20 years ago on this day I remember walking my dog Stella, something she and I did almost every night of the 18-plus years we shared. I remember looking up at the sky in the mountain town where I lived, something I did almost every night from the earliest age I can remember, understanding early on that I should look up and out, observe something larger and more vast than the small life I inhabited.
I remember walking with my partner that night, 20 years ago. I remember him stopping for a moment, looking up, speaking quietly, more to himself than to me or Stella. The sky was strangely void of movement. The occasional shooting star, yes. But the usual airplane traffic criss-crossing the night sky? Nothing. Silence. More silent than the usual dark-sky-mountain-town silent.
“There are no planes flying,” he said. Just that. I remember having nothing to say. What was there to say? I saw the towers come down that morning on the Today Show. I was getting ready for work at the mental health center when another therapist called and told me to turn on the news. I remember the country organizing around a common enemy. I remember feeling that at work as I walked by groups of my colleagues gathered in hallways and common areas. I remember feeling sadness and revulsion and despair-not only from the act itself, but from the hatred it had inspired around me.
I am not good at that, living with hatred, seeing it in others, accepting it. Something in my brain flickers, buzzes, shorts out. How does one reconcile the hatred of an act perpetrated with the hatred that blooms from that same act? Does refusing to hate mean acceptance? Solidarity with the act? Does it mean one is less patriotic, that refusal to hate?
I remember when I was finally able to reach friends in the city. I remember hearing their fear, their grief and devastation. Doesn’t the loss of life, the loss of innocence and safety and place justify hate? If it does then the path of hate on this land and in this world is long and equally justified.
In the 20 years since 9/11 I still have no good answers. In the 20 years since, Stella and my partner have died, both from cancer. The hate that was blooming long, long before the first plane hit the first tower at 8:46 am is still burning strong and we have turned it on one another. We are a house divided.
Hate is like that, I think. It grows and blooms like some terrible weed with deep roots. Like bindweed. The one that, when a strand is pulled, 10 more shoots appear days later. Getting rid of it takes digging. It takes sifting through the soil looking for the roots, for the pieces of roots, for the tiniest feathery hairs on those roots.
These days it seems like we are comfortable with our hate. Maybe as humans we always have been. We live with it like that bindweed, turn a blind eye to it, justify it. This year I left the bindweed growing in a couple of garden beds I didn’t plant because of the drought. I told myself, “At least it’s green.” It gives me nothing, no green beans or tomatoes, no roses. But at least it looks like life instead of death. At least from the house it looks like I’m a good gardener, like I can make things grow, keep things green. Like I’m a patriot in my own victory garden.
Years ago, there was a stabbing at an inner city middle school where I worked. I had just left this school for a job at another. For weeks the kids had been telling the adults that there was a plan to kill a student. For months the adults had been telling the kids they should reach out to an adult if they had any information about plans for violence. The kids came forward. The adults ignored them. During the passing period, a sixth grader was stabbed and killed in the hallway. For days the kids in the sixth grade cohort moved through their classes-math, English, science, social studies-with the empty assigned seat of the child who was killed. The adults would not let them talk in class about what had happened. They believed that talking about it would encourge more violence. They believed silence would be the best course of action.
One of the things I remember most from this time in my life was my anger. Fury, really, hot-white and blinding. I recall members of the Theravada Buddhist temple I attended encouraging me to speak with a visiting Sri Lankan abbot. They didn’t point out my anger and how it dripped off me, splashing around me. They did, in their quiet but firm ways, continue to encourage a meeting. I remember justifying my anger to the abbot when we finally spoke. “I am a social worker,” I said. “My profession is a radical one,” I said. “My anger fuels my passion for social justice and change. I need my anger.”
I remember that the Abbott’s eyes were a color that lived somewhere between caramel and Baltic amber. I remember him telling me that I could not change an angry system with my anger. He did not tell me not to be angry. He told me that there was no way to affect change if I was behaving like the same system I was trying to change. I remember leaving our meeting thinking he had no idea what he was talking about, even saying that to myself with multiple expletives.
That was more than 20 years ago. What do we learn in 20 years, in 30, in 500? I have learned since that he was right. It doesn’t stop me from feeling angry, from trying to assuage my sense of powerlessness with fury. But he was right.
I am living in the West, where extreme drought is the new normal. Where anger and hatred has deep roots. Where tears seem to water the bindweed and make it strong. It is green, but it gives me nothing.
Today I will go to my own garden, to do the hard work of rooting out the bindweed that threatens to squeeze the air from my lungs. When I look at the images from that day, those days, I feel like the grief is choking me. When I think of our country and its long road of injustice and hatred and the enforced silence over those things, I feel like the grief is choking me. When I see how very easy it is to hate, I feel like the grief is choking me.
There is an image of one of the dogs that was working to find survivors in the aftermath of 9/11. The dog is next to his handler, hunkered down under some twisted metal. The dog looks bereft. Many would believe it is anthropomorphic to say that the dog is grieving, fearful, overwhelmed. We don’t generally accept that animals grieve or even that they have complex emotional lives. That is not surprising given we don’t accept that in one another either, especially when we are blinded by our own hatred.
Yes, today is 9/11. I’m all over the place, swinging from what happened 20 years ago, to what has happened for much longer than 20 years, to stabbings and abbots and hatred and bindweed and grieving dogs.
I cannot make you go to your own garden to find the bindweed, to unravel it from your tomato cages and cucumber vines. I can hope for this, but I cannot do it for you. My own garden is a big enough job.
But I’m hopeful that with each strand I dig out I will be more and more able to breathe. Perhaps you will, too.