Don't get me wrong; like everyone else in the United States, I've looked on in horror and shed tears and drawn my family closer after Columbine, after September 11, after the shootings at Virginia Tech, after every time that evil or insanity or something even harder to understand intruded itself into otherwise normal everyday life. And every time I've been painfully conscious of the much greater trauma for the people who were there, the people who had friends and family killed or injured, the parents whose children were just there and couldn't be reached for hours--or minutes that seemed like hours.
What I didn't think about was how much worse it could be simply because your safe zone had been invaded, even if you didn't know anyone involved and the people you loved were all safe and in sight. It's surprising, in retrospect, that I didn't think of that, because I attach deeply to places. Once, many years ago, I said that if I had to choose between staying where I was and knowing no one or being transplanted and taking all of my friends with me, I would choose the familiar place over the familiar people. Maybe that's not such a good thing--that's another issue for another day. But the place I was talking about that day, the place that has been my primary safe haven and comfort zone for almost a quarter of a century, was the campus of Northern Illinois University.
I lived for four years in a dorm complex directly across from Cole Hall; you probably saw it on the news last night. I cut through Cole Hall to save steps in the winter, and to look at the Indian artifacts displayed in glass cases in the walkway. I had math classes there and later took the GRE there.
My four years at NIU were pretty idyllic, as those four years can be for many of us. Away from home but still not on our own, free but largely free of responsibility. Certainly it's possible that those factors, along with the fact that all of my closest friends lived in the same building with me, that we spent long hours over meals that had been paid for in advance and never had to worry about things like cash on hand and keeping the utilities on made a difference.
But I have a tendency to set roots, and I set them at NIU. College memories of singing at the lagoon on warm spring nights over wine coolers in paper cups blended easily into late-night walks with a friend and from there into writing by the lagoon, and then to my daughter feeding ducks there and naming them all Sarah. My husband worked in DeKalb once upon a time, and my daughter and I would take sandwiches in and pick him up and eat lunch by that lagoon, or in one of the campus restaurants that was nearly as familiar to me as my own kitchen.
The little hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant that you used to enter through a screen door in the alley, where my three friends and I could get dinner platters and beers for a total of $11 has grown into a bar and restaurant with outdoor seating, a respectable entrance, and much higher prices, but the food hasn't changed and it still feels like tradition.
Mostly, though, there's an inexplicable way in which the ground is the same under my feet. I walked that ground as a student, as a visitor, as a teacher, as a mother showing her child her roots. I walked the same ground that would later be walked by a mass murderer. I held open a door for my child that I'd later see on the news, shattered by gunfire or by rescue teams, looking broken and deserted in the aftermath.
In a sense, I'm in the same place I was after 9/11, after Virginia Tech, after any of those other senseless acts of violence and destruction. I don't know anyone at NIU any more. I didn't have to wait without breathing for a phone call, of for names to be released. My daughter was in the next room and I didn't have a hint of the horror of not being able to reach your child in a moment like that.
But I did have a feeling I'd never had before, never really contemplated before--a feeling that evil had wandered (or crashed its way) into my house, that it wasn't something lurking "out there" but something right here, turning everything upside down, stripping away an invisible layer and leaving something below that LOOKED just like it always had, that LOOKED familiar and comforting, and yet was, somehow, something else entirely.