The common question everyone seems to ask and sometimes answer year after year is the same line of inquiry that is asked about any watershed event. Where were you when the Challenger exploded? What were you doing when the Berlin Wall was dismantled? What do you remember about the events of 9/11?
Not much, really. I worked third shift at a youth crisis center. We'd had a rough night. One of my coworkers admitted a twenty-three-year-old prostitute to the program at the end of his shift, left it to the second shift people to tell her she couldn't stay, and then I came on duty just in time to do the paperwork, and... I just wanted to go home, take Dogface McFuzzybutt out for a wee and a quick jog, then sleep off the frustration.
And that's exacty what I did, having no idea the world as I knew it was going to end in a little over ten minutes.
It was just after eleven in the morning when my mother woke me up to inform me the Pentagon had been attacked and the World Trade Center was gone. As I tried to wrap my sleep-fogged mind around what she told me, she went into the living room and turned the television to CNN.
There was the then new, now ubiquitous crawl running along the bottom of the screen. Every edge seemed to stream information as if the newsreaders couldn't get it out fast enough. These new elements framed the shaken journalists who introduced replay after replay of what happened earlier that day.
"Do you have gas in your car?" my mother asked. I shook my head. "Well, you need to fill up your tank. I don't want you to get stranded coming or going. In fact, I'd rather you stayed home."
A quick sidebar to explain something about Nashville. Whenever something goes wrong anywhere in the world, people here immediately panic and go buy as much gas as they can. There can be a storm somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico and everyone else is fine. Atlanta? Chattanooga? Houston? Safe as houses with full tanks. Nashvillians will suck the pumps dry and then sit shivering over stockpiles of Oreos and AA batteries. So yes, there were lines at some stations while others were already closed with "Out of Gas" signs taped to their windows.
After we took care of that errand, we bought lunch and sat out on the patio. We listened to reports that no one was flying anywhere over the U.S. until they knew more. The skies were indeed emptied of everything but birds.
The shelter was just a few streets over from Vanderbilt's medical campus and on the most used path of their Life Flight helicopters . For the rest of the week and then some time after, every time a rescue craft roared over, our residents would pile out of their rooms and sit in the common room. Nobody slept. Normal was something we figured out we took for granted.
For the fortunate children at home, their senses of what was sure and safe had shifted. Crisis calls had never been particularly frequent. My one or two callers an hour who needed to blow off steam were now jockeying for talk time with children who waited for their parents to go to bed. Mom or Dad worked in the Tennessee Tower or at Fort Campbell or BNA. What if bad things happened there?
One night, my conversation with a young boy was interrupted by his mother. When she reaized who he was talking to, she sent him back to bed and started talking about dealing with her and her children's fears.
"When does normal come back?" she asked.
I told her what I told everyone who asked that question. I didn't have an answer. Almost twenty years later and I am back to listening to people talk through their hopes and fears. They ask about normal. They tell me their hopes for life when we all go back to normal. I listen and tell them I hope they move forward to what makes them happy.
Like many Americans, I've been dreaming a lot lately. The dreams are vivid. Sometimes the information that streams through my unconscious state lingers as I surface through REM back to wakefulness. I hear and see fleeting remnants of those dreams.
Very early last Friday, I woke to find I'd been sleepwalking. I remembered following my old sheepdog down the hall where I was sure there was a door to a room that had something I needed. (This has a point. Please bear with me.) There was just a bookshelf, as there had always been. Touchstones to the things I loved live on those shelves: Zipes and Dundes on fairy tales, Levi-Strauss' elegant account of a taxonomic record of shared experience expressed in a new disciplinary language and yet has the brocaded feel of a fable, Turner's rabbit hole of ritual behavior defined and parsed in Western theatrical terms.
I began to panic. Where was it? I looked at my dog, who in waking life has been gone over ten years now. He shook his head, making his hairy ruff fly wild and his collar jingle, and looked back at me.
"This is normal," he said. "Might as well be who you are. Nothing else is an option."
I started to kneel down to pet him, and that was when I woke up.
"Normal is gone," I said to myself.
I meant to write this essay last Friday. For some reason, words would not come. Morning prayer included a meditation on 9/11. At that time, the minister... (Celebrant? What is the proper word? Me talk purty one day.)
The minister made the observation that sometimes the best tribute is silence. Maybe that's what some of us needed last Friday: quiet skies and the time and space to just think in the midst of our current state of sturm and dang.
What is normal? It looks like whatever it will be is up to us.