Letter from the Heartland

Darkness and light: Thoughts on war.


| November-December 2001


The morning of September 11, I was eating oatmeal, symbol of all that is secure and homey, in a Boston café with my sister, Suzanne, and her friend Carol (whose good friend, as it turned out, had gone surfing that day instead of heading to work at the World Trade Center). On the way back to my sister’s house, another friend of hers waved us down and screamed the news to us. It took me a minute to understand that her husband was supposed to be at a meeting at the World Trade Center. It turned out he was two blocks away at the time of the attack.

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Stories flew within my circles of friends, and friends of friends—two people who had each been booked on one of the doomed flights out of Boston but hadn’t taken them, schoolmates of my children or of my nieces and nephews with missing relatives, the grandson of a dear friend, providentially out to breakfast for his monthly meeting with an elderly mentor. So many stories, each with only a degree or two of separation.

Since that first tragedy-filled day, I have been in Maine, unable to fly back to my husband Eric and my children in Minnesota. On the way, I picked up a rental car at the Portland airport, where a scant 24 hours earlier two of the hijackers had boarded a plane bound for Boston. A little later I was crouched in my friend Margot’s tomato patch. “It’s scary to have draft-age sons, isn’t it?” she said, sending fear into my marrow. On the phone my 16-year-old son said that he kept wondering what had happened to the hijackers that made them so embittered and fanatical. I told him I was grateful and proud that he was asking those kinds of questions. “Thanks,” he said. Pause. “Now will you give me your car?”

Laughter and normalcy, horror and grace. As I muse, in my isolation, about whether it is possible to have a visceral connection across long distances to people I love, and, beyond that, to the lives of people I don’t know, I read an e-mail from Deepak Chopra. Even after he knew his wife and son were safe, he said, his body still seemed “of its own accord to feel a far greater trauma that reached out to the thousands.” And I asked myself, Why didn’t my body go stiff during the bombing of Iraq or Serbia? Why did I not feel anguish enough to join the calls for a halt to the violence? If there is a deep wound, shouldn’t it affect everyone?”

Yesterday I watched a Navy destroyer stream out of port and across the horizon, a pair of hawks whirling spirals within spirals in the foreground. On the radio, talk revolves around the word war. I watch an ecstatic toddler dancing back and forth with foam-edged waves, and I superimpose my babies. I think of Martin Luther King’s words: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. . . . The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”