11 September 2009


Recently, I was asked if my essay "Powerful Birthdays" could be republished at the Episcopal Cafe. I agreed, and am pleased that more people will get to see it.

I wrote it a few weeks after the hijackings on 11 September that lead to the destruction of the twin towers in New York City, the Pentagon, and the crash of Flight 93.

It is both odd and sad that I have a "where I was" memory of this event. I am old enough to remember where I was during the loss of the space shuttle Challenger, but that memory is fading over time-- party because I was in High School, and, other than the loss of the shuttle, it was an unremarkable day.

On the day of the hijackings, I woke up before dawn and couldn't get back to sleep. This is not a normal thing for me. I'm a night person and usually only see the dawn if I have been up all night.

I don't remember when I learned about the attacks. I can't remember if I heard about them before leaving the house and deciding that it would be best to go into work and be as normal as possible, or if it was after I got into work.

I do remember the strange, jittery sensation of experiencing something unfold around me. It didn't help that my office was on a major thoroughfare and that, on a normal day it was not unusual to hear the sirens of police, ambulance, and fire services multiple times in one day, and this was not a normal day. Every time a siren shrilled its way past our building it made me jump.

I remember my Mom calling me to let me know that my brother was okay. He not only worked in Washington D.C. but on those days that he took mass transit in to the city, one of his stops was the Pentagon station. That day he had driven in to work and he spent hours in the car trying to get our of the city and home again.

I don't remember anything else about that day. The feeling I remember from that day is one of trying to carry on in the face of something too large to comprehend. I also remember a feeling in the air that the best thing we could do was carry on as if nothing had happened. That there was nothing we could do to help, other than hold down the fort, as it were. Everything that could be done on the east coast was being done by the people there-- the best thing for us to do was to stay out of the way (and off the phone lines).

A few weeks later I wrote my essay and it is still what I believe, but I won't be surprised if several years from now, my son (who is 10) looks up around this time of year, rolls his eyes, and says 'this again'-- meaning TV specials marking the event, the NFL marking it on game days that fall on or near the date, and people like me saying "I remember where I was when..."

That moment will likely not be relevant to him and will feel like we are just tearing open old wounds the same time every year, because that is how I felt every year around November 22 when all of the "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" memorial moments would replay in our national consciousness.

When I was much younger, I used to think that there should be an expiration date on such memorials. (I was rather callous when I was younger.) I thought that five or ten years were enough, that lowering the flag for every national tragedy in perpetuity would only lead to having our flag at half-mast year-round.

One of the things that changed my mind was a movie. Several years after the attacks, I was taking Norwegian classes and we watched the movie "Cool and Crazy" which is about a Norwegian male chorus from a small town in northern Norway. Not long after we watched the sequel, Cool and Crazy: On the Road. I was warned in advance to bring tissues.

It turned out that the choir had come to New York in October 2001. After deciding to go ahead and come on their tour, they took the opportunity to talk to people in New York about their feelings after the attack. That section of the movie made me realize how devastating the attack had felt to people living there in a way that no American news coverage had. It also shows the contrast between the physical and emotional devastation of the attack sites and the relative normality of much of the rest of the country.

It is a very jarring film to watch because the viewer emerges from the intense atmosphere of New York after 9/11 to the wide open spaces of a beautiful fall in the Dakotas and on to California. One moment a man who survived being bombed as a child in Norway during World War II is comforting a woman who could see the towers fall from her apartment and the next that man is on a bus to a harvest festival in the mid-west.

But that is the way life is-- jarring and full of contrast. There is no one right way to experience the aftermath of such an event. I just hope the children of my son's generation will give us time for our memories but that we will not force them to carry our memories into their futures.