I'd just bought a sugary sweet - a lactose and gluten-free chocolate twizzle-covered foam confection that in my childhood memory the adults still called a "negro kiss," a peculiar and self-defeating approach to endearing us to people of color. My husband had bought a less culturally loaded snack - a brie and salami sandwich - and together we sipped our coffee and feasted as we sat in the café and listened to the open lecture about dahlias. A man wearing a green gardening apron with no passion for speaking guided us through a series of closeup images of the most extraordinary specimens from his garden. His wife didn't like them. They took up too many of her herb pots.
My cell phone rang - it was our daughter. "Did you hear what just happened?" she asked. My eyes scanned the room. Middle-aged women walked around with bags of young plants and gardening gloves they had purchased on discount. "What's happened?" I replied. Soon my husband and I had tuned out of the dahlia lecture, and into the news on the radio with our ear phones plugged into our phones. A masked man had driven a truck into the open lobby of one of Stockholm's most visited shopping centers on a Friday afternoon. Two were dead, many lay on the ground injured, people were running from the scene and the perpetrator had escaped into the crowd. The twenty-four hour analysis of the incomprehensible had begun. More would die.
While my husband had difficulty continuing to peruse the expo for gardening inspiration, I found myself strangely drawn to resist listening to my cell phone. As the vendors and shoppers became increasingly obsessed with the news emanating from their phones, I continued to walk and look through the aisles of gardening temptation. It felt like walking a moral tightrope: this behavior seemed the luxury of those unscathed by the disaster of this moment. On the other hand, I knew it was also the self-protective behavior of a childhood and young adulthood stalked by terrorism: maoist anarchists in Hong Kong and Bader Meinhof in Germany during the 1970s, Islamic separatists in the Philippines during the 1980s, the IRA in London during the early 90s.
I stopped and messaged the children. "Do not be afraid," I wrote, and at the same time hoped that once they reached my age they wouldn't be similarly wearied by the terrorism they had experienced in life because they had seen so much of it.
We managed to make our way home in a shared taxi, and on the ferry that this evening was free of charge. A woman offered a stranger a banana because he was hungry and the kiosk was shut. Everyone seemed ready to help everyone. Generosity abounded. Why not every day? In the social media I saw some expressions of anger. How could 'they' do this to generous Sweden that had taken in so many refugees from war? But who were 'they'? We still didn't know who the perpetrator was, and even now this seems the work of a lonely Uzbek actor 'inspired' by other similar atrocities.
To me this was no time for anger. Time for suffering, time for sorrow, but anger seemed out of place. My thoughts wandered back to that confection and the foolish metaphor we had once assigned to it. This was also a time for calling things what they were, and resisting the urge to turn them into symbols. For it is only in the hall of symbols that fear and oppression gain lasting power.