Drunk on truth to stupid baby power.

The Pool, the Peace Rally and September 11

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13 years ago I was asleep in my bed, in the bedroom I’d slept in since I was eight years old. In a little less than three weeks, on my 19th birthday, I would be leaving home, officially and forever, for college, but my school started late so I was still asleep, no need to wake up early for my late summer afternoon shift at the pool where I was a lifeguard. Is it too obvious to say it was a liminal moment in my life? When I didn’t know who I was really or what was going on with the world or myself? I was sad, that’s for sure: my high school boyfriend was already at college and he wasn’t my boyfriend anymore and my heart was broken, though I was past crying myself to sleep at night. All my friends were already gone, off to exciting lives in the future, and my brother was back for his senior year of high school and most of my fellow lifeguards were in high school too. We were in-between swimming lesson sessions and at the pool during the day it was just me and the lifers–the guy who smoked cigarettes in his car and the aging surfer who dated a different blond teenager every year. I had made friends with an eighth grader who had just moved to town and was living with his grandma–some tragedy and loneliness brought him to the pool every afternoon after the middle school let out. He would follow me as I went from chair to chair on the rotation around the nearly empty pool, indoors and outdoors, and we would talk and sometimes he would shoot hoops on the water baskets. I felt a disturbing amount of love for that kid, whose name I don’t remember. He was beautiful but didn’t know it yet and so nice and funny, in that way a 13-year-old boy can be before his heart gets broken or he learns to think of women as objects to own and control. Anyway, that’s what I was working with, that morning 13 years ago, when my mom opened my door.

There was a halo of sun created by the fact that my glasses weren’t on yet, making her head a fuzzy ball. “Lizzy,” she said. “Wake up. There’s been a plane crash.”

She was so serious I immediately thought it must involve my dad who was traveling for work. When it became clear my dad wasn’t hurt or anywhere near the crashes, that he was stuck somewhere in the middle of the country, bored and nervous, I felt a strange sense of being very removed from what was happening, even though I knew it was something big. We didn’t have a TV in our house and since I didn’t have school to go to and there wasn’t a TV at the pool and all my friends were gone, I didn’t see the images of the planes crashing that day. There are still a lot of images I’ve never seen. I didn’t see people falling. I didn’t see smoke. We listened to the news on the radio for a while and then we stopped listening. I was in Oregon, safe and going to the pool that afternoon and the truth is I was completely emotionally separate from the whole thing. I was emotionally separate from everything that September, anything that wasn’t directly about me, which made it possible for me to immediately start worrying about what would happen next and therefore making it directly about me.

Worrying About What Will Happen Next is one of my personal flaws, though at the time I didn’t realize it was a problem, to be so out of the moment all the time. I was 18 and I barely knew anything about myself yet but I did know that this aggression–what else could it be?–wouldn’t go unpunished. So I called the one friend I had left in town, a kid who spent the summer selling knives and who wasn’t going to college, and spent the time before my shift making signs that said: “Peace Rally–9/12 Central Park Gazebo, 7pm” and taping them up on telephone poles around town.

Nowadays I know there are a lot of parts of me that need work but that day I didn’t realize that I was going deep into two of the big ones I would struggle with forever: Worrying What Will Happen Next and Delusions of Grandeur. Because as much as I like to tell this story now, to show how prescient and wonderful I was as an 18-year-old in Corvallis, Oregon, I didn’t know anything about what was going to happen, in even a vague sense. I couldn’t imagine the mire of Iraq and Afghanistan, the returning vets, the PTSD, the IEDs, Zero Dark Thirty, ISIS, beheadings on TV. I knew nothing about geopolitics and as for domestic politics–in my first election ever I had voted for Nader. I was an absolute romantic who was just slowly coming to see that the utopia I’d imagined I was growing up into was actually a complicated world where almost nothing was fair. At this point though, I still harbored hope it might be. Also, I was as narcissistic as any teenager ever was in the history of the world. So I actually believed that all I needed to do was organize a peace rally and remind people that you know, war is bad, and then this whole issue would blow over and maybe my boyfriend would be my boyfriend again.

The next day, my one remaining friend and I went to the park and waited. I had candles, a lot of them, thinking maybe we could make this a vigil of some sort, though I’d never been to a vigil. In my mind, the park filled with the citizens of our town. The boy from the pool, who I’d told about the rally, he’d be there and he’d bring all the middle schoolers. The news vans would come, maybe from Portland, and I would be in the papers and on TV and because of me and my movement, we wouldn’t go to war. Because I didn’t know yet to expect to be disappointed, I really believed it all might happen.

Obviously, no one came.

Two hippies who happened through the park stopped and sat with us in the gazebo and a homeless guy who would have been there anyway also stuck around. Finally, when it became clear no one else was coming, I lit the candles and we went around telling stories. I took the sign I’d painted home with me that night and woke up the next day and kept living my life. I decided 9/11 wasn’t my story. I let other people tell it, people who had been there. The rally became another pin point on my personal map of half-assed fights and unwinnable battles.

Over these thirteen years, though, the impact of a day that at the time seemed so important to the whole world and yet so far away from me has bloomed like unchecked mold. That day and its repercussions have entangled themselves in every detail of our lives, have defined my entire adult life in ways that I am still uncovering, and may remain the most important feature, even if undiscussed or known, in the lives of younger people who weren’t even born when the towers went down and our government decided to fight a war against ghosts and ideas with real live weapons. The casualties have been enormous–entire countries have been reverted to prehistoric times and bands of fanatics roam around torturing people who just want to live. In this country, we have freedom, sort of, but most of it we willingly relinquish, for mirages of “safety.” We exist under constant surveillance, with an implicit understanding that our government is lying to us, killing people all the time. Just like us, they have no idea what they are doing or what’s going to happen next.

For 13 years we’ve lived with all-consuming cognitive dissonance, hoping our iPhones and Bachelor-franchise shows will let us forget but waking up in the morning, still empty and unsure.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next either, though obviously I worry about it. I hope that kid from the pool is okay and being an adult hasn’t been too terrible for him. And those hippies and the homeless guy are okay. I want everyone to be okay. I want us to live in a world without this constant undercurrent of violence, perpetrated by us and for us and against us, but has there ever been a world like that? And anyway, it’s easy for me to say that. I wasn’t in New York. I have no friends who’ve come back from Afghanistan with missing legs. My village hasn’t been shelled; I haven’t seen my family die in front of me. All I have is the dark echo of it, reaching and menacing, saying this isn’t over. This won’t stop until everyone pays for everything.

13 years ago I woke up in the bed I’d slept in for so long to my mother’s worried face. I have nothing hopeful to say about what’s happened since then except, and I hope this isn’t too hollow, too impossible: maybe it’s time for us all to stop worrying, start seeing 9/11/01 as the day the crack in our humanity started to widen and gape, and actually start doing something about what happens next.

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