There are those who are trying
to set fire to the world
We are in danger.
There is time only to work slowly,
There is no time not to love.
–Deena Metzger, “Song”
Several weeks now separate us from the worst terrorist attack on American soil. I find myself going through the motions of life as usual, listening to people talk in euphemisms about September 11th, calling it “the attack,” “the bombing,” “the tragedy,” “the disaster,” and in one particularly infuriating radio interview, “the incident.” Half the people I know are avoiding the news and trying to put “it” behind them; the other half are obsessed with what happened, why it happened, and what will happen next.
Personally, I feel like my DNA has been altered. I am not the same person I was before September 11th. Something in me has woken up, something that was sleeping for a long time—a sense of responsibility, a call to action, a drive to do whatever I can to make a difference, to ensure that my kids have a future. The last time I felt this way was during Vietnam and I was a teenager then. It’s different being an activist now.
At 45, I feel committed, but my days revolve around making lunches, grocery shopping, writing, making dinner, and getting the kids up for school. I work, I take care of kids, and end my days exhausted. Underneath the routines, I feel edgy, emotionally raw, alert to danger. My psychic landscape has shifted unalterably. Last week, I dreamed that Joan died in a terrible accident. A few days later, drifting off to sleep, I imagined our little family pod trying to survive in the wilderness after a nuclear attack. Yesterday, on the way home from Justin’s school, I fantasized nursing my family, member by member, after a biological agent is released in our water supply. Today, eating lunch, I felt a golden thread connecting me to a mother in Afghanistan, who is not eating lunch, but wondering when her children will eat again. I imagine her shielding her eyes to look fearfully at the sky, wondering where the bombs will fall today.
The events of September 11th broke my heart. For weeks now, I have been swimming in a pool of grief, not just for our dead, but for all of those who have suffered: the disappeared in El Salvador, the refugees fleeing Bosnia, the hundreds of thousands annihilated at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Images of human suffering assail me as I pack sandwiches and carrot sticks in lunch bags. Mornings, I wake up, and start a pot of oatmeal. I flip on the radio, dreading the news of the day.
Justin and Emily do not share my concerns. At eight and four, they have been, to a large degree, sheltered from the devastation. I’ve talked to Justin selectively, and Emily has heard some talk of war. But neither of them saw pictures of the attacks. Clearly, they sense changes in us, but they don’t seem afraid. Their own concerns still loom large: “Will you get me a pet mouse? Please, Mama. I’ll take care of it!” “Mom, you need to do the laundry now. I don’t have any shorts to wear!”
When I’m able to slip into their world, the world of NOW, it’s a tremendous relief. But I can’t always bridge the gap. As I help Justin with his spelling words, I wonder how long he’ll be able to live in his comfortable bubble. Washing Emily’s hair, I linger over each strand, wondering how long her innocence will hold. I fret over twenty-four-year-old Daniel, who is about to become a father. He still has a year to go in the Marine Reserves. Will he get called up today?
Throughout history, and all over the world today, people parent in the midst of war, natural disasters, famines, and epidemics of all kinds. In this country, all around me, parents raise families amidst poverty and violence. I have had the privilege of raising my kids with every advantage in a country not at war. Now the world has changed, and I need to give my children the tools they will need to live in a time when people fly airplanes into buildings and plant anthrax in newspaper offices.
This morning I talked to Emily’s teacher, Lisa, about the split I am feeling inside. She replied, “As parents right now, we have to filter and feel, and it’s not easy doing both.”
No, it sure isn’t.
My kids still need me to be the strong and steady one. They expect me to keep them safe, to protect them from harm. They are laboring under the illusion that if something’s wrong, Mom can fix it. But how am I supposed to fix this? How can I give my kids what they need when the rug has been pulled out from under us? The world as we know it is turned on its head. What am I supposed to do now?