Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Not My 9/11

I found the magazine in the library in the English Department last week.

Right away a glimpse at its slightly fatigued cover told me it wasn't new, but vintage like many of the books and journals our profs have squirreled away on the oak shelves to free up some much-needed space in their cluttered offices.

But in my instant glance I knew more. This copy of People was almost 10 years old. It has been that long.

On the Nature of the Media
Often people who ask me about The Van Winkle Project are curious as to why it began on Sept. 11th last year and will end that way in just a matter of days.

I point out that when I conceived of the project in late August 2010 a September 11th date seem like an made-to-order marker date. With a date like that, I'd be able to easily remember when I gave up the news, entertainment, sports, and weather and look ahead to the exact month and day when I would again be free to access them.

But there was another reason.

It occurred to me that Sept. 11, 2011 would be different this time around. Even typing it is different:


With the tenth anniversary of the "worst terrorist attacks in the nation's history" in store for all of us, I anticipated that the media would "play" and "re-play" that terrible day (and its aftermath) as if it were the re-release of the blockbuster movie of a season past.

Image by V.W.

Count me out.

No, it's not that I fear that we have such bad taste that 9/11 Firefighter Hero toys will be given out at McDonalds or images of the blazing Twin Towers will be put on T-shirts.

What I do expect is a series of talking heads appearing on TV and the Web, all of them all of them ever-so-sincerely feeding us a combination of nostalgia, reliving the grief,  "making sense of it all," and pondering the unanswerable question: "How have we changed in the ten years since?"

Old news will become new news for as long as it's convenient and people can be induced to pay attention.

And what could be more of an emotional draw? 9/11. Have two numbers ever had more poignancy when pronounced?

I'm guessing the 9/11 revival has already begun. Perhaps weeks ago. I don't know. Van Winkle, as planned, has set me free of it.

On the Nature of Memory
For anyone who does want to remember 9/11 in his or her own way for however long suits them, you mustn't think I disapprove. I speak only for myself.

It's not that I'm of the mindset that "it was a long time ago and I've moved on."

Neither am I keen on the idea that "I and my country changed forever on that day." Historians far down the line will have to decide that.

And I do believe there are memories worth keeping about that time as long as I don't fondle or make a fetish out of them.

Going for a morning run, coming around the corner to my street, in a cool-down, walking mode, and seeing my wife on the front lawn waving at me to hurry into the house. Our son is three years old. I start running again! Something might have happened to him. I just run! And find the TV on (why? we never turn the TV on until the evening). It's showing a fixed view of the North Tower burning from the first airplane strike.

Over the next few days, I watch more TV than at any time in my life.

 I open my mailbox one day during the anthrax scare and I see a package with a return address I don't recognize. A feeling of creepiness and icy dread comes over me. Inside the house I stand at arm's length as I open the packet. A rational voice tells me that no one is going to pick me out from the entire population of the planet to poison or blow up in a fiery explosion, but at a deep animal level I've never known before I am spooked. Then I have the package open and with relief hear myself say, "Oh that! From that person! Why didn't I guess?"

 I put a flag decal on the back window of my car. I've never been the patriotic sort, but it feels like it is a way of saying something in the only available channel I have: "We're not bad people. This shouldn't have happened to us" and "We're going to bury our dead, praise them, and rebuild what's been destroyed, and do it together."

 I move through an airport, almost completely empty except for National Guardsmen who stand apologetically with their M16-A2 rifles. Everyone seems so nice and speaks soothingly to one another. The message: "Sorry about this, but we're getting through this together."

Those are my memories. All of them are passing away.

Ten years later the flags have become much less numerous, even here where I live, which happens to be the most flag-waving of small cities with its military base and its proud remnant of silver-haired World War II veterans.

Along with the vanishing flags, the images of the burning Towers and a blackened Pentagon wall have dimmed. Like old photographs bleached by sunlight.

Long ago they made the movie about the heroes of United Flight 93 who really were heroes in the original sense of the word because they put their lives on the line to try to stop something. That film opened in theaters, got reviewed, was released on DVD, and then I watched other movies.

As far as I can tell, 9/11 was a season. Seasons end. What followed were two wars. And then came another kind of war engendered by an economic collapse that was like a bomb falling on millions of people around the world.

Those wars have not been seasons. They are more like eras. My memories of 9/11 are crushed beneath everything thing that has happened since.

On the Nature of a Legacy
All this is to say that the extent of my 9/11 memories has just taken place out here in the open in the naked space of a blog post.

When I awake up literally on the morning of September 11, 2011 as well as metaphorically (The Van Winkle Project ends) I will turn to other considerations.

What has happened to the world and America over the past 365 days?

Still, my thoughts and analysis can't help but be informed by 9/11. I did glimpse something there of worth. It's become a standard by which I'm perhaps tempted to measure people by. Because I now know what we're capable of.

9/11 was a reminder that humans can be together. During those gray days I found out that violence, which is a great uniter of peoples, doesn't have to be part of the equation.

It is possible to subtract out the "hate" and achieve "one" by joining together in the sum of our "love," "compassion," "caring," and "bearing of sorrows" and a desire to restore. I was witness to how for a brief interlude we had:
  • Gracious and freely given kindness toward strangers
  • Prayer stripped to its Book of Job essentials: Help Us Whoever You Are because I don't understand what's happening and can't get through this alone or bear such pain!
  • A quieting of the usual non-stop commercial voices that call us from our highest purposes and beg us to be small, craven, self-interested, isolated individuals day after day
If there were disasters and loss of life in the last year, as I assume there must have been, did people somewhere find strength in the behaviors listed above?

And I wonder will we ever as a species turn this direction without it requiring a great calamity that drives us to our knees? Because that seems too hard and costly of a means to get there, much too hard. To find love and our better selves and to learn what really matters only by walking on the smouldering bones of our dead? This is an appalling vision. Surely there is another way? - V.W.


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