I tried not to think about 9/11 yesterday. It’s not that it isn’t important. In fact there are those moments in your life when you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when something powerful occurred. A lot of older people talk about where they were when JFK was shot. For me, there are three moments that froze time for me. One was when the Challenger blew up. I was working in a little cafe/sandwich shop on campus at UC Davis. We had a big screen TV inside. Really big. Like about six feet long and four feet tall. I remember watching the launch and then the explosion. My heart broke and my mind went blank with utter disbelief. It’s not that I’d been really following the news of the launch or had paid that much attention before. But it nonetheless mattered. It left a mark on me. I’m not even sure why.
I went about in a kind of a daze that day, trying to sort out what it meant. That’s what we do–look for meaning in terrible events. Humans contextualize, tease at things until we bring them into some sort of perspective and gain some sort of understanding of things.
Some things defy understanding.
The second moment was the 1989 earthquake. I was in my apartment, getting ready to sit down and watch the Giants play the A’s in the World Series. I was walking to the couch and suddenly I felt drunk. Like I couldn’t walk a straight line. The feeling ended after about twenty or thirty seconds. I asked my roommate what happened. Davis, CA doesn’t get earthquakes, you see. But that day we did. Nothing significant for us, but the power generated some 90-odd miles away shook me to my core. We’d been down to the Stick (Candlestick Park) to watch the Giants play a half dozen times that year. If we could have afforded it, we might have been in the stands.
I tried to make that mean something.
And then 9/11. I was teaching. My son was a year old. I got up that morning and turned on the news. The first tower was on fire. I watched as the second tower was hit. It was surreal. It wasn’t really happening. And then the towers collapsed and the pentagon was hit and flight 93 went down and nobody knew when it might stop and how much farther it was going to go.
I still had to go teach that day. I looked at my students and we spoke in hushed tones and total disbelief. They wanted meaning and context. How do you make meaning of something that so defies sense?
I had a good friend die of cancer a few years ago. She was younger than me. Another suffered a stroke–my age–and has come a long way. There might be lessons there. Courage. Strength. There is hurt and there is loss and there is admiration and so many other things. I don’t know what any of that means except life is short and sometimes it’s gone before you know it.
I’ve a PhD. in literature. Sometimes this world makes me wonder how useful it is to be a teacher of literature. Of writing. How useful it is to be a writer. Here’s the answer that I always come back to. Literature helps people find context and meaning when it feels so elusive. It helps us understand and connect, to know we aren’t alone in our fears and our hopes and our dreams. It helps us survive the dark times and appreciate the good times.
I tried not to think about 9/11 yesterday, but I couldn’t. It’s put its mark on me and altered my world in ways I’m still discovering. So I give you some poetry. For context. For meaning, if there’s any to be had.
From Tennyson’s Ulysses:
From A Darkling Thrush, Thomas Hardy:
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.