I like this essay not because I was lucky enough to hear its very first incarnation as part of Rebecca's graduate MFA lecture and still remember being blown away by her delivery. The entire Bennington audience was riveted, and I had to sit still for a moment after. She got it. Rebecca got it so unequivocally right.
She did not speak in cliched, hackneyed language meant to sound profound. No ultimate sacrifices, no lost innocence, no fallen heroes, and no jingoistic song lyrics. She didn't put a boot in our ass because it's the American way, and she didn't point to an American flag sticker or a bible and say with authority "See? This means I am a patriot."
Rebecca was a flight attendant, in the air, at the time of the attacks. She wrote about fear. She noted the smallest details, and she captured the moment when her world view shifted.
On this 10-year anniversary, many people will share their recollections. There will be a subtle jockeying for credibility as people claim connections. In fact, I find myself doing it. I was in DC. I drove to the apartment just before the highway was closed, one of three vehicles on the road in the two miles between the Pentagon and where I lived. I saw the wreckage within an hour of the impact, but I smelled the sour, chemical odor for weeks after. I spent thirty agonizing minutes trying to locate my husband, whose role with the military often put him inside the Pentagon. Married for less than a month, when I finally spoke to him, we made an emergency plan. As I drove out of the District, I saw armed street patrols.
Travis and I waited with a friend who endured eight crippling hours to see his wife. In a tiny kitchen far away from Maine, I cooked from the Marjorie Standish collection. I made blueberry cobbler. Lemon chicken soup. Spicy black bean soup, too. I baked banana bread, and I sent Travis out the door with armfuls of casserole dishes. When we heard the military planes above our building, even though his wife was still absent, our friend noted "I feel good knowing our guys are up there." We watched George W. Bush on the television, and my liberal sensibilities shifted. "Whatever it takes," I nodded, acutely aware that this was bigger than ideology. He had my support.
Glazed and numb from the television, Travis and I sought solace in music a couple days later. Ellis Paul and Lucy Kaplansky played a double bill, and we sat in the half full venue, trying to make sense of things in a new normal.
That was my experience of fear.
Here is Rebecca's.
You Can't Even Remember What I'm Trying to Forget
Threepenny Review, Winter 2005
Challenge: In the spirit of remembrance, note your own experience of September 11. Use only concrete words and phrases: things you can see, taste, touch, feel, or smell. Describe your experience with physical terms, and avoid abstractions. New writers believe abstractions strengthen prose, and they generally do not. Like new construction or repairs, the most solid effects come from bricks, not imagined phrases.