Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 11, veganism, and memory

I spoke with my mom earlier today about the proliferation of September 11, 2001 news that’s out there at present.  Tenth anniversary and all.  She said, “it’s not like we’ll forget it.  Do we really need to relive it?”  She’s got a point, I think.  But for me, and for reasons that are somewhat vague, I haven’t ever let myself fully experience what I’ve been going through today, ten years later, with regard to 9/11.  I watched this.  It killed me.  The second part in particular.

There are anniversaries...and there are anniversaries. Summer in the year of 2001 is inextricably enmeshed, in my mind, with two major events: my decision to become vegan and the day that the planes flew into the towers in Manhattan.  I had decided, but now, in the retrospect clouded by the plumes of billowing smoke, the screams and melting metal, the people, desperate for escape and air, hurling themselves from hundreds of stories, I don’t remember the exact date that I became vegan. 

I remember that I sold my leather Fluevogs and my Doc Martins on ebay.  I cried to Jason; this felt like a kind of baptism, a kind of secular salvation for me, a woman who had been vegetarian since 1989 and had been volunteering at the Dakin Animal Shelter since moving to Massachusetts.

I got rid of wool.  I went into a major sulk over the loss of fresh mozzarella pizza at Pizza Paradiso in Northampton.  It must have been summer.  It was still warm; my windows were down and I was driving, speaking through tears to Jason about this decision to, as I said at the time, “make my life consistent.”  And it was an important decision, made on a day that I should certainly remember, but the particulars of it are lost to me now, enveloped in what must have come immediately afterwards, the attack, the video images played on a constant unending loop, the deaths.

Everyone keeps saying that there’s no way to forget that day.  And, while I can't forget it, I don’t necessarily remember it either.  That day, that beautiful, blue, warm and peaceful day, I woke up and, I suppose – because this is what I always do – I had coffee. Maybe I went running, but it must have been early, because I remember moving my car from one side of South Street to the other so that repairs could be made on the asphalt near my apartment.  And I remember that the radio was on in my car as I moved it, as always, tuned to NPR, and I knew, at that moment, that a plane had flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

I didn’t have a TV.  Seriously.  This was one of the last pretensions that I shed – and I shed it fast after that morning.  I had been taken with the belief that owning a television, that watching television, was something associated with lower life forms. So what happened next?  Here’s where memory fades, at least with regard to time.  I know that I watched the news with my downstairs neighbor Jamie.  I know that I talked to Jason, but I don’t remember the content of that conversation.  And I don’t remember how time unfolded for the rest of the day.

I know that I tried to call Stacy, my friend from Staten Island who lived in New Jersey, who was turning 32 on September 11, 2001.  I suppose that if one lives long enough in a world of mass murder, one’s birthday will, inevitably coincide with something like this.  For me, all there was, at least for a long time, was the coincidence of my birthday with the death date of Aphra Behn in 1689.  But then there was the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007.  And my birthday, like Stacy’s, became forever associated with evil and the mortality of my species.

I tried to call Stacy that day.  The lines were blocked.  The world just stopped.

What I remember next is all out of sequence: driving to school.  Driving away from school; UMASS closed at 1 p.m.  Sitting down in the office of Stephen Clingman, my dissertation director, and trying not to cry.  He told me that it was ok.  I said that it most certainly wasn’t.

It was the only day during the five years that I was in Massachusetts, five years marked by impossible blizzards, feet deep snows, ice, extreme cold, that the university shut its doors and let its charges wander without cause.  The planes had flown from Logan.  We were free, and we were implicated.  I left the campus.  The gates at the parking garage were open; no one had to pay.  I went home and ran a 5K at the hospital grounds at Smith College.  It was Tuesday.  We raced weekly, but this day my heart nearly exploded because I felt that I had to run for everyone who had died, everyone who had never run before, everyone who had called out that morning only to die just a bit later.

And that’s all I remember.

In the years that have passed since September 11, since that singular September 11, I have closed my heart and my mind.  I have been annoyed at the perpetual remembrances, the constant calling to the fore the faces of the lost.  I know that there is worse evil in the world.  This holds no candle to the holocaust.  I know about what’s happening in Congo.  And then there is the moment, which is barely a moment.  Even as it is, even as it leaves an impression that I can’t shake ten years out.

 Since my country invaded Afghanistan in some misguided and ill-conceived attempt to right the wrongs of 9/11/2001, the statistics for just how many people have died are hard to find.  But my sense is that we’ve killed – many, many times over – the number of U.S. citizens that died that day.  In fact – and I hate to cite Wikipedia, but when it’s the best source that I find on the subject, I will – it seems that in terms of civilian deaths (think of civilians as those people who were working in the Towers that day), from 2001-2003 we leveled 23,600 people.  My mind wants to continue to forget.

Back to veganism: I think about my country, about what we do, about the narrative that we spin.  I watched a documentary today about the phone calls that were made from people in the towers as the towers were about to go down.  One mother said that she stopped listening to her son’s message, that she had created a message that he didn’t really say, because that message, the one that she’d invented, was more comforting to her.  And that’s the way with history: Ernest Renan said, in a lecture he delivered in 1882, "forgetting . . . is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation."  The narrative that we tell -- even in spite of concrete images and saved final voice messages -- is a narrative shaped by what we remember, certainly, but it's also a narrative of invention, of justification, built just as much on what we choose, consciously or not, to forget.

There are no voices to hear or meld or misremember when it comes to animals.  Every day in the United States, the narrative that we imagine or excuse with regard to their lives and deaths is our own.  I became a vegan in 2001 on a day that I should remember but don't, because the reality of not being vegan was staring me squarely in the face.  And then September 11 encroached, called me forth to see the evil that spurs us onwards in a blind frenzy to win some impossible game.

I know many truths from that impossible year: we are still at war, an invisible enemy is supposedly vanquished, and many, many more humans have had to die.  And I am still a vegan, and this choice will continue to sustain me, will continue to bring me up against impossible murderous adversaries, real and imagined, remembered and forgotten, again, and again, and again.  Happy anniversary.