Over the weekend, I drove north. North and east. Driving north in the springtime is like watching time go in reverse. The green gradually becomes softer and more tender, the leaves and grass retract themselves into the trees and land like slow motion photography.
I had five different NPR station fund drives along the way to keep me company.
So between it being April, thinking about the media, and what I was about to do, it put me in a very nostalgic place.
Nine years ago, my life changed forever over the course of one breakfast.
Is that where the story starts? I don’t think so, but it’s where I choose to begin today.
I was sitting at Gillie’s in Blacksburg with my friend, Megan, when she got a call from her father in Pennsylvania letting us know that a massive shooting had taken place a quarter of a mile from where we were sitting.
Think about that.
Because of the way the world works these days, the news reached her father, a six-hour drive away, before it reached us.
Then, while Megan was still on the phone with her father, someone walked in the door of the restaurant and told us there was a shooter on the loose–we should stay inside and away from the windows. While we both loved Gillie’s, we did not want to be locked down there all day, so we paid and, thinking it unlikely we were actually taking our lives in our hands, scrambled back to her apartment just off of Main Street. There we sat all day, watching on the news, trying to get phone calls out to family and friends (the town tied up the cell phone grid for hours), and listened to sirens wail as ambulances careened up and down the street. Back and forth, back and forth. For days I thought I would never get the sound of sirens out of my head. Sirens still set me off actually.
Before the day was over, we learned that the body count was 33. How could that be possible?
My return to Blacksburg this weekend was the first time in quite a while. I experienced such dissonance driving around with the feeling of familiarity and strangeness at once.
This April 16th was, if you can believe it, the nine-year anniversary of the shootings.
My purpose for going there: over the next year, I will be in residence on campus and in the community as a storyteller as we head toward the ten-year anniversary.
If we’ve known each other long enough, you may remember that I spent the first year following the tragedy helping to lead artistic response and community dialogue. It was some of the hardest and most rewarding work I’ve ever done, and I’m sure that this new chapter will be too, though perhaps differently.
The weekend was full of great conversation with partners, walking in the memorial walk/run, and just reconnecting with the story and the town. I’ll be going up for another weekend this summer, one full week in the fall, and another full week next spring.
Please wish me luck, but please especially keep that area in your thoughts and prayers. They spent the first five years not completely able to grieve because of the media’s scrutiny, the lawsuit, and just the politics of it all. I’m hopeful that the next year will be a new way to mourn and a new chapter for what’s next.
It sure is for me.