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Highland Park

I spent the morning of July 4th in Oslo, at the Munch Museum.

After several hours, as we were preparing to leave, Delaney reminded me that we had promised to go back to an exhibit that offered visitors a chance to create art to be displayed there. Only she was interested, so the two of us returned alone.

“What do you think is worth saving?” was the exhibit’s prompt. We sat side by side as we started our works, both with a clear sense of what we wanted to leave. Delaney drew a picture she said was not a self-portrait; but which featured her own braids and long hair covering one eye. On my page, I drew a star, with the most powerful words I could think of repeated around and around it in crayon, spiraling outward. It recalled a piece that had been shared with me when I most needed it, featuring the same message spiraling around and around inward:

You are safe you are safe you are safe.

Hours later at a dinner party, Evelyn received a text from home. And suddenly nothing felt safe.

Headlines followed quickly; and soon updates from a close friend who was at the parade: now physically safe but changed forever.

Highland Park is just a few miles to our north; a community where we have friends and which feels not unlike our own. Each new detail shared is terrifying, horrible. “Is this how it feels when it hits so close to home?” I find myself wondering.

And that must be it, because I am shocked to see people carrying on their normal posting activities within the social stream of terror and grief.

Have we truly become so immune to a shooting that this is how we respond? Yes, and maybe I can understand this impulse. Anger and fear take up a lot of energy; when shootings happen as often as they do in the U.S., how many times can you afford the emotional expense?

I try to find a parallel in my cancer experience that helps me to make sense of what has happened. It feels like it ought to be there—both things terrible and out of our control and causing fear and pain—but nothing comes.

I don’t know what to do or what to say or how to help.

How are you? I ask again and again, my circle of inquiries widening each day as I hope to hear something that helps me to understand how I am feeling myself, or what to do about it. I feel very tired. I blame jetlag and worry it might be the cancer; but deep in my heart I think I know it is the not-safe feeling that is so very taxing.

Even before the shooting, the Norwegians want to know how it is to live there now. They are mourning for America, it quickly becomes clear. They admire our country; but the cost of living there seems to have surpassed just inflation.

I ask Per what it would take to pursue his Norwegian citizenship.

In fairness to Norway, the country itself has plenty to do with that impulse. It is my first visit, and I am charmed by Oslo immediately: it feels like it is to Paris what Milwaukee is to Chicago—lots of the same positive qualities, made more accessible. Its population is nearly the same as my hometown; but its wealth and priorities have allowed the creation of an infrastructure that makes it a joy to experience the city. We never wait more than four minutes for a train or a bus and move efficiently from charming, quaint streets to impressive modern architecture that houses the opera house and museums.

Now that we have started to visit Per’s cousins, we drive through miles and miles of green and arrive to storybook settings where our children have enjoyed hours of everything childhood should be: swings and horses and beaches, eating ice cream and catching crabs and learning how to peel shrimp and avoid jellyfish. They are sunkissed and happy; my heart is full watching them even as it feels like half of that same heart is caught in Highland Park.

I am glad to have kept my therapy appointment as I’m not sure I have ever needed it more. She confirms that every one of her patients has wanted to talk about what happened, most of them exclusively—which should possibly surprise me more given that her patients are people like me who are facing illnesses that force them to consider their mortality on the daily.

But I’m not really surprised: the idea of my own death is exponentially easier for me than feeling like the people I love are in danger, let alone my entire country, and I suspect I am not alone in this.

I wish I could share some miraculous aha, a thought that could make us all feel safer, something that helps us feel more powerful than does an encouragement to vote. But it’s not that easy. As I try to think back to a cancer parallel, my mind is drawn to my chemo rash, itchy and painful enough to make itself known constantly and keep me always on edge; and when I look in the mirror I am dismayed to see a face I don’t recognize as my own. Is this what I have become? My skin is mostly clear now, but the scars remain.

As I think about how I got through it, I have only this: when I have felt the very worst, helping helps.

My therapist tells me to focus on my heart chakra, opening my heart at its back, close to my spine, and sending out a beam of light. I picture the kind of beam that probably starts at a used car lot and reaches all the way to the clouds; then I send it on its way to a home I know in Highland Park, where people I know and love are ready to receive it.

I can’t say whether it helped them, but it helped me. So I plan to do it again tonight, and again and again.

I’ve been on the receiving end of so, so many stars—and I am grateful for a chance to give some of that love back. Maybe nobody realized how much that energy helped, but as I look back on my “miraculous” initial response to my first rounds of chemo, I am increasingly convinced your collective healing love was the antidote to my pain and my fear. And perhaps this is the answer our country needs.

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