I was writing a book, titled Facing Forward, in September 2001, a memoir related to the uncertainties of mid-life. Then on a bright Tuesday morning, September 11, everything stopped. Uncertainties about mid-life were irrelevant. I joined our country in a collective lament. The world as we knew it ended that day and the world has not been the same since.
I include below the concluding paragraphs of the chapter I was writing in the aftermath of this sad day. In the end I found that — whether it is the challenges of mid-life or the end of the world — beauty and light keep asserting themselves even amid the darkest hours:
The day after it happened I went to my patio, my place of refuge. How often had I gone there and found comfort in the sound of water trickling through my fountain? The glint of sunshine through the lattice fluorescing my impatiens? I sat in my hammock and heard mothers weeping for their dead children. I saw in my mind the picture of Mark Bingham’s mother being interviewed on the news. He, along with Todd Beamer, helped carry out the revolt on United Flight 93. [Beamer led the revolt with his now-sanctified words, “Let’s Roll.”] She smiled, wetness in her eyes and crows’ feet in their corners. “I’m so proud of him.” She smiled and wept. I couldn’t bear her smile. I wept for her and for all the weeping mothers who lost children in rubble and smoke, like Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted–for her children are dead. [Jer. 31:15].
The next day, the third day after it happened, as I swept my patio, the sun fell upon me, bursting through the changing leaves. I saw around me in a single glance the royal purple of the mums, the crimson leaves on a bush aflame with light, the incandescent gold of a willow tree, all of it against a backdrop of verdant grass and a sapphire sky. It took my breath away. And I heard God’s answer Rachel’s tears: “Do not weep any longer . . . your children will come back to you.” [Jer. 31: 16-17]The picture told me God’s beauty won’t stop asserting itself. His gifts are beyond the reach of the crashing planes. The earth and everything in it is his affirmation of life, his promise. In so far as the end of the world can inform a so-called mid-life crisis, I came to a place where I answered my own question, What do ghosts and unresolved issues have to do with the end of the world? The answer is, nothing and everything.
The passengers aboard Flight 93 stepped into the aisle and walked through the dark valley together. They defined the moment. The moment, it turned out, was not going to be the hijackers’ version of a great American tragedy. The moment belonged to the heroes, the ordinary people in baseball caps and T-shirts and blue jeans and boxer shorts wielding coffee pots and serving trays. People who laid aside their novels and cell phones and laptops and stepped into the aisle and rushed the cockpit and left the hijackers with no place to go but into the ground.
Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham and those passengers helped me understand that we are all to be confronted with circumstances not of our choosing and have only the accouterments of our every-day life to work with, for good or ill. Every-day moments define who we are and we will all be forced to adapt to a script not of our writing.
In that way, we are all in doomed planes. We can either let the circumstances define the moment, or we can “roll,” like Ol’ Man River, as William Safire said it, “unstoppable, creating new meanings as it goes, recently elevating itself by association with a historic moment.” Todd Beamer and the others went to the ground creating that new meaning. Safire concludes, “With poet Byron, we can wish it ever more power: ‘Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean–Roll!