I’ve kept a diary off and on since I was about 15 or 16. Well, mostly “off” if the truth be told. I’ve always been an intermittent journal writer at best. In fact, you could probably have guessed that because the same habit has carried over to my blogging. I’m not one of those Pepysian entry-a-day-before-I-go-to-bed kinds of diarists; nor am I one of those my-fans-are-depending-on-me-must-crank-something-out bloggers. I write when I have something to write; I blog when I have something I feel is worth sharing. When it comes to the diary I tend to write in it a lot when I’m trying to assimilate new experiences; it is a constant companion when I’m traveling, for example.
The last week has been a difficult one; in the US we’ve all been exposed to a cascade of remembrances of 9/11. Some of these have been as wrenching as the day itself. It has left me, however, with mixed feelings. Not because I don’t think we should be remembering, or that the many acts of extraordinary (and more importantly, ordinary) heroism that day shouldn’t be celebrated. But I’ve found that so many of these stories have focused on people who were at the heart of events that day: those caught in the towers, in the Pentagon, first responders, journalists. But those weren’t my experiences; they weren’t the experiences of those of us who were simply going about ordinary lives and were suddenly confronted with the unthinkable.
The problem with any act of remembrance is that that it is also selective; it is as much an act of strategic forgetting. Any time a culture starts to construct its “official” history a lot gets forgotten; sometimes the forgetting is the product of the fallibility of human recollection, sometimes it is less innocent. I would venture that most US citizens, for example, remember their own Revolution as a heroic struggle of a freedom-loving people against a tyrannical monarchy. That is certainly the narrative rammed down every US child’s throat in civics classes. Yet what has conveniently been forgotten is that the “Revolution” was actually a lot more like a Civil War. Significant numbers of US citizens were fiercely loyal to Great Britain; in some parts of the country (New York, for example) they may even have constituted the majority. The entire Revolutionary War looks a lot different when you realize that a lot of people did not want the “patriots” to win.
With regard to what has been taking place over the last week, I kept feeling that there were so many things about that day that I seemed to remember but which I wasn’t seeing reflected in the many news items and specials: the incredible, churning mass of rumor in which we were all enmeshed, the hysteria and confusion, the racism and hatred, the depth of community, the knee-jerk superficial patriotism. More to the point, I’ve been confused as to why all these remembrances have been leading up to 9/11. When I think back a decade what really strikes me still is how difficult the days immediately after the event were. 9/11 wasn’t just about the event it was about the reaction, the response, the attempt to figure out what the hell we all do now.
I wrote a lot in my diary immediately after 9/11. But I wasn’t the only one writing. It was in the aftermath of 9/11 that I realized just what a very fine writer I was married to. She took the lead in keeping our friends and families, particularly those overseas, informed about what we were doing, thinking, and feeling. I saved every one of her e-mails, and several of those that were sent in response. A few months after the events of that day I collected the bulk of this material into a piece I called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The piece did grow some in the subsequent years; the first anniversary of the attacks prompted a poem; a couple of years later I found myself thinking about the debates over what kind of memorial should be created. But I’ve basically been sitting on the piece since that time.
Ten years, however, seems like enough sitting. So over the next few days I’m going to post the diary entries and the e-mails from each relevant day. I haven’t changed anything that was originally written except to correct a couple of typos and spelling errors, and to mask the names and addresses of some of the people sending and receiving e-mails. My hope is that these words, from a couple of confused people suddenly very worried about where their country was going, will resonate with at least some of you. The first step in figuring out how 9/11 shaped the decade is in remembering where we all were, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.