Words in the wake

There are notes for this column that are deleted and lost to the digital dustbin in my computer, with so many discarded words and phrases.

It began, in its infancy, last Friday morning, as a playful piece. It self-deprecatingly goofed on what lots of newspaper and magazine writers do at this time of year-making "best of" and "top stories" lists.

Along with some other writers here, I wrote some blurbs about music, movies and television shows which should appear in the coming days. They are usually pithy things, meant to be fun or reflective, and they are, I think, widely read.

And to reveal the Great Oz behind this particular curtain, the lists fill space in the paper during Christmas week, when lots of writers are on vacation.

I was going to riff and poke fun about our need to either count down or list things; newspapers should provide readers dessert as well as a nutritious meal.

But, I imagine, like most of country and world, I became completely immobilized by the news about the Newtown elementary school massacre.

I saw something about the shootings on Twitter and, lacking television, I switched on a news radio station here in my cold and drafty apartment and bashed around news sites for most of the day.

Maybe you did something similar.

And while flipping through the Internet, what began as unconfirmed reports from Newtown became manifest, became a real thing, and various news sites began to supplement their coverage with lists of a different sort.

These lists ranked either the worst mass shootings in American history or the worst school shooting. According to these lists, Newtown is the second-worst school shooting , after the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in which 32 people were killed.

These lists are there to provide context and to serve as a reminder that we've been here before.

No one has done this - and why would you? - but I'm going to conjecture that the number-one repeated phrase in the aftermath of all those horrible and achingly sad scene was, "There are no words."

You heard that a lot as that horrible Friday went on. The Newtown police lieutenant said it several times. News people-people who, like me, truck in words-struggled to find the right way to convey what was going on there.

I understand why people use that expression, "There are no words." It's as if the heft of our language becomes deflated and the cord which connects our emotions to the articulation of those feelings is severed. It's futility in its basest form-an inexpressible futility.

But of course there will be words. There will be eulogies in hushed churches. There will be parents, drawing on all the love in their hearts, explaining to their kids what happened.

There will be more speeches from the president, perhaps from the White House press room, named for James Brady, President Reagan's press secretary who was wounded by gunfire in the 1981 assassination attempt and who lends his name to an organization seeking reform of gun laws.

There's going to be heated language as this tragedy rightly enters the political sphere.

We're going to need all of those words, all of that discourse.

Because, this one feels simultaneously different and familiar.

If there are two words that have lost their foothold in the wake of all this they are: "status quo."

The American poet Charles Olson opens "The Kingfishers," his poem about the history Western violence, with the lines, "What does not change/ is the will to change." It's a play on Heraclitus' famous line about how one never steps into the same river twice.

The current is quickening and is willing us to change.

Stephen Chupaska is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is an occasional contributor to The Day. Email him at schupaska@gmail.com.


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