The girl was fifteen and had on a summer Poplin jumper and Sperry Topsiders (for which I was envious). Her friend’s blond hair had the shimmer of wet chlorine, a smell which probably came from a suburban pool (the kind with a refreshment cabana and banter about the latest One Direction concert). I did not know them, but I noticed them.
We were not in the suburbs. We were in the waiting room of a walk-in, low-income veterinary clinic in a tired neighborhood of Denver; a place weary from the swim up-steam against the economy, prejudice, gang activity, malaise and crime. The heartbeat of this neighborhood pulses far beneath the surface of broken concrete, the deep bass beat of car stereos and a steady flow of street drugs. Not that the suburbs don’t have such things – it is just that suburban hearts are buried in a different kind of soil.
I gathered that these pretty suburban girls were at this clinic, as I was, to beat the high price of veterinarian services in more middle-income regions of the city.
The day had taken a silencing turn. In the traffic on the way to the clinic, it became clear that police crime tape surrounded a small motel across the street – likely a drug and prostitution haven. My eyes took in a coroner’s van outside one of the rooms and an officer in a hazmat suit. Then the world became very slow – dreamlike – as four police officers carried someone’s dead body out of one of the tiny rooms of the hotel.
Deeply shaken by the scene, it seemed wise to pull the car into a small community park. The reality slowly set in – someone’s body was pulled from a scene saturated in darkness. Tears came easily.
After calming down I pulled the car back around to the vet clinic.
The waiting room was filled with an entourage of bandaged mutts, mauled cats and people enduring a stale pet-urine smell. There was a police officer at the counter, asking the receptionist about anything she may have seen across the street at the crime scene. The two of them discussed previous crimes for which the hotel was known, usually of a brutal nature; born of the irrationality of desperation, drugs and demons. This cop gave away far too much information within hearing range of all of us in the waiting area. What we heard took me several days to repeat even to my family: it was a young woman who had been killed; someone’s daughter. What occurred to her should never be spoken.
Such a story should never be told.
Later that night I searched the news for a mention of this woman. There was only one line: Police looking for a vehicle in connection with a suspected homicide at the Primrose Hotel. Nothing else was mentioned. A young woman’s story embedded between commercials and weather reports.
When I crawled into bed it was thoughts of the sun-soaked suburban girls, which kept me awake. You see, they had walked in long after the cop and receptionist had interacted. They questioned the receptionist about what had happened across the street and the receptionist rattled off – I mean, she literally rattled off – the story to the girls. The girls looked at each other, gave each other the kind of look you give each other upon viewing an offensive commercial, then they shrugged their shoulders and continued their giggly banter about boys.
The death of someone their age. A dark death. Just across the street. These girls received the news like they were watching a video game. It did not appear to be merely adolescent self-focus, shock or some kind of coping strategy. The girls were truly un-phased.
When did we fall asleep?
I write this in the wee hours of the morning, after a glorious time at an Amos Lee concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater. If you’ve never had the delight of being in that space, embedded into deep natural rock in the foothills of the Rockies, I hope for you that you can at least glimpse it one day. It has been one of those evenings which stirred every electric inch of my body, emotions and spirit. The music was compelling, there was a full moon, and the summer breeze was probably flowing directly from the center of the river in the city of God. It was a taste of heaven. It qualified for what the Hebrew essence of beauty is: goodness. It was, in the richest sense, a good evening. It held holy beauty. It is not superficial beauty – it is compelling, and always prompts a response in the spirit – if we are awake to it.
That’s what holy beauty does – it wakes us up then calls us back into the world where darkness lurks. Beauty helps us see and face darkness. God calls to us from the center of beauty, as heard in (this paraphrase of) the prophet Isaiah:
Wake up, wake up, those who belong to God!
Clothe yourself with strength.
Put on your beautiful clothes…
Rise from the dust…
Sit in a place of honor.
Remove the chains of slavery from your neck,
O captive daughter.
Yesterday I went through the entire day without being stirred at all. I was asleep, and it was not because there was nothing to stir my heart. My days are often spent trekking through stories which are laden with pretty insidious darkness, loss and tragedy. The days are also filled with glittering hope and fractured light as it becomes clear, again, that darkness does not get to win in the human heart; not ultimately. Twenty years of therapeutic and healing work has solidified for me that the point is not to focus on darkness so that we wake up, but to focus on the holy beauty of God so that when darkness appears, we recognize it and grieve accordingly.
But yesterday, for whatever reason, it was not until, at the grocery store at 5 pm, I woke up. As I was paying for my groceries, I glanced up to see the sullen and pained eyes of the grocery store clerk. I was moved by her pain, but I had not engaged myself with the goodness of God that day to be alert enough to engage her beyond a feeble smile.
Only when I draw near to what this gorgeous world and every person in it was created for, do I have a greater capacity for joy, and also a greater capacity to grieve when all is not well in the world.
Numbness is not merely boring or convenient (‘I don’t want to be bothered’) but it is actually robbery. The woman who was killed at the Primrose Hotel deserved the sorrow of everyone exposed to the ending of her earthly story. My family members deserve more than side-ways attention. The faces of those we pass in the mall should be noticed and considered.
Small decisions to reconcile and tend to our world are available every day. Pat Conroy once said, “The most powerful words in English are, “Tell me a story.”” Perhaps even more powerful would be the words “Bring me your story.” In order to receive someone else’s story, I have to be alert, and attuned to the ways I myself have fallen asleep.
Jan Meyers Proett has been a counselor for over twenty years and is the author of The Allure of Hope, Listening to Love, and Beauty and the Bitch: Grace for the Worst in Me. She has worked on behalf of exploited women internationally, but also loves the trails of Colorado, where she lives with her husband, Steve. Follow Jan at her Facebook author page, and her blog.