Saturday, September 11, 2010

What We Learn

It's September 11th, 2010.

A lot of people take stock of their lives on New Year's, make resolutions and plan to live better, to be more mindful of the way they move through their days. I think it's always a good idea to set aside some time to see where you've been and where you want to go, but I don't do it on Dec 31 or Jan 1. Since 2001, I have done it on September 11th.

I can't comment on what this date means to anyone else, but for me, it's a reminder that, as Joan Didion puts it: "Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant."


September 11, 2001. A Tuesday. I am standing in the principal's office, using the copy machine because the one in the teacher's room is on the fritz, again. A colleague bursts in: "Do you know what's going on?"

"Copier in the teacher's room is broken?"

"Planes just flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon."

I gave him the look. The "what is WRONG with you" look and said: "You know what? I know you always think you're funny, but seriously. Dude. You're NOT funny."

Another teacher came in. "He's not joking." I ran back to my room to find a newsfeed online, and there it was, in real time. Before the networks were editing out the people who were jumping from the buildings, before both towers were gone, before I had the chance to know that a friend who worked at the Pentagon was safe.

Life changes in an instant.

You'd think I would already have known that.


May 1, 1997

It is the last day of classes at USM and I am dancing around the house to "Life is a Highway," singing loudly and dusting a shelf with dramatic flair. Sunlight floods the kitchen.

The phone rings. My aunt is crying on the other end and telling me that my grandfather has died.

The ordinary instant.


September 11, 2010

When I was younger, I didn't understand that getting knocked on your ass by life now and again meant that you were doing it right. Even the day my grandfather died, I didn't understand it fully. At some point, though, I began to realize that suffering through loss, while not enjoyable, meant that you had dared to love enough to have the loss impact you at all. That being crushed by disappointment meant that you had the courage to have had the dream. That sorrow was the twin of hope. That getting lost can be the most exciting part of the journey.

On this date nine years ago, I realized that many of the lives that were lost were just like mine. Just people going to work and doing their thing. I also realized that a lot of the lost were living lives better than mine. They were putting themselves out there and taking chances and making a difference, in both small and large ways. It cost them. It can; maybe it should -- because otherwise, what's the point? If you wrap up your heart in cotton and tuck it safely in a drawer, who sees it as it sits there, lonely in the dark?

Today, as I write this, I am faced with a roomful of uncertainty. A path that I thought I was taking has suddenly veered into uncharted territory -- there are thorny brambles of difficulty in the way. I could stop here. I could retreat. Or I could grab some hedgeclippers and keep on going because I know -- I KNOW -- that the fight is the point; today I will resolve to keep going and to keep my heart open.

In the wake of 9/11, that is what I have learned: the way to honour those who are gone is to make the most of the time we have here, in every messy moment of an imperfect, but well lived life.