The likelihood of surviving a mass shooting in one country and then being gunned down less than a month later in an unrelated mass shooting in another country is the kind of overwrought dramatic coincidence most writers tend to avoid. Except when it happens in real life.
Lots of people have been telling the story of 24-year-old Jessica Ghawi, one of 12 fatalities in this weekend’s shooting spree at a Colorado theatre during the midnight premiere showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” And looking at the facts, it is certainly understandable.
A weird feeling told Jessica to leave the food court of a Toronto shopping mall last month and she followed it. Three minutes later she stood in terror as gunshots went off, screams were heard and people were instantly killed and injured. Jessica instinctively knew that when a strong inner voice or instinct speaks to you, it’s usually a good idea to take it seriously and at very least listen even when there appears to be no apparent logic involved.
Jessica wrote about these odd feelings and more in her blog a few days after the Canadian tragedy — certainly something I can identify with. If she was anything like the rest of us bloggers, and I have every reason to believe she was from both her active blog and twitter posts, I can surmise it was her way to deal with the confusion, pain and probably some huge amount of gratitude at having survived a potential tragedy when others were not so lucky. Perhaps there was even some unconscious guilt involved. She was a young person with a journalism internship in her dream career as a sports reporter. She was even sometimes getting to cover her dream sport – hockey. And up until that moment she was on a cool trip to Toronto, by all reports visiting her boyfriend, a minor league hockey player. Life was, as they say, good.
But little did Jessica know that only several weeks later and back home in her own country she would be dead in yet another public shooting spree of which she would have had no warning or even feeling. But that is exactly what happened to her early Saturday morning in the small town of Aurora (not far from Columbine – the site of one of the most famous US gun sprees until now) while watching a Batman movie. During an onscreen gunfight, life unfortunately imitated art, and pretty quickly bullets were flying at that screen and on through into the adjoining screen where Jessica was shot dead in even eerier circumstances than what she had endured in Canada. A lone gunman dressed head to toe in black, with a ticket to see the movie, entered the theatre, then exited and re-entered but this time with a gas canister, an automatic rifle, two hand guns and enough ammunition to take down 12 people in cold blood (including a six-year old girl) and injure another 58 more. It is a scene that not even the most hackneyed of us could conceive of – the kind of scenario that would get stifled snickers in a beginner writer’s workshop and could easily (and most assuredly) get one silently fired from a professional writer’s room.
But as most of us in the arts know, the events and scenarios in real life don’t always make sense and one of the benefits of this profession is you get to spend your days trying to measure and rearrange the unlikely moments of existence in order to do so. Which is why many of us write or do anything else in the arts to begin with – as if through sheer will we can make some kind of logic out of a random, and often surreally, cruel reality. The limiting factor is – the moments and scenes in real life often do not happen in linear, three act structure and are frequently far from logical. While we try to “evoke” truth, it happens each day around us in a way that often defies visual or written description.
Still, and despite the odds, the best of us soldier forward. What are we providing? Sometimes no more than a diversion from the indiscernible. Other times some sort of safe passage back into understanding for our self and others about our communal existence. Though both are equally valid, I suspect the latter is what Jessica was doing several days after her experience at the Eaton Shopping Mall Food Court in Toronto.
Jessica’s blog post has an eerie quality in light of the new tragedy in Colorado. But read without that hindsight, it feels like nothing special – only the sincere, honest musings that could have come from any of us who were enduring a personal tragedy or trauma. Which is what makes what she wrote so much more powerful than she could have ever realized:
“This empty, almost sickening feeling won’t go away. I noticed this feeling when I was in the Eaton Centre in Toronto just seconds before someone opened fire in the food court. An odd feeling which led me to go outside and unknowingly out of harm’s way. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around how a weird feeling saved me from being in the middle of a deadly shooting.
I was reminded that…we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath. I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing…I know I truly understand how blessed I am for every second I am given…Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude. Every second of every day is a gift…”
– Jessica Ghawi
Jessica was able to bring herself to the page and in simple language make us feel what she felt in some way. In short, she did what all writers try to do – through words and thoughts transport us into a moment, a situation or a state of mind and in doing so even give us some small perspective on life. What she wrote resonates for many reasons, but mostly because it is a reminder of how we are more alike than different, how our vulnerabilities actually unite us and can possibly make us less scared in a world where events and circumstances seem to consistently drive us so idly apart. And sometimes the more ordinary and plainspoken the language used comes across, and the less exceptional the actual words themselves are, the more effective the evocation. Who among us hasn’t gotten a bad feeling whether it be walking on the street or going out with the wrong person? Or even taking or not taking a job or buying an item that in either case could have ended up, if not in tragedy, in a mini-disaster like co-dependent enslavement or the final purchase towards our personal bankruptcy? Or, in less dramatic fashion, maybe only even miserableness or mounting debt.
Those are feelings to listen to and not to think “oh come on, I must be crazy.”
We’ll remember what Jessica wrote and perhaps know on some level that we aren’t crazy in our thinking. Usually, I know, I often jump to the crazy. Jessica’s words will cause you (and me) to consider in the future that obvious reason is not always the barometer to employ in order to take action even though we’re too often taught it should be, and that unexplainable feelings are not simply a silly notion to be ignored. Certainly, this won’t matter to everyone and perhaps all the rest of us will forget about it in a week or a month. But at least Jessica did try to tell us something. And she even took the time to write it down.
To my mind, that is one of the main purposes of being creative. Not to only get things off your chest, but to – in some very, very small way – inform humanity. To tell people: you are not alone. To admit: “Hey, I felt that way too – you’re not crazy. Or at least – if you are crazy – you’re as crazy as the rest of us – so don’t worry about it.” It’s both small and large at the same time. Which is what all good work is.
At the time of her death, Jessica was an intern working in her chosen field. I work with students like that everyday and I know they sometimes wonder if whatever mundane task they might be doing in life is making any difference for themselves or anyone else. I myself sometimes wonder these very same thoughts when I think about what I do today in the work I do with them or even in the writing work I do for myself and for others.
What I have begun to realize, and what this recent tragedy in Colorado tells me, is that in some small way it always does matter but that the limitations of our human existence doesn’t allow us to always clearly see what good or purpose (even the smallest amount) our work or routine will have in the scheme of things. In Jessica’s case, she had no way of knowing that one particular piece of writing would also resonate with a tragic irony worldwide of how life turns on a dime. The legacy of that in itself takes her life to a plane she never could have imagined. Simply because she chose to, in a consistent fashion, work at her art and commit her thoughts to the page. Its impact will have unknowable ramifications not only for her memory but also for all of our futures in ways we do not yet know and, perhaps, will never know. Which is, in the end, what any single one of our lives is all about.