Monday, September 13, 2021

Context is everything

And now Hercules is staring down at me
Next to him's Minerva and Mercury
Well, I nod to them and start my crawl
Flyers covering every wall
Faces of the missing are all I see

This year, on the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, I spent a lot of time thinking the events of that day and its aftermath.

Since coming back from Dallas, I’ve had something to do every day. On Saturday, the 11th, I gave myself a down day. Neil had an all-day softball tournament. I did some laundry and house tidying, but mostly I spent the day knitting on the sofa and watching films about Nine Eleven.

In September 2001, I was in a personal crisis. My relationship with a man I loved had ended badly. He had asked me for space, and our relationship was probably doomed from that point, regardless of what happened next. But for a long time I blamed myself for pounding the last nails into the coffin.

What happened was this. A few months into our whirlwind romance, Marty realized that he still loved his former girlfriend, despite all those weeks of declaring his ardent love for me. And he still loved me, or so he said. We were going to keep seeing each other, maybe just slowing down the pace, because she was 2,000 miles away anyway, and he was torn. 

But then he said he felt like he was cheating on her by seeing me and cheating on me by talking to her. So he broke it off with me.

He also called me a needy woman, and when I asked about all the words of love that he’d spoken and written to me, those varnished words proclaiming with abandon how deeply he loved me, he said, I’m a good writer.

I cried. I bargained. I accused. I counterattacked. 

But the worst thing I did was this. I poured my heart out to my former boyfriend in a text chat, which I copied, pasted, and sent to Marty. Among other things, it suggested he was a narcissist and a needy man,  drawn to drama, incapable of intimacy.

He was furious. He gave it to me with both barrels. He told me to have a nice life.

It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I suppose that shows what a charmed life I’ve led.

On top of the pain of the breakup was the desperate agony of the conviction that I’d murdered all hope that one day he’d come to his senses and realize that I was the best thing that had ever happened to him, that it was me who he truly loved.

You might wonder why I would want a man whose heart was so fickle that he could flip-flop from passion to passion on a dime. I have no answer, other than that the heart wants what the heart wants. He was tall and beautiful and I believed his words of love were heartfelt when he said them. I’d been so smitten, so sure that I wanted to spend my life with this man. 

I was utterly blindsided by his defection.

So I lashed out and drew his wrath and then I had myself to blame for the hopelessness of the situation.

Cue the World Trade Center tragedy.

I cemented the demise of my relationship with Marty in the early days of August, 2001. After a month of silence, grief, and indecision, I sent him a short note, holding out an olive branch. He accepted it, gingerly, without the barest hint of encouragement that a reconciliation was the remotest possibility.

Three days later, the first plane hit the North Tower. Then the second plane hit the South Tower. And then the third plane hit the Pentagon, the fourth plane was brought down, and the two towers came down, first the South, then the North.

Shock, sorrow, outrage, and anger washed over America and most of the rest of the world.

And I knew that if something so ghastly, so incomprehensible, so monstrous could happen in our world, and Marty still didn’t come back to me, then our relationship was inexorably over, that there was absolutely nothing that could ever bridge the distance between us.

Any hope that I’d subliminally harbored of things eventually working out between us was obliterated.

I was in so much existential pain at the time that much of the immediate and ongoing ramifications of that terrible day are a blur.

The world was grieving and I was grieving, but it was about different things. The world wept over the inestimable horror and insanity and gratuitous destruction of Nine Eleven, lives lost, families shattered, a city crippled by brutal carnage, the harrowing specter of war. I cried a million tears over a hackneyed romantic tragicomedy and an irresponsible man who was careless with his words of love.

I watched the news of course, but in many ways I was numb to it. I was overwhelmed by despair and faulty neurotransmitters and struggling to keep getting out of bed and putting one foot in front of the other.  Healing took a long time, many months.  And even the greatest catastrophes, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, the assassinations of Kennedy and King, the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disintegrations, Hurricane Katrina, all ultimately wind up as yesterday’s news.

Twenty years later, I’m riveted by stories about September 11, 2001. There is much I never knew about, mainly because I was preoccupied with my own affective survival at the time. If it gives you some insight into the state I was in then, I will confess that on that day I would have traded my life with someone in the twin towers who wanted one.

Today I’m glad that that wasn’t an option. I’m also glad that there is so much information available to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the events. Then, I had little capacity for compassion, little bandwidth for empathy. Now, I have much. Now I’m learning and now I’m shedding the tears that I should rightfully have shed then. 

While some people don’t want to think about that day because they don’t want to feel the anger and sadness all over again, I opt to bear witness in their stead. While it might be unnecessary to say, never forget, because who of those who experienced that day could ever forget such atrocity, I will actively, deliberately remember, I will allow myself to feel the pain.

I will watch the videos of the planes hitting the towers, I will read the story of the falling man, I will honor the people who were driven out of the windows to avoid the heat and smoke above the impact zone. I will read the transcripts from the flight decks of the planes. I will think about the children born to fathers who perished in that holocaust.

More importantly, I’ll study how that one day shaped the future history of the United States and the world. I will seek to learn the things that I didn’t know. 

Journalist Laila Lalami suggests that observances of Nine Eleven over-emphasize the sensory recreation of the day itself, turning it into “a wound that keeps getting scratched rather than being allowed to heal.” She argues that it is more important to view it in the context of the ensuing and extended military conflicts, a context that includes some 800,000 lives lost, more than a third of them civilians.

I will cry for them too.

Sure, when I’ve saturated myself with the documentaries and remembrances and articles and dramatizations, I’ll move on to the next thing. Until next year, when I’ll revisit the memories and the information, and each year after that.

Perhaps I’m atoning for my self-centered obliviousness one score of years ago. Perhaps I’m trying to step up for those who have not forgotten in name only while trying to remember as little as possible. Perhaps I’m simply a voyeur with an avid interest in all things cataclysmic, such as Chernobyl, the western wildfires, the White Island volcano eruption, in disasters natural and man-made.

In the end though, for me, that day, 9/11/2001, is inextricably bound to my personal anguish. I cannot remember that day without revisiting my despair, and recognizing how that global cataclysm drove a deeper wedge into the rift of my loss, and magnified its finality. I shed no more tears for myself, however. I spent them long ago.

That’s OK though. Memory is important, experience is personal, it is all part of my life story. It can be helpful to see where we’ve been, where we are, where we’re going, to put things into perspective.

So I’ll take a few more days to immerse myself in history and then I’ll put a bookmark in that chapter, to come back to it later.

Because we’ve can’t truly cancel the past, but we can always choose to look at it with fresh eyes, broadened minds, and more forbearing hearts.


Got my work clothes on, full of sweat and dirt
All this holy dust upon my face and shirt
Heading uptown now, just as the shifts are changing
To Grand Central Station

I've got my lunch box, got my hard hat in my hand
I ain't no hero, mister, just a working man
And all these voices keep on asking me to take them
To Grand Central Station
Grand Central Station

Wanna stand beneath the clock just one more time
Wanna wait upon the platform for the Hudson line
I guess you're never really all alone 
Or too far from the pull of home 
And the stars upon that painted dome still shine

I made my way out on to 42nd Street
I lit a cigarette and stared down at my feet
Imagined all the ones that ever stood here waiting
At Grand Central Station
Grand Central Station

And now Hercules is staring down at me
Next to him's Minerva and Mercury
Well, I nod to them and start my crawl
Flyers covering every wall
Faces of the missing are all I see

Tomorrow, I'll be back there, working on the pile
Going in and coming out in single file
Before my job is done there's one more trip I'm making
To Grand Central Station
Grand Central Station

(Mary Chapin Carpenter © Mary Chapin Carpenter Dba Why Walk Music)