Sunday, August 28, 2011


In 1906, to build school unity, a group of high school students spent six hours hauling lime, sand, and rocks up a nearby mountain. They were going to leave an emblem of their school upon the hill, three letters long. But after six hours of heavy labor, only the middle letter was finished, and they abandoned the project.

Today, the single letter still stands, about 380 feet long, on the side of the mountain, visible for miles and miles across the valley in the summer when the snow is gone. This year, it has been less of a school symbol to me and more of a question.

Why? It asks. Impassively. Uncaring. Why?

Since the snow melted this winter, I've been wondering that question a lot.

In early May, I heard that my request for early promotion had been denied at the VP level, no reasons given. I was calm and polite as I heard the news, but it really hurt. And then for the next several days, I would leave work and see the question on the mountain, calm, imposing, without offering any answers. Why? Tall and stern, it seemed to be a warning that I needed to reflect, carefully, upon my job, upon our location, upon whether or not this was really a good place for our family to be. Why? Why should it be?

One of the people who is most dear to my mother in the whole world lives a few houses away, across the street. In July, she lost a son. Her immediate family rallied around. And me, I didn't know what to do. I wanted to be able to do something, anything, to help. So I offered to walk the dog for a week. Carrying bags of dog poop with a massive animal on a chain, I walked up and down the hills nearby, under the shadow of the single letter. Why?

Today I heard, from my mother, that a second tragedy has struck the woman's family. Why? Why twice in a single summer?

It's a solemn letter, and a sobering question. I suppose no one in this valley is immune to having to ask it, although perhaps, if they don't look up, they can forget it is there. You can see it from the Empty Sea, where young people stop on their way to give up two years of their lives. Why? it asks, and they must be certain they are serious about their sacrifice.

You can see it from the interstate, where traffic lanes have wobbled drunkenly under two years of bridge construction. Why, commuters? Why do you put up with this? And they hunker in their cars and wonder.

And the college students see it from their dorms, and it haunts them as they sign up for classes, study for finals, choose a major. Why?

I wish those high school students had bothered to finish what they began back in 1906.

1 comment:

Letterpress said...

As my father grew older, he replaced that "why?" question with "why not?" It was handy. When we'd call with our particular trauma, saying "why me?" he would gently help us see the other question: why not me? Why was I so special that I could dodge the hard questions, the growing experiences, the difficult truths? Somewhere along the line, I think I've borrowed that one as well. I think it comes after a particularly troubling experience when there doesn't seem to be any reason for what has happened.

For me, it happened during my divorce when a wise friend wrote me with this line: "There are no answers to the why questions." It became one of my mantras for life. Stop asking those questions. Carry on, move on, get on with things. Ask the "what" questions, like you did: What can I do?

I, too, was struck hard by J's news. And it was admirable that you did the dog deed for them (a true labor of love). But I know now that in spite of a giant letter calling out from a mountainside, there are no answers to why questions. We just have to keep going.