When I was a little kid, in the North of Portugal, in 5th and 6th grade, I had the option of taking a crowded bus home or walking a couple of miles through a path, next to a ravine, by the side of the train line.
Being me, of course, if it was at all warm, I took that — not particularly safe — path and I had the habit of singing Take Me Home Mountain Roads at the top of my voice.
Which, you know, was the expression of a feeling that I wasn’t actually at home, that my home was elsewhere, even if the image of a little girl in Portugal singing a song about West Virginia while walking alone by the side of a train line is pretty funny.
September 11 this year, I found myself describing that morning: how beautiful it was (as this fall is getting) crisp, sunny, clear. I lived in the tiny mountain town of Manitou Springs, in a pink house, at the top of a hill. The boys’ school was four blocks away, up and down a mountain road. In Winter walking that road was painful no matter how much you covered up (and driving when it was icy was also dangerous) but in Fall it was a gorgeous walk. We petted friendly dogs on the way out and talked about everything. Marshall was in Kindergarten and Robert in third grade.
Because kindergarten started twenty minutes after the rest of the school, I took a paperback in my jeans pocket (I was reading my way back through my pulp collection, at the time) to read after Robert went in, while I waited for the kindergarten kids to go in.
I then walked back, thinking of the book I was working on — Any Man So Daring, back then — and the weekly short story — my writers’ group wrote a short story a week, as part of our discipline.
And on that golden, beautiful morning, it occurred to me we were living through the best years of our lives. We were finally making enough. We loved our house on a hill, with a little terrace on top of the garage (very Mediterranean) where we wrote when the weather was warm.
Dan worked a traveling job, which meant he was at home “on the bench” about half the year and had time to write. We’d both started being reliably published.
We had a writers’ group which had become friends. Which meant that we had a meeting at our house on Saturdays. It started at 3 pm, and sometimes we kicked everyone out by 10 pm.
Amid those writers’ group friends there was a family with kids the age of ours. After dropping kids at school, I’d start coffee and the mother of the family — then my best friend — would call me, or I would call her. We’d talk to each other while making beds and starting laundry. It was in a way our “morning meeting.” We told each other what we’d be writing (she was writing her third book, also) which served for accountability.
So I got home, hung up my keys, and started making coffee. And before the first drop went into the carafe the phone rang and I thought “Becky is early.”
I grabbed the phone, ready to make a joke. And she screamed/cried in my ear “Turn on the TV, turn on the TV.”
We didn’t have a TV. Or rather we did, but we didn’t have cable. And reception sucked. Lots of snow. So this was a bizarre request. But I went and turned it on.
And I never went home again.
No, listen to me: NONE OF US EVER WENT HOME AGAIN.
In the next week, amid anger and fear (for Dan who was in DC and had to figure out how to make it home) something changed in me. I couldn’t go back there. Reading the stuff I wrote before that, is like reading an alien. There are perfectly functional short stories I’ll never publish because they give entirely the wrong thought/feeling about the world.
I was so traumatized that for the first time in my life, all my thoughts/daydreams before going in bed the stories I tell myself to go to sleep to, were of being someone else, someone completely different, another person altogether, not me.
I was someone completely different by the end of that year. And from there, I went somewhere else again.
I was 37. My life inflects at that point. It bends almost to breaking. To use a Pratchetterian idiom, it’s a different leg of the trousers of time.
Where I am, what I do, who I am: none of that would be true without that day in September.
Tom Kendall to an extent, and a lot of you in the comments, said “Nothing changed. 9/11 just exposed the rifts.”
And you’re not wrong, those who say that. The left was what it always has been. Or at least what it had been since long before I was born.
Robert A. Heinlein said they were infiltrated by communists back before WWII. They have/had perhaps unnoticed to themselves, or at least to large numbers of their supporter, become oikophobes who hate America and disdain the Constitution and our form of government.
But we could ignore it. We could pretend they were mostly misguided, and they would come to sanity. And they — because they always suppressed dissent — could tell themselves, as they still try to do, that everyone agreed with them. The weeks after of flying flags and “bless America” were terrifying to them. These “educated” people who surrounded them couldn’t possibly believe America was that great, right?
You see, the left, steeped in “international socialism” (Which was always Russian nationalism, but American leftists in particular tried to ignore that. Even if after the cold war they went around muttering that the good guys had lost.) equated and equates nationalism with fascism. Perhaps because they don’t allow their mental universe to conceive of a world that is not socialist/collectivist. (And national socialism is indeed fascism. But thank heavens, the rest of us are aware of forms of government that aren’t socialist.)
I was a Libertarian (actually had volunteered with the party a few times. One of my son’s earliest memories is passing out Libertarian flyers at the state fair.) But I was an international libertarian, and I believed — I’d persuaded myself to believe — that every culture in the world would convert — PEACEFULLY — to liberty.
What on Earth was wrong with me?
I don’t know. I wanted to believe.
Like that golden September morning, I was seeing everything bathed in a beautiful light. Which then crashed, in fire and horror.
But it was more of a crash for the left. It was the first — perhaps — of a series of shocks, the latest being November 2016, in which they realized the world was not what they thought it was. By having educated people and their friends suddenly come out as people who valued the US they suffered a bad shock (both times). They thought we were all agreed!
As always, with the left, the response to these shocks is to become more adamant, more dictatorial, less tolerant of contrary opinions expressed.
And the rest of us…
How different would life be now, if that golden bubble hadn’t popped? Well, I’d probably never have come out politically. I’d probably be a literary fantasy writer to this day, writing “difficult” historical fantasies for a small, devoted fandom (before 9/11 90% of my fan letters were from college professors.) There are reasons for that. I’m not going to go into them. Our financial situation would be far less precarious — I also can’t explain that, because it goes into Dan’s job and our investments at the time — and therefore the kids would have had opportunities they don’t.
It is possible I would by now be teaching in college (again.)
Those are minor things.
As a minor side step on this — perhaps because I’ve been reading a lot of Pride and Prejudice variations (i.e. plot variations) — this morning I was reading about the WTC jumpers. And I had a horrible and horribly plausible side-flash. For reasons that, again, I’m not going to go into, it was all too plausible we’d be at the hotel in WTC that day, with the two kids, on a sightseeing trip. Was it possible we’d have gone to the Windows on the World for breakfast? Sure it was.
And what do you do in that situation? I had a flash of us grabbing the kids, and holding together and jumping. And telling the kids we’d fall into eternity.
So, the side-spur world we’re on, this leg of the pants of time, is not the worst it could be. Not even close. On a personal level, and perhaps on a collective one, it could be much, much worse.
Where would that world without 9/11 have gone?
Who knows? Maybe like the cold war our cultural cold war would have resolved without a fight, without blood, without the map going all arrowy and red. Maybe. That hope is certainly in line with the old me.
Or maybe, as Tom says, we would have walked, blindfolded, into the place like where Germany is, where we’d be making concessions to the invaders and the enemies within, and not even aware of it.
I was also talking to a friend yesterday who said that he didn’t feel much about 9/11 anymore, because we’d ended that war, and the war we were on now was not that.
Um… Except the cold civil war we are in now was made much harsher, much more obvious, and opened up hot spots then. And that is still escalating.
Is it better than sleep walking into tyranny. Sure. Of course it is.
But the time we’re in — seemingly suspended — is the time before the map goes all arrowy and red. We’re in the “causes leading up to.” And it’s my strong gut feeling that in the next five years those arrows and splotches will come. And that what emerges at the end is something completely different. So different from now we wouldn’t even recognize it.
Nothing we can do about it. Except feel a certain nostalgia for the blind — but happy — fools in that September morning long ago.
And hold in our hearts the Constitution, the words of the founders, and our love of the US. Because only those will take us through the mess ahead, and hopefully to greater freedom beyond. Maybe even a revival of our constitutional republic.
And if not, we’ll carry our flag, our Constitution, our beliefs in human liberty in our hearts. Until they can be true in the world again.
Until we can be home again.
Oh maid most dear, I am not here
I have no place apart —
No dwelling more, in sea or shore
But only in thy heart. [Jean Ingelow]