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September 11, 2009

From the Ashes

The Phoenix is a supernatural creature, living for 500 years. Once its life span is over, the Phoenix builds its own funeral pyre, and throws itself into the flames. As it dies, it is reborn anew, and rises from the ashes to live another 500 years. Alternatively, it lays an egg in the burning coals of the fire which hatches into a new Phoenix, and the life cycle is repeated.

The Phoenix was the symbol of the great civilization of Phoenician people who lived in the East Mediterranean around 4000 BC and invaded the whole Mediterranean area which was known as the Phoenician Sea.

- The Legend of the Phoenix

I awoke this morning to a silent house and the sound of raindrops patiently tapping the leaves outside my bedroom window. I lay nestled underneath the covers for a long time; approaching consciousness warily as though it were a sleeping dog of uncertain temper.

There is a feeling of weightlessness in the moments just before one falls asleep. It happens again just before we open our eyes in the morning. I have often wondered whether that is why I dream of flying sometimes? Lying there, eyes closed, it is almost possible to imagine the mind shaking off the dull restraints of physical existence and taking flight: unbound, unbowed, unfazed by what we think of as reality. Blessedly free, like a child contemplating an endless summer where homework is just an unpleasant memory and the dinner bell doesn't sound until the sun is low on the horizon.

I didn't want to open my eyes this morning. More than anything else I wished to remain in that twilight world where the inexorable laws of physics are momentarily suspended and anything is possible. I didn't want to acknowledge the silence that seemed to press in on me from every wall or the aching, empty place on the other side of the bed; at once a foreshadowing and a metaphor for so many other things I do not want to think about today.

Eight years down the road so many things have been written about 9/11. I suspect this partly explains why each year we grow more reluctant to drag it all back from the recesses of memory. Each anniversary finds us increasingly reluctant to paw through the memories for some new insight, some gleaming bit of sanity that will allow us to make sense of it all.

Most of us, on this day, think of loss. The loss of innocence, of safety. Of nearly 3000 souls we never had a chance to know: entire lives casually snuffed out as though they had no value. Of the sons and daughters, husbands and wives who rose up to defend all that we held so lightly before that fatal day. But most of all, of the shock of having that bouyant, almost peculiarly American sense of invincibility violently ripped away by 19 savages armed, not with assault weapons or suitcase bombs, but with box cutters.

That is all it took to penetrate our superior defenses, our 21st Century technology, our smug sense of superiority: a simple tool most of us have in our toolboxes.

Sometimes, driving along urban superhighways or over gleaming bridges with gossamer supports that arc up into the clouds, or perhaps just strolling around Manhattan as people bustle hither and yon like worker ants - each intent on tasks I can only guess at - I get the feeling we are poised on the edge of history; that this moment is fragile, precious. That this perfection we call America cannot last.

I suppose it is no great wonder, then, that on this particular morning I awoke and thought - not of 3000 lost souls, nor of the 5000-odd who followed them into the abyss - but of an ancient legend.

The Phoenix is a creature of myth and fable conjured from thoughts that dwell just below the surface; an amalgam of centuries of watching people and societies repeat the same mistakes and rediscover the same eternal truths. The story of the phoenix's glorious ascent, slow decline, fiery self-immolation and resurrection reminds us of something important: the loss, destruction, conflict, and pain we instinctively loathe and seek to avoid have a purpose. They awaken defiance and determination in our hearts. They push us out of our complacent sleep - a sleep in which we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the faint whiff of decay emanating from the glittering facade we have built for ourselves.

On 9/11 we were shaken from our sleep; forced to admit the existence of something we should have known; that abundance, freedom and technology cannot protect us from one of the oldest destructive forces known to man: simple human malice. We carry the seeds of our destruction in our own hearts. No system of government, however lofty the ideals upon which it was based, can protect us from our own failings.

It has been interesting, in the 8 years since that awful day, to watch the parade of villains frog-marched before our eyes: Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Bush/Cheney and their neocon puppetmasters, Islamic extremism, Darth Rumsfeld, the Patriot Act, the Israel lobby.

Fear itself. And the latest scary monster under the bed, the fly in the ointment of our content, the intolerable insult to our amour propre; our sense of "fairness": inequality.

What tends to get lost in the post apocalyptic hand wringing, the mourning, the incessant rounds of accusation recrimination and counter accusation, is any recognition of the truly inspiring stories that sprang from the ashes of our smug, pre-9/11 complacency. I used to wonder why we seem so reluctant to take comfort from them. I don't wonder much anymore.

Rick Rescorla, a forgotten hero from a forgotten war. A man seemingly born of another age; cast from a mould we long ago discarded for something more edgy, more relevant in a world where crisp black and white have been so often confused that all which remains are murky shades of grey.

Mark Daily, a product of New Age Orange County moral relativism who discovered clarity gazing back from the eyes of an old Iraqi man:

...not to romanticize him overmuch, but this is the boy who would not let others be bullied in school, who stuck up for his younger siblings, who was briefly a vegetarian and Green Party member because he couldn't stand cruelty to animals or to the environment, a student who loudly defended Native American rights and who challenged a MySpace neo-Nazi in an online debate in which the swastika-displaying antagonist finally admitted that he needed to rethink things. If I give the impression of a slight nerd here I do an injustice. Everything that Mark wrote was imbued with a great spirit of humor and tough-mindedness. Here's an excerpt from his "Why I Joined" statement:

Anyone who knew me before I joined knows that I am quite aware and at times sympathetic to the arguments against the war in Iraq. If you think the only way a person could bring themselves to volunteer for this war is through sheer desperation or blind obedience then consider me the exception (though there are countless like me).… Consider that there are 19 year old soldiers from the Midwest who have never touched a college campus or a protest who have done more to uphold the universal legitimacy of representative government and individual rights by placing themselves between Iraqi voting lines and homicidal religious fanatics.

And here's something from one of his last letters home:

I was having a conversation with a Kurdish man in the city of Dahok (by myself and completely safe) discussing whether or not the insurgents could be viewed as "freedom fighters" or "misguided anti-capitalists." Shaking his head as I attempted to articulate what can only be described as pathetic apologetics, he cut me off and said "the difference between insurgents and American soldiers is that they get paid to take life—to murder, and you get paid to save lives." He looked at me in such a way that made me feel like he was looking through me, into all the moral insecurity that living in a free nation will instill in you. He "oversimplified" the issue, or at least that is what college professors would accuse him of doing.

Not a hero, strictly speaking. But heroic, nonetheless. And Welles Crowther, whose final hours were nearly overlooked in the orgy of navel gazing that followed the attack on the Twin Towers:

Surviving also was the story of a young man with a red bandanna over his mouth and nose who appeared out of the chaos, issuing crisp instructions, lending his strength, and guiding the injured to the stairway out. He spoke with command, but wore no official rescue gear. "Anyone who can walk," he said, "walk down the stairs. Anyone who can walk and help someone else, help. There are people here you cannot help anymore, so don't try to." The young man led first one small group of injured and then another down 17 flights of stairs to relative safety. For nine months, no one knew who he was. Last May, when an article in the New York Times recounted his heroics, he was identified as Welles Crowther '99.

Bill Krissoff, a father who followed in his son's footsteps.

James Layton, Petty Officer 3rd Class, United States Navy:

It’s a small incident in the grand scheme of things. Another Navy corpsman doing his job, working on the wounded, sometimes under fire, and dying in combat as thousands have before him have in the Pacific, in Korea, in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t know if it’s happened quite like that recently, shot dead while applying bandages to a wounded man. Maybe there will be a decoration, something to be presented to his parents to let them know his nation is grateful he did his duty and tended to a wounded Marine under fire, without regard for his own safety. Meanwhile, it’s a heart-rending tableau to imagine, the bandage wrappings and medical gear strewn about the bodies. I stared at the screen for a while and had to compose myself when I worked on the wire copy on deadline tonight.

There is something deeply humbling about these stories. Deeply inspiring.

And also something, I suspect, deeply disturbing. Perhaps that is why our media appear so reluctant to remind us of the greatness that slumbers in the human race; this ability to rise from the ashes of misfortune and summon the courage and the will to do what needs to be done, even at the cost of our own lives.

It is a disturbing mirror, this one. It magnifies our every flaw and makes us look slightly shabby in our own eyes. But the truth it reveals is one we should not fear to face. Though we are all equal in the eyes of God, we are not all equally brave, equally strong, equally wise or equally just. In a way, the fires of 9/11 burned away whatever was dross in these men and left only pure gold behind.

Eight years away from Ground Zero, I find myself beginning to turn from the contemplation of what was lost that day to the contemplation of what we have gained. And in that sense, I can find - even in the pain of over 8000 lives now lost to us - a glimmer of gold. Something to be thankful for. For often it is only when things look bleakest that we appreciate what we take for granted in less fraught moments.

Light.

Honor. Duty. Courage. Greatness. These are not every day words. They seem unsuited, somehow, to the quotidian demands of daily life. Still, I can't help thinking on this most solemn of days that we were given a gift. On the anniversary of 9/11 I don't want to think of the Falling Man, but of the hundred shooting stars that rose from those smoking craters. The thousands of men and women who stepped forward to ensure this outrage did not go unanswered. The thousands of ordinary Americans who, rather than take refuge in petty whining about how their President never asked them to sacrifice, stepped forward to ask, "What needs to be done? How can I help?"

From a distance it matters not so much what was done to us, but how some of us responded to it. Not so much the fire and devastation as what rose from the ashes.

The bad news is that we are not all heroes. The good news is that we have been reminded of the heroes in our midst and the greatness of which the human spirit is capable, if only we have the courage to remember it.

Posted by Cassandra at September 11, 2009 09:02 AM

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Comments

I know one person who is a real hero to me. She dedicates a part of her day to think out and write a weblog that inspires most of us to think and do more. She cares deeply about this country and it shows in her writings. She has written movingly about fallen soldiers, who might otherwise be forgotten. What happened on Sept. 11, 2001, lit a fire in her to do more.

She has a friend, Carrie, who is also a hero to me, a dedicated woman that is part of the group "Soldier's Angels". She does incredible things for wounded veterans. It makes me proud (and humble) to live in the same country as such a woman.

And she has a husband that is a Marine Corps colonel, who put off his retirement to continue serving this big, dumb country. Because he is a noble man much like Rick Rescorla, who sees the task for which he swore his dedication years ago, and continues to serve. Honor, Duty, Country; Always Faithful, to the Constitution and the Republic.
He's a hero to me, too.

I am fortunate to know such a woman, even if it is only through the misty cyberfog of the internet. I feel it is a priviledge to be able to speak up once in a while on her blog, even if what I have to say is not very important.

Sometimes it seems like a long way, from here to there, in our lives. It seems like we walk in darkness, or at least in the shadows, and sometimes it seems we are alone.
And sometimes it seems like it is enough to keep us going, to know that somewhere, someone else sees things the same way you do. That maybe, we are not so alone in the dark as we think we are.

The candle flickers in the wind, yet it has not yet sputtered out and died.

I hope this woman realizes how much her readers appreciate her writing, and the effort and love she puts into her efforts. It has not been in vain.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at September 11, 2009 12:54 PM

*blush*

Now Don, old friends are not supposed to make us cry :p

I know that I do not say this often enough, but thank you. Thanks - all of you - for sharing your thoughts with me over the years. I have learned more from you all than I could from reading a thousand books. Just another blessing I can lay at the door of 9/11, for without it I would never have known any of you.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 11, 2009 01:17 PM

I do not comment often, but I have to second what Mr. Brouhaha said. I will also extend my appreciation to the other visitors who bring new perspectives and information to the discussions and conversations.

I will not forget what happened on this day, but I cannot deny the positive growth that it spurred.
Thank you all.

William sends.

Posted by: William at September 11, 2009 01:45 PM

My sister-in-law and I were commiserating over loss. I don't think it gets easier over time, only more focused. We do what we have to do because we will answer to them for how we have lived. We stop and mourn because we have to remember to keep our focus.

Posted by: Cricket at September 11, 2009 01:56 PM

I humbly offer... what Don said.

Posted by: bthun at September 11, 2009 02:02 PM

We do what we have to do because we will answer to them for how we have lived.

Amen, Cricket. Amen.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 11, 2009 02:16 PM

Again: what Don said.

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at September 11, 2009 10:54 PM

If you can stand the musical style sometimes called "Darkwave" (Think a more driven Depeche Mode) take a listen to the Cruxshadows. if you can't read the lyrics. A lot of their songs deal in themes that echoed for many soldiers I know, specifically "Winterborn (My Sacrifice)", "Citadel", Sophia", "Titan", "Return - Coming Home", "Song for Roland", and most especially "Eye of the Storm".

I spoke to Rogue - the writer, vocalist, and band leader about the themes of heroism and myth they weave throughout their music (A polar opposite to the usual existential nihilism most "goth" bands peddle), and how especially EOTS dealt in standing up, that even with our failures, aspiring to heroism is a standard to try to reach, that heroes and myths show us what we CAN be if we but try. To never give in, that choosing the right and fighting the wrong is WORTH the high price, and giving in is worse. That our histories will be denigrated by the envious, bitter, and power-hungry to hide from us what we can aspire to.


From: EYE OF THE STORM:

----------------------------

I believe in what I fight for

and I have paid for it with pain

i am here because my contributions

may help turn this fate away

and all who stood by and did nothing

who are they to Criticize?

the sacrifices of others-

our blood has bought their lives...



This is the moment of truth

at the point of no return-

place faith in your convictions

when boundaries begin to blur



There is no love untouched by hate

no unity without discord

there is no courage without fear

there is no peace without a war

there is no wisdom without regret

no admiration without scorn

there is strife within the tempest-

but calm in the eye of the storm...



The pages of our history

are written by the hand

with eyes and ears and prejudice

too far removed- to understand

and so the heroes of the ages past

are stripped of honesty- and love

to make them seem less noble

and hide what we can become

Posted by: Darius at September 12, 2009 11:11 PM

Sorry for how spaced out everything is... I added breaks because the preview ran everything together if I didn't.

Posted by: Darius at September 12, 2009 11:28 PM

Ms. Cassandra,

Please allow me too to echo what Don B. so eloquently stated in the initial comment. If there were a way to amplify it and shout it from the rooftops "This woman, this AMERICAN WOMAN is a person of courage and wisdom who has something to say, so listen...." I think many of us would do so.

We are here because you are here. True that if you were not here, we could gravitate to some other place, some other site, and devour the words all the same. But it would not be the same, for they would not be YOUR words, with YOUR perspective and YOUR thoughts.

I appreciate all you do, and thank you with all sincerity for the time you take to do it.

I was asked today why I am still suiting up after 36 years of service (ouch - 36?) and accept a recall from retirement. All I could tell the young Army Captain was "Because I love my country and they asked me to. Do I need a better reason?" He was somewhat speechless, but did say "Thanks for serving when you don't have to."

"When I don't have to???" WTF, O??? Who would not stand in the breech to protect family, friend and country? Who among us all would not, as long as they could? I am always reminded of my Dad's wisdom that if a thing was not worth fighting for - and possibly dying for - then it probably was not worth having. It is up to every one of us to decide what freedom and being an American means and how much it is worth.

In the end, it will determine our future, ou je me trompe??

Posted by: kbob in Katy at September 13, 2009 12:06 PM

Amen, kbob, for your remarks in reference to our wonderful hostess.

As for the other, thank you for your continued service. And, shoot me an email when you'll be in town. I'd love to finally meet you. I will say, though, that I'll be helping out with a location of the Soldiers' Angels national garage sale on Oct. 3th, out in Bastrop, and I'm going to D/FW on Oct 24th with my sisters for a concert.

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at September 13, 2009 04:10 PM

Kbob:

Thanks for the kind words. But I don't do anything important here. This site is a way for me to work out what I think about things and to engage in interesting discussions with people who are interested in the same things and ideas I am.

I wouldn't compare that with what you and so many others do, whether by serving your country or just by being decent parents and good citizens.

I only produce words (boy! do I produce words! :)

I think what really matters in life, though, is what we do. And so I join Miss Ladybug in thanking you for your service.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 13, 2009 04:29 PM

Cass~

You don't give yourself enough credit. You might not thing what you do is important, but many people do. I've had to cut back on the blogs I read regularly - I just don't have the time I used to, to do that. But, yours remains on my "check daily" list. Your words are important to me...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at September 13, 2009 05:39 PM

Miss Ladybug and Ms. Cassandra,

First, thanks so very much for the words of thanks and kindness. Coming from two women I admire, it means a lot. But please know I was not saying it to get attention or points, but to illustrate that even some who serve don't get it. Oh, they may one day, but sitting in a drill hall in hometown, USA, the connection just is not that strong.

And Cass, never forget that those who stay at home and keep the home fires burning are critically important to those of us who do deploy. You serve, in a way as real as any other troop, and you are "permanent party" for the Unit.

"Those who sit and wait also serve" I believe is the expression. We who deploy are so thankful we have our support teams who are there for us. I know we never want to let you down.

Like the man says: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6O-yohHK25g

Posted by: Kbob in Katy at September 13, 2009 07:35 PM

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