- Where were you when Pearl Harbour was attacked?
(not born yet)
- Where were you when they declared victory during WWII?
(still not born)
- Where were you when JFK was shot?
(nope, still not yet)
- Where were you during the Apollo I disaster?
(pooping my diaper, but we’re getting closer.)
- Where were you when you heard Elvis died?
(OK, I remember this one, but only because the announcement interrupted after-school cartoons. I was not impressed.)
Moments of high emotion become landmarks along the timeline of our life. The birth of a child, reaching goal are important, but pale in our memories when held up against national or international events. Tragedies are more memorable than celebrations. And while I don’t believe any of this SHOULD be true, I can’t help but admit that it is.
Which makes it challenging when you sit with a group of people who have this strong connection to a moment that, for whatever reason, you didn’t experience.
Which is probably why I have felt oddly out of sync the last week.
On September 1, 2001, my family and were on a life-changing flight from Cleveland Switzerland. I was part of an international project team, and my employer decided to move my family and I to their global headquarters for a couple of years so I could help coordinate from the central office.
On September 2nd our life as a chaotic jumble of temporary housing, tiny cobbled streets, a blend of foreign languages – none of which we spoke particularly well – and helping our kids get ready for the their first day in an “international school”.
On September 9th we celebrated my daughter’s 10th birthday. Our crisis was finding our way to a bakery that made such exotic things as “birthday cakes” – and finding our way home again.
On Monday morning, September 10th our 4th grade got on a train with her classmates for a week-long field trip in the mountains. The far off and inaccessible mountains of a tiny and inaccessible country in the middle of Europe.
Tuesday September 11th was a work day for me, and for my wife is was another stressful day of figuring out how to make a home in this foreign place. Nothing was different for us until about 4pm, when the neighbors in the apartment upstairs mentioned we might want to look at the news. Most of the TV stations were in French.Unlike my friend Marci Oster – also a new expat at the time – we were not living in a country that had particularly strong ties to America (neither emotional nor technological). English was about as important there as Spanish-speaking stations are here. They existed, but as a specialty service. Not something you get automatically in a temporary apartment.
After a bit of searching, we found station which ran CNN for part of the evening, and tuned in. We went to bed that night thinking there had been a terrible accident, but nothing more. We knew nothing of school lockdowns, of evacuations, of cancellations. We didn’t feel a wisp of the fear, uncertainty and doubt that settled like a fog over America.
The following morning there were more details, but in our immediate surroundings nothing changed. Security wasn’t tighter, nobody avoided large crowds, and at the border crossings the guard dogs still slept by the seats their human companions lazily waved you through with barely a glance.
2 days later my daughter came down off the mountain from her trip and we had to figure out what to tell her. For her, the experience was even more distant. Imagine being 10 and your parents telling you that 3 days ago, 5,000 miles away, some bad people did some bad things and a lot of people were hurt. Nobody we knew – thank God – but it was bad. In return she gave us a vague look as she scanned our faces for a clue about how to react. If we were upset, then she’d be upset. Otherwise, this was a non-event in her world.
During the subsequent 8 years of “where were you when) conversations, our family struggled to find a way to express our detachment without insulting the experiences of our friends, family and neighbors. The struggle has been all the more challenging this past week, when 9/11 remembrances have been ubiquitous in the news.
Yesterday, when much of the nation was mentally and emotionally preparing to relive a period that has – for better or for worse – become etched in their memories my family and I were…
It was Shabbat, so our Tv’s and cell phones and computers were blessedly silent. Our day was filled with the peace and calm that comes each week – visiting friends, sharing meals, praying and learning.
We knew what was coming – each Rabbi’s drash made at least a mention of the event. But in the midst of hearing people attempt to provide insight, as they attempted to connect the events from 10 years ago to the words of our tradition, as they struggled to find a path to healing or a sense of purpose or whatever it was they felt was needed, I sat in a state that has become all-too familiar: