At the Crossroads of History and Hope

September 17. 2001

Bearing Witness at the Crossroads of History and Hope
— Slogan appearing on bulletin insert provided by the
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg,
Sunday, September 16, 2001
I wrote in my private paper journal this morning, the first time since last Monday. “What details do I need to put down?” I asked myself. “Is there anyone who will ever read this who will not know what happened on September 11, 2001?”
When I write in my paper journal, I have the absolute expectation of privacy. I can leave it lying about confident that no one in this house will ever look into it. It’s a catch-all notebook of “I had a pork chop for dinner” * diary entries, unpremeditated free association passages derived from prompts, quotations that grab me from the reading I do, pasted in news articles, obituaries, or other memorabilia, notes on lectures I attend, ideas, images, memories, early bits of a character’s or story’s genesis — that sort of stuff. I confess private thoughts I would not tell anyone else, and in order to keep on filling my writer’s idea bank I have worked hard to overcome my perfectionism that dictates everything must be in complete sentences and make sense to someone else. Because in truth I don’t expect anyone else will ever read these things.
I know that news coverage of the attacks by terrorist-controlled planes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the downing of a fourth plane near Pittsburgh (presumably another attack thwarted by the heroic efforts of the doomed passengers) will survive for a very long time. Just as I look to the preserved newspapers of the American Civil War era for information on what happened when, so too will some researcher or fiction writer or student look at materials a century and a half from now and say, that’s what happened to them, that’s what they went through.
But I know that just as valuable as news coverage to the fiction writer or social historian is the personal record left by ordinary citizens in the form of personal letters and journals. I have no voice in the Very Big Picture. My world is really very small, and I offer you this view from one central Pennsylvania back yard.
I started Tuesday morning with an optimism, a sense of well-being that had been building and building since my unexpected surgery in August. In church on Sunday I realized that although I had heard the wake-up call in that hospital bed, I had recently hit the snooze button again. That is, for a time I had made positive changes to my diet and physical care and other habits, but in the last week or so I’d gone back to the old ways.
Sundays always provide me with a clean slate, a turning of the planner pages to a new week. And Monday the tenth was almost perfect. I wrote in my journal, completed a contracted assignment for 1000 words about Eleanor Estes and her book The Hundred Dresses, made a nutritious dinner with planned leftovers for Wednesday, went to my daughter’s hockey game and enjoyed being with my friends there. I worked on my fiction and my reading. And in the evening I pulled out all the summer clothes that, considering what seemed like sudden changes in the light and the air, I knew we would not need again till next year.
Tuesday morning (September 11th), I began what I expected would be a second perfect day of things accomplished and life lived in joy. I wrote for about an hour and a half, and then at 8:45 turned on the television to have my breakfast.
The set was tuned to The Today Show. Al and Katie and Matt were sitting around on the sofa, ready to launch into the third hour. I usually never watch these shows after about 8:15. The stories get softer and then downright fluffy — fashion and beauty tips, health advice for older people, celebrity appearances — things that hold little interest for me.
“We’re following a breaking story,” Katie Couric was saying, and behind her was a live image of one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A plane had evidently hit the structure at about the 100th floor. For eleven minutes I believed (because I wanted to ) that this was some random accident of a small commuter plane, its pilot disabled perhaps, tragic for those on board and those in the immediate area (I’m talking three floors up or down from impact), and very serious for others in the vicinity.
Suddenly, before my very eyes, a really big plane zoomed into the frame and sliced through the second tower.
And then I knew.
I don’t need to recount here what happened then. If, by some chance, you are reading this a hundred years from now, go consult a history book for the facts. You can get political analysis there too. All you’ll find here is what I felt and what I did.
I cleaned. Instead of writing or reading or standing around wringing my hands, I cleaned. Every piece of laundry in this house, except what we had on, was washed, folded, and put away. Not only did I change the beds, I washed the blankets and the spreads. Just after noon I went out to Bed, Bath, & Beyond and bought new mattress pads and an “Orange Glow Cleaning Kit.” Back home I washed down my closet, divested myself of two bags of clothing I will never wear again no matter what the season and even if I lose a hundred pounds, and two bags of trash.
About 1:30 I was folding laundry in my study and following developments on the tv I bought three weeks ago, now attached to cable that had never been in this room before. Suddenly Tom Brokaw’s face faded and the picture sprouted purple lines. I thought something was wrong at the source and watched it for an hour (the audio was perfect) before Ron came upstairs, took one look, and said his picture downstairs was fine.
So it was back to Circuit City for a new tv. (I wouldn’t have acted so swiftly if I was just watching TV Land reruns of “Mary Tyler Moore.”) To do this I had to drive east on Route 22 toward a small car dealership that uses gold-colored tinsel streamers strung in rows around its perimeter. I drive this route frequently without really noticing anything, and yet that day I was convinced that the gold glinting in the glorious sun was a fire up ahead.
By afternoon we had confirmation that the one person in our family likely to be directly affected was safe. (We were pretty sure she was, but until you hear the words from her voice you can’t really be sure.) Ron’s second daughter Patty works for an information-gathering company with offices twenty-five blocks north of the World Trade Center. She does most of her work by computer from her home in Philadelphia, but she does visit the office several days a month. She was in the city on Monday, concluded her business, and went home.The World Trade Center was always the first thing she saw when she came up out of the subway. Had she been in town that day she’d have been among those seen walking calmly across bridges in an effort to leave.
Growing up with an overwhelmed mother and a frequently angry father, I learned many of the coping mechanisms of the children of dysfunction. I can believe that anything is normal, and I can pull my emotions in and be a spectator in my own life while helping to keep others on an even keel. My father was an excellent manager in other areas of his life, and from him I learned that the best course is always to be proactive rather than reactive, to assess what you can control, act there and let the rest go.
The best thing for me to do now is to keep on keepin’ on. I’m back to work in these pages, in my fiction writing, in my research work. And I’m counting my blessings, a bigger task than ever.
* Once again, thanks to Mona Simpson for the image.