Wednesday, September 11, 2013


What have we learned?

If you're like me, you've probably seen - on Facebook, on news sites - countless references to today's date and the anniversary of a terrible moment in time. I know the blogosphere has blown up with posts about today, and videos and memes and repeated tragic ephemera have set the tone for us all to examine not only our memories but our present life. I thought a lot about writing today - I thought about my experiences, my freshman year of high school, the smell of school-lunch spaghetti, the prayer (illegally) bidden by my voice teacher. 

But coming again and again in my head - between waking up this morning and sitting here on my porch as the sun goes down - is a simple and miserable question: what have we learned?

I'm afraid to answer that question. If I really examine it, I am afraid I must say - not enough. 

Not nearly enough. 

I just watched two videos - one, a slam poetry performance about 9/11, and the other, about a homeless man begging for enough money to get a room for a night. The first was shocking in its raw emotion; the poet described what he felt as a twelve-year-old boy, living in Manhattan, not knowing if his father was dead, dragging his fingers along the ash-covered window sill and knowing that his skin was covered in bodies. The second was almost as shocking - perhaps less so for its familiarity; it was of a nameless man describing the life he endured. 

He said that people walked by him and shouted, "get a job, bum." And I've heard that line before - never said it, no, but I've stood in the same party with a young woman saying the exact same thing. It shamed me. It shamed this man, too, because - as he described - how can you get a job when you look homeless? What phone number can you give, when you sleep under bridges or on benches or in boxes, for people to call?

The commonality between these two videos begged that question again. However dissimilar, both narratives were about something so simple that it is often overlooked - 




What have we learned?

In the twelve years past, I think we have learned a lot of things. We've learned more about war, about not-wars, about tyranny in our own country, about racism, about new ways to hate, about guns in the home, about pointless wars on drugs and how the US fuels them with poverty and poppies. We've learned new words for brown skin, new words for religion, new words for homelessness, new terminology for the other, the not-American, the socialist, the Muslim, the homosexual, the female, the liberal. Maybe it isn't that we haven't learned enough - maybe it's that we've been so busy learning the wrong things. 

We've been learning the wrong things about bodies. We've trained ourselves to think of certain bodies as lesser - though the ash on the windowsill was grey and anonymous, somehow that ash has given rise to some deep and desperate part of ourselves which longs to exclude and shame and deride. Bodies in the street begging for money, bodies in the airport with dark skin, bodies which must be male or female and unchangeable, zygote bodies, fetus bodies, female bodies. Bodies to scorn, to fear, to blame. 

We've been learning the wrong things about agency. We've been relying on an American Dream which, at this moment, is nearly impossible. We've been talking about Welfare Queens and tax dollars and health insurance and never, never getting an answer, and never understanding the terrifying complexity which is being poor or a minority or sick or worn all the way out by the humbling and humiliating process which is proving your worth in a society which thinks you are worthless. And we've taken agency, also, away from people of any faith - we group everyone together and make assumptions: Muslim, Evangelical, Jewish, Catholic, Atheist - all boxes to check, all generalities, all terrorists or nutjobs or killers of Christ or blood-drinkers or apostates. 

And sadness?

We've learned a million ways to be sad and a million ways to stave that off. We've learned to brush past the homeless person on the street and not notice the truth in their eyes. We've learned to watch videos about 9/11 and post statuses and never get to the root of it and how terribly we have failed at turning it into a greater thing, a better thing, a new motivation to love each other. We have emojis of the American flag. We have pictures of soldiers. If we're lucky, we haven't lost anyone to the horrible drone of death which is unprevoked war on countries we needed for oil. Sadness - we can be sad, today. 

We can be sad for everything we haven't learned. 

Maybe, on today of all days, I should be waving the American flag. And none of this - not one single word - is intended to take away the tragedy and power of men and women who died, and who tried to save others in the midst of an unthinkable act. Yeah, for them, I'll wave a flag. Of course. 

But what have we learned? What was their sacrifice worth? 

When I was in the black box theatre in my freshman year of high school, the director of the department came in and told us the news. I don't think he knew how, but he did it. It was unimaginable, but still, we cried.  My voice teacher bade us to hold hands and she told me to offer up a prayer. I'm pretty sure I prayed for peace, pretty sure I prayed for love. 

God, I'm still praying. I pray that we learn more, and that we learn better. 

I pray that all bodies be equal, all persons have agency, and that all of us turn our sadness into compassion. 

I pray that on this, and all future anniversaries, we pledge our allegiance to more than a flag. 

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