I said to my husband last night, or maybe it was the night before: “I’m feeling really sad about Charleston.”

J.: “I know. Me, too.”

Me: “I mean, especially because we went there. We’ve been there. We loved it. Remember?”
J.: “I know. Me, too. I know.”

We were silent after that. Because what else is there to say?

This past October, J. and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. We rarely go anywhere together, just the two of us — not even out to dinner for the “date nights” we envy among our other married friends. It just isn’t our life. We cozy up at home together, we try to carve out space, but we’re not freewheeling date-y vacation-y people. The reasons why don’t matter right now. This isn’t that post. But for our 10th anniversary, J. wanted to go someplace. To get out of our accustomed habitat, to reconnect, to be “romantic.”

We’d never been South, not really. We chose Charleston.

We weren’t there long — 48 hours, maybe. It was enough time to catch up on some sleep, take what was essentially one very long walk punctuated by stops to eat, shop, and learn some things, and soak up some of the city’s undeniable charm. We made sure to eat shrimp and grits and chicken livers and drink some punch and make reservations at a restaurant that’s proudly trumpeting its modern take on real Southern food. We did so consciously knowing that we know nothing of the South. We’re Yankee, both of us, through and through. We can only put on the airs of being in Rome and doing as Romans do.

At the Charleston Museum, we tried to immerse. We tried to understand. We were loving the city and breathing in its beauty, and at the same time we knew that in our own country we were strangers in a strange, though lovely, land. We appreciated deeply the museum’s sensitive exhibits, its unique retelling of the Civil War and Reconstruction through the eyes of a city. Primary sources, firsthand accounts, a narrative that was so balanced in its way that you’d almost get lost in it, forgetting which side of the war most of Charleston was on. It was an enormity of history and legacy made manageable and real. I am still not sure if it seemed ugly enough.

Charleston had that way about it, for a first-time visitor looking only on the surface. Graciousness abounded. There was a loftiness in the air, a gentility. The confederate monuments confused me but I was almost in a dream state; I would notice them, then be distracted by something — crepe myrtles, a gentle breeze, a stately home or a passing carriage — and the oddity of the monuments would be forgotten. Look, over here, something glorious, something pretty. Come away. Nothing to see there. And I’d follow my whims to something safer and lovelier.

I never thought about race in Charleston. I never thought about the Confederate flags or the street names. Eating pig ears at dinner and hearing about the chef’s Southern Pride and reading about sourcing heirloom “real South” crops from local farmers, I wondered vaguely at the romanticism of it all, and felt no less strange and foreign there than I did in Iceland. This was a place I could love, but it was not one I felt an automatic kinship to.

I never thought about the darkness of all that history while I was there, and Charleston itself made sure to charm me so thoroughly that I would not feel compelled to do so.

This is the luxury of being me, a white, educated, middle-class female born and raised in the Northeast.

So when I look back at those 48 hours in Charleston through the lens of the past week, I mourn in a specific and puzzled way. I think we all have these reactions when the homes of tragedy are more to us than obscure dots on some map. I feel that somehow I own this Charleston tragedy in a way I might not have were it Santa Fe or Savannah or some other place I have not been. I feel in a small sense betrayed by the blushing exterior of a city that so easily hides its secrets in plain sight.

And I feel, guiltily, what has been said by many in recent days: That we all do own this. That whether it’s Charleston or Sandy Hook or any other act of incomprehensible violence somewhere in our cities, we have made it so.

I’m not here to argue about personal responsibility (yes, the shooter is always to blame, yes, always). I’m not going to devalue the incredibly difficult experiences of those who live with mental illness, or of their families, by pretending that I have something valuable and substantive to say on that topic, either (I don’t. It’s a tragedy and a brave struggle, mental illness, always, yes, always). I am also no more qualified to speak on race relations in this country than I am to teach automotive repair. Which is to say, not at all.

But I can say, profoundly and from my gut, that if we are to stop it then we must own it.

Whatever the “It” may be.

Whether it’s racism or sexism or classism, homophobia or xenophobia, we must recognize that it grows from the seeds we sow and the care we show. We can cut down the weeds of misunderstanding and budding hatred if we’re brave enough to look for them in our own gardens. We can water and tend and nurture the fruits of tolerance, kindness, understanding, and compassion if we’re willing to spend the time. It’s not easy to grow a beautiful garden. But we can each try.

I propose we start at the dinner table.

Yes, I’m boiling this all down to a single sound bite that probably sounds mad and tone-deaf, and I’m going to say it anyway. HAVE DINNER WITH YOUR FAMILY. Not once in a while. Not resentfully. Not in the car, and not in front of the television. Not with devices in hands and faces downturned. Not standing around the kitchen willy-nilly.

But wholly. Happily (or at least, without grim resignation on your face, if that’s the best you can do on a Tuesday — I understand). Have dinner together as often as you can, and make it a routine everyone can count on. Talk to each other. Ask questions. It may be awkward and you’ll do it anyway. Because if you care, then you’ll commit.

Look — I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know whether Dylann Roof or Adam Lanza or any of them had dinner with their families every night. Maybe they did, and it was stressful and awful and there was a lot of yelling or a lot of charged silence. Maybe it was punitive instead of restorative. Maybe they did, and it wasn’t enough to save them.

But you still should. You should give that to yourselves and your children. Every damned day. Or every damned day you can, I guess. Make it breakfast if not dinner, or make it Sunday brunch, or whatever — but routinely gather and connect.

You know why? Because connected people are happier people. They’re healthier people. They have better outcomes across the board — socially, emotionally, physically, academically. And you know why else? Because when you connect regularly with your family, you can’t help but teach and learn. Teach and learn. All of you, together. Imparting values. Sharing wisdom (yes, even your four-year-old has wisdom to share if you’re open to hearing it). Guiding one another. And tending that garden.

If you’re sharing a meal every night, how much more likely will you be to see evidence of those weeds cropping up? How much easier will it be to feed your captive audience the sunlight and water they need to grow strong, healthy minds and attitudes? How much love and care can you give at dinnertime, and how strong and beautiful will you all grow when you know you can count on it?

I don’t know exactly how it slipped past us all that we were growing Charlestons and Sandy Hooks in our own backyards, but it’s time to do some replanting. And that starts with gathering the precious faces of your own family around you, and drinking them in, and feeding them. With food, yes, but also with the better nourishment they’ll need to choke out the weeds and make all of our places lovely and gracious. Without secrets, deception, or pretense. Without hatred, division, suspicion or fear. We owe them that.

Have dinner with your family. It’s one of the only things we can all do, every day, that will keep each and every one of us moving forward.

Note: Image Credit: Brian Hathorn, via Wikipedia.