September 11 Heralds the Value of Collaborative Storytelling

Sunrise on September 11, 2013
Sunrise on September 11, 2013

I love TED talks, and I get a new one every day in my inbox. I don’t always have time to watch, but yesterday’s by Jake Barton put the best possible spin on today, September 11. He’s immersed in designing the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York slated to open next year and his talk is a journey through that project so far, and how in the process they have designed new ways to enliven modern museums of all stripes. Their interactive museum tools are the new spring growth, the unexpected flower after the scorched earth fire. The interactive features, some of which now in use at the Cleveland Museum of Art, don’t replace the existing exhibits, but they do cool things like allow viewers to put paintings, sculptures and bits of architecture in their original contexts via an integrated digital image. You can see the tapestry on the castle wall, the gargoyle on the building, the bust in the artist’s studio. Our CGI-marinated kids will love this.

image credit: wikipedia

The 9/11 Museum also draws on the Storycorps idea of hearing personal stories fro ordinary people about that extraordinary day (if you’ve never heard Storycorps Friday mornings on NPR, they are always worth hearing – click on the link to the main site and listen to one or two – each story is only a few minutes long). They’ll have a booth and people can go in and tell their story, and some of the audio from previously recorded will be playing through the PA system as people walk through the exhibits. Real voices, real people, real stories – unfiltered by historians, TV commentators or politicians.

I’m glad that part of the legacy of this day is bring people together with technology that connects us not just as individuals but with our art, our poetry and our history.

New England Garden Notebook: April – May

We are in the midst of a year of milestones, most of which I would like to ignore. One welcome distraction is chronicling the progress of the garden. I am not an expert gardener (but am lucky to have friends that are) but found a few years back that once I planted a perennial that actually bloomed for a second season, I was hooked. What I love even more than the plants, sun and earth is the few minutes spent each morning with my husband as we look to see what has changed over the past day – new blooms, spots that need something more, what will bloom next.

As I sift through the photos of the last six weeks, I cannot help but think about the days on which I took them and the times during which I planted some things.

Nature bursts through the winter gloom, seeing red.
Nature bursts through the winter gloom, seeing red.

We were greeted by brash red tulips when we return from a trip over April vacation. It was a trip that alternated between doing fun things, seeing old friends, eating great food and being glued to screens as we watched in morbid fascination the events after the Boston Marathon Bombings. Looking at the red tulips at home, I remembered that it was after September 11, 2001, that I began gardening in earnest. It was a hot, dry, fall that year, as if the clouds had been chased away by the smoke from New York. IMG_4163I realized that I had spent those first years in our home inside with babies and toddlers and that now they were old enough that I could spent a few of our outdoor minutes – very few – away from the swing set and sandbox. As I planted bulbs that October – hoping against hope that the right end of them was pointing up – a neighbor strolled up and asked what I was doing. My answer surprised even me. I told him that everything I had done to make that house a home was on the inside.  After renting for so many years, I felt I had been holding back on the idea of putting down roots in this place. But September 11 had told me to embrace the life we have and the place we have chosen, however temporary. Planting bulbs was a way of taking ownership of this life and my role in it. The bulbs I planted that day? Red tulips.


Tulips are daring. They poke through when nothing else is willing to go first, and sometimes they betray us and don’t come back. All of the tulips planted by the previous owner are gone now, and the numbers of my own tulips (except the red ones) are already dwindling.

They remind me of Mr. Krabbs on Spongebob at this stage.
They remind me of Mr. Krabbs on Spongebob at this stage.

These pink ones go through phases when they bloom – they start out kind of hairy and menacing, the colors pale and cool like the light, and then suddenly they warm up and open joyously. Early spring is such an interesting combination of cold and barely warm, as if nature hasn’t quite adjusted the controls on the colors yet.

Then suddenly a sneak peek at summer color.
Then a sneak peek at summer color.

Crazy forsythia yellow and tulip red are set against barely discernible pink and blue hyacinths. These tulips, which take a long time to open, seem to follow the progress of color with the seasonal light, drawing the warm pigments up from the soil. I think of this image every year when we wake up one gray November morning to find that the bright autumn colors have been completely drained from the landscape. It’s like all of the pigments get sucked down into the earth until spring, when the color faucets slowly creak open and the colors bubble back up to the surface. It’s a story that might make a good picture book someday.

IMG_4309The creeping phlox (first lavender, then pink) and candy tuft are next, and I am glad to see they are making their way around the garden lamps and the tulips because I much prefer them to mulch as a backdrop. My goal is for the perennials and ground covers to fill in so completely that someday we will only need to mulch around the maple. Now that I think about that, it might spell an earlier demise for the tulips. I will have to look it up.

The peonies, astilbe, day lilies and irises start to fill in while the lazy hostas decide whether they are going to disappoint me again. Everyone in the world can grow so many hostas they have to dig the extras up and give them away, but not me. The hostas that do bother to return unfurl a leaf or two and then run out of steam. They are in league with the Pachysandra, I think, which continues to make pathetic showing. But this year the hostas look better than usual, and if they come through then I will post a photo. I won’t jinx it yet.SONY DSC

A good thing about daffodils, my friend T. pointed out, is that the leaves stay beautifully green long after the blooms are gone. No so for tulips, and one reason they don’t last is that we probably trim the droopy yellow leaves earlier than we should.

Then the Japanese maple shows its leaves and we know spring is truly here to stay. The garden sits where once there were two more trees lining the stone walk – a flowering pear and a paper birch. But even as they provided welcome shade in the summer, there wasn’t enough water or earth in this former gravel pit to sustain all three trees so we cut the other two down in favor of the maple, and it has thrived ever since, becoming a beloved tree that would make Joyce Kilmer proud. During winter storms we go out to shake any heavy snow or ice off its branches, sometimes in the middle of the night, we are so worried about losing it.


As the phlox peak and the tulips and daffodils fade, the azalea lights up such a bright orangey red that I think of it as a burning bush. SONY DSCSpringtime seems to often bring big moments (births, deaths, graduations) and I have many memories of sitting by the window, looking at the bush and trying to cull some kind of wisdom from the flowers. Now and then, a hummingbird pays a lighting quick visit, and that is always a good day.

The Age of Anxiety: Is This the Legacy of September 11?

Over the summer I asked an education professional if she had any insight into the increased diagnosis of severe anxiety disorders in teens. We aren’t talking about teenage angst – these are kids who can’t bring themselves to leave the house or enter a classroom. Her answer surprised me: “It’s the 9/11 generation.” I hadn’t thought of it that way before, and I don’t think I agree completely, but it’s an interesting theory.

One thing is for certain: the 24 hour news cycle and the widespread use of video and cell phone data made the sights and sounds of September 11, 2001, some of the most recorded and repeated events in history. I have to wonder if constant exposure to those images, along with all of the other disturbing and readily available content on the internet and cable TV, has created worrisome static in the minds of vulnerable children. Whether it creates the worry or amplifies it is up for discussion.

For my part, I have had bouts of worry since day one. If you took my life apart piece by piece you may or may not find events that fuel my worry, but I am convinced that the original spark was organic, part of my DNA. I was very young when I told my baffled mother I was afraid of both the dark and eternity as I played tea party on the floor near her desk. But I can remember the day my worry went from ember to bonfire with a single act when, aged 11, I picked up a copy of Helter Skelter from the coffee table in our living room, and read only the captions below the photographs embedded in the center of the book. They described in vivid detail the grisly crimes of Charles Manson and his cohorts against people in their own homes (none of the links here lead to those photos). What sent me into a tailspin was the randomness with which the houses and victims were chosen – the ultimate case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I stopped sleeping and started locking all of the doors in our big house in a small city. I stayed up until all hours watching the late show, hoping to fall asleep, only to be awakened by the test pattern or the national anthem. Lucky for me the late show in those days consisted of movies like The Old Man and the Sea and Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers comedies. It took years for me to go back to reading books in bed, and when I did I took to reading the same books over and over – Gone With the Wind, The Long Winter, The Little Silver House, A Little Princess, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. New books were only for daylight hours, and more often than not they were Hollywood biographies – glamorous and gossipy, the ending already known.

I’m willing to bet that the images broadcast eleven years ago today have stayed with some children more than others – why should they be any different than those of us who cannot forget that day and look warily at a too blue September sky? It isn’t as easy for us to protect them as it was for my mother to get rid of that book and replace it with more appropriate reading – she settled on Agatha Christie for some reason, probably because the mysteries were all solved neatly at the end. She was none too thrilled with my own choice of Judy Garland, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe books but those tales were less lurid than they are now, and in comparison to the Mansons they were almost wholesome.

My organic worry is still with me and I see it glowing beneath the surface in my children, but we have plenty of tools to help address it. Diet, exercise, prayer and sometimes medication and therapy all play a part, as well as a constant effort to beat back the media beast. I am grateful to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter for providing such sublime distraction via books and movies at this key period in history; it is an especially remarkable gift to the generation of children coming of age now. The TV and the internet allow us to revisit and access disturbing content but they also allow us to curate (and password protect) what we and our children see – I love that my middle schooler can fill up on recorded episodes of Good Eats, Dr. Who and Top Gear when he’s done with his homework (I don’t care to discuss Family Guy, thank you).

Real life, of course, presents fearsome challenges of its own that have nothing to do with media. For thousands of people it is the stark reality of the lives of loved ones lost senselessly and horribly (or in brave service as first responders) on September 11, 2001, and not just the images of it, that have altered their lives. We would all like to turn back the clock and not have known it, not have seen it, and protected our children from it. But just as the generations before us endured the tragedies of their times, we can hope that our sorrow and the worry it can engender allows us to learn in ways that bind us together – if we can just tear our eyes away from the screen.

Roots & Bulbs

Spring is a month early and I am not complaining even though we have had precious little rain.  Having come late to the gardening party I have noticed only in recent years that each spring things sprout and bloom in a slightly different order.  This year the change is more dramatic:  the peonies are well on their way, even as the forsythia is in full bloom.  The tulips seem visibly annoyed to being pushed aside by the busy peonies; they are used to having the front garden all to themselves. The azalea, battered by autumn storms and with no snow cover to protect it from the winter wind, seems to have given up in exhaustion and pushed out only a handful of blooms from nearly bare branches.

I am always particularly glad to see the tulips. The red ones are the first to appear and the first I ever planted.  I put the bulbs in shortly after September 11, 2001.  Before then, my attempts at gardening were halfhearted and largely unsuccessful; our yard is so shady and the soil so sandy and acidic that no perennial I planted ever came back the following spring. But the previous owner clearly knew what to plant and so the garden she built always filled in nicely.  But there were a few spots near the driveway that got a little sun and seemed a little bare, and the events of that fall got me to thinking that I’d been living in our house like a renter – doing precious little to show any kind of long term commitment to a family home now buzzing with three young children. The crazy world (remember Graydon Carter announcing the end of irony?) and the empty skies of that September made me look up from storybooks and changing tables and brought me outside, and made me want to plant something beautiful, something hopeful, for the spring.

So I did.  And they bloomed, and have bloomed every year ever since (provided I remember to put out soap to keep the deer from nibbling the bulbs).  When the trees at the front of the house grew too big we had to take two of them down and that gave me more sun and soil to work with, and my perennial track record improved:  sedum, cone flowers, delphiniums, daffodils, iris, bachelor buttons, phlox, creeping thyme. A few years ago hyacinths appeared out of nowhere and they seem to be proliferating.  The original daylilies are stalwart and dependable as ever.  The hydrangea and the poppies are dubious and bloom sporadically.  The hollyhocks are a total failure. The shady areas still baffle me; the ivies are anemic and I am the only person I know who can’t grow hostas.

Last spring I took an inventory and ordered more tulips and daffodils to supplement my reds – I wanted orange.  The box showed up in late August for fall planting, at which time I promptly broke my foot and was relegated to the couch for 4-6 weeks.  My plan was to get them in just after Halloween, but when I went to plant them the box was in the recycling, empty.  My husband had come upon them and handed the box to my daughter and told her to plant them, which she did, grudgingly, with little attention to where.  So all winter long I waited to see if and where they would come up.

This week, they emerged – a few here a few there, some in groups, some in rows, some in places where the deer dined on them so I don’t even know for sure which ones they are.  It isn’t the way I would have done it – it is better, creating a haphazard path of blooms up the front walk, starting with my 2001 tulips.  Nothing at all about this whole operation went according to plan but it all seems so right – this is her senior year, and these are her tulips that she planted at the only home she has ever known. Next spring I will cry when they come up and send photos of them to her at college which will delight and exasperate her.

It is only now, as I type, that I recall my own mother hovering over her tulips in our back yard in Saint Louis, and how the entire city seemed to be swimming in them the last time I went to see her in hospice. Saint Louis sees spring much sooner than New England so that visit was, for us, like Dorothy emerging from the back and white of winter to full technicolor spring. It was an intensely sad and joyful time, punctuated by tulips. Every time the deer snack on them I swear I will not plant any more, but I don’t think I can stop. Not now.

9/11 Postscript

After all of my hand wringing yesterday afternoon, perspective arrived in the evening.  After a patchy, overcast weather all day, a thin stripe of sunshine lit the trees across the pond followed by a pink sky, promising a lovely day today. 

And as I watched the full moon rise after the light faded, my boy mention as he passed me, “I planted a seed in your garden today.”

“You did?”

“Yes.  I planted my nectarine pit in the garden so that it would grow into a tree.”

Never much of a gardener before, I began planting new things each September since 2001 as a way of reminding myself to appreciate where I am now and to invest hope in the coming spring.  The result is a garden that gives me more joy than I ever imagined.  This year’s bulbs sit in a box in the garage waiting to be planted, but it’s good to know something went into the ground on the 11th.  Now, to figure out where he planted it and keep the chipmunks away from it.

Finally, we stumbled on the Science Channel’s Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero and it was gratifying to see something emerging, at last, from the ashes of that day.  No false reality TV drama, just stories and extraordinary images of the new buildings and the memorial and how they are being built.  The series is several hours long and worth every minute.  Thank you, Steven Spielberg.


Predicting the Unpredictable

Last week my youngest told me that if he could go back in time, he would find the terrorist headquarters and blow it up – he actually said he would sacrifice himself – so that 9/11 would never have happened.  That’s the lesson he brought to this day.  When I told him that we can never quite know what might have prevented that day ten years ago, he found that answer wholly unsatisfactory and I don’t blame him.  I didn’t like it either, but I also know that my childhood was laced with an understanding that we weren’t expected to control our futures, only to prepare ourselves to lead the best life we could with the blessings we have.  Among the many disillusionments of the 21st century, this responsibility to control everything in life that we are imposing on our children, and its attendant assignment of blame for every mishap, is the biggest one.  What was once the ebb and flow of daily life has turned into a lady or the tiger conundrum every single day.

Now more than ever, it seems we are trying to predict the future and we are still surprised when we are wrong.  With the 24 hour news cycle, smartphones and iPad apps, the media devotes so much time and space to people saying they know what the future holds interspersed with other people trying to say they saw the most recent disaster coming followed by a systematic and relentless assignment of blame.  What is wrong with this picture?  How do we calculate our success rate in preventing catastrophe?  Most of the time the people who saw it coming – if there are any – cannot be found on CNN, Fox or the Huffington Post, that’s for sure.

There was a time when the most we could expect to warn us of disaster was the tornado siren.  What we have now that earlier generations did not is a bombardment of information that gives us the illusion that whatever happens, we should see it coming.   We spent days preparing and watching hurricane Irene blast up the coast only to have her ravage inland rivers – apparently, no one warned Vermont.  All of the tsunami sensors in the Pacific did not dissuade Japan from placing a nuclear power plant on the coast.  And all of those big banks got hoodwinked by the ratings agencies and never noticed all of those bad loans they were underwriting.  It’s no wonder we scratch our heads and wonder how we missed it because as time goes by our mistakes seem ever more stupid and obvious.

Pick a topic – our health, the economy, or the weather – there are any number of solutions to it that are just a click away.  And yet, the flow of disasters almost seem to speed up rather than abating with all of this new knowledge and the ability to communicate it.  If we leave the TV and the internet on, we are fed, ever so smoothly, the myth that we can prevent bad things from happening when in some respects the bad things are perpetuated by us sitting in front of the screen.  And the more preposterous and untenable the theory, the better – we reward the wing nuts:  I watched the movie Network last spring and it could have been a documentary. 

The moment of revelation in youth that people do terrible things for reasons we cannot understand is one we never forget, and a certain part of our lives is indeed devoted to trying to avert the personal disasters we have known in the forms of death, illness, poverty and pain.  Those moments stand juxtaposed with the more collective events for which we don’t feel any personal culpability but then feel compelled to do something about:   My parents had Pearl Harbor as a defining moment (and that came on the heels of the Great Depression), the following generation had the death of President Kennedy (followed by the Viet Nam war and Watergate), and we have this day (followed by two wars and a financial meltdown).  What one generation does in response to its challenges defines the generation that follows, and I don’t pretend to know that that means for my children – I’m not getting into the prediction business.

Many years ago my cousin was dying of cancer, and she removed every newspaper, magazine and television from her home so that she could focus on her art and on helping others (she offered free financial advice to retirees).  I admired her focus but recall thinking that I would never shut myself off from the world the way that she did, even in those circumstances.  Now, as I watch the towers fall yet again, I understand, and yet I watch, hoping to think of something good we can do with my son’s time machine.

Empty Skies

The days that followed September 11, 2001, were uniformly sunny and warm as if even the weather stood stock still in the wake of that morning.  And when we walked each morning down to get the paper in those first days following the attacks, the skies were noticeably empty and quiet as every commercial plane in America sat idle somewhere on the tarmac, waiting to hear that the coast was clear.

The skies are quiet now again, I noticed this bright morning as I walked out from under the canopy of trees into the open field at the end of the drive, but now it is the economy that emptied them.  Airplane fares are high and far fewer planes are in the air.  A friend who travels extensively and who finds himself stranded in airports time and again, noted, “Now, very often, you really can’t get there from here.”  The idea of catching the next flight is no longer a matter of hours but sometimes days, even to major destinations.  Luggage that must be scanned and checked requires more time to clear, extending the time required between flights – last spring we ended up renting a car and driving home from New York because 90 minutes would not allow us enough time to make our connection – the next flight home would have been 24 hours later.  It was a three-hour drive – this is why people carry overstuffed carry-on bags and heave them into the overhead compartment.

Fewer planes in the air is not necessarily such a bad thing, but I have to wonder if I will ever stop assessing the collateral damage of that day – whether it distracted our institutions from proper stewardship of our economy, whether it fostered more hate than unity among us, and if my love of a clear September day has been  hijacked permanently.

Fries for Kids & Tiny Dancers

We spent September 11 raising money for special education and being a family all at the same time.  It’s not as easy as it sounds.  As a family we made and sold french fires at a local festival with other families to help special education in our school district.  We know some truly amazing people who made this possible, and we all come from diverse backgrounds – what draws us together is what we dream of for our children.  There aren’t a lot of things we can do together to help out, but we found something in this activity today, and I am as proud as I have ever been of us and those we know for making it all come together and allow each of us to contribute.  And in the background, First Responders from New York came here to tell us their story and their wish for peace.

And me, I began and ended the day in tears, wanting something lovely for me and my family and finding it as we ended the day and wended our way home singing aloud to Elton John’s Tiny Dancer, knowing somehow that the child in me, miraculously, has been given all she needed over the years.  Who can ask more for that, when so much changed and so much is needed for us on September 11?

Eight Years and Counting

The eighth anniversary of September 11 brings cloudy skies, and rightly so. Unlike that blindingly clear day, everything is murky now. We are mired in a jobless recovery from a recession that snuck up on us, an no one seem to really know how to fix health care, and everyone is cranky about it. We expected that September 11 would change the way we live radically, instantaneously, but it didn’t – instead it visited upon us a long, slow, steep decline that we still fail to comprehend.

I remember calling my mother in Saint Louis as the towers burned. ‘I have been waiting for something like this to happen my whole life,” I said. “That’s terrible,” she replied. “People are jumping out of the buildings.” “I don’t mean that,” I tried to explain, “I mean that this is a defining moment for my generation. I always heard about Pearl Harbor, about the assassinations, about events that everyone else remembers happening with a sense of manifest destiny. And with that came an identity, a place in history that shaped how you look at the world in the space of a moment. Everything that happens from this moment on will be thought of in terms of before and after this day.”

I still believe that. September 11 set George Bush on a course for disaster but in a more roundabout way it set Barack Obama on a course for victory. If Bush (and so many others complicit in the march to war and financial ruin) had not been so terribly wrong, people never could have made the leap of faith that brought Obama forward. But where that leap of faith will take us remains to be seen. Will his eloquent hopes lead us to a sustainable future? Can one man cure a crippled legislature?

I think the mentality that there were terrorists at the gate created by September 11 allowed bankers to gamble and regulators to turn a blind eye. Like the 1920s after World War I, a war that was decimating a generation provided all the rationale required to pursue the high life. The post 9/11 world allowed the government and media to hype the beauty of having it now just at the moment that the generation who saw the danger in that philosophy was fading away. No one was willing to say no to anything except personal responsibility. Who knew what the future would bring; why wait when you can Buy It Now, just like on eBay.

And still, for every one of us that has reacted in fear and denial there are so many who have been humbled, who have worked to understand our responsibility to act thoughtfully. It is that appreciation, that sense that if we try to listen we can come to an honest conclusion about what is right for us, that brought us to the conclusion that is Barack Obama. We have so much history to overcome in this process. Not just racism but the politics of money, legislative and judicial inertia, and party organizations that no longer make any sense. Many a good public servant has fallen prey to the duplicitousness of friends and enemies alike.

September 11, the wars, and the Crash of 2008 robbed us of what little trust we had manage to recoup after Watergate and Viet Nam. Restoring it is a tall order for one man, but we have done more with less.

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