Sunday, September 11, 2016

september eleventh

My heart is moved by all I cannot save.

-- Adrienne Rich

We'll build our house and chop our wood,
and make our garden grow.

-- Richard Wilbur*

Dan and Bronwyn's garden
My friend of long standing, who played chess with me in the choir loft of my father's church even before we were day-boys in the local prep school, begins his eighth decade today. For the last fifteen years, the day of his arrival on the earth has been marked as a day of violent departure for many others. He's handling it. There has been music, food and booze, and dancing on the village green. And in his Vermont outpost he and she grow their garden.

My friend declares that "Eeyore was an optimist," and the end of civilization as we know it has already begun. I know there is evil in the world, and I fear for my country's self-inflicted wounds, but I am unable to join him. Every generation has wondered if they lived at the end of the world, and all generations so far were disappointed. My friend makes plans for his city to be carbon-neutral in another fifteen years;** and his garden grows.

I've never written about that day before, or posted on its anniversary. Fifteen years ago today I was a few miles outside Grand Island, Nebraska doing humble showbiz. In an outdoor sawdust arena, in a small town that boasted named streets and infrastructure but was populated only three days a year, a farm equipment company engaged me to present their latest inventions while dodging tractors and combines. Six times a day we presented this ballet, and our public schedule would begin at 9:00 AM. I had driven to the site early for a 7:30 Central Time rehearsal. The first plane hit the north tower at 8:46 Eastern Time, a few minutes after we began rehearsing, so we knew nothing of the violence.

Then the rumors started. One plane, two planes. One tower, both. A tower had fallen. There wasn't Wi-Fi fifteen years ago. Nobody carried smartphones with apps. Someone said a booth across the street had a TV, and there I saw in pre-digital imagery a tower come down, but my brain could not interpret the data, it didn't look the way I thought it should -- not a toppling but a swarming cloud that hung in the air, impersonating the building that had evacuated itself -- then in street-level images a wall of white, grey, black ash, and people running as if they were in an Asian monster movie.

I went back to our trailer and asked myself if anyone I knew was in danger. I assumed that cell phones would be jammed, and started sending emails. In those days an international agricultural equipment company relied on dial-up internet; strangely enough after squawks and groans I got through; my family and my friends in New York, who were engaged for much of the day in reassurance, reassured me.

The first show was canceled; but then the rhythm of commerce resumed at our arena, as with other companies, business and exhibits. The farm show happens only once a year -- the companies must display their stuff, the people must come to see it, and decisions must be made.

The first night, I left the television on and fell asleep to images of flame, smoke and collapse, with wild overestimates of death. When we finished our three days in Nebraska, none of us who had flown there could return home: all flights were grounded. I had engaged a car for the tour, and as I drove the interstate to Ohio for the next week's schedule, there was an American flag draped on every overpass. On the radio I heard Leontyne Price sing "America the Beautiful." When she got to the verse about alabaster cities that gleamed, undimmed by human tears, I pulled over at the rest stop. My eyes were fuzzy.

I don't have anything wise to say about this. Everybody has a September eleventh story, full of details they alone will remember. Perhaps we can learn that it doesn't take two to make a fight, because if someone's trying to kill you, you're in a fight whether you like it or not, and the only question is how you will conduct it. Perhaps we can learn that in asymmetrical conflict a simple plan can overcome complex defenses. But it's hard to know, in the face of deliberate slaughter on a large scale and conducted with personal cruelty, how to respond in a way that begins to heal the massive injury.

For fifteen years my country has fought two wars that have cost us dearly and accomplished nothing much to the purposes of peace and stability; these places may be hell on earth, but we don't seem to have a grip on making them better, no matter whose side we take. "Democracy," said John Oliver recently, "is like a tambourine. Not everyone can be trusted with it."

But if history makes us look like fools, perhaps it is not escapism to turn away from its grand stage and concentrate on its back yard, to heal our cities and chop our wood. So to my friend who on this day becomes seventy years old, I say dance bless you, drink, sing a song and make your garden grow.

*Candide (Leonard Bernstein composer)

**Net Zero Vermont (

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