Remembering September 11, 2001

In Pacific Standard Time the radio alarm awakened me: We repeat. A second plane has hit the second tower of The World Trade Center.

Even in my groggy state I understood immediately what had happened. Not the specifics, of course, but it had never been a question of if. Only when and how. Who was predictable.

As the announcer continued I remember thinking: I knew this day was going to come, but I didn’t imagine it would be today.

Inevitably, in the coming days every network would spin endless image-loops. Months before investigations could come to reliable conclusions the media would be rife with rhetoric and rumour, political pundits, and conspiracy theorists.

Unlike most people for whom the images are indelibly burned into the mind, I did not look at television. I immediately shut off the radio knowing that I could not get through what I had to do and cope with specific knowledge of this enormity. Not now. Not yet.

It was weeks before I opened a dated copy of a magazine. Much later I learned my decision not to look had spared me the sight of people who had chosen to jump rather than burn hitting the pavement.

I had four English classes that day. The first arrived more subdued than usual. Though they lived on the opposite side of the continent and in a different country, they now shared an unsettling inchoate knowledge. Their world forever changed. For some of them a loss of innocence rather than a darkening shade of cynicism.

“Beyond what we have seen on television or heard on the radio this morning, we don’t really know anything about the tragic and horrifying events that occurred earlier today,” I began. “It will also be weeks, perhaps months before anyone can arrive at a full understanding of what happened.”

“Often,” I continued, “at times in my life when I have had to deal with situations that are out of my control or too difficult and painful, I have found it soothing to rest my mind in small, easy tasks. With your permission, rather than talk now—without the information necessary to help us to understand—I’d like to continue with the lesson I had planned for today. Later, when we know more about the situation in New York City, we can discuss it if you wish. Is that okay with you?”

There was no dissent and we carried on. All day students were eerily quiet. By the afternoon their shoulders relaxed visibly when I posed the same question. Thank God. We don’t have to talk about the Twin Towers again.

At day’s end I returned home, poured a glass of wine, and pulled out Pergolesi’s Salve Regina and his final composition, Stabat Mater. This eighteenth century work, called a masterpiece of invention, good taste and harmony, remains everything that the morning’s attacks were not.

I had no appetite. However, as the meat would spoil if I didn’t, I mixed a meatloaf. While the notes swept over me—ad te clamamus exules fillii Evae, to thee we cry, the banished children of Eve—I wept into the onions.

Later, taking the kitchen waste out to the compost, I opened the side door to sunlight glinting from a delicate web. At eye level a speckled orange orb with delicate legs quivered. In that moment I realized my complicity in the day’s events even though I had thought—until now—that I was somehow apart from them.

What I was about to do to a spider’s web struck me with great force. By mere fact of my existence, I am a destroyer. I use up and discard and take from the bounty of my world. Many times without question. Often with careless disregard. Sometimes without gratitude.

I carried on. In the classroom students seemed terror talked-out and we went on with the week. No questions came from them. Though I felt compelled to contribute something in response, nothing occurred to me that seemed appropriate or adequate. Until I remembered Auden’s “Villanelle,” that is.

At week’s end, in the final moments of each class I distributed copies of the poem. I confessed that I had struggled all week to comprehend events in New York or how to frame a discussion that I wasn’t sure would help any of us; however, I did have one poem which I wished to read aloud. It had comforted me, and it might touch them. If they wished to hold a discussion they could let me know, and we would schedule it.

Time can say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time can say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time can say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away?
Time can say nothing but I told you so.
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

In every instance, when I finished an electric, prickling silence filled the room. We sat tacitly grieving and oddly consoled. After many years in the classroom I learned not to fill that kind of silence and one else did either. The bell rang and released us all.

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