Tuesday, September 11, 2007

9-11: falling towers

This is the first time since the fateful attack in 2001 that September 11 has landed once again on a Tuesday. I thought it might be useful to write about what that day was like for each of us, personally, partly to help us each carry forward a more accurate memory of that day, as well as helping us understand how we may have been changed by it.

For my wife and I, the memory of the attack on Tuesday Sept 11 is paired with an awful memory from Monday Sept 10th. That was a day of personal tragedy, as it was the day that we lost our baby, a day that seemed to last forever; we didn’t get home from the hospital until well after midnight on that Monday evening. There didn’t seem to be any great hurry to get to bed, any great need to get up again at any point the following morning. There was just a focus on the present, each holding the other, to remind ourselves of what we still had. I had already arranged, before I rushed home early Monday afternoon, to be able to take the Tuesday off, so that our plan was to simply make it through the following day without too much anguish. One day at a time until wounds were healed, life would go on, in new ways… Or so we kept telling ourselves as we drifted into the escape of a welcome slumber.

Our sleep was interrupted by an unexpected phone call, which turned out to be from my mother-in-law. She knew that we didn’t have television, and had guessed, correctly, that we wouldn’t be aware of what had been going on that morning, in New York City.
The phone was on my wife’s side of the bed that day so she took the call; after an ominous silence, she told me, in the very quiet and monotone voice that she uses when things are seriously wrong, to turn on the radio, that the United States was under attack.

In those days the radio was set to 770 KTTH from Seattle, and we heard Peter Jennings, through an ABC news feed, describing the aftermath of the second airplane hitting the World Trade Center. When he started complaining that president Bush was a coward for not manning the anti-aircraft guns himself (or whatever Jennings had in mind as his definition of “presidential courage”), we had our fill of him and switched to a local Vancouver radio station for the rest of the morning, and the week. The programming seemed to be less anti-American than usual, and certainly less anti-American than the American mainstream media station I had left behind.

My wife kept wanting to know: why? I kept wanting to know: what next? To this day I feel a moment of trepidation when I wake up in the morning and reach for the radio; what has happened since I went to sleep? That terrible week back in 2001, every time I turned on the radio there seemed to be a fresh horror to deal with. It was with great relief, several days after Sept 11, that I could turn on the radio and hear a genuine commercial. Then, as today, if I turn on the radio in the morning and hear the sound of commercials, it causes a wave of reassurance to sweep over me; if life is uneventful enough to allow for commercials then life goes on indeed.

I remember being worried by the potential scope of the attacks… I expected that the attacks would be going on all day, all week, like the Blitz in World War II. It didn’t seem sensible that there would only be a single blow, however large its scope… what could be gained by that, except a punishing retaliation?

I had read newspapers and news magazines for years, in addition to a constant diet of radio programming, inheriting my father's nose for news. (also inhering my father's aversion for television) I had come to think of myself as reasonably well-informed about the world around me... suddenly I wondered why I could be so surprised, why seemingly we could all be so surprised by the existence of this parallel world that lurked in the shadows of the one described to us by the Official Storytellers of the media.
I realized, not for the first or last time in my life, that I was foolishly ignorant, not wisely informed. I needed to re-evaluate everything that I took for granted to be true, and re-educate myself about how things really were. Islam no longer seemed the exotic and colourful theology I thought it to be, obviously there was something dangerous and deadly going on of which I was completely unaware. I remember a video surfacing of bin laden hoping that his strikes against us would spark a curiosity about islam. Well, he was certainly right about that: we could not afford to not be curious any more.
My tower of personal ignorance was knocked to the ground that terrible day. I had to rebuild my world view all over again, from scratch.

That Tuesday was mostly spent on the phone with family, as there was need to update them about the grim news concerning the baby, because of pre-established travel plans that would now have to be cancelled. I remember how talking about it all in the shadow of the attack made the loss feel as if it happened years before, rather than mere hours. It also made our nightmare easy to talk about; there didn’t seem to be much justification in feeling sorry for ourselves on a day when so many others were mourning far worse tragedies than our own.

Before Sept 10th I knew that there was a risk that we'd lose the baby, but since that wasn't the result I wanted I refused to consider it. Sept 11th was a shock of similar kind; before that fateful day I felt western civilization to be an imperishable triumph, an unassailable fortress of splendor, destined to stand without my having to do much to sustain it. I didn't feel in any way responsible for adding to its continuity; I would just live, like a parasite I guess, off the accomplishments of others before me, and around me. The attacks had come to make me see all too clearly how these accumulated blessings may be lost as suddenly as our baby had been.

My towering ingratitude for the blessings of western civilization was therefore also knocked to the ground that awful day. I learned how to become deeply appreciative for all the bounty that we live with, all the opportunities we possess to keep adding to the majesty of our citadel of liberty, one capable of a progress as infinite as humanity itself. And I came to feel the sudden weight of the obligation I had lived with, but refused to see: to act in ways that may safeguard this legacy for another generation, and beyond.

Today, as on that day, I felt determined to pick myself up when life knocks us down and continue to build a life worth living... that this is in fact the very meaning of life: to rise up again, when there is every incentive to lay where one had fallen.
To choose the Hope of the rise, not the Terror of the fall.
I began to see the religious faith I had long abandoned, in those terms, as the crutch to help us in our glorious climb upward and onward. The despicable selfishness that had so long weighed me down, fell away as I began to know an attachment to something far greater than myself. Though blind to them before I could now see the expectations placed upon me, not all that different from the weighty sense of responsibility I felt on the happy day I was told I would soon be a father: somebody you don't yet know is counting on you to become the best possible version of yourself.

Of all the memories I have of the falling of all the towers that day, I remember feeling entrusted to live a Good life, Sept 11 establishing yet again the inescapable truth that one person can make a difference… for good or evil.


Truthbyter said...

Deeply meaningful, beautifully written, much appreciated.
Thank you.

Charles Henry said...

your kind words are most welcome to hear as I head to bed after a rough day.
Thank you.

[I must say that you yourself have some very moving writing at your blog. I particularly related to your post on books, as I just went through a thorough housecleaning of many books that were only gathering dust. I was that donkey, carting crates clear across a continent. Books are to be read, or shared, not merely "owned".
Because after a while, such possessions own **us**, don't they..!]

zazie said...

Votre texte m'a bouleversée ; quand je vivais en Angleterre, j'ai appris le sens profond de l'expression "decent people" ; voilà, vous êtes l'un d'entre eux !