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The Hour I First Believed (I Needed to Read this Book)

The Gardiner is slow moving as I trudge east toward the city in my red Nisan Versa, the newest and most unassured car I’ve ever been rented by the production company I work for. I’m thrilled the car is red and can fit my bike in the back; that I even receive a car at all is a luxury my industry affords me. I often freelance in film and television and this particular role presents me with a great deal of driving.

It’s Tuesday, almost eight o’clock in the morning; the sun a fuzz above us. The CN Tower hovers grey in the distance. If clouds are in the sky, they’re stretched thin and flat and fall far behind our city’s namesake into space. I’ve been working since 5.

As I press the gas peddle in the stop and go traffic I get, once again, the unavoidable feeling that this car’s being held together by loosely screwed nuts and bolts. Perhaps it’s my neurosis, the audiobook I’m listening to, or the transmission refusing to switch gears when I need to go fast or uphill. Despite looking zippy and sweet, this vehicle is inherently lazy, like a person who routinely eats too many burritos and decides to waddle across the street despite oncoming traffic.

It is probably, honestly, likely, my neurosis.

Still, my gratitude for this car is here, likely in the back seat somewhere with the letters I have to mail, the shoes I wear to set, and the reusable bags for shopping.

“I don’t know. Maybe we’re all chaos theorists. Lovers of pattern and predictability, we’re scared shitless of explosive change. But we’re fascinated by it, too. Drawn to it. Travelers tap their brakes to ogle the mutilation and mangled metal on the side of the interstate, and the traffic backs up for miles. Hijacked planes crash into skyscrapers, breached levees drown a city, and CNN and the networks rush to the scene so that we can all sit in front of our TVs and feast on the footage. Stare, stunned, at the pandemonium–the devils let loose from their cages.” – Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed

As downtown inches closer, George Guidall’s matured, grizzled voice bounds through the stereo in paragraphs. I’ve spent hours listening to books while working on this show. This one’s Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed.

The book follows Caelum Quirk, a midlife school teacher who works at Columbine High when the (now renowned) school shooting happens on April 20, 1999. It charts intersections of Caelum’s life through fictional and non-fictional catastrophes, adding the civil war and Katrina to the list of tragedies. I can’t lie, the book is a mountain; it weights me like a long hike to a summit that I’m sure will provide answers to all the lost, lonely parts of me. But, like hiking, there’s no guarantee that putting one CD in after another will heal me.

The alienation in the life I am living on this expressway that I’ve somehow found myself travelling east and west upon multiple times a day with thousands of others I’ve never met is a ripe parallel to the story of longing I am sinking in to.

How did I find myself here? I wonder.

In this little red car?

Amongst tourists, commuters, truck drivers, teens, and people whose life I can’t imagine?

Windows up, blocking out the obnoxious freeway hum with a book about pre-meditated murder, PTSD, ancestry, and the chaos of ordinary life, one CD in front of the next?

And why am I crying?

Because parts of it are true?

I’m crying because parts of its sadness in its trueness are amassing in me like an ocean swell knocking against a crumbling shore, I tell myself.

It’s a fictional book, I tell myself.

But there’s truth in it. I remind myself. He uses their real names. 

“To name the injured who survived is to acknowledge both their suffering and their brave steps past that terrible day into meaningful lives. To name the dead is to confront the meaning of their lives and their deaths, and to acknowledge, as well, the strength and suffering of the loved ones they had to leave behind.” – Wally Lamb, Afterward of The Hour I First Believed

The day I began this book I called my partner, tears welled to the brim, to tell them I loved them. I’d gotten to the part in the story where innocent people had been shot and the world wondered, in grief and fear, how this could have happened. If their kids were alive. If they could consider sending children to school safe.

I remember hearing about Columbine on the news in 1999 and not fully understanding it. My dad shook his head in disgust, like he often did. My mom was quiet. I was 11. My memory exists entirely in these reactions and in my grade 6 classroom, where I looked around wondering if any of these people might be able to kill me with a gun. I remember thinking that any of them could.

I firmly believed as a kid that we, as people, could do anything if we wanted it bad enough.

On the phone, instead of spilling tears over the gratitude and love I have for my partner, I tried to pull myself together and blurted instead into the first bout of silence: “I’m listening to a book about the Columbine shooting and it’s depressing me.” It’s all I could spit out and as fast as possible. Honestly, I felt embarrassed at my inability to let myself fall apart on the expressway mid-work day, and also that a book I couldn’t put down had choked me to tears in the first few chapters.

I usually read young adult novels. I wondered now, if that’s because they’re easier; less invasive versions of a past I am getting further and further away from. Or entirely mythical altogether.

I remember learning what ‘escapism’ meant, and I wondered if I was achieving it too well.

But on the phone, the logical side of me realized my partner was likely heading off to work, starting their day with coffee, meditation, in a good mood on all counts. To burden them with my plight so early in the AM felt unfair. Especially since it also felt fictional.

True or imagined, tragedy does that; it keeps a tight hold on our jacket collars, forcing us to look at what we might not want to until we’re ready to process it.

Sure, there are other reasons I’m not turning the book off. I want to find out what exactly Caelum believes (re: the title). I’m also unabashedly rooted in Caelum’s imaginary life, especially considering this book is 20 audio discs — 8-15 more discs than the average audiobook I’ve come upon — I’m pretty invested.

But what if I embrace the power I have to turn it off. Put the disc back in the case. Take it back to the library. Never look back and check out a non-fiction about the history of humans or immunization, or a fantastical Neil Gaiman instead.

My partner even: “Turn it off if it’s making you so sad.”

But I can’t and I won’t. To turn it off feels like a cheat. What is life without experiencing all parts of it? I never want to mute what could be felt because I’m scared to feel it, have never felt it before, or have felt it before and it’s all too familiar.

I’m starting to believe that the gut-wrenching words that line the pages of this novel might leave me lost on my quest. What can a novel about the aftermath of a school shooting lead you to first believe? Is it that chaos is inherent in all living things? Is it a circumstantial, wrong place wrong time sort of luck? Is it that, no matter how much you might spiral into despair that has the power to overtake you, there is still a light somewhere?

That hope exists, if you let it?

 “That’s the funny thing about mazes: what’s baffling on the ground begins to makes sense when you can begin to rise above it, the better to understand your history and fix yourself.” – Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed

The sky is thick now with white puff waiting to rain down upon us. I didn’t even notice the change, despite remaining stagnant for all the above thoughts.

It’s bright.

I am wearing sunglasses I ordered off the internet.

A guilty feeling washes over me as I wonder if I feel enough gratitude for this life. If the car beside me does, and so on. How lucky we are to live and breathe in this moment. How quickly it can be taken away.

The people who lost their lives and the family and friends affected by the choices made by others is important to acknowledge. That this book exists because of it is a testament to the ways in which we are all so inherently connected.

This book is present. It’s honest. It’s messy. It’s grounding while still triggering an upheaval in vicious, unwanted ways. It’s violent. It’s scary. It’s honest. And although I’m nearly finished it, when I close this book, a part of me will remain open for a while. Maybe always, with my own version of life swimming around amongst it.

The Hour I First Believed will have affected me in innate and quiet ways. Like a long hike to a summit that holds the answer to every question I have ever asked, the ending of this book might not be the one with all the answers, but the journey isn’t supposed to be about arriving at the top, anyway.

“There’s life after love, and also that there is love, still, after a life is over.” – Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed

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