When life hands you violence, make peace. Or, when life hands you a Japanese garden knife, pull out weeds.
That was my contribution to the 9/11 National Day of Service, an event honoring those who died and served around that touchstone date. This year, through Greater DC Cares, three colleagues and I helped out at the Historic Congressional Cemetery in southeast DC. This 200-year-old private cemetery is the eternal resting place for many politicians, well-known DC families, veterans, and more, including John Philip Sousa and J. Edgar Hoover.
You might find it morbid -- or worse, flippant -- to spend 9/11 gardening in a cemetery, as if groundskeeping could really make a difference, or as if we really needed any reminding about that day's death toll. But by the end of our volunteer session, I knew we'd made a good decision, because in the peace and quiet of those hallowed grounds we found the space to open up about what 9/11 meant to us and for us.
One Chamber of Commerce employee told us how when the third plane struck the Pentagon, he was on a conference call at his downtown DC office. "I'm sorry, I have to go -- we're under attack," he said. Then he wandered out into the street, only to find that thousands of other DC residents had wandered outside too -- and were standing in absolute silence, looking toward the White House.
My colleague shared that her friend's father, only 57 years old, was killed in one of the Towers. His body was found in November, along with those of a group of policemen. It's unclear whether they had gone back in or never made it out. His son -- my colleague's friend, a highly educated intellectual -- became "virulently" anti-Arab, a stance she says has lessened only a little over time.
And I thought about my morning up at college, when a friend in NYC frantically IMed me: "We're being attacked!" Confused, I walked into our dorm floor common area where the TV was blaring -- just in time to watch the second plane hit. I remember wandering across campus in a daze, attending peace vigils that weekend, and watching our significant NYC student population constantly talk and cry and hold each other for weeks thereafter.
Today I got perspective on what 9/11 meant to others around the country. Today I grasped how this horrific event, though known for its global repercussions, was really more about personal impact. And I remembered, truly remembered, my realization 8 years ago that the world in which I was to become an adult was not going to be the one I had expected -- and for the first time, I have enough years behind me to understand just how different those worlds are.
All this with a Japanese garden knife in my hand, hacking at stubborn weeds on the brick path with grave markers on all sides, marveling that somehow we manage to keep this crazy world going long enough to need to keep doing this at all.
The people beneath those tombstones are never coming back. The bricks -- the cemetery's originals -- will eventually wear down under rain and feet. But those weeds will always return, because they are resilient and tough and determined. It's how they're built. And there will be a new batch of people, fresh and eager and energetic, ready to tackle them. Because it's how they're built too.
Today I gave a little beauty and order back to a chaotic, inexplicable earth. It's not enough to save it, I know. But it might be enough to hold the chaos at bay, just for now. And I hope the more we remember and the more we restore, the stronger that protection becomes, so that one day we can put aside the knives completely and enjoy the path together.