Sunday, September 10, 2006

How We Remember

I've been thinking an awful lot about what has become known simply as "9/11" and about what the events of that specific day - and everything that has come after - have meant to me as a citizen of the world.

I live about 300 miles from Ground Zero, in a semi-quiet little city on the coast of New England. I don't know anyone who died in the planes that crashed in New York, Washington or Pennsylvania. I don't know anyone who died or was injured in the buildings that were hit by those planes. I was mercifully spared any direct injury - physical or emotional - on that day, even though I live very near where two of the planes originated. I sometimes feel as though 9/11 should have no impact on me at all - my life wasn't significantly changed by the events of that day; my world was not rocked by sudden, wrenching, mindless loss; I wasn't even inconvenienced by the immediate aftermath of heightened security or delayed or canceled flights. Even so, I am a different person now, and I feel that, regardless of how much 9/11 did or didn't touch me in measurable or tangible ways, the experience still belongs to me.

Kizz lives in NYC and she was my first thought when I found out what happened on that Tuesday morning. My husband assured me that she was fine - she had called him just after the first plane hit the north tower, though I wasn't able to reach her for days after. She and I have never talked about the attacks beyond a brief phone call a few days later so that I could hear her voice for myself and find out if there was anything I could do to help her or people she knew. She doesn't talk about that day - go here for an eloquent explanation of why - and I find myself cautiously respectful of her right to silence. This truly IS a case of "you wouldn't understand," particularly because I'm not sure anyone CAN understand the magnitude of something like this - it's entirely unprecedented and very likely a few steps beyond what we, as humans, are capable of comprehending in any meaningful way.

The fact that I lived through 9/11 via my television screen doesn't diminish my relationship to the event, though - my experience is just as valid as anyone else's. I'm sure that a lot of people would take issue with that statement and accuse me of being arrogant to even consider putting my experience of 9/11 on an even plane with someone who had to run for their very lives from the wreckage of the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, or to someone who died in the aircraft that caused the destruction. I'm not talking about that experience, though; I'm talking about how the enormity of it all affected who I am as a person, as a parent, and as a citizen of my country and of the world.

As a result of 9/11, I am far more careful about my patriotism. I watched with mingled horror and shame as the rampant, mindless nationalism infected this country in the days and months following the attacks, while at the same time being proud of how well and quickly we as a nation came together to help in any way we could, from driving to NYC and DC to offer our physical labor to making donations to the Red Cross and charitable groups to wrapping up and mailing nutrition bars and bottled water. I called a Muslim organization at our local University to offer my support and assurance that not ALL their neighbors harbored feelings of hatred and hostility toward them. I wrote a letter and mailed a small check to the owner of a pizza parlor in the Boston area whose store was fire bombed because he is Afghani. My husband and I are taking pains to raise our daughters to not think in terms of "us" vs. "them," regardless of what our government would have us think. While it may not be a very popular stance, I vehemently oppose the "war" in Iraq while, at the same time, trying to be supportive of the troops who are there doing the job they agreed to do when the signed up for the armed services. I'm paying attention. I vote.

On that Tuesday morning, I was at the health club in a step class. I didn't have much of an idea of the extent of what was happening at the time; I had only heard that "a plane hit a building in NYC" and I thought that a small plane had veered off course - perhaps the pilot had suffered a stroke or heart attack - and that nothing much would come of it. I tend to avoid crowds and dislike participating in gawking, so when I left the class to find nearly everyone in the club clustered around televisions in the lobby, I headed up to the showers. When I was done, I gathered up the girls, then 2 and 4, and headed home. On the way, I was listening to NPR and beginning to understand that it was something far more than I had originally thought. A group of young men had congregated on an overpass of the highway already, waving flags and shouting to passing cars, and I knew that something had "snapped" and things would never be the same. I remember feeling a deep sense of dread.

As I pulled into the garage my husband, who had been working from home and watching events unfold live on the television, came out of the house. He opened the car door, knelt on the garage floor, buried his face in the baby's lap and was overcome by wracking sobs. I got out of the car, unbuckled Punkin' and told her to go hold Daddy, then I took Beanie out of her car seat and we all sat on the driveway, huddled together and crying while fighter jets from the nearby Air National Guard base took off overhead.

The world had changed, irrevocably and forever, and we had changed with it. Something did indeed "snap," and we now bear the responsibility of raising children in a world where fanatics will use the intelligence they were blessed with to think up new and unexpected ways to kill those whose ideas and beliefs don't align with their own; a place where presidents and world leaders use the fear and grief of their own people to rally them to war. It takes a lot of levelheadedness and love to counteract that kind of insanity. My dearest hope is that we are able to contribute in some small way to healing all of this pain and fear by practicing mindfulness and caring, and by raising strong, smart, gentle and loving children who will take those lessons in kindness and tolerance into the future.

I'm not sure there's anything else we can do.


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