Forgive me a moment of reflection, if you will.
This will not be a literary post, but it is one that seems to be the one itching the most to get out.
Yesterday on Facebook, in the spirit of “Throwback Thursday” (where you post something commemorating your personal past, such as a childhood photo), and in honor of the 13th anniversary of 9/11, I posted a picture of a personal memorial I undertook on the 10th anniversary of the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil.
I wanted to do more than fly the flag or put a sentimental picture up on social media. A moment of silence in remembrance is a nice gesture, but it felt dark and empty to me (not necessarily a bad thing, considering what was being remembered). I wanted my memorial to be more personal, an inner acknowledgement, not a display. And I wanted it to honor the people who died, not the politics or the ideologies or the conflict surrounding how they died – simply to honor those who got up one morning, went to work like any other ordinary day, but never came home.
It came to me that the most respectful thing I could do was to read each and every name of the people who died in the attacks on the Two Towers and the Pentagon. But then it occurred to me that a reading of the names was perhaps too easy; eyes could glaze, the mind could start wandering. Even reading the names out loud could become rote. Those actions just didn’t seem like enough.
So I decided to write each name down, and to take the time to write the names neatly. Simply, though, nothing fancy. Just one name per line on a sheet of regular college-ruled notebook paper, front and back. But in the act of writing the name – not typing it, writing it out by hand – I was forced to spend a few moments with each and every person who lost their life on that fateful day. To acknowledge them as individuals. I learned a tiny bit about each one as I carefully copied their names on the growing list; which ones were policemen and firemen, which were business travelers, which were restaurant workers or client service personnel or administrative personnel or lifetime military personnel, which were tourists, which were casual commuters, which were children. Which were misguided, lost souls. In the few moments that it took me to write their names, they reached out and touched me, each and every one. For the few moments that it took me to write their names, I cherished each and every one.
It didn’t take me very long to realize what a daunting task I had undertaken. Two thousand, nine hundred and ninety six is a pretty abstract number until you break it down to individual brushstrokes – or individual names. It was a good thing that I had started before 9/11; I never would have been able to accomplish my goal if I had started on that day. As it is, I worked way into the wee hours the night before, in order to have them ready for September 11, by 8:46 am.
I wasn’t sure what to do with the names once I had them, what to do with the close to 50 pages of careful lists covering the front and back of each page. It didn’t seem right to make them a spectacle, and yet it felt like they needed to do more than just sit on a stack on my writing table.
Then the morning broke, and it was beautiful. Sunny and warm, with a bright blue sky and a light breeze. For some unknown yet vitally important reason, I wanted the names to be held up to that sunlight, to that beauty. So I strung red yarn between the columns on my front porch and poked a hole into the corner of each page with a paper clip, and hung them up to catch the light. Each name, experienced as an individual, was now part of a solemn yet beautifully fluttering testament to the frailty of human existence.
I didn’t say anything about it on that 10th anniversary, not even to my family until they asked. They understood. I didn’t want a spectacle, I wanted to come to grips with how so many people could wake up in the morning, an ordinary, everyday morning, and go to work, then never come back. How so many people could be just going about their lives – everyday, ordinary people – and then be thrust into a horror that even now is hard to think upon, harder still to comprehend. Everyday, ordinary people, people just like me, but who were caught up in someone else’s conflict, who just wanted to do their jobs and go home, make dinner, watch TV, go to bed, but never ever would again.
For me, it’s not about politics. It’s not about retribution, or ideology, or fundamentalist-this or patriotic-that. We here in America mourn these 2,996 names, but there are names to be mourned across the world, other everyday, ordinary people caught up in strife and conflict each and every day. Other human beings simply doing what they need to do to live, who leave out their front doors and don’t come home again. How many everyday, ordinary people in Afghanistan are killed by local and foreign bombs and gunfire that erupt in the towns and cities they have lived in for generations? How many everyday, ordinary Palestinians lose their lives when they simply have shown up to work, have made a trip to the grocery, have walked their children to school? We have learned how foolish it is to assume that the bullets and the bombs only find those who deserve them. How many African children have been snatched to become child soldiers on an ordinary, nothing special kind of day? How many Indian women are raped and killed by their own society in what is considered a normal course of events, simply because they have caught the wrong bus or been in the company of what is considered the wrong people? How many indigenous Canadian women have disappeared after simply leaving their houses for work, for school, for a drink or a run to the grocery store? Who writes their names down?
Life is fragile. It can be snatched away at any time, for reasons and in circumstances far beyond our control. But still, we must live it. These everyday, ordinary, beautiful lives. If we are to honor those who had their lives snatched away, it is to live ours with love, with respect. Each ordinary day is one to cherish, and one in which we can cherish others, all others.
Three years after my personal memorial, it felt like time to share it. So I did. And it seemed to resonate with a few people. So when I was casting about for something to write on for this week’s “Gimbling in the Wabe”, I thought perhaps I could share this with you, too, those of you who have committed to reading these words. And to again honor those who 13 years ago lost their lives on American soil, and to touch that time when each of them lived one more moment as I scratched out their names on a line of college-ruled paper, and hung them out to catch the sunlight.
Yesterday, I took my dog to the dog park, chatting with the others there and watching our dogs romp and play in the cool September morning. I made breakfast, and checked my emails, posted some on Facebook, folded some laundry. I read a few pages in a good book I had picked up at the library. I took my daughter in to attend her class at the local community college. Earlier, I had put out the flag that I fly on days near and dear to me and my country, and I thought of the names of all those people who had once headed out to work, or travel, or an everyday sort of adventure, and never made it home again.
For the most part, yesterday had been an everyday, ordinary sort of day. Today is, too. And I cherish them. Each one of these ordinary days – each one that we can live and love and be – are nothing short of glorious.