9/11 Twenty-0ne Years Later

9/11 Twenty-0ne Years Later September 11, 2022



All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

W.H. Auden, fragment from September 1, 1939

At the time we lived in Massachusetts and I was minister of the First Unitarian Society in Newton. I had just been with a family visited by serious illness. I was in the car and turned on my radio. That’s when I heard the news. A plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers, there were reports of other planes gone missing. Reporters were confused, and the odor of fear hung in the air.

I was heading back to the church, fortunately not a mile from where I heard that terrible confusing announcement. I drove a little faster than wise. Once inside the building, I rolled a television into the hallway between our offices from the closet where we kept it. And the staff and I watched as another plane struck and the towers fell.

I felt a hollowness. I don’t know how else to call it. And then within that hollow space poured worry and confusion.
There was a lot of worry and confusion and many other emotions that day.

Over the next days we learned what happened. Ultimately, nearly three thousand people dead. The most Americans killed on our soil since the horrors of the civil war. And we began to hear the stories.

For years after I could still choke up when I hear them. Of course, it’s twenty-one years now. That terrible moment, those horrors have become history.

And along with the stories of horrors, we also began to hear stories of heroism, stories of such bravery.

For years I would find it hard not to weep when I recalled them. No longer. But, I remember.

A small band of passengers on one of the hijacked planes, learning what was happening fought with the terrorists. They died sparing the intended target, we’re not precisely sure, either the White House or the Capitol.

I have not forgotten.

Of course we reacted. That, too, is burned into my mind. Into my heart.

Some of what we did I think necessary, some misdirected for other reasons, without a shred of genuine justification.

The wake of our vengeance has been terrible. The mastermind of this horror is now dead, as is his second in command at that time, as are most who were directly involved in this plot.

Since then, so much. Twenty-one years of conflict, wars raging across the globe, small and vast fires consuming so much. And the consequences continue to play out.

Our world is now different.

So, how to approach all this? What good news is there that can inform our decisions and our actions? Is there any?

I think so.

A small story from a month shy of ten years after 9/11. It was August when hurricane Irene was racing up the Eastern seaboard of the country. We were living in Rhode Island and I was now senior minister at the First Unitarian Church of Providence.

I was in a discount store throwing cans of sardines, tuna & salmon into my cart. Food that I figured would go into the back of the pantry against worst case scenarios. It was something I long felt I should do, but had never quite gotten around to. Feeling good about my success in collecting discounted tins of protein I headed toward where I hoped to next find batteries.

As I turned onto the aisle, my way was blocked by a man a bit younger than me talking to a woman a great deal older than either of us. I couldn’t tell if they knew each other, or if he just decided to impose upon her age, in that way people sometimes do with the extremely aged and small children. He asked in a friendly enough way, if with just a hint of condescension hanging in the back, if she were worried about the hurricane. She was in addition to being obviously very old, very small and a bit hunched over.

She straightened up with that question to perhaps a full nearly five foot tall. And she replied, “Hah! I made it through ’38! And, I’ve never been afraid of anything since…” ’38, the Long Island Express. It was a horrific hurricane, perhaps the worst in American history.

Hearing this immediately took me back a couple of days. At the end of that week as Jan & I were getting ready for a small dinner with a visiting Zen priest from Atlanta, itself just ahead of our annual weekend with old friends at Tanglewood. Tanglewood was and is in the farthest western part of Massachusetts and is the summer home of the Boston Symphony.

Auntie, who lived with us for almost a quarter of a century, very much at the heart of our family, was vacuuming the living room carpet. She plopped herself down in a chair and sighed deeply. I asked what’s up? She said her leg, the other one than the one that had a blood clot back at the beginning of the year, now hurt just like the one in January did. I asked how long it had been like this. She replied it started two weeks ago. Now, just the prior week she had an ultra sound on the leg which had the blood clot to see if it was well and duly gone. It was. Being auntie, she hadn’t thought that she was beginning to have similar pains in the other leg might mean anything. Until now.

I stifled a sigh and I called her doctor’s office. We then ended up spending just shy of eight hours at the closest emergency room. Suspecting such could be the case, before leaving I called and canceled the dinner. The priest and I have known each other for well over a decade as correspondents, but had never actually met in the flesh. So, this was a small sadness. However, in the face of this more pressing issue, even if it turned out to be nothing, well, still it needed doing. No regrets.

They took pictures of her leg and just for the smarts of it, her chest. The good news was no clot. But we didn’t even have a chance to congratulate ourselves before the doctor, why are they getting so much younger every year, continued. There was bad news. They saw a spot on her spine. They also found a fair amount of fluid in one lung. Asked about this she said, oh yes, I’ve been having trouble breathing. Again, didn’t feel the need to check in on that…

We went home, and as per instructions, I called and set up an appointment with her oncologist for the first available, which turned out to be Monday. Jan and I talked and then canceled Tanglewood. It has been a good ten-year run. Oh, well. Life is like that. But having heard all this and what it could mean and then having us leave didn’t feel right. And, what with the hurricane rolling madly toward us, all in all, probably the smart decision.

So, I started watching auntie, whom we usually refered to in her absence as the hobbit. She took it all in stride. She expressed a wave of anxiety about how this might prove devastating financially for us. A thought no one in a fair society should ever have to think, but is a fact on the ground for most of us. However, mainly she was concerned that she’d finished one of her talking book Vampire romances and was worried about getting the sequel in a timely manner.

I have notes from all this from talks and reflections I shared over those years. They help me reclaim memories.

And. Now. Twenty one years later. I think about 9/11. I think about that elderly woman responding to the question about that hurricane. I think about auntie and her concern she have enough time to read the next Vampire romance novel. Some of this obstinacy in the face of bad things is foolishness, no doubt. That hadith of Mohammed, trust God, but tether your camel, traces across my brain now and again. Such optimism doesn’t, or shouldn’t replace getting some batteries, water and sardines.

We need to do what needs doing.

And… I find my heart swimming with admiration for our foolish bravery, we humans. Oh, we’re many other things. Venal. Mean. Sometimes casually cruel. But, we’re also kind and generous. And brave. Small acts. Big ones.

My heart goes to many things. The ancient enmities that came together in that act. Of our own communal complicities. Of the evil people do to each other in the name of nation and religion. And for gain, small and great. The current state of our Republic is something sad. I never thought a neo-fascist movement would become an actual political force. With that wars and rumors of wars. With that experiencing the ecological catastrophe actually under way.

But, the image that most hangs in my mind, in my heart about us, still vivid twenty-one years on now, are those eyewitness descriptions of those firemen and cops racing into the towers as everyone else were trying to escape.

This past week Elizabeth, Queen of England died. I’m no fan of monarchy. But, as I considered her long life and how she served as a symbol and face of a nation as it reframed what it was from an empire to a commonwealth, her part was showing up and showing up. She certainly was well compensated for this. And she referred to her word as a job.

I think about jobs.

But most of all I find myself considering duty. Showing up. Being the glue that holds things together, even as they shift, mutate, and become something new.

I think about what heroism is.

Heroes. Heroic acts. And, for me, really, while I shiver as I think of the firemen racing into the towers, as I think of that little old lady squaring her shoulders in a moment of defiance against all the power of nature, as I think of my auntie, silly hobbit, hearing her cancer may have spread fatally, wanting her next book…

I wonder what love is And I think of people getting up, and bringing their best selves to the matter. Doing the job.

In the face of it all, at our best, we straighten up, and we stand up, and we do what needs doing. Not always, Of course… Not always… But, often enough to think of what love looks like. And enough to give me hope.

And, right this minute; perhaps good words. A reminder. And a hint.

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