From the windows of my little one-room hermitage at a retreat center on the west slopes of Tucson, I have spectacular views of the city below and also look out on the beautiful Saguaro National Park spreading endlessly west. It’s a lovely 30-acre enclave run by hospitable, liberal, ecumenical sisters and brothers of various Catholic orders. Every January when possible, I try to join them and others in the disciplines of silent prayer, contemplation, and stretches of solitude.
I confess having some of the country’s best winter hiking nearby isn’t lost on me.
Over the course of visits here, my life and politics have steadily moved right, even as the retreat staff seems to have moved left. Most people I encounter here during “talking meals” never met a war or any armed conflict they tolerated, or an illegal immigrant they didn’t embrace with open arms. I’ve been tempted to ask whether these kind pacifists approved of the Revolutionary or Civil Wars but have bit my tongue and let it go. So I’ve learned to keep to keep a tight lip and keep my motto in Tucson: stay contemplative and quiet with controversy.
I especially anticipated my sixth visit in a dozen years after a hectic 2010 with included several huge eastern snowstorms, including the Bloomberg blizzard over Christmas and the epic Nashville floods last May 1. I couldn’t wait to get to homogeneous weather, blue skies, and the peaceful environs outside this city that feels more like a big town with an eclectic, interesting population and traffic laws that allow legal U-turns without being arrested.
Little did I know a tsunami of unspeakable man-made horror awaited as I arrived hours after Jared Loughner fired his last bullets at Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ townhall meeting at the Safeway. In the days after, I and other somber retreatants joined this grief-stricken community and nation in almost non-stop prayers for the many victims, including the fallen, popular Congresswoman Giffords. Those prayers and well wishes for miraculous recoveries continue today.
Adding to the palpable grief here, however, long before any reliable motives were established there came a loud screeching cacophony of political invective of blame, projection, and shameful accusations — in the press and online — that grew more strident with each passing hour. It soon permeated even the boundaries of our quiet desert retreat: Blood was on the hands of the Tea Party movement, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, George Bush, Fox News, Roger Ailes, Tom Tancredo, Republicans, gun owners, and anyone else in the center or right of center who was minding their own business at the time, or working on their paying their federal income tax when the shots rang out.
Even the high sheriff of Pima County couldn’t resist entering the fray with a diatribe against Rush Limbaugh and talk radio. Words like blood, target practice, and fire suddenly became hate speech as some hysterics called for bans on free speech. By Tuesday, the war of words had attained Super Bowl status, as President Obama announced he was coming to Tucson to speak at the memorial service at the University of Arizona the following evening.
I confess, a fit of terror overcame me at this news. All this country needed now was for the current administration to get in the act of partisan political finger pointing and blame at a time like this. It would up the ante and cause irreparable harm, I feared. I shuddered to think what might happen next.
By late Wednesday the inflamed national rhetoric was out of control, even after one of Loughner’s old friends told ABC News earlier in the day that the shooting spree had nothing to do with politics. Period. But was anybody listening to anything but his own projected narrative?
Later Wednesday, as our retreat community gathered in a circle for the 5:30 blessing before dinner, the head brother announced we were all invited to the library afterwards to watch the 6 pm TV broadcast of the memorial service and Mr. Obama’s speech.
For the first time in years here, I felt I was behind enemy lines. Did I have the nerve to go to the library, knowing I would most likely be the only one who hadn’t voted for Mr. Obama, even if no one else knew that about me for sure.
I felt like an imaginary Scarlet C was plastered on my sweater.
I fiddled with my food, then walked back to my hermitage in silent inner turmoil. Could I stand to watch whatever might unfold on TV? Were conservatives about to be thrown to the lions? Burned at the stake? And if so, what about the poor victims and their families at the service? Visions of violent political protests of the sixties danced in my head. Suddenly a blizzard back in the East or even a herd of hungry javelinas were looking pretty good to me.
I walked through the sliding glass doors into the ecumenical library packed with liberal spectators waiting to see their presidential hero — still The One — as night fell in the desert. By now there were no empty chairs and all eyes were glued to the TV screen ahead. I heard the words Mother Earth Energy and Father Sky and considered backing out the door before it was too late and someone got hurt, when a kind man got up, brought out another chair, and beckoned me to sit down in the front row.
It was too late to turn back now so I determined to muster every contemplative skill I could: sit very still, stay deathly silent, and keep the word calm in the forefront of my mind at all times.
Tension in the little library increased exponentially when Governor Jan Brewer came to the podium to speak. I heard deep sighs, gasps, and people moving restlessly in their chairs all around me. When Brewer finished and interacted with U of A president Robert Shelton on her way off the dais — it was clear there was no love lost between them — someone behind me let out a sigh and said, “She’s one tough cookie.” Several others groaned in affirmation around me.
I thought to myself, Brewer IS a tough cookie and needs to be. She’s a state governor standing up for federalism to the federal government no less. What a nervy thing to do! Thank heavens she’s a tough cookie!
Things calmed back down as Shelton took the stage, then became almost jubilant as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano came up.
Calm, I told myself. Stay calm and very still.
If someone had told me several weeks ago I’d be packed like a sardine in that little library listening to Janet Big Sis Napolitano quote Isaiah, followed by Attorney General Eric Holder read from 2 Corinthians, I would not have believed it.
But there it was. No preaching, no finger pointing, no politics as usual. Just scripture readings. Scripture readings? And it was mercifully brief. Had someone spiked the raspberry tea at dinner? Put drugs in the cauliflower? Surely this was a hallucination, albeit a welcome one. What would come next as Mr. Obama rose to speak?
I held my breath. Calm.
The president’s speech is now history and undoubtedly has been praised from every rooftop on the globe. I can only add my profound relief and belief that this was indeed the most outstanding speech of Mr. Obama’s life. He rose to the occasion, going from a controversial political figure to an inspired leader, as he mercifully eschewed all political rhetoric and all hints of partisanship.
For far too long the country’s collective focus has been on Father Figure Federal Government who lives and grows more rotund in Washington, D.C. But this night, Mr. Obama brought our focus back where it belongs: to the ordinary people of grassroots America — in this case, ordinary men, women, and children in Tucson suffering terribly from their tragic losses, shock, injuries, and grief.
As I breathed a sigh of great relief, and caught myself muttering “good for him,” I glanced quickly to see one sweet sister — my favorite — weeping quietly into her handkerchief. It was a touching moment here in the retreat library as it was for the nation.
I kept wondering who was responsible for putting that perfectly appropriate, brilliant program together. Mr. Shelton? Mrs. Brewer? The White House?
Whatever the answer, I felt this city and its eclectic population of Anglos, Hispanics, Indians, veterans, retirees, college students, homeless people, and paraplegics were suddenly transformed into the proverbial shining city on a hill, if only for a little while.
Of course this peak moment in Tucson will fade as we get back to life as usual. But I can’t help but think some small nugget of the collective inspiration of that stunning memorial service at the U of A will live on in each of us who saw it.
The mood in our library levitated even as my own heart sang with a loud chorus of Whew! We all left in silence, turning on our flashlights. I walked back to my little hermitage overlooking Tucson, keeping an eye out for javelina and prickly pears, and giving silent thanks that I lived in a country like America. It had been a while since I’d felt that kind of gratitude.