Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Strangely Normal Day

Today has been strangely normal.

Besides being an oxymoron, there are all kinds of odd significances behind that statement.  I woke up at 4:15am to go running with Pak Indri—an Indonesian language teacher at my school—and Bu Ani, but I got out of the house late because I was looking up information about the US Open semi-final match between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.  My heart broke a little seeing that, despite standing at the cusp of victory several times, Federer could not put away the Serb.  Anyway, this caused me to leave late.  I went for a short run.  I came home, washed all my clothes, which had been piling up since the middle of Ramadan, and ate breakfast.  I tried to take a nap.  I woke up again, met my friend Dira, and we spent the day out.  We biked to the ruins of a Buddhist temple called Surowono and went to the swimming pool.  There were zillions of little kids.  Weighing my desire to swim against the combined risk of high urine content and probability of merciless attention to my fair skin, I didn’t go in the water.  We had a good talk.  A group of boys came up to talk to me in English, which was very nice.  They were super friendly and very respectful, impressed with my Indonesian and eager to ask me questions about English and about America.  Some said I was the first foreigner they had ever met (surprising, because their English was relatively excellent). 

After leaving, we ate lunch.  Two bowls of bakso for me.  Then we saw a place where there’s a natural spring and a cave, but we didn’t go in, because there was already a group of people in the springpool.  So we just relaxed for a few hours in the shade of the trees and an unwalled bamboo hut.  I took a nap.  I was already sunburned when we started the return journey.  Like most Indonesians, Dira had never seen a sunburn before.  She was half-frightened by the redness in my skin, and I had to make an effort to convince her it was nothing serious.  On the way home, we stopped by the “supermarket” and I saw her house.  I arrived at my place, brought my now-crisp laundry into my room, and bathed.  After that, more nondescript things.

Really, calling the day “normal” doesn’t do it justice.  It was a really good day.  I got out of the house, met new people, got to know my locale better, and was adequately productive.  No one here, including me, seemed to register that it is, in fact, the eleventh of September, and it is exactly ten years since the attacks.  It only entered my mind late in the afternoon.


My father was six or seven years old when Kennedy was assassinated, but the memory of that day remains clear in his mind.  Even though he lived in Ireland and had no family or connections in America, the collective trauma of that day was enough to carve its own permanent place in his memory.  There probably wasn’t a moment of comparable trauma, at least for the American psyche, in the thirty-eight years between JFK’s assassination and the day those planes went down. 

In some ways, countries are like individual humans.  Their experiences during infancy and childhood give shape to the struggles and conflicts that will play such a crucial role throughout their lives.  As time goes on, a definite personality forms.  Then life happens.  Joys and sorrows accumulate, softening hardness, hardening softness, and carving new lines into the soul and visage.  If you know what to look for, you can reap an incredible amount of information about a person and their history by simply looking at their face—the way they hold their mouth, the way that smiling alters their face, the way they wrinkle their eyebrows. 

And certain memories and events become imbued with a timelessness and significance that means they are part of that most basic storyline.  The plot of your life.  The story of a nation.  We live long, long lives, most of the moments in which we will forget because they were not consequential.  But a few moments we can look back on and say unequivocally: That. Was. Critical


I was in eighth grade at the moment I heard.  Mr. Ciccone’s history class, to be precise.  Both planes had already hit.  The principal, Mr. Margolis, came on the PA and told us that the United States had been attacked.  I was thirteen years old, and I did not know how to react.  I don’t mean that I didn’t know the socially appropriate reaction (one ought to be sad, frightened, perhaps angry, and terribly worried for all the people in danger).  I mean it at a deep level: I did not have any instinct of how to react.  Like an animal species that has never encountered humanity and thus doesn’t know to run from the hunter.  Nothing had ever happened like this.  Reaction: blank.

There was only amazement.  School did not end early that day.  After getting home, I sat on the couch in the living room and watched the news with my family.  I sat there all day and into the night.  I must have watched the towers collapse a hundred and fifty times, and I could have kept watching.  When you’re a kid from a place that’s completely predictable, clean, and safe, you tend to witness or anticipate disasters with an enraptured thrill.  Let that hurricane come here! Who cares if it destroys a bunch of stuff?  You don’t understand why adults worry so much about bad things happening.  All you know is that it’s amazing and extraordinary and it feels important.  At times over the next few years I would find myself both moved by what happened and dismayed by the course our country pursued in its wake.


America has been gearing up for this anniversary for a long while now, and I’d bet anything that almost everyone in the country will watch or participate or catch sight of some kind of tribute.  The September 11 attacks are part of what America is now.  The effects of the wound, which has been healing for the last decade, nonetheless remain visible for anyone to see—like a permanent limp.  America’s perception of itself changed.  America’s perception of the rest of the world changed.  The entire world’s view of America changed, for better or worse.  And there is no going back.  The wound may heal and things may go better or worse for the country as time goes on, but that scar is forever.

Perhaps that’s why it is feels so strange to have had a normal, even really good, day here.  On this date, that is.  That scar is so deep and essential in America, yet this place where I am is untouched.  People may not be aware of the date.  Being made aware, they shrug their shoulders and say, Well, don’t worry; there are no terrorists in this area.  And they carry on, totally unconscious of the monumental significance of the day to every American (even if the American himself does not perceive the magnitude). 

And maybe it’s strange because I can’t quite figure out how much I’ve been touched by that event.  I am not and have never been a proud and flag-waving type of American, largely thanks to my European parents.  After 9/11, we didn’t have a flag hanging outside of our house or in the windows of our cars—it just seemed a strange gesture, tainted the moment it became an unofficially mandatory act of solidarity.  The with us or against us attitude and the instinct to react with war was fascinating to me, but never resonated.  Yet I am, it seems, in the service of the United States.  Ten years after the event, I live in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.  And I am, in some way, working to improve relations between the United States and foreign Muslims. 

I was thrilled to be invited to serve in a Muslim country.  Maybe it’s my bleeding heart, but I guess I’ve always felt as if, since that day, Islam has needed an advocate in the US.  America is well covered: plenty of people speak for it.  But who speaks for the hundreds of millions of peaceful Muslims whose reputations were stained on that day?  I hate the black and white picture of good and evil in our world.  Something deep down makes me want to make people understand each other.  So I feel grateful for this opportunity.  Ten years later, it feels right to be here in Indonesia, building my own small bridge between those two sundered worlds.

At some point in the future, I suppose September 11th will be like Pearl Harbor Day: still marked, but no longer felt in the heart, except by the older folks who were around to witness it and who will carry that experience, and the understanding of its import, inside them to the grave.

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