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9/11, fifteen years later

sept 11 memorial reflection

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

I heard these words of Faulkner’s again on a recent gray morning, as I stood in the doorway of a wood-paneled chapel on Harvard’s campus, a few steps from the Yard.

Speaking at the first Morning Prayers service of the fall semester, President Drew Faust invoked Faulkner to remind us that what we do with the past is our responsibility. It is, she said, “the essential material with which we can build a better future.”

As we marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, Faulkner’s words resonated in a different way.

Sept. 11, 2001, has passed into history, and yet it is still immediate, insistent. It is, after a decade and a half, part of my past and our national memory. But it is far from dead or irrelevant. It continues to affect my life and my world, both in ways I can point to and ways I can’t quite articulate. And it comes home to me again every fall.

sept 11 memorial flowers

I was a high school senior in West Texas on 9/11: happily absorbed in honors classes and marching band, excited about my new role on our school’s student diplomatic team, four days away from turning 18. I was curious and eager, on the brink of young adulthood, and I was completely undone by the news on the TV that morning. I walked around for days in a state of shock: tense, strained, saddened in a way I had never been before. It felt like a jolt into adulthood: a loss of innocence, a grim, sudden knowledge of how the world could be.

I’ve read a few books, in the years since that day, that include 9/11 as an element of the plot or setting. I couldn’t believe how long it took for the attacks and their aftermath to become a part of any fictional narrative instead of the gaping, overwhelming whole. Long after that day, the attacks dominated any discussion they entered. It took us years to absorb that story into the larger narrative of our lives.

Last week, I interviewed a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I work, about the far-reaching effects of 9/11, especially in the field of homeland security (her specialty). I asked her what the U.S. has learned, what we could have done differently, how daily life has changed for most Americans. I tried to reflect, in my questions, an awareness of the passage of time and of both President Faust’s and Faulkner’s words. Not simply Where were you that day? (though I always want to know), or Isn’t it awful that this happened?, but How can we move forward?.

In a sense, that is the question I have been asking for 15 years: how can we acknowledge the grief and fear, the complexity of such an event and its ripples, and carry it forward with wisdom and grace? How can we remember and honor the day itself, and yet move ahead with courage?

I don’t have many answers for this, but as always, I think telling our stories helps.

I’d welcome your stories, in the comments, and I’d also recommend a few of those novels I mentioned: Nichole Bernier’s The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Kathleen Donohoe’s Ashes of Fiery Weather. They treat this event and its aftermath with care and good sentences, which is often all a writer can do. And sometimes, that’s enough.

(Images are from the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, which I visited a few years ago.)

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oas main building

Every November, when the leaves turn yellow and the nights begin to draw in, there’s a particular sort of grey, windy, serious afternoon that takes me right back to high school.

Along with a dozen of my fellow students, I spent the fall of my senior year preparing for the annual conference of MOAS, a mock diplomatic organization in which teams of student delegates represent the nations of the Western Hemisphere. I interviewed for the team on a whim, looking for something to fill up my schedule, never dreaming what it would come to mean to me.

Our team was assigned to represent the U.S. that fall of 2001. Mr. Walker’s English classroom was our headquarters, and we spent hours hunched over particleboard desks, heads bent over thick black binders filled with forests of paper, learning terms like rapporteur and communiqué and secretariat.

We drafted formal proposals and learned the rules of table discussion, dragging our desks into a wonky circle and holding mock debates: “Point of order, question to the speaker directed through the chair.” Along the way, we worked physics problems and held economics study sessions and piled into each other’s cars at lunchtime, grabbing burgers or tacos or sandwiches in our 55-minute escapes from campus.

The old-timers, like my best friend Jon, told stories of past conferences and explained to us newbies what to expect. We learned salient facts about various Latin American countries, most of which I have now forgotten. Walker warned that as delegates representing our own nation, we would be seen by other teams as the heavyweight, worth taking seriously but not always popular. (It was my first indication of how the U.S. is often perceived by the rest of the world.)

September 11, it need hardly be said, would have changed all our lives, irrevocably, forever. But it had a particular effect on this group of serious high school students in a mid-size West Texas town. We watched the news and read the headlines obsessively, worrying over what this meant for our country and our futures as adults, but also for our immediate futures: our trip to D.C. and the revisions now required (if we went) to accurately represent our country, in deep shock and mourning.

After days of holding our breath, we learned that the conference was still on, and by a tremendous diplomatic feat of his own, Walker persuaded most of our parents to let us go.

As the trip approached, we received detailed briefings: conference schedules, travel itineraries, handwritten packing lists, most of them headed by Walker’s no-nonsense black capitals. The packing list was divided into casual, semi-formal and formal “occations” – my friend Sarah’s handwriting joyfully misspelling the same word over and over again. After Walker advised us girls to “pack a little black dress” for the conference Gala, we met in the hotel lobby to discover that nearly every female in the group had bought or borrowed a little black dress. Somewhere there’s a photo of us, glittering and unsteady in our high heels, teetering on the edge of an exciting evening and also of something infinitely more huge and terrifying: adulthood.

gala photo

Jon and me at the Gala, and yes, I’m wearing a little black dress.

During that week of mock diplomacy, I learned a few things: one, I didn’t want a career in this field. I am not interested (part of me already knew this) in spending my days arguing with a roomful of colleagues and strangers. Walker slipped me a note during one lunch break, after catching sight of my tense expression, that read, in part: “Knowing what you don’t want is as important as knowing what you do.” I have carried those words, and many of his others, through thirteen years and two countries and half a dozen jobs.

That week, I also learned how to cook in a tiny hotel kitchen, how to wear a suit with heels, and how to dance the Cotton-Eyed Joe with gleeful abandon under a roomful of bemused non-Texan eyes. I did not learn how to tie a necktie (not for lack of trying), but I learned to knock on the door of the senior boys’ suite when I needed a can opener, help with last-minute proposal revisions, assistance in tying said necktie, or simply an encouraging word. (Jon, well-spoken MOAS conference president and endlessly patient best friend, came through every single time.)

I also learned how to navigate a big city on my own for the first time, tramping around the tangle of streets that connected the OAS building to the edge of Georgetown, where we were staying. I waited for Jon after the sessions ended every night, shifting in the high heels borrowed from my mother, feeling the city’s pulse under my feet as we walked through the dark streets to our hotel. Under the city sky, crisscrossed with floodlights, we discussed committee politics and personal dramas, but we also caught glimpses of our future selves: the adults we would become long after we had left high school and MOAS behind.

These days, I hurry along sidewalks in a different city, my mind full of to-dos and writing projects and social obligations. I don’t often pause to wonder at my grown-up life; most of the time it is simply the life I’m living.

But every November, the grey skies and brisk winds bring me back to that week long ago: hovering on the edge of adulthood, nervous, exhilarated, plunging into unfamiliar, exciting territory. The world opened up for us during those days in D.C., shifting to allow us a peek into our own futures while we played at being adults. We headed back to the safety of parents and school and home, but nothing was quite the same. And every autumn, I walk under the grey skies, and remember.

(Top image from oas.org)

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brooklyn spread love sign

Our recent New York weekend began with Mexican food, book browsing in the West Village and dessert at Cafe Lalo. It continued with a gorgeous, sunny Sunday.

little zelda brooklyn

We got chai and breakfast sandwiches from Little Zelda, and ate them perched on a bench on the sidewalk, enjoying the sunshine.

sept 11 memorial reflection

After breakfast, we caught a train to Lower Manhattan, where we visited the 9/11 Memorial. It was crowded, but still (mostly) quiet, and so moving.

sept 11 memorial pool

Everyone says it was a gorgeous fall day when the planes hit the towers – a day just like this. Endless, heartbreaking blue sky.

sept 11 memorial blue sky

I had wanted to see the memorial for a while, and I’m glad we finally went: it felt right to walk around the two sunken pools and pay my respects. I couldn’t help thinking back to the day (I was a high school student in West Texas) and the changes those attacks have wrought in all our lives.

sept 11 memorial flowers

I wanted to walk around and read every single name.

first responders sept 11 memorial

After spending a while there, we caught a train up to SoHo, where we browsed the high-end shops and visited Purl Soho. I came away with two gorgeous skeins of bright pink yarn.

purl soho yarn

Our friend Mary Kate recently moved to NYC, and we met her for lunch at Parm. We ate delicious Italian food (eggplant parm on a sandwich, people) and talked for ages.

jer katie mary kate nyc

After lunch we headed up to Central Park, which is always a treat, but especially so on such a gorgeous day.

central park nyc

We walked and walked, watching the children and the buskers and the rowboats on the lake, trading stories about our time in Boston and Mary Kate’s brand-new NYC life.

After all that walking, we needed sustenance, so we popped into Magnolia Bakery on the Upper West Side, where Mary Kate tackled this chocolate monster. (She asked for a box to take it home.)

mary kate cake magnolia bakery nyc

We headed back to SoHo in an attempt to visit the Central Perk pop-up shop – but, alas, it was closed. (We’d checked it out earlier, but the line was miles long.) We contented ourselves with photos of the iconic logo.

central perk logo nyc

Next we headed to McNally Jackson, where we stayed almost until closing time. I picked up the delightful Greenglass House (the author works there) and the fascinating The Genius of Language.

mcnally jackson books nyc interior

Dinner at the Grey Dog was delicious – hearty American food and more good conversation. (And cool lighting.)

grey dog soho nyc interior

New York, you are full of wonder (as always). We’ll be back.

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when we were on fire synchroblog

That may as well be the subtitle of Addie Zierman’s memoir, When We Were on Fire, out tomorrow from Convergent Books.

I’ve never met Addie, except via blogland, but we were born in the same year (albeit in different regions of the country) and we spent our teenage years immersed in the same strange, insular, oddly intense subculture of Christianity. We both went to small Christian colleges where we met the men we married, and we have both spent a large part of our post-college years trying to hang onto our faith while having to unlearn a lot of things we thought we knew.

To celebrate her book’s publication, Addie has invited fellow bloggers to share their experiences with the evangelical subculture and the subsequent impact on their – our – faith.

The evangelical subculture, with its rah-rah zeal and catchy T-shirts and tidy, well-reasoned arguments in favor of faith, left me with some baggage, for sure. There wasn’t much room in it for doubts or questions, for the messier, blurrier side of faith or relationships. But for a few years, that didn’t matter, because it provided me with what all teenagers need: a safe place.

I grew up in a tightly knit, loving, Christian family and I had a group of close friends at school, most of whom went to church with their parents but sort of rolled their eyes at my Jesus-freak-ness. But at youth group and the Bible studies I attended, my devotion was normal, even encouraged. I could hang out with other kids who loved Jesus as much as I did, who were trying to figure out how to be good and faithful people as they navigated the halls of high school. And for six years, those other Jesus-freak teenagers were my people.

I sang with the worship band and led prayers at youth group. I worked diligently through the homework questions before Teen CBS each week. I had a black WWJD bracelet and a whole drawerful of Christian-themed T-shirts. (I still have a couple of them somewhere.)

When I was a sophomore in high school, a handsome senior (whom I later dated) asked me to sing with the praise band at a new lunchtime club called the Fellowship of Christian Musicians. The audience was mostly our fellow band nerds, and they mostly came for the free food and the fun of singing songs with goofy motions. There was never any preaching or theological debate at FCM; it was simply a loud, friendly, loosely connected community, fueled by trays of Bagel Bites and taquitos pulled warm from the oven by a few dedicated parents.

And here is what it took me a long time to understand: that was enough.

I grew up in a denomination that prizes words, specifically the words of the Bible (usually interpreted a certain way) and the words of respected theologians. It also prizes testimony, the retelling of one’s own faith story, even one as quiet and nondramatic as mine. Salvation, according to a lot of its pastors, depends on a specific set of words (the Sinner’s Prayer). Baptism (adult baptism, by immersion) is accompanied by a public “confession of faith.” Rhetorical arguments for faith – even when one is literally preaching to the choir – are encouraged.

As a lifelong bookworm, I felt right at home among all those words. But I sometimes became uneasy when participating in a faith activity that didn’t involve preaching or praying, that lacked a neat rhetorical way of tying it all together.

On a September day during my senior year of high school, I learned, along with the rest of the country, about the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and into a field in Pennsylvania. Because it was a Tuesday, I headed to Bible study with my parents and sister that night, craving the comfort of normalcy and community (and freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies) after a day of strained expressions from my teachers and friends, and increasingly horrifying news coverage.

After eating dinner, I slipped into a metal folding chair next to my friend Adam, who looked as exhausted as I felt. One of our leaders got up on stage for the weekly welcome and greeting, which was somber, matching the tone of the room. As the worship band began to play, Adam reached over and slipped his hand into mine. We sat, silent, not even singing, in the darkened room, as Russ and the band played songs of quiet comfort. For almost the first time in my life, I had no words – only mute grief, and the solid presence of a community around me.

And here is what I began to understand that night: it was enough.

I am a long way from those Jesus-freak days, far from those lunchtimes when I led the FCM crowd in yet another rendition of “Sanctuary” or “Peace Like a River.” I still know all the words to those songs and many others; after years of repetition, they have made their way deep into my bones. But the words, then used so often to argue and convince and persuade, have settled into something quieter and gentler now: a background hum, steady as the blood pumping through my veins. They are no longer rhetorical weapons, polished and honed to perfection. Instead, they are part of my makeup, like my mother’s green eyes and the freckles on my nose.

These days, I am less interested in the old rhetoric of “saving souls” than I am in living a steady, quiet life of grace and peace. I refuse to be drawn into battles where people use “the sword of the Spirit” to stab each other. I have my beliefs, and they are deeply held, but I am not interested in arguing with anyone about them.

Instead, I want relationship, community. I want to offer my own presence and take comfort in the presence of other people, through times of joy and grief and through the long, everyday stretches in between.

And here is what I began learning in the evangelical subculture, and have continued to learn long after I left it: presence and community, even in the absence of so many words, are enough.

I’d love to hear about your own experiences with faith in the comments, and I’d encourage you to pick up Addie’s book – it is sensitive, honest, well-crafted and beautifully told.

(I received a free copy of When We Were on Fire in exchange for an honest review, but all opinions, experiences, etc., are my own.)

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june reads books part 2A Dublin Student Doctor, Patrick Taylor
I’ve been loving the Irish Country Doctor series and enjoyed this extended flashback to Dr. O’Reilly’s youth and his medical student years in 1930s Dublin. His compassion for his patients is well drawn (I love his emphasis on learning their names, in a time when that was not standard hospital practice). The writing is mostly good and occasionally stunning, and I look forward to the next book featuring these characters.

Introverts in the Church, Adam S. McHugh
Leigh wrote a fabulous post (which turned into a series) about this book, written to introverts who want to serve and participate in church, but find it difficult (and/or have been told they need to be more extroverted to be effective). McHugh presents thoughtful strategies for introverts as they seek to serve in churches and still be themselves.

However, I found the stereotypes of introverts and extroverts troubling, especially since extroverts’ gifts were not often acknowledged. I’m a social introvert who has been fortunate to be part of church communities where my gifts were appreciated, and McHugh is writing for people who’ve been hurt more deeply than I have. Still worth reading. (For more on the gifts of introverts: Susan Cain’s excellent book, Quiet.)

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., Nichole Bernier
Kate inherits her friend Elizabeth’s journals after Elizabeth dies in a plane crash, in July 2001. She spends the summer of 2002 reading them, trying to fit these new glimpses of her friend’s life into her image of the person she thought she knew. Bernier’s prose is stunningly precise and lyrical, and she evokes that frantic, paranoid time – the time of anthrax and shoe bombs and undulating uncertainty – perfectly. Kate is a young mom struggling to grieve her friend and care for her small children as her husband travels often, and also weighing the question of whether to resume her pastry-chef career. More than a book about 9/11, this is a book about friendship, about secrets, and about the selves we show one another and the selves we hide away. Highly recommended.

Heron’s Cove, Carla Neggers
I read this on a weekend getaway to Maine – fitting since it’s set on the Maine coastline. Two FBI agents (one an ex-nun whose family runs a business recovering stolen art) work on a case involving a rare collection of Russian jewelry. The agents are in love, but must decide whether the pressures of their jobs will allow their relationship to continue. This is the second in a series and I felt I was missing some pieces since I hadn’t read the first book, though the author did give some background. However, the plot was entertaining and I liked the characters, especially the whiskey-distilling Irish priest. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 28).

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
I’ve heard about this book for years and finally bought it at Glen East. And I did a LOT of underlining. McEntyre makes the case that language is being polluted, misused and depleted in our current public discourse, and discusses 12 ways we can restore words – good, true, rich, valuable words – to their rightful place. She exhorts readers to savor words, to “love the long sentence,” to practice the arts of conversation and poetry, and finally to allow space for silence, which is necessary to allow words to grow and resonate. Brilliant and vital; I’ll be returning to this book again and again.

The Wednesday Wars, Gary D. Schmidt
It’s 1967 and war is raging in Vietnam, while civil rights activists agitate for change at home. But Holling Hoodhood’s biggest concern is the Wednesday afternoons he has to spend alone with his seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Baker, while everyone else goes to catechism class or Hebrew school. As Mrs. Baker takes Holling on a tour of Shakespeare’s plays, he learns about love, bravery and trust (as well as picking up a few excellent curses). I loved the subtle first-love subplot and the totally believable friction (and deep affection) between Holling and his sister. Excellent. (Recommended by Kristin and Kari.)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
This book, as the main character (Oskar) would say, gave me heavy boots. So much tragedy – not only Oskar’s dad dying on 9/11, but his grandparents’ experience during World War II and after. So many lonely people (no wonder “Eleanor Rigby” runs throughout the book). And yet, some truly funny moments (Oskar has a wry, hilarious voice), and some moving scenes of connection and healing. Reading it made me think back to those days after 9/11, when we all, even we teenagers in far-flung West Texas, walked around in a haze, and all we wanted was to hold close the people we loved, and to protect them from anything like that happening again, ever.

Farther Afield, Miss Read
Fairacre’s favorite schoolteacher breaks her arm at the beginning of the summer holidays – horror! Fortunately, her friend Amy comes to the rescue by offering to care for her as she recovers, and then whisking her away to Crete for a holiday. They lounge in the sunshine and enjoy themselves, and Miss Read muses on her own single state and Amy’s marital troubles. Wise and thoughtful and sweet, like all the Fairacre books.

What are you reading these days?

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links. Graphic by Sarah.

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ten years

Ten years ago I was a high school senior, expecting just another Tuesday morning full of flute music and Spanish vocabulary words and quips exchanged in the hallway with my friends.

Ten years ago I was four days away from turning 18, and I’ve always attached significance to the fact that my country and I, in a sense, lost our innocence at the same time.

Ten years ago I found out someone had attacked my country on my way to my second-period Spanish class, and I knew – in a way I have known few things in my life – that my world would never be the same.

Ten years ago I spent my school day, and part of my evening, watching news coverage, shocked and stunned, though I realized my grief was far less than the grief of New Yorkers, or residents of Washington, D.C., or anyone who lost someone in the attacks that day.

Ten years ago I watched my teachers and school counselors, their eyes full of worry and compassion, try to grasp what had happened so they could explain it to classrooms full of teenagers, who couldn’t quite grasp it either.

Ten years ago I went to Tuesday night Bible study (because I desperately wanted to be with my friends, and to do something “normal” after such an abnormal day), and sat in a darkened room next to my friend Adam, and held his hand as the worship band sang and we both prayed.

Ten years ago I decided to go ahead and have my 18th birthday party, because life is still precious and friends are still wonderful and birthdays, however marked and shadowed by national grief, are still worth celebrating.

Ten years ago this November, I traveled to D.C. as part of a student diplomacy organization, representing the U.S. at our annual mock conference, and received a tour of the Pentagon from an Air Force brigadier general. And I stood outside, near piles of rubble and yellow Caution tape, and looked at the twinkling Christmas tree someone had put on the roof, right next to the gap where the plane had hit. And I heard that general’s deep voice urging me – urging us all – to live.

And today I light a candle, and remember.

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I can’t do any better than the thoughtful post on Mike’s blog this morning and the dozens of comments left by his readers. So I won’t try. But I will say that I have spent much of today thinking about where I was five years ago. There are days that mark our lives, individually and nationally, and 9/11/01 was one of them.

We never have the news on at home in the morning, and I had listened to a CD instead of the radio as I drove to school early that morning for a flute lesson. By the time my lesson ended, we were 15 minutes into first-period marching band, and I think the director had already told everyone else what had happened before I made it to the field. The mood on the field was a little subdued, but I didn’t think anything of it as I ran out there and found my place. I didn’t hear of anything unusual until I was on my way to second period and ran into my friend Chance, a known jokester. When he said, “Did you hear? Somebody bombed the World Trade Center,” I thought he was kidding. He assured me he wasn’t, but I didn’t believe him until I made it up the stairs to my Spanish class and saw the news report on TV. Even Aaron Patino, who sat next to me and usually made jokes the entire period, couldn’t find anything funny in the smoke-filled footage they were showing over and over.

For the rest of that day, and the entire week, I walked around in a daze. Four periods a day, in every class but band and physics (where life went on almost as usual), we watched the news. New footage of the attacks, interviews with victims and bystanders, news analysis of any information the media could dig up, a national mourning service that Friday. My eyeballs felt as if they had been stretched from trying to take it all in. My student diplomacy class, a tightly knit group of 15 students shepherded by a wise English teacher, took the news the hardest. We were all aware enough of global issues to know that this was really serious. Closer to home, we were headed to D.C. in November for a national student diplomacy conference, and we were no longer sure we would get to go. (We did, actually – even touring the State Department and the Pentagon less than three months after the attacks.) My best friend Jon and I didn’t say much to one another, but we hurt deeply together, for that whole week and for months afterward.

September 15, 2001, was my 18th birthday, and my friends Julie and Adam also turned 18 that week. We had a hard time feeling like we could celebrate, like we were allowed to enjoy ourselves and our friends. But we cooked burgers at my house and then went to play miniature golf, and for a little while we were able to put aside the tragedy of that week and enjoy each other.

Gradually, it has become apparent that enjoying each other, enjoying life, is the real victory, the way to make sure that terror does not win. If we are brave enough to go on living and loving and fighting for good and for hope, we have defeated anyone who dares crash a plane into our bright September skies. I hope today made you remember how precious our lives are, and remember for a moment those who lost their lives and loved ones in 9/11. I hope you were sad for a moment, and that you maybe even cried a little bit. And then I hope you called someone and told them how much you loved them. And I hope you go on doing that tomorrow. I know I will.

*title from Alan Jackson’s 9/11 tribute song, “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning”

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