Memories of the Fall (2001)
It was just after 7.50 on the morning of September 11th, and I was ducking out of my office to teach an 8.00 A. M. World Literature class. My office door at Taylor University opened directly to the desk of our secretary, Rhonda Gretillat, without whom nothing. Rhonda usually had her radio on and usually kept us informed. I was, as usual, rushing off to class, so it took me a minute really to tune in to what she was trying to tell me.
“One of the World Trade Centers has just exploded in New York City.” Rhonda knew that I used to live in New York, that I love New York, and that, like most [former] New Yorkers, I am often talking about New York. Stunned and foggy, I didn’t mention the news at all in that early morning class. I didn’t want to freak out or freak out the students only to discover later that World War III had turned out really to be just an electrical fire.
Like a lot of people around the world, my colleagues and I spent much of the rest of that day around radios and televisions for further news. I remember the absolute despair and disgust (a literal “sinking feeling”) that came, first, when we heard that the second tower had been hit and, later, when we heard the incredible news that a tower had collapsed. I thought, selfishly, of one of my favorite spots on earth. Just off the shore of lower Manhattan, riding back at night towards the city on the Staten Island ferry, with the proud Towers dominating the skyline. The bright vision, the beautiful world of my youth, gone.
But the day wasn’t over. I had to teach again. As a professor in a Christian college, I thought that I should try to relate the events of the day to some larger picture, some ultimate story within which it could be framed (at least) if not understood.
I wanted to help my students connect our experience with the lives and concerns of other people who have faced and still are facing similar horrors. Some people experience 9/11 every day. To them it’s just called . . . life.
So when I came back to my afternoon World Literature class, I came with the words of C. S. Lewis from a talk he gave to Oxford students during World War II, called “Learning in War Time.” Lewis, who had seen World War I from trench-level and was now trying to teach his students during another great war, points out that if human beings had stopped teaching and studying every time the level of human suffering reached something like crisis proportions (whether a World War or a world-changing terrorist attack), we simply would have shut down all our schools a long time ago.
Moreover, if we could really see things as they are, we would realize, as the scriptures and Christian traditions teach, that the world is always at war, that a battle is always pitched, and that we are always living in crisis time. How dare we stop living (learning, marrying, building and cultivating culture) when an external, physical conflict touches our lives, if, as our religion teaches, every single day a dangerous, terrible (and terror full) conflict rages all around (and, more importantly, within) us?
Then, having asked their permission, I went on to talk about World Literature. Specifically, we discussed the amazing fact that, when he finally arrived at the destination of his great Odyssey (his homeland of Ithaca), the great Odysseus, conqueror of Troy, Cyclops, and pretty much all the known world, was, not very heroically, fast asleep.
Maybe, I thought afterwards, September 11th was a great personal and communal “wake-up call.” Not in the jingoistic sense that Americans now will be sure to remember that they really are the center of the universe and everybody else better be careful or we will kick their non-American butts (one version often heard on popular radio programs). But a call to wake up to our lives, to our journeys (our Odysseys), to our homes (both here and in our ultimate Ithaca). To the great and awful responsibility we have of living in this dangerous, beautiful world. To remember that every time we wake up, or every time we walk out of our office door on the way to class, some miracles and some tragedies are not just waiting to happen. They are happening. People are suffering. Some people are sacrificing everything for a greater cause, for the good of their fellow creatures. Some people are finding ultimate meaning even on the brink of despair and, yes, death. People are, to put it mildly, reordering their priorities.
A final note. Just around September 11th, my friend Twyla Lee told me about an alternate route to Upland from my home in Huntington. Instead of driving to I-69 and fighting the Indy traffic through the relative “sameness” of the Interstate landscape, she said I should try taking Country Road 300 W (which later becomes State 5), going past the lovely Huntington Landfill, the little towns of Lancaster and Van Buren, Eastbrook High School, and some incredible barns. “It’s all two lane farm roads, but it’s about five miles shorter,” she told me.
Dear reader, to the degree I know what it is to love anyting, I fell in love with every inch of that stretch of country road the mornings and afternoons after September 11, 2001. I can’t describe how comforting and reassuring it was through that horrible time to drive past school buses on their way to Lancaster Elementary and Eastbrook High or to get stuck on that winding rural road behind combines and tractors bringing in last fall’s good harvest. "God and the farmers are back on speaking terms," I remember saying to my wife after seeing so many good people bringing in their sheaves one day.
Thanks to that 8 A.M. class, I even was privileged to see the early morning sun rising above the old landfill and the Lancaster cemetery day after day after day. The old barns, the little dying farm towns, the corn stubble which glistened with dew every morning and shone like gold in the late afternoon sun—these bright things will forever be connected to the dark memories of that autumn.
I don’t think I’m making this up; but we all seemed to be waving like neighbors to each other those days, giving the thumbs up instead of the more offensive digital gesture I usually get from other drivers. In slight, almost invisible, ways, we were doing significant healing work. Even rolling down the windows and talking to strangers about things I knew nothing about--like harvesting soybeans or the Eastbrook football team—took on a deeper meaning.
Sometimes people in these parts are labeled as narrow-minded. Perhaps a bit stuck in the mud. More than a little old-fashioned. Those things looked a lot different to me during the autumn of 2001. Through that hard fall, it felt good to be in the heartland.