You don’t need a calendar to know it’s August, and summer is growing weary. Mornings are often foggy with humidity, and I walk into the gossamer silk of spider webs spun on the porch overnight. The zucchini plants gave up a few weeks ago and although the tomatoes, peppers, and a smattering of green beans are still making a valiant effort, for the most part, garden season is over. The pots of annuals planted with such optimism in May are now filled with leggy petunias. Once-beautiful flowers have withered to a few stunted brownish blossoms and been overtaken by the greens in the baskets. The insects hum 24/7 and goldfinches are happily removing seeds from the cone-flowers. For the next few weeks, there will be a frenzy at the hummingbird feeders as the amazing little birds tank up for their long journey south and then one day, they’ll simply be gone.
For those of us who are students or teachers, or former teachers, August brings with it that Sunday-night-syndrome feeling—a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. We savor those last days at the pool, which has grown bathwater warm, or the beach or cabin in the mountains. The blissful indolence of staying up late and sleeping in even later is over, and responsibility descends upon us once again.
Even though we’re tethered to our phones and devices to tell us what to do, when to do it, and what time of the day, week, or year it is, we are still guided by the signs around us. We respond to sensory stimuli, whether they be man-made or created by nature. This summer, especially, I have been overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of violence and fear infiltrating the lives of ordinary people–the sound of gunshots coupled with cruel and abrasive words being shouted into a microphone, and the views of people running from a building with raised hands, followed by scenes of flower-laden funerals and weeping family members. And then, a few days ago, I saw a sign in a grocery store parking lot that brought me up short.
Attached to a light pole near the center of the massive parking lot was a sign that read “Emergency Evacuation Gathering Point.” I understand that it was probably recommended by the store’s security people, but never in all my years of going in and out of public buildings have I seen a sign like that, nor have we ever needed signs like that until now. I tried to tell myself that its most likely purpose was to safely evacuate and account for people if there were ever a fire or some kind of building-related emergency, similar to the assigned places for our classes in school fire drills. But with El Paso’s Walmart fresh in my mind, I realized it was also there in case someone came into the store and started shooting.
Lord have mercy, this was a grocery store! But there is no longer safe ground— schools, churches and synagogues, movie theaters and nightclubs, stores and outdoor concerts–every place where people gather is vulnerable. This list grows longer as we become almost inured to the news footage. Another day, another shooting–we recoil in horror for a day or two and then go about our business because we have not been directly affected. Yet. Meanwhile, our lawmakers continue to squabble and fight like schoolyard children, retaining their power on the dead bodies of innocent people.
I don’t live my life in fear, but I am sensitive to the signs around me. The signs of nature tell me that another summer is drawing to a close, which I always find rather depressing. I’m also increasingly aware of the signs that our society is changing and not necessarily for the better. Perhaps that’s the typical mantra of those of us who have reached a certain age. “The world’s going to hell in a hand basket and hey, kid, get off my lawn while you’re at it.” But I don’t think it’s just my age talking. This is different. The world is different, and the signs are all around us, including those found in a grocery store parking lot.