Documentary artifact, September 11

Usually, I use this space to talk about what it’s like to be a character inside a novel. Today’s post is a departure in content and in tone — a guest post by Leona Theis, the author who created me. Here, for the record, is a set of notes she wrote ten years ago.

Documentary Artifact, September 11, Reproduced Ten Years On

Carry on, then. Keep at it, keep working. I’m trying to remember what Chekhov had to say about the value of ordinary endeavour in the face of come-what-may. But the rationale behind this idea, what was it again? Refuge? Redemption? The continuation of the good? At any rate, carry on I do. I’m an editor, and my work is to edit. For an hour and a half, with the TV still on, I restructure the sentences of an academic article written by three researchers who are studying a pollution-reduction program near the Grand River. This very ordinary work is worthwhile enough, I tell myself, that it merits my attention today. And I have a deadline.

Fifty thousand people, the man on TV says. Fifty thousand people work in the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York on an ordinary day. I’m sorry — worked there. I’m sorry. I cried this morning; that stopped at about 9:30 or so. There are more tears inside, but for now they ration themselves. How many orphaned children? What will become of them? What will be the architecture of their hatred? It’s our turn, now, to ask these questions.

Emotions, analysis, history: all three are making themselves up as they go along today. News anchors continually interrupt commentators in mid-sentence to say, We go now to …   to an airport in Boston, a street corner in New York, the Mall in Washington, a field in Pennsylvania, where yet another part of the story plays out.

All day the question is, Who? Osama bin Laden is at the top of everyone’s list. A former U.S. Secretary of State says the country is now at war. Eagerness vibrates in his voice-box. The blood is up.

Carry on. I’m a writer, and my job is to write. I sit with pen and notebook, skipping from one image to the next, much the way the news channel does. On television, Karen Hughes, Counselor to the President of the United States, reassures us we are safe. Who are we?

It’s 2 p.m. on the Canadian Prairies. My eleven-year-old left for school this morning. Ran off down the block. Be careful of cars, I said. It was what I could think of to say. Security. I drove downtown just before noon. Before I left the house I set the alarm system. Pushed the buttons and listened for the series of beeps. If something were to happen to my house while I was away, at least there’d be a noisy siren to declare it. Downtown I parked in front of Scotia Centre and locked the car doors. Little bits of plastic and metal.

The good news today so far, as the news channel sees fit to report: New York citizens are rushing to give blood. Canadians too. A Korean Airlines jet did land safely in Whitehorse, it was not a hijacking as feared.          …         …         This is all I can think of under the good news heading.

This morning I remembered to pour myself a glass of soy milk. If I don’t drink soy milk I will suffer the nuisance of hot flashes and the plague of insomnia. I’m entering a new phase of life, when the hormonal balance I’ve taken for granted for the past thirty years can no longer be counted on. Goodbye to the illusion of youth.

The news anchors ask, Who has the capability? A sequence of talking heads give their answers: a handful of terrorist organizations, they say. Also some governments. Don’t forget, they say, there are some governments with such capability. The news anchors ask, What happens next? Ultimatums that governments surrender terrorists known to be within their borders, or suffer attack. George Bush says he will hunt down and punish the folks responsible. His choice of word, “folks”. He is a wartime president now, one of the talking heads declares.

Wartime. During the Second World War, my mother filled two notebooks. Sporadic entries, not a continuous journal; the quotidian of her life interspersed with newspaper headlines and casualty reports and black humour. Democracy sausages: They’re going to skin the dictators and stuff them with their own baloney. To what purpose did she write in notebooks? To sort herself out? To help her remember? For some imagined audience? For the record?

A failure of intelligence. People on the news channel say these words over and over. I’ll say it’s a failure of intelligence. In bringing ourselves to this pass, the human race has failed to be intelligent.

On TV we return to New York. The statute of liberty in the foreground. The teal-blue water of the harbour; the city’s famous skyline, altered, hidden behind billows of grey smoke.

Nova Scotia’s gas pipeline sends fuel to the U.S. They’re stepping up security. There is concern about the oil fields in Alberta.

The planet.

From now on, for North Americans, everything will be After September 11. Welcome to the world.

This morning the phone rang, and when I answered a telemarketer asked me which of two free gifts I wanted: candles, or something else that didn’t register on my consciousness, her voice so chirpy, so loud I had to hold the receiver six inches from my ear. The first thing she’d asked was, How are you today?

Well … I said, … who is this? (Who the hell?!) It was a conversation that would have made little sense at the best of times.

A man from the plumbing & heating company arrives now at my front door. He’s here to repair the fill valve on the boiler downstairs. Carry on, then.

A high level of sophistication. This phrase repeats on TV and radio throughout the day. Compare to: A failure of intelligence.

Americans, some commentators say, are angry with their government, with the man in charge, for not protecting them. Is it morally wrong, then, to be vulnerable?

All flights in Canada and the U. S. are grounded, the skies uncluttered. If something’s up there, the U. S. Air Force will be after it. Hundreds of airplanes, diverted from American airports, rest on Canadian runways. Forty thousand passengers, and where in Gander and Happy Valley—Glace Bay will they sleep tonight? It takes the RCMP an hour and a half to sweep each plane. Many of the forty thousand will still be sitting on those planes tomorrow. What do the passengers know about what’s going on?

I am unable to give blood. I’ve tried before; my histamine level is too high. My blood is not useful. It’s hay fever season.

I eat some fruit, then take the pail of kitchen waste outside to the compost. Into the heap I stir grapefruit skins, the heel of a mouldy loaf of bread, the green tail of a leek. In the east bed, roses, delphiniums and daylilies are withdrawing into themselves in preparation for winter, but along the north fence the late asters have begun to bloom, purple and pink and white. Feathery pompoms and blushing buds. In New York, people can’t breathe for the ash in the air. They need to wash their eyes repeatedly.

This morning, standing in the shower before I’d heard what had happened, when it was still a normal day, I was thinking I should get a crew from the city to come around and clear the tree roots out of the sewer lines. I was thinking how, the last time they were here, the man who operated the roto-rooter advised me that twice a year I should phone the city and tell a lie. If it gets in too bad shape, too many roots, he said, he has a dickens of a time with it, so call before it gets bad. I should call the dispatcher at the city, he said, and tell her I put a load of laundry in the machine and the sewer backed up. Only if I have a bona fide crisis on my hands will they send someone. They won’t dispatch a crew simply on the basis on my suspicions. Everyone would want one. Security.

I went downtown earlier today for my scheduled haircut. 12 o’clock, and I was ten minutes late because of the traffic jam above Broadway Bridge. Fire trucks and police cars (and an ambulance?) at Victoria School. An alarming sight on any day; surreal today.

At the haircutter’s, Suzie greeted me with Hello and then silence. Normally we chatter. We walked to the sinks at the back.

How are you today?

It’s weird to be just carrying on as if … .

I know, it’s all we’ve been talking about all morning.

I leaned my head back into the sink. A beefy man next to me leaned back as well. His hairwasher told him that she and her husband were going to Montreal at the beginning of October. And to New York. She laughed nervously.

The hairwasher said, But it’ll be cleaned up by then, I guess.

Yeah, the man with shampoo in his hair said, it’ll be all cleaned up.

I guess we won’t visit the World Trade Center. Nervous small giggle.

I guess not.

Back at her chair, Suzie and I made conversation about the tragedy, the anxiety. Her partner is at a cabin in Waskesiu today. No TV; she called him this morning and told him to find one somewhere and watch the news. She told him what she knew as of 9 a.m., our time. People don’t believe you when you call them up and say that kind of thing, she said.

The Toronto Star has published an EXTRA, an afternoon edition that has just hit the streets. This hunger today for news, for details, anything, anything. I’m not the only one.

Try to preserve — recover? — the notion of human when human beings harbour and unleash such hatred. At the hairdresser’s, Suzie took my glasses from me and set them on her cupboard. I couldn’t see. Even my own reflection in the mirror a few feet away was nothing more than a blur of purple shirt and a fuzzy entity where my head should be. This inability to see was somehow appropriate.

José Saramago wrote something — it was about how to be human. In his novel Blindness, one group of the afflicted refuses to give up on the practice of burying the dead. They cling tenaciously to this principle, one of the few indices of human still available to them.

My son comes home from school, and we turn off the news and talk about the training his class is doing for next month’s cross-country run. (Next month will come to pass, surely?) He’s improved his time on the 3K. He came second in his class this afternoon, six seconds behind the first-place runner. My son is bright, beautiful, coming into his own. He excels at math and chess; he’s a competent musician. He is red-haired, green-eyed, alive in a world where this can happen. I’m sorry, has happened. Happens, on some scale, in certain places, as regularly as rain.

5:30 p.m. in Saskatoon. Still there is confused speculation about who could be responsible. The feeling that anything is possible now. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. The suggestion that retaliation may include deployment of a tactical nuclear weapon. That’s what a man named John Thompson said on TV just now. I saw and heard him, and Peter Mansbridge said, You’re not serious, and he said, I am. And hardly back-pedaled.

There were reports an hour ago of a bombing in Kabul. The world is on alert.

South Manhattan evacuated, patrolled now by the U.S. National Guard. How many bodies trapped in the rubble of the WTC? Seventy-eight New York police officers missing now, along with a couple of hundred firefighters. I don’t know what proportion of the city’s human infrastructure this adds up to.

The passengers on those planes sitting on Canadian tarmac are growing impatient. The RCMP has picked up the pace; they are now clearing four planes per hour. Passengers are being taken to sportsplexes and schools and exhibition buildings. There are seven or eight thousand diverted travelers in Halifax alone.

Carry on. Late afternoon, and my husband (as coach) and son (as player) go to football practice. At a nearby photocopy joint I make fifteen copies of play diagrams and fifteen copies of the practice schedule. I deliver them to the field. Parents arrive and drop off players in ones, twos, threes. Lush grass, yellow leaves, a September breeze like a tonic. The sun is shining. Coach and players sit on the ground looking at diagrams of circles, lines and arrows. They’re talking strategy. Did I mention the sun was shining? Saskatoon was made for an autumn day like this. Human beings were made for an autumn day like this.

Evening. Next door, Mary, in her eighties, and her daughter Kathy are bent in the garden picking tomatoes and peppers — their delicious, yellow-green, Hungarian peppers. I go outside to ask, and they say, Yes, risk of frost. We’re probably not in danger, but I’ve toiled over the vegetables all summer and I don’t want to wake up tomorrow and see that my work has disappeared. I harvest a few tomatoes and cover the rest. They’re delicious but unusually small this year; not many are ripe yet. They crowd each other on the vine, in the shade of the corn. That corn — it’s produced very little this year, in spite of the sun and space and water it takes up. It occurs to me I should record my observations about the performance of the crops every year in a gardening journal. It’s so easy to lose track of the facts, to forget from year to year.

My son and I bring the pumpkins in. I wrestle them from the vines and he carries them to the house, wearing his quilted winter mitts so he can handle the prickly stems. The early evening light has a harvest hue of orange, freakishly bright against green grass. Across the fence, we pass Mary and Kathy two pumpkins. They are so pleased. They respond by offering half a dozen Hungarian peppers.

We carry twenty-two pumpkins to the basement. Down, up, down, up. My son’s long legs climb the stairs ahead of me, eleven-year-old skinny — so skinny I can interpolate the mechanics of the ball and socket at his hip as it moves inside the fabric of his sport shorts. His white socks sag at his ankles. He grew an inch and a half this summer and is almost as tall as I am. I can’t find the baby in the boy anymore. I’m up to my eyebrows in child. Lined up on the basement floor, the pumpkins form a scalloped border of intense orange where the floor meets the grey cement wall, and the contrast is striking. The orange, the vibrancy of a September harvest in Saskatchewan; the grey, New York City under ash.

Voltaire wrote something — it was in Candide — about how people turn to tending their own gardens. It’s been twenty years since I read that book. Is it a sign of retreat, to tend a garden, or a sign of engagement with the world? Maybe the gardener is just another “good person doing nothing,” allowing evil to flourish. Maybe the comfortable spend too much time turning soil when they ought to be doing otherwise. I grasp at the garden as metaphor and come up with the comforting thought that my garden is my opportunity to cultivate and nourish within my own reach — and I suppose I’m clutching at straws. I am, after all, privileged to have a garden at all, especially one located in this quiet corner of the world. Candide, I understand, was a work of satire, though at the time that I read it someone probably had to tell me so. Voltaire was posing questions, not answering them.

I’m an editor, and my work is to edit. What further shape to make of the scribbling on these pages? Little more than the dozens of scribble-outs and arrows and inserts and rearrangements I’ve already made in the course of the day, I think. A rearrangement of syntax here or there for clarity. This congregation of paragraphs represents itself, an offering only. The days and weeks to come will overflow with interpretation and analysis, but these words here and now — they’re just for the record: this is how it was on a certain day. From the terrain of a white, middle-class, Canadian woman whose only professed faith is to believe that human beings know as much about how to care for each other as we know about mutual destruction. Is that the direction we ought to look in response to the question What now?

The dentist’s office called this afternoon with a reminder that my husband has an appointment to have a crown cemented on one of his molars tomorrow. I noted this information on the wall calendar by the fridge. September 12: dentist, 10 a.m., crown. The calendar features reproductions of Chinese fine art. In the present image, a leopard and a tiger face each other against a background of green and gold. Their tails swoop through the air, whip-like. Their mouths are wide. Do leopards and tigers laugh? Not these. These are baring their fangs.

Each month, below the numbered squares, the counted days, the calendar presents a Chinese character accompanied by the sequence of pictographs and brush-strokes through which it developed. September shows the evolution of a well-muscled arm as it becomes the character that signifies power. A word of multiple interpretations. With my ballpoint pen I drew an arrow that began at the graceful black lines of the calligraphy for power and circled back to the drawing of the human arm.

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2 Responses to Documentary artifact, September 11

  1. Kim Aubrey says:

    This feels like a meditation, a moment by moment account of the day, ordinary life lit up by the tragedy so that we feel how precious it is. It makes me remember going to yoga class that morning, pulling my attention away from the TV, away from the unbelievable devastation, and doing something ordinary to reassert my faith in life. Thanks, L.

  2. Leona Theis says:

    Thank you, Kim. Digging this out and looking at it ten years later reminded me of the importance of sometimes writing things down in the moment and then leaving them be, simply for the record.

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