Poor Man’s Feast: The Better Angels

Posted inCreative Voices

Now, I am 59.

I write for a living. Sometimes I play music, and I am almost always teaching, or editing, or both. I’ve found myself at this age finally having a sense of what I’d like to do when I grow up: think, write, study, teach, learn about the intersection of grace, sustenance, the environment, the human compulsion to make art, and the creative spirit. It’s never too late, my multi-degreed, academic friends tell me. Okay, but you go find me a masters program that marries these subjects to each other. (I’d love to hear it, so message me if you know.) What would I do with such abject nonsense— with such applied phfumphiology, as my Army-Corps-of-Engineers-Allied-Landing-Captain uncle Marvin used to call it when one of his younger kin announced that they wanted to study something that the results of which were not monetarily quantifiable. Of course, part of me knows he was right. Who wants to be a 59-year-old woman still trying to rub nickels together when she should be thinking about more practical things, like, maybe, the next third of her life.

I have been thinking about this— this myth of safety— for a very long time. At least a decade. At least since the morning in 2012 when I walked into my office on Third Avenue and East 46th Street after a two-hour commute from my home in Newtown, Connecticut, put my bag down, turned on my lights and my computer, checked to see if my assistant was in yet, and my phone rang and it was Melissa, my neighbor and dear friend, calling to say I needed to turn around and come home because there had been a shooting.



I was 49 then. My first memoir was just coming out. I was juggling a writing career with a full-time job as an editorial director. In the book, I had written about this: the attempt to make meaning of epigenetics, unknotting an ancient narrative thread of abandonment, shame, and grief, all while navigating new love and hope. I had written about what it means to feed one’s heart during times of trouble. I had written about how Mrs. Ramsey was right: a light here requires a shadow there, and that they travel along the same continuum. I had just won a James Beard Award; I had also lost much of my family. My mother-in-law was seriously ill with a failing heart. My days were packed with the mundanity of a modern, banal life in a culture that hews to the extraordinary and the outsized. In ten years, I would be 59. What would I have then: three books with my name on them. Stories. Amazing students. And love.

On that day in 2012, I shut my light off, closed down my computer, met Susan at Grand Central Station, and went home; we pulled into the station before noon. By then, it was over. 20 children— little ones who had probably forgotten to brush their teeth, or do their homework, or take their vitamins— were gone; six of their teachers, trying to keep them safe, were gone. My friend Steve wouldn’t know that his wife, a Sandy Hook school office worker, would live because someone else who had been shot fell back onto her, and she was left for dead. Steve wouldn’t know that his profoundly autistic older son— a school library clerk— would be told to lock himself in the library closet and refuse to come out until a police officer slid his badge under the door. Steve’s son was the last person out of the school. My friend Curtis, a pee-wee wrestling coach and father of two, wouldn’t know how many of his boys were gone; many were. Gene, a retired psychologist who lives near the school, who walks my dog and feeds my cats when we’re away— none of us would know that he would grab as many fleeing children as he could and bring them to his home to wait for their parents, and spend the next half-decade being so badly harassed by Alex Jones and his villainous cadre, that he feared for his life, and would come close to moving. None of us would know that nothing would be done, and that in the coming decade, 948 school shootings would take place, including one in which security milled around outside while 19 grade school students and four teachers were mowed down by a young man with a Daniel Defense DDM4 V7, a Smith and Wesson M&P15, 375 rounds of M193, a 5.56mm 55-grain round with a full metal jacket, and a holographic sight.

Thoughts and prayers from America, the most overly-medicated, armed-to-the-hilt nation in the world.

What does it mean to have lived through the last decade in my small town of white steepled churches and a great high school, the largest library book sale in New England, of mostly centrist Democrats and Republicans and Independents who coexist together relatively nicely? How do the parents of the Sandy Hook children tie their shoes every morning, pour their coffee, go to work, pay bills, make dinner, make love, decorate their homes for the holidays? How do they make plans? How do they exist in that banal mundanity of the day-to-day, when that world has failed them despite their having done everything right: love, work, savings, children, busy schedules of music and sports, maybe church or synagogue or a visit to the mosque or the temple once a week, visit grandma on the weekend, play with the new puppy.

If we play by the rules, then we and our children are safe. This is what I was taught in my early days by people who lived through an early 20th century pandemic, two World Wars, a Depression, a Holocaust. I grew up in Queens, New York in the ’70s, and was no stranger to gun violence: by the time I was 15, the Son of Sam had ravaged my community. A high school friend was parking with her boyfriend one night and he was shot through the window of his car. My neighbor’s husband was murdered in the garage underneath our building. My father carried a pistol in a shoulder holster every night when he walked the dog; more than once, in my darkest teenage days, I considered the possibilities. My mother’s best friend’s son, heroin addicted for years, took his own life in his childhood bedroom across the street from mine, amidst his green plastic toy soldiers and his Beatles 45s. Guns are not new in my life, or in the world. But when children are murdered— over and over and over and over; and let’s tell the truth here; they have been murdered in inner cities for years— and the world responds with a head shake and a sigh, the world is, in fact, no longer the same.

I was 49 that day ten years ago in 2012, when we lost the better angels of both our town and our nature; when our relationships to and about each other shifted and the lights darkened and dimmed. At 59, I still look for the beauty everywhere, for the grace and the applied phfumphiology, not because I’m delusional but because, as Frankl said, I can’t change anything about horror but my own response to it. I will never stop searching for the goodness and the beauty, even as I light another candle in memory of my neighbors.

This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here. Header image by Roger Starnes Sr.