Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Last Ten Years

A few years back my sister introduced me to a musical called The Last Five Years. It tells the story of a relationship from first date to break-up. What makes it memorable is that the woman's story is told in reverse chronological order while the man's is told chronologically, so we see her broken heart overlying his excitement about meeting her, and his eventual good bye matches up with her anticipation of seeing him "tomorrow".  This juxtaposition makes the pain of their break-up especially poignant. (It's possible I've mentioned this musical in an earlier post; like I said, it stuck with me.)

I had somewhat the same feeling this weekend watching the 9/11 memorial programming, Especially when they showed people's reactions at the time, contrasted with their feelings today. I remember one reporter talking about the "effects of this day staying with us for weeks and months to come", and feeling slightly mournful for his optimism. Another time a clip showed one of the survivors rejoicing to be alive a week after the attack, and I couldn't help but notice she was conspicuously absent from the interviews with her saviors today.

We didn't know how much worse it would get.

We didn't know that it would eventually get better.

Such is always the way, right? As we sit here, nearing the top of the cycle of the Jewish year, we are reminded of both how similar and how different this coming year will be from the last. Some who are with us today will not be; some new people will take their place. Are the 9/11 attacks different? Were our dually misplace optimism and pessimism something unique, or just...bigger?

It's hard to say. Leon writes about seeing the day as an outsider, an ex-pat at the time. I had in many ways a similar experience. Safe in central Illinois, I never worried that I might be next. I forgot my uncle actually worked in the building until after I'd heard he was ok, leaving nothing to fear but what might have been. Other than that, all it was to me was something happening on tv.

No; that wasn't all it was.

I remember the day. I had the day free, so I was sleeping in and taking a lazy morning of it. After showering I turned on the radio and heard, "The president will be making a special address momentarily regarding this morning's acts of terrorism."

My first thought was, "What did that moron do this time?" I jumped straight to a conspiracy theory smokescreen to distract us from what a bad job Bush was doing as president. So I went to the living room and turned on the tv.

Just in time to see the second plane hit.

In moments of extremity, I tend to go emotionally cold. I have dispassionately cleaned and bandaged my own lacerated arm while simultaneously reassuring those around me and organizing them into helpful tasks. Useful as survival instincts go, but it also means I tend to ask questions like "How are you feeling?" only when I come to them on my checklist. That includes asking the question of myself. By the time I checked with my own emotional response the dust (literal and figurative) had somewhat cleared. I knew I had seen not only the deaths of thousands of people, but also of a chapter in American history. It was obvious we would be going to war, and quickly; the only question was how soon we'd be able to get out of it.

Ten years later, we are still asking that question.

We have been a nation in mourning for the past decade. Every conversation about our country, no matter the topic, eventually is about that day. Watching the coverage this weekend, I think it's possible we as a nation have post-traumatic stress disorder; to paraphrase the West Wing, we need to be able to remember that day without reliving it.

It is my hope that today will mark the end of this decade-long shiva. Remember, always remember, but hopefully now the healing can truly begin.

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