I arrived in Palestine during the 2014 conflict; only a few days after the James Foley video circulated, and the moment the ceasefire was broken.
Happy to be Alive Day
My eldest cousin is 19 years my senior. I have a feeling I’m “walking in his footsteps” so-to-speak. He spent two decades living in New York City in the film industry, now he owns a Drive-in theatre in the Catskills, dabbles in mixology, and even hosts his very own podcast, “Cinema with a Twist.” Considering the atypical career goals I’ve been harboring for awhile now, leading me to experiment with a year of self-employment, I’m happy there is someone else in my family going about life the way they feel works best for them, even if that doesn’t mean a steady 9-to-5, a pension, and a suburban home.
If you are thinking my cousin tried to shoot me at some point, he didn’t. This is not where the story is going. Thank God. Actually, years ago, the studio in which he was working in NYC was robbed at gunpoint. Since then, he celebrates a holiday on the anniversary of this incident, aptly dubbed, “Happy to be Alive Day.”
Today, I’d like to borrow this tradition for myself.
Exactly ten years ago today, on August 30th, 2006, I was sitting outside Orange High School’s cafeteria on the lower patio for lunch. My friends and I always sat at the same picnic table everyday near the railing, about 30-40 feet from the student parking lot (or something like that, I’m not exactly spatially inclined). On this particular day, I remember hearing a popping noise and looked in the direction of the sound. On the edge of the parking lot I saw a cloud of smoke. Senior prank, I thought. But then, from the smoke, a figure emerged with a long coat and a gun.
I didn’t see anything else. I didn’t hear any gun shots. I didn’t even think. All I know is that I clamored out of that picnic table bench and took off running up the stairs. I don’t remember any of the other people running, just that they were definitely also running. I didn’t check to see if my friends were following me, just that they weren’t ahead of me. I ran from the upper patio to the doors where two things happened:
- Some of the people who had run from outside to the inside of the school stopped as soon as they entered the hall. How they simply stopped in the hall I have no idea. I believe teachers told them to “sit down” (from stories I heard later). If the gunman had entered the school, those kids would have been gunned down immediately.
- A girl, who I imagine was inside this entire time and trying to discern why the hell dozens of students were running hysterically into the building, decided to peak out the door as I ran inside. As in, she was blocking the door frame while I was literally running for my life. If I ever try to tell someone that in times of panic we humans are compassionate, I am lying. I pushed the girl out of my way. I have no idea if she fell down (but I don’t think she did) and I never looked back. Ten years later, I am finally extended a half-hearted apology: “Sorry, unnamed girl.” (But I’d do it again in a heartbeat).
So I ran in the hall connecting the patio to the cafeteria but I didn’t stop there (like many others). I kept running. I turned the corner of the hall and took off to the end and ran in a random classroom. As in, there was no one in the hallway. Just me. And I ran in an active science classroom without saying anything, ran directly past the teacher and the shocked students, and into the large storage closet. I ran to the very back, and sat down.
People must have been following me because within a fraction of a second, a whole heard of people were also sitting in the closet with me. I remember deciding in my head that if the shooter came into the closet and began shooting that it would be very chaotic and since I was small and in the very back maybe I could pull their dead bodies over mine and the shooter would think I was dead too. (Yes. I actually had this thought. Call it dark; I call it thrifty.)
I also prayed for the first time in maybe a year or two. It was also the last time I prayed. I prayed that, if there is a God, and he let’s me survive, I would go to church that Sunday and I would consider believing in God again. I know they tell Christians in church that “you can’t bargain with God,” but I didn’t have much to lose. So I did. And I did survive. Obviously. And I did go to church that Sunday. And, no, I don’t believe in God again. Not the one you learn in church anyway. Maybe I should, but it’s hard to forced yourself into these things. But I’m eternally thankful to…..well, I’m not sure. The universe? Chance? The deputy that stopped him? My survival instincts?
We waited inside the storage closet for a very long time. Some of the girls cried. I only cry for useless things like when there is mold in my refrigerator or when my boyfriend leaves for the weekend without telling me. For some reason I don’t cry over serious things like when someone I know dies or when a man with a gun starts shooting at me. Maybe I was in too much shock. But at some point, after some period of time that is now lost to my murky memory, we realized that no one was coming to shoot us. And then we started chatting and calling our parents. We took turns borrowing the cell phones of people who had theirs. Mine was somewhere with the gunmen outside on the picnic table. Or confiscated by the police as evidence. Who knows.
I’ll never, ever forget the conversation with my mom that followed. My mom picked up and I explained the situation. Ten years later I don’t remember the exact words but I believe it went something like this:
“Hi, Mom, this is Gwen.”
“Oh whose number are you calling on?”
“____Insert name of person I forgot about____. There is a guy shooting at the school. I’m okay, I’m hiding in a storage closet.”
After about 5 minutes we all started getting phone calls from our parents again. They, being the little researchers all parents seem to become, gathered as much information as possible on the subject and reached out to us to quell our little worried minds. The first phone call was to a girl. Maybe I knew her at the time. Maybe not. I definitely don’t know her now.
“It’s okay!” She announced. “My mom just called. She said that she called the police to tell them what happened.” A minute later a boy who I actually was friends with also announced that his mother had called the police. In quick succession, something like 5-6 people proudly publicized to the group, still sitting cross-legged in the closet, that their mothers had called the police. The police were not giving any information at this time but officers had been dispatched.
Finally my turn came. The boy who had lent me his cellphone got a call from my mom and he handed me the phone.
“Ok….I called the news….”
Hundreds of parents calling the police and mine calls the news?! My mom defends this decision to this day, and she should, she was the only parent who called who was able to provide any new information. But I still can’t stress enough how hilarious this was to me. I narrowly escaped death and moments later I was back to laughing. I love my mom.
Seriously though, she did get better information. The news confirmed that the police had been dispatched, the shooter had been taken into custody, no one at the school died (though a few suffered minor injuries), and the police were still investigating a second shooter (there wasn’t one). And that was that. They took him into custody. We spent the majority of the day in lock-down and writing witness reports to the police. And then they let us go. We weren’t allowed to take any of our things that we left outside.
My friend, Cory, drove me home. On the way he made a sharp turn around the bend of a road and I joked, “We survived a school shooting and Cory kills me on my way home!” He didn’t find it funny. Too soon? I have a habit of finding my own jokes particularly more entertaining than anyone else does.
Some people said that since no one died, it wasn’t a big deal. But in reality, the shooting actually did mess me up more than I realized at 16. Some of it seems pretty typical. For a few weeks I kept seeing people with guns everywhere. I still wake up sweating thinking that I am running away from shooters (though in the last ten years they have become more and more infrequent). Recently I considered running the Bombay half marathon and hesitated thinking maybe there would be some attack. Large, crowded spaces still make me a bit nervous. And when I eat at a restaurant, my anxiety goes through the roof if I have to sit with my back to the door.
That being said, I don’t think the shooting has made me more afraid of life or people besides these random quirks. I’ve actually gone off in the opposite direction. I’ve become very accepting of the fact that I am going to die, which has been good and bad. Bad because, well, becoming obsessed with your own mortality can make it a bit difficult to get out of bed some mornings. When you don’t believe in an afterlife (I so wish that I believed in an afterlife), it’s hard to deal with the fact that I simply live and die and in the end, I don’t think it matters that much when or how. And even when I don’t feel emotional about it, turning a fun night of drinking into a discussion of how strange it is that only humans are self-aware of their own death doesn’t generally lighten the mood. I’ve noticed I’m very good at bringing people down at parties….
But I actually owe a lot to that day. I’ve done a lot of really amazing (perhaps risky) things in the last ten years that I don’t know if I would have done otherwise. Feeling like life is all you have really inspires me to live it well: to travel, to meet people, to understand, to do exactly what I want and feel passionate about. I have housed strangers and they have turned into friends. I’ve been to over 50 countries because I’m not sure I will live until 70 or 80 or 90. So why not now? Ultimately what one person defines as success is how they define success, I can agree or disagree. It doesn’t matter if they think I am living my life “successfully” or “stupidly.” That doesn’t mean I’m afraid to work hard or to create difficult goals for myself. It just means I’m not going to pursue something I don’t love because I may never have the time later to do something I care about.
My sister once told me, after a solo trip through the Middle East (including Southern Lebanon and the West Bank during the last war), that my mom once mentioned that maybe my “risky” behavior is partially due to the shooting. I’m not totally sure, but I agree to an extent. Compared to the majority of people I have met, I do seem to be less cautious than them. How much of this is related to the shooting? I have no idea. How much is this related to traveling solo my year out of college? Potentially a lot. It’s hard to judge.
I do sometimes think, “If I die right now, am I okay with the things I have done so far?” And I’d say, 95%, yes. Not 100% because now I really want to write a novel before I die. So that’s what I am doing. And when I finish that, I’ll have some other goal. But who knows? It’s India in the monsoon. Maybe I’ll get dengue and that will be that.
My mom wasn’t thrilled about me moving to India. She, like any sane parent, was worried about my safety. Fair enough. But I still rather have died in India than have lived longer while being bored in Chicago. And after the shooting, why am I guaranteed more life staying in America? I didn’t almost die in the Middle East. I didn’t almost die in India. I didn’t almost die couch surfing in Ukraine. I almost died in high school in a small, safe town in North Carolina.
Living and Dying
When I was 15 years old, 9 months before the shooting, my parents and I visited the Eiffel Tower in Paris. For whatever reason, I was afraid to go to the top. What if there is some sort of terrorist attack and I am stuck up there and die? My dad told me that, yes, it is a possibility. We can’t avoid these things. But, ultimately, we can’t stop living just because some crazy guy on a suicide mission, or an emotionally disturbed man with a gun, or the numerous other people who make bad decisions based on mental health problems, anger, and indoctrination, decide to cause a panic. We can’t stop living because we are afraid of dying. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s honestly the best advice he has given me.
And I’ve taken this advice very seriously. I definitely don’t want to die and some days it absolutely terrifies me that I will. I feel guilty for watching television or not waking up at 6am to go to the gym and I feel absolutely overwhelmed that I need to do everything because I don’t have very long. I need to learn the guitar, and speak 7 languages, and how have I not visited North Korea yet? And Brazil? And the moon? Shit, I need to join NASA and learn to fly a helicopter, and become a professional chef, and pet a kangaroo.
But then other days I feel completely fine with it. Some days I think about the last ten years smugly, like I crashed a party I wasn’t invited to, and so I might as well mingle with every single person, eat all the food, drink all the alcohol, and just enjoy this free ride I was given. I won the lottery, I got TEN extra years that maybe I shouldn’t have gotten. Statistically, I shouldn’t have even been born. So let’s go!
Memes of girls standing on mountains with inspirational quotes about traveling and living each day to the fullest don’t appeal to me. Yes, I am aware that my main photo for this site is me standing on a mountain. But its me. It’s something I actually did. And I was shit scared on top of that mountain. And the other day on the train the cops were investigating a mysterious package behind my chair and I got nervous about that too. And, yes, I felt scared that time in Palestine when I went to a protest and couldn’t see anything because of clouds of teargas and canisters and rubber bullets rocketing through the air. The first time I went scuba diving I was 99% sure that I would die. And don’t even get me started on trying to cross the street in Delhi….
The point is, despite being scared, I still do this stuff because I rather die climbing Everest than living an extra ten years and dying of cancer after spending my life behind a desk in a corporation that doesn’t even know I exist. Not everyone wants to climb a mountain, fine. Some people have “normal” jobs and are happy. Great! Go for it! But the point of “happy to be alive day” is just to appreciate that you’ve made it to wherever you are in life now, and to remind yourself of the things and people that are important to you, and to do whatever it is that you want, even if it is shit-scary and possibly stupid to someone else oven if it is dull and boring to one person but you are super happy. Just do you.
Other Happy Things
And now, two somewhat unrelated videos, and yet ones I still watch on repeat when I feel like I’m not making good life decisions. I don’t have very good advice to give, so maybe you should listen to these people instead:
More on the Shooting
*UPDATE 2017: Recently a friend in Buenos Aires asked me about my feelings for the shooter. I harbor no resentment. My friend seemed to think this wasn’t normal. I should hate him. But I don’t. I’m not angry in the least bit. I’m thankful. I’m thankful no one died and I’m thankful for the way this incident has made me appreciate life. Plus, I honestly believe his mental health was suffering drastically and he mad a series of very bad decisions based on this state. Having delved deeply into depression after the shooting, I don’t feel like I can judge anyone when they are in such a state.
You can read about his conviction and trial from CNN here.
(Feature Photo ) http://il3.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/6035231/thumb/3.jpg?i10c=img.resize(height:72)