"We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves." The character, Almasy, in Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient," is vividly remembering the intensity of his personal life as well as the historical panorama of his part of the twentieth century, as he lies nearly inert in the monastery bed with nothing left but memory. His journal is kept in a copy of Herodotus' "History," a deeply layered synthesis of the personal and the global.
The year 2001 burned its way into my consciousness like recurring Jovian bolts, almost too much for the circuits to bear, and though the number 2001 will slowly subside, the burnings, deep etchings, will be a part of this remembering until I, too, lie on that deathbed.
The year began with the tumultuous excitement of new life. My first grandchild, a boy, was born at 4:55 a.m. on Jan. 21, 2001, his coming into being welding emotions into perceptions: a tiny baby examined on a table by people in white coats, my red-eyed son, the exhausted mother, all four grandparents staggering from an all-night vigil, the blip of dehydration, the waiting, the going home and then the long, long aftermath, still going on, as the boy burrows further into our bodies and our brains.
Life, and then death. The year would contain the entire continuum. My younger sister fought a losing battle against liver disease for years. Throughout part of the winter, she waited at the Stanford hospital for an organ that never came. I watched her breathing more and more slowly, having put herself into a near-coma as part of her desperate struggle to remain alive long enough for a new liver to miraculously appear, finally giving up at about 1:30 a.m. on March 15, 2001. She lay on her hospital bed before being draped in flowers and a beautiful print dress by the women. Dazed and bewildered, I nearly had to be dragged in to see her, curled up and so silent, so silent. Her death was unacceptable, a death completely unredeemed and tragic. She, too, is deeply embedded in memory.
In life, near tragedy. In early September, when fire paranoia in the Sierra Nevada has usually given way to anticipation of fall wistfulness, an inferno roared out of control in the Stanislaus River canyon just over the ridge from the old family ranch where I live, and we watched nervously from various perches on the hills as it charred the green canyon into fingers of blackness. After we had decided that the danger was over, the fire apparently having moved northeast and away from us, and we had gone back to work, on September 10, 2001, a huge, apocalyptic plume of smoke suddenly appeared in the sky to the southwest. Only four hours later, the firemen were making plans for escape routes into our meadow in case the inferno came down the mountain, and I was evacuated to town. I watched the sky with a combination of horror and fascination for the black smoke that would signify the burning of the barns and the end of the history of our old family ranch. But the fire-fighting bomber planes won a narrow victory; the ranch still exists.
In life and death, tragedy. The next morning, Sept. 11, 2001, back in the ranch cabin, grateful but shaken, I was awakened by a phone call from my older sister in Berkeley -- this time not in despair about the fire but to tell me that two airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and that the twin towers had fallen. It was as if the near-disaster of the fire had had to be trumped by another, greater catastrophe, a prelude and then a finale in the realm of nightmares. And then, in the great synchronicity of modern existence, the airplanes fighting our fire were not allowed to fly in Calaveras County, California, because of what had happened in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Life, as it is lived, is punctuated by anniversary benchmarks: birthdays probably the most important -- the coming into being of ourselves -- and then weddings, deaths, the birthdays of our children, our parents, our siblings, our friends, Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Buddha's birthday, the first steps, the first kiss, and so forth. These days resonate differently with us depending on life situations, cultures, accidents. My own birthday rises and falls in significance depending upon mysterious personal factors: how I feel about myself, what I see in the mirror, the attention of other people, whether it is a decade celebration. But I wake up in the morning on my birthday feeling my existence a bit more poignantly, remembering what day it is.
I usually forget the birthdays of everyone except my children, and now my grandson. Even those days involve some anxiety about the appropriate gift as well as the social responsibility to properly recognize the importance of the day. The anniversaries of the deaths of loved ones, in my case both parents, a sister, a few close friends, vary enormously in significance but all tend to recede surprisingly rapidly. I don't even remember the dates of my parents' deaths, but the death of my sister, the "unacceptable death," is vivid. On the first anniversary of her death I lit a bonfire in the meadow and then walked far out into the night so that I could look back on the faint glow of the remnants. But even on that first anniversary I found myself struggling to conjure up anything like the emotion surrounding her death.
National holidays, like Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, Presidents' Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, tend to be ritual occasions without much emotional fervor. Even King's death, or John F. Kennedy's, the details of which are still etched in my memory (where I was, who was there), have become occasions for momentary visualizations rather than deep introspection or preoccupation.
Events like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the end of WWII, and other events that were momentous for people who experienced them have only an historical importance to me and are not far different from 1492 and 1066. With a bit of work, I can conjure up the death of Socrates, the fall of the Roman Empire, Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the Potato Famine, the beginning of the New Deal and dozens of other historical benchmarks. The only world or national anniversary that I actual celebrate, though, is the Fourth of July.
And now we face the anniversary of the World Trade Center destruction on September 11, a date that has become an icon already, signifying a great turning point in national history, 9/11, "before 9/11," "after 9/11," a synthesis of death and birth, used almost like B.C. and A.D. were when I was young. Part of the intensity is purely visual memory: the airplanes, like bullets moving in slow motion, puncturing the fabric of monolithic buildings like they were cloth, the clouds of debris chasing fleeing citizens, falling bodies, exhausted firemen. Some of it is entirely mental: picturing panicked descents down dark staircases, imagining the dire waiting intervals of scared relatives, or worse, the people on the airplanes, wondering about the terrorist mind-set. The rest is a combination of political awarenesses: homeland security measures, men incarcerated in Cuba, budget deliberations, and personal calculations: do I travel to Europe, where should I invest my money, when do I put away my flag.
My brother, who lives in New York, turned as he walked uptown and saw the catastrophe unfold. Along with countless other New Yorkers who experienced the event as a kind of apocalypse, along with anyone who lost someone in the attacks, he will never forget the vividness of 9/11. Those of us who lived far away, watching everything on television, will experience faster memory deterioration, though anniversary reruns will remind us of both historical perceptions and emotions, even if we can't quite conjure them up for ourselves with any accuracy.
In tragedy, historical repetition. We know that millions died during the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges, the conquest of Indian territory, sundry wars and revolutions. Much of this destruction has disappeared from public memory altogether: slave revolts in ancient Rome, the 30 Years' War, Montezuma, even the Japanese conquest of China. Some catastrophes still elicit local emotion and fervor, such as the partition of India or the Chinese conquest of Tibet, even if they mean very little to people in other countries or continents. People living on the edge of famine or in an AIDS epidemic in parts of Sub- Sahara Africa might find it impossible to have much empathy for victims of the WTC bombing. Bosnian Moslems who lost most of the members of their family to Serb ethnic cleansing must be forgiven for not being fully attentive to the pain in New York.
Objectively, in world historical terms, 9/11 is a puny event, somewhere on the order of a violent earthquake in Indonesia or the sinking of a troop ship in WWII. Symbolically and politically, for U.S. citizens, it has enormous significance, some of it genuine, some of it deliberately created by calculating politicians and the media. In any case, it was the first violent, wholesale attack on U.S. civilians in the "heartland" by foreigners since the War of 1812, unless we count the aberration of the Civil War, even if in the long run it becomes simply one more historical tragedy.
The superb ironies for those of us U.S. citizens who took 9/11 as a blow to civility and urban culture as well as morbid proof of the imperfect state of the world and the unfortunate consequences of U.S. global imperialism, involve our own stake in the huge U.S. military and economic hegemony. My ability to sit on my deck at the ranch sipping good wine and contemplating my next kayak trip is at least partly due to the insulation from danger, hunger, disease, and the demands of the world sub-proletariate provided by my participation in this affluent, powerful country. I cheer when a federal judge requires the U.S. government to disclose the names of people detained after 9/11 as part of my gesture toward civil liberties, and then read modern novels for hours, blithly unaffected by events. I am privileged to be free to choose how I will be affected by the history of the world and what to remember.
So what does "9/11" mean? In the next few years it means increased military budgets, homeland security measures, threats to personal liberty, the expansion of the bureaucratic state apparatus, continued neglect of national health care, increased paranoia, preemptive warfare, some recalculation of personal priorities, and, in New York, fervent debates about appropriate reconstruction plans. In the next 50 years, 9/11's meaning probably depends upon a concatenation of factors including U.S. politics and foreign policy, the Palestinian question, Islamic fundamentalism, China's role in the world, the state of the U.S. and the global economy and a lot of other unknowns. The next 1000 or 3000 years? Who knows? Romans living in the Roman Empire 226 years after it started didn't have a clue that the Empire was doomed.
The world seems to be in an extremely unruly state right now. World law and world institutions are still incubating nearly 60 years after the founding of the U.N. Nationalisms, ethnic identities, social class systems and other cleavages seem to be extremely salient. Efforts at globalization, so far, seem to be the purview of self-aggrandizing corporations and national interests, not world citizenship and consciousness. The fact that 9/11 was cheered in large parts of the Muslim world, ignored in others and has become the focus of national purpose here in the U.S. is only an indicator of how divided the world is. Memory of the awful pain such division has caused in world history doesn't seem to be enough to prevent more pain.
My birthday is coming up on September 19. The fire that almost destroyed the ranch reached its peak on September 10. This year I will celebrate both anniversaries. Next year I will probably drop the September 10 celebration, and that date will slowly subside into personal/historical memory, journal entries, newspaper archives. I will remember January 21, the birth, and March 15, the death, again next year, laughing at one, crying at the other.
There probably will be much flag waving in my small town on 9/11, and the media will be saturated with remembering the event. But two, three, 10 years from now, 9/11 will probably start the inexorable process of becoming another 1066, in world historical terms, even if it is revived here in the U.S. for all sorts of reasons, some cynically political, some deeply personal, some purely symbolic.
My life will continue for awhile, with more and more to remember, until, finally, there will be nothing but memory, and I will die "containing a richness of lovers and tribes." The history of the world, meanwhile, will continue to be etched with births and deaths and everything in between, most of it never making its way past the great barrier of collective forgetting.