Today (written on 9/11/17) I was mostly concerned with knocking shit off my to-do list and getting in a bike ride. I’m doing the Potomac Pedalers Backroads Century this coming weekend and even though I’ll most likely do the metric (100K or 64 miles) it’s still hilly AF. I need to feel psychologically assured I can do, even though I know I can physically do it.
I got a late start so I cut down the anticipated fifty or sixty miles I would have done today had I gotten out the door by 9:30 (If you know me you know it’s hard for me to have my first cup of coffee by then!). Regardless, I was on the Mount Vernon Trail, headed up to the Key Bridge climb up the Custis Trail when I glanced over the river and caught a glimpse of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The trail is a bit curvy there, so I stopped, got off the bike and just looked across the river at the scene.
I’ve got two degrees of separation from a man who died in the attack on the Pentagon. The connecting person is a friend of mine here and he went to day care/preschool/elementary/middle/high school with my son. I cannot imagine how profoundly his life, his whole family’s lives, have been altered by that day.
I watched the second plane hit and stood transfixed for almost four hours as that morning’s horror played out. The tableau in my living room was farcical, me and the cable repair man each staring at the set saying inanely useless words, him holding his two tool bags in his hands for hours and me with the remote having switched over from the upper tier channels that weren’t working correctly. My arm began to hurt from holding the remote in the position to change the channel, his hands seized around the handles. We had tuned in about twenty seconds before the second plane hit. We couldn’t move after that…
We stood there until we realized the ‘debris’ falling from the towers were people choosing another way to die…
The monuments and the river can create a sense of beauty, or pride even, regardless of any question I might have about how my fellow Americans feel about me and other people of color. This is my country and regardless of how fractured it is along many difficult fault lines I can remember how the deep seated goodness came out after 9/11.
There were reports of people that looked like they might be Muslim being attacked, fears of vandalism against mosques. I drove over to the nearest mosque and was surprised to find a rag tag group of people, many of them white, bearded, and ‘red neck’ looking standing guard with the few Muslim men there.
I remember hearing from New York friends tales of how they walked home from downtown, how some of them spoke of associates and friends lost.
I remember two days later at a meeting telling a group of leadership and executive coaches who were lambasting the politics of the day that the real issue was, in my exact words when asked what I thought about the attacks, “Now white people know what it feels like to be targeted.” After a few minutes the group quietly began expressing their own fears about what that meant to them personally. What were we going to do about the fear and anger that we felt?
I remember for the next few years, every 9/11 became an occasion to talk to my son about active love and compassion, about being a true citizen of not only this country but of the planet, a member of the human race. Telling him that so many people don’t realize that their actions have unintended consequences and that while we can easily identify ‘the other’ as ‘enemy’ we ourselves must always be exemplars of truth and justice. Don’t just be right, do right…
Today I wondered about how to soothe the heated exchanges that we see and hear and in contemplating this beautiful view, this patriotic vision, if we ever realize that those fissures that divide us from ourselves, those that divide us from the rest of the world, can ever be bridged. I’ve felt the ugly America my whole life. There have been times when I’ve felt America’s embrace as well. But I do know that there are two Americas and, having traveled and talked honestly with people in the countries I’ve visited, I know that the world sees the ugly America clearly.
The multi-hued coalition of mosque guards, the red necks, the white businessmen, the brothers that showed up…We were the America I’d like to see every day, without the trauma of being attacked, without the Charlottesvilles, without the bullshit lip service to America’s greatness.
We’re not okay, not by a long shot. And those bright buildings memorializing the Founding Fathers today reminded me that our greatness shows best under pressure. No one’s flying planes into buildings but the planet where we live is burning, literally and metaphorically.
I’m remembering how idealistic I used to be. That kid is still in me, hopeful as he was the first time he saw that view. I stood there today and felt both sad for the lives lost on 9/11 but remembering the bravery and teamwork shown on United 93. I remembered the men I met that morning at the local mosque. I remembered that whenever I felt hopeless about my country there was always something tangible about it that gave me hope that it was indeed, a great place to live and to struggle to always make it better.