If your child is musical
don't study piano
and if he's dying
stay off his turf
So begins a poem Charlotte Mayerson wrote after her son died of AIDS. Her book about losing him, The Death Cycle Machine, clarified the way I felt about a lot of things, but this most of all: Ownership of another's experience, and how violently opposed to it I am. Someone else's suffering is not yours, it's not for you, and while you can be profoundly changed by things that have happened to others, you can't forget who those things happened to.
I had to be slammed to the ground
A thousand times
Before I figured out
Whose tragedy it was
People said this stuff all the time, in the days following 9/11, and they're saying it again now, in the relentless waves of anniversary coverage. "This has reminded me of how short life is." Umm, okay? Great? For you? I'm sure every single dead person is grateful for the chance to give you a little psychic kick in the ass? "This has made me love my family more." "This has made me go back to church." "I'm going to learn more about the world now." Awesome! But wasn't it kind of a lot of pressure to put on New York, on its still-smoking skyline, to teach you a lesson?
Who is today for? I did not lose anyone on 9/11. There was a friend in Washington we didn't hear from, for a few hours, but he was fine. This 10-year anniversary is not prompting me to react with post-traumatic stress (unless the overwhelming snappish anger toward treacly remembrances counts). This isn't mine. It's not for me. There is no hole in my horizon. I've been to New York twice, liked it both times, love many people there. I've visited DC, seen the Pentagon before and since the attacks. But these places aren't my home, and I can't claim it as such. I wasn't breathing dust and ashes. I didn't hear the planes, or feel the ground shake.
Back to Mayerson again:
That, broken heart or no
I'd one day sip
Condolence tea with honey
While he would choke
Maybe if I had lost someone, I would be grateful for an entire country of strangers honoring him with their thoughts, today. But part of me says that's not what we're doing, right now. My doctor's office runs The Today Show no matter how much I complain, so Friday while I waited to be seen I was stuck listening to Matt Lauer and his cast of pretty twerps telling us all how to feel, as if feeling is primarily what we're supposed to be doing here.
There was this rage-inducing Bush interview [video], where he was asked about what it was like "to be commander in chief on that day." Because primarily what we're concerned about here is how the costume felt. Not, why did you respond the way you did, not, why did you drag America into two unwinnable wars and fail to kill or capture the man responsible, not in what possible way did any of your justice department's failed prosecutions of suspected terrorists help keep us safe at all, but what was it like to be playing a real-life war games scenario? What was it like, in Presidential Candyland? The barely suppressed excitement, in that question, as if that moment was not the breaking apart of thousands of lives but the beginning of a grand adventure.
And why not, really? It's not as if we drew any profound connectedness from these events, after day three or so. Bush told us to go shopping and carry on like nothing had happened, and in large part we did that, those of us for whom this was something we watched from afar. Even now, it's like, "What wars?" We thought it was awesome that Obama managed to have bin Laden killed but then we went right back to trying to make the mortgage.
If any part of this belongs to the country, if any part of this belongs to "us" as a whole, it's in what came after. In our complicity in the wars, in how we failed to stop so much of the hysteria and fearmongering from taking us over. In our willingness to take anything and everything off at the airport and our steadfast refusal to consider a change in how we deal with the rest of the world. In how we made enemies of allies, fought wars basically to make our pundits feel good about themselves, keep electing people who can't solve problems ... that's what we all own. That's what we all did, and didn't do.
But that's not a spectacle. That's not a show. And that pales, doesn't it, next to the voice mail message someone can't erase, because then he'll never hear her voice again.
Today doesn't belong to "America." It belongs to the dead and to their families. To those who tried to stop it, and those who succeeded, and those who failed. That the rest of us watched it like a movie, that can't be avoided, but we can avoid being absolutely gross about it, pretending that gives us admission to the show. Someone's father is dead ten years today. Someone's mother would have had a birthday, seen a grandchild born. Someone's husband, someone's wife, someone's brother, someone's friend, someone's son, someone's daughter. Ten years of holidays, trips to the beach, missed. Ten years of aching loss.
Not mine. Theirs. Yours, maybe. You have my condolences.
Never forget, people will say today. Not thinking about how lucky they are, to be able to even consider the option. Thousands of families don't have to be told.