“The difficulty for a writer... is that it seems to be a law of language that happiness, like goodness, is almost impossible to describe, while conflict, like evil, is all too easy to depict.”
Today is, of course, the ten-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks that killed nearly 3000 people in New York City, Washington, and Pennsylvania. And like so many other writers, I turn to words as I try to remember and process what happened.
I was 12 years old, and just beginning my seventh grade year at Dover Middle School. And I didn't find out about the attacks until the end of the school day. I can only assume that our principal had decided that it was better for the general student population that we continue functioning normally until the school day ended and we were on our way back to our parents. I can only assume that there may have been kids at my school whose relatives were on one of those planes leaving Boston, and that those kids were called out of class and told sooner. But none of it touched me during that bright sunny day of learning and growth and new friends.
Art class was the end of my Tuesday at Dover Middle School. I remember distinctly that the period was winding down and we were beginning to gather our things for dismissal when the principal came on the intercom and asked teachers to settle their classes, that there would be a special important announcement in two minutes' time.
Settling middle schoolers down is never an easy prospect, but by the time the principal's voice came over the loudspeaker, announcing the attacks that had taken place earlier that day, we were all attentive. I don't remember exactly what he said, but I believe he laid out the events of the morning in simple terms: two planes hit the two World Trade Center towers in New York City, and one had crashed into the Pentagon, and one had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. I believe that he urged us to go home to our parents, and not to watch TV. (Or was it that my parents kept us away from the TV news? Ten years makes the memory hazy sometimes.)
At any rate, when the announcement was over, I do remember clearly that the usual buzz of activity resumed in the classroom. Most people seemed to just write it off in favor of the normal social and academic concerns of seventh graders. I also remember one unusual event-- the girl who sat next to me breaking down in tears because she was afraid that her mom had been on one of the planes or in one of the WTC towers. Since I never heard about it again, I can only assume that her mom was okay.
As for me, I remember just sitting quietly and listening to the announcement, listening to the buzz, trying to absorb the news. I knew little of the complexities of world affairs, had not yet heard of al-Qaeda or the Taliban, knew little of Saddam Hussein beyond the simple facts I had learned for geography bees in elementary school. But something within me understood that forces greater than my understanding had undertaken to hurt us, and that the world of politics and foreign affairs that I was barely aware of, would be changed.
It is not just the hubris of a writer and memoirist that leads me to say that I understood the significance of what was going on. My art teacher saw the look on my face and told me after class that she could tell that I knew what was happening. I don't think I could possibly have understood fully what was happening-- as I said, my knowledge of the world was limited, and I hardly had any information about the day's events.
But what I do know is that what I felt that day when I heard the announcement is a feeling that has continued through to today: a deep quiet inside me, a space where I must retreat to reflect on the chaos and sometimes evil of the world, a space where I can mourn and wish for the peace of the world. I felt it again the night that bin Laden was killed. On 9/11/01, many felt anger; on May 1, 2011, many of those same people felt great joy and release. I understand their anger and joy on the respective nights, for the attacks struck home for millions of people-- both those who directly lost loved ones and those who lost their basic sense of safety. The death of bin Laden was a necessary catharsis for many, and I cannot deny that the world is almost certainly a better place without him.
But I felt the same sense of deep quiet on May 1 of this year that I did on September 11, 2001. I found it neither a catharsis nor a crime, neither justice nor vengeance.
It's just what is. Not what should be, but what is, right now. The world has a way of changing at unexpected, often inopportune, moments, and we have to be aware of what happens as it goes, and keep living our lives. Our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world live in societies much more dangerous than ours, and yet life goes on there too. People are born, people die of natural causes and not, people go to school and get married and have more kids and go to jobs and to the grocery stores.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that maybe what I realized that day and carry through until now is this: that we don't live in a peaceful world, but that the world we live in has plenty of places where peace and normalcy reign. Especially here in the United States we have that to be thankful for. And when violence happens, the best we can do is just keep going. I choose to mourn violence in all its forms, but I give thanks for the peaceful moments in my life and in the lives of those I love-- like the one right now where I resort to words of reflection to absorb my feelings about this national day of remembering.