“Oh beautiful for Patriot’s dream that sees beyond the years;
Whose alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.
America, America, God mend thy every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy Liberty in Law.”
As I write tonight, two shafts of blue light rise into the Manhattan sky. Three quarters of a continent away, they commemorate the last time that September 11 fell on a Tuesday, when our country was attacked out of a clear, blue sky, and when a generation lost its innocence.
I was teaching that morning, and my car pool driver and I were very nearly late for work. I had a head-ache and a heart-ache after a weekend of conflict with my sixteen year old daughter, and we had agreed not to listen to the radio, so the drive in was peaceful that morning as we listened to Vivaldi’s Autumn. I remember thinking that our fellow Albuquerque drivers were unusually polite that morning, as my friend skillfully maneuvered in traffic, and parked so that we could each dash to our respective classrooms. Stopping by my own classroom to pick up my lesson plans and basket, I arrived at the demo bench for my Physics for Poet’s class just as the final bell sounded. I put my basket of teaching materials on the bench and remained standing as the intercom clicked on, and I expected to hear a Senior’s voice say: “Please stand for the prayer and the Pledge . . .” (I was teaching science in a Catholic High School at that time). Instead, I heard the chaplain across the air, his voice shaking as he said: “Because our country is under attack, I have been asked to give the prayer. . .” I remember looking questioningly at my students, who looked back at me, big-eyed and solemn. And I knew that we had all turned a corner at that moment, although I had no idea at all what had happened.
The ubiquitous “they” say that now that we have passed the tenth anniversary of that day, we need to get over it, to move on. But every year, when I tune into the morning radio show I listen to, I hear a montage of the sounds of that day, and I know that “getting over it” is not something that I want to do, or could if I tried. Moving on is something that we have all done, although that movement has been a journey down an unfamiliar road, to a different trajectory. There are some moments that bind us together, that change us irrevocably, that replace the easy familiarity of how we think things will always be in the instant that a plane struck a tower on a clear, blue Tuesday morning.
Today, some of us across the country have chosen to use this day as a day to reflect on who we were on September 10, 2001, and on how the events of that day, seared into our brains, have changed us, spun us around on our paths, and put us on a path to become September 12 people. So tonight, as the rain falls on the metal roof of a house in a place that I had never expected to live, I resolved to do this, to begin to sort out how I got from there to here. September 11 did not sweep me from one reality to another; that process had already begun, brought about by a more personal crisis a few years before. But it did irrevocably change so many things, although those changes were gradual and hard won.
On September 10, 2001, my life was already in flux. A cancer had already turned my head around and caused to me question the choices that I had made and was making. In the two years since I had a lump removed and prophylactic radiation done, I had chosen to buy a house for me and my two kids and to leave my marriage. It was not that life was easy before. I had taken sole responsibility for the support of my kids and their dad, and working two and three jobs at a time, and I had burned myself out getting a teaching certificate because I knew that life as a field biologist was not going to work for us, and that chasing research and post-docs and professional appointments was not going to put food on the table and clothes on my children’s backs. I had responsibilities, and it had been clear since before the birth of my son that I had no partner in those responsibilities.
On September 10, 2001, I had found my bashert—my beloved Engineering Geek--and our relationship was strengthening, solidifying, I had found my Baruch, my blessing; the one that I craved and was too afraid to ask for. I was ready to let myself be loved, to let myself be taken care of in a way that I had never had during all the years of my first marriage: my childbearing and rearing, worrying and working years, years in which my children were born and nursed in between classes and jobs, and in which I watched a darkness grow in my first husband, until it consumed him and me, but not the kids—thank goodness, not the kids (or so I thought)—and I was left with a broken man and a broken marriage.
So much was my joy at finding a man—a real man—who wanted to share my life, take care of my kids, make a home together, that I was utterly consumed. And so on September 10, 2001, I was coming off of the weekend of my daughter’s 16th birthday. Sweet 16, and I disappointed her greatly, because I wasn’t able to give her the fantasies that she and I had dreamed up during the hard times. I didn’t rent a hotel room for her and her friends (hotels were frowning more and more on those kinds of teen parties) and during the sleepover she had with her friends, I left them alone to entertain themselves (as I had done with great pleasure at her age), never realizing that she wanted me as June Cleaver —apron and all—to serve the snacks and make a general nuisance of myself. I have no excuse to offer really, except that my generation had rejected poor June Cleaver as the epitome of The Feminine Mystique, and I was head-over-heels in love at the time in my daughter’s life when she was most embarrassed by adult love and, well, by parental adults and their weird behavior in general.
On September 10, 2001--the day after my daughter’s Sweet Sixteenth, the day that would have been my 19th wedding anniversary to her father—on that evening, my daughter and I had a knock-down drag out argument, complete with frustrated yelling (on my part), angry yelling and door slamming (on hers), and hormones and tears (on both our parts), asthe tension that had been building between us all weekend created a storm that shattered my sense of efficacy as a mother and sent her to bed with a blinding migraine.
And so on the morning of September 11, I was a chastened mother with a headache, contemplating for the first time my failures as a mother—for it Betty Friedan was right about nothing else, she knew this: it’s always the mother’s fault. And I was still a woman in love, a woman wanting badly to have her new love and her most precious loves all come together to make a family, and maybe this time it would all work out.
And on the morning of September 11, I was also a woman who had sworn off politics. Raised by a libertarian and an Objectivist, I had made a left turn in my first marriage, only to find that all the virtues I thought were there were not, and all the vices—the hatreds and anti-Semitism, the uncaring inhumanity—that I thought were with the conservatives and the libertarians, were present in the watermelon pink of the Greens. So I had recently vowed—I who had never voted for a major party for president in my voting life—that I would be normal and live my life without thinking about politics. Much. Growing up Libertarian was exciting and confusing and exhausting. And it wasn’t easy being Green, either, and rather awkward, really, for someone brought up on Ayn Rand. (Ayn Rand did NOT ruin my life, by the way. But that’s another story . . .)
On the morning of September 11 I was a woman with a life already in the process of change. I was a woman trying to figure out how to create the family I had forgotten I wanted with the very real children I had and a new man who had never changed a diaper or walked the floor with a colicky baby. I was a woman who was trying to figure it out, but I already had felt the cold wind blow, and I had already heard the question, old as Gan Eden: Ayecha! Where are you?
And all that day, I read Psalm 23 for each class I met, and I struggled to answer my students’ bewildered questions, and I altered lesson plans because I knew they would not remember anything we said and did that day, but only the image of the towers falling, over and over, burned by retina on the canvas of our minds. All that day I thought about the people who would never go home, and about the people who would wait in vain for their return. I thought about those who jumped to their deaths from the burning towers, and those who watched helpless, and heard the impacts, over and over. They were people who went to work, just like me, on that sunny Tuesday morning, the perfect day. And their families waited, just like mine, for work to be done and to be together again, to fight and make-up, to eat and laugh and play and sleep. They were Americans, just like me, who went to work and now would never come home.
Is it then surprising that the first thing I did was try to call my daughter, home sick with the aftermath of her migraine? I did. I called right from the classroom phone, my students a few feet away, trying to tune in a radio to hear the news. But the circuits were busy. And busy again. “Please try your call again later,” said the computer voice. And the second call I tried was to the Engineering Geek at his office at Sandia National Laboratories. But they were evacuating Sandia because they were closing Kirtland AFB, and the EG was nowhere to be found.
All I wanted to do was to call people I loved and cared about, to hear their voices, to make sure they were safe and whole.
And it was utterly impossible to connect to a website or send an e-mail. Everybody was in the computer. Everybody.
Later, I connected with both of them, the EG and my daughter, but it wasn’t until months later that I learned that the EG was out picking out my diamond engagement ring that day, and wasn’t even at Sandia when the towers fell and the base was evacuated.
And that is what everyone else was doing, too. At the same time. We all needed to reassure and be reassured, to touch something beyond the terrible images we were seeing on our TV screens. The kids at the Catholic school where I was teaching wanted to call their folks, to see the Chaplain, and that afternoon, they called for a school-wide Mass. They needed to see their friends, to come together, to right their rocking world.
That was the first lesson we all learned from the murder of over 3000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93. How much we need to connect to each other, to reassure one another when such dire things happen.
That was the first, but there were others: how beautiful is Old Glory, lighted by candlelight, half-mast on the porch. How precious our peace and freedom are, and what it takes to defend that liberty from those who would disturb it. How aware even little kids like my son was, and how hard they work to make sense of their world. How angry a 16-year old can become, to see her country attacked and how wisely she can direct that anger, once the first grief has passed.How much passion we all have for the country of our birth and of our dreams.
There were many others in the path from being a September 10th person to becoming, very slowly, a September 12th person. Today is for remembering, and for reflecting on the beginning of that journey. Tomorrow, September 12, is for looking at how we have changed and making a commitment to stand up for the principles and values that we’ve always had but only too recently remembered.