Sunday, September 11, 2016

Finding Meaning on this Anniversary

I have been deeply affected today by the emotions of the anniversary of 9/11 -- much more so than I would have anticipated.  Perhaps it comes from the reflective mood of turning forty this year, and recognizing the changes in my world since 2001.  This summer, at the World Food Prize Hall of Fame, I saw a photographic exhibit called Forty Chances.  These were international images centered around the concept that a farmer has approximately forty seasons farming in their life.  If we start around the age of twenty and have the ability to farm full-time until we are around sixty, we get forty chances.  And thus, I am realistically half-way through those chances.  Based on my grandmother's genetics, I might get a few more.  Based on my mother's experience, I am well beyond halfway.  I can recall my grandfather looking at me as a young person, and saying, "It goes so fast.  It goes SO fast."  Virgil Harrison was -- as always -- correct.

My life was in a state of transition in 2001.  My father had passed away that June of 2001, and was buried in the family plot in Brooklyn.  I could never have conceived of how the city of his birth would change so much so soon.  That summer I was trying to make some decisions on my next steps in life, as I considered returning to school to study education.  After university and a year in Washington, I had moved back to the farm in the hopes of being a help to my grandmother.  My grandmother was aging, but was still in good form.  I suggested to her that we take a road trip that September to visit friends of hers in Wyoming, and see again many of the favorite places we had visited on trips during my childhood.  And so began a three week trip westward.

On the tenth of September, we stayed overnight in Valentine NE.  It was one of the traditions of a Harrison trip out West, that we would visit Young's Western Wear in Valentine.  On the morning of September eleventh, I awoke fairly early, made coffee in the room, and then turned on CNN for the morning news.  The first tower had just been hit, and Grandmother & I watched in shock thinking it was a dreadful accident.  Then the second tower was hit.  I jumped in the shower, and by the time I was out of it, the news was breaking of the plane which hit the Pentagon.  It was profoundly clear that we were under attack as a nation.  I tried to reach my mother on the new cell phone I had gotten that summer, but could not reach her.  How terrible to not be able to reach one's mother and hear her voice!  It is a painful emotion to which I have had to become accustomed in the last decade.

Grandmother wanted to turn back home from our trip, but I encouraged her that the safest place to be was likely in the middle of nowhere . . . and the open roads of Nebraska fit that bill.  We stopped by Young's Western Wear, which had radios playing the news as visitors somberly perused the merchandise.  We continued west, and then cut north to the Pine Ridge Reservation to pay our respects at Wounded Knee.  At the cemetery there, atop a high hill, I finally had cell reception again -- and that was the moment when my mother called.  She had received my panicked message on her answering machine, but had been outside with the sheep all morning.  I ended up being the one to tell her that our country was under attack.  

Grandmother & I travelled onward through Nebraska, and arrived in Torrington WY that evening to visit her friends Marion & Connie.  Throughout the trip, the attacks were pre-eminent in our minds.  Grandmother spent much time reminiscing about the attacks on Pearl Harbor, and how that had impacted her world as a young woman.  We saw CNN's coverage of a rescue from the tower rubble several days later while having lunch at a tiny diner in South Pass City.  We watched the national memorial service from a hotel room in Idaho Falls.  We visited my friends Conny & Don in Idaho, who were still trying to learn if one of Don's friends had survived.  I will always associate that trip and the attacks so closely.

Fifteen years later, what makes a deep impression on me is how my life has changed since those days.  My grandmother -- my travel companion, the woman who helped to raise me -- has passed onward.  My mother, who should have had so many more years, passed long before her.  My mother's husband, who was working with her in the barn on 9/11, has chosen not to be a part of my life.  At the age of 25, life seemed so full of possibilities, even at the most dismal times.  At 40, life seems a frustrating & beautiful struggle to overcome the chaotic nature of this world.  I no longer believe that everything happens for a reason.  Man was given free will, and thus the freedom to make horrific mistakes and commit terrible acts.  Yet, within each of us is deep reserves of strength that we do not even fully know until we are tested.  These reserves of emotional iron allow us to overcome terrible struggles & atrocities.  The human spirit can and will triumph.

This morning at church, we ended the service with prayers for those lost from the attacks of that terrible day.  I found myself crying while reflecting on those lives, in particular those first responders who bravely turned toward the trouble.  I did not lose anyone I knew personally, but as I age I understand better such loss.  Life is so short, and as we mature we know more keenly the stakes and we are gifted with the ability to reflect.  At the age of 25, I would have asserted that by now I would be married with a big family.  I always thought marriage & family were my calling.  Life is unpredictable, though, and that was not the path I was given to walk.  At nearly 40, I can assert that while this was not the life I wanted, it is the life which I have -- and I want it to have value.  None of us know how long we might have, or what day may be our last.  And thus it becomes all the more important that we live each day in a way that makes our life represent something worthwhile, that helps to improve the world around us for those we love.

In reflecting on this anniversary, I do not want those who committed the atrocities or the sense of fear that arose from such acts to be our lasting impression of 9/11.  Rather, I want the memory of those who gave their lives to be our lasting recollection.  Their lives were all cut too short.  Many of them lost their lives protecting others -- from the first responders who ran into the scenes of terror to the brave souls who brought down United 93.  We must honor them by being people of character who strive to make our country a better place.  All of our lives turn out different than we expected, and so many of them end far too soon.  I try to use the opportunities I have with the young people around me to teach them perspective on life, an understanding of history, an appreciation for hard work, and a love of their fellow man.  I want them to be people of character, people who are ready to face the challenges that life will throw their way, people who would be brave enough to sacrifice when called upon.  We must prepare our young people for the reality of the struggles they will face, while equipping them with the courage they will need in this life.  For we need young people who will be like those first responders who saw people in trouble and ran to them to help . . . Not reluctant individuals who merely pull out their cell phones to record such trouble.

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