Fifteen years and a day after

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:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

From A Darkling Thrush, Thomas Hardy:

At once a voice arose among
  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.

God’s Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
  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.

From Easter 1916, William Butler Yeats:

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

No Man Is An Island, John Donne:

No man is an island,
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.




Posted in Culture, History Tagged , permalink

About Diana Pharaoh Francis

A recovering academic, Diana Pharaoh Francis writes books of a fantastical, adventurous, and often romantic nature. She's owned by two corgis, spends much of her time herding children, and likes rocks, geocaching, knotting up yarn, and has a thing for 1800s England, especially the Victorians. Check out samples of just about everything on her website:


Fifteen years and a day after — 2 Comments

  1. Those are all lovely poetic choices.

    The assassination of JFK is the first of those moments that I remember. There have been others over the years; sometimes people look earnestly at one another and say, “We will always remember this.” Sometimes it’s true, but some of them seem to fade with time–at least I don’t hear them come up in reflective conversations. The only one that I think (I hope) will stick, one that isn’t about death and destruction, is the Berlin wall coming down. That one hit my European friends harder than it hit here, judging again by conversations, but I hope it stays in memory.