I can see the dark vales under her eyes where all the uncertainty has gathered. To brighten the mood, I say, “Every day, I’m going to do what I love. I’m going to write and dance and bicycle and swim. Even if the chlorine is ruining my hair.”

“It’s just hair,” our oldest walker says. Hair does not, in her view, bear too much examination.

After that, we start in on the news, and, believe me, we have as much to say about the Bryan Kohbergers of the world as we do the Putins.

“I have to figure out how to sleep again,” another says. She stops to watch two crows. One stretches out its neck, inviting the other to prime its feathers. Birds have never let her down and never will, she said once. At the time, she was “celebrating” her divorce; that’s how she put it, and her tone was light that afternoon.

Her tone, though, is not light today.

Her tone is not light because the past two months have been horrible. Her daughter goes to Washington State University in Pullman, where the man charged with the Moscow stabbing murders was a graduate student. No one tries to find consolation or meaning in anything that occurred that awful morning in Idaho. We know when it’s best to just let one of us hate something about the world when we need to, and that sometimes we just can’t make things better, safer, than they really are. I’ve often wondered what it must be like to live in Pullman or Moscow these days, to deal with a crisis that is so much more menacing than the average small-town tragedy.

I think how important these walks are because you can’t ease your fearfulness with your own fearfulness. Our skin is not as thick as we wish to believe.

The weight of the stabbing deaths in Moscow continues to wash over us, removing any desire I have to bring up the story that made me say aloud to a complete stranger sitting next to me at the ferry terminal, “Oh my god I can’t believe this.” Which made her look at my New York Times and say, “What now?”

The headline read: “6-Year-Old Shoots Teacher at Virginia Elementary School.” And before leaving the house to come on this walk, I did a little homework to add to the conversation I had intended to bring up: how nine states have now instituted an assault weapons ban. Which is so important because, remember, the Highland Park shooter was able to buy multiple assault weapons despite two incidents in 2019 in which he threatened to kill himself and his family.

But I don’t want to bring up the story for another reason, as well: One of us invited a friend to join us today, a woman I know — well, tried to know and decided, no. I don’t remember which horrible school shooting had just occurred, pick one, when she and I sat next to each other at Eleven Winery on Bainbridge Island one Sunday afternoon, and against my better judgement, when she brought up the subject of gun control, I was honest.

Quite soon after, so was she.

I learned that she is not exactly “pro-gun” so much as she is “anti-take-our-guns-away,” and she is passionately opinionated about gun rights. I’m passionately opinionated, too, so that’s not why I don’t want to bring up the story. I don’t want to bring it up with someone, anyone, who just might say what she said that day in a winery shining with sun. I left thinking, how — why — can someone still think there is no connection between the number of guns out there, so easily obtained, and the number of children who have been killed because of them? 

Now, wait, yes, I’m as tired of the us-versus-them mindset as the next person. And, well, yes, we should listen to and respect opposing viewpoints; it’s the only way to heal division, to mend what is broken.

But on this issue, when I think of all the children who have been shot at school (at school!), I’m afraid I can’t make room for all the guns and all the people who say we should own as many of them as we like. I’ve lost all elasticity of grasp. I know, have known since the Amish school shooting, that on this matter I draw the line. I can’t listen to anything more about guns from the point of view of a gun-rights advocate. I can’t listen to anything more about guns from the eyes of someone who chooses guns over children. Today we will just have to leave our discussion with a knife. In Moscow. That hasn’t been found. Yet. And leave guns for another time.

A woman walks by absorbed in her phone, prompting our oldest walker to speak again, “Has she looked at the mountains? Has she looked at the sky?” More than once we’ve discussed this topic: How will people look after the natural world if they no longer take the time to really see it, even on a walk? As if the woman can hear us, she looks up at the scenery. It captures her attention for, like, a millisecond, then eyes right back down.

“Write about that,” our friend says. So, I did.

Mary Lou Sanelli is the author of “Every Little Thing,” a collection of essays that has been nominated for a Pacific Northwest Book Award and a Washington State Book Award. Her previous titles include poetry, fiction and non-fiction. For more information about her and her work, visit www.marylousanelli.com.