"A word in earnest is as good as a speech"
~Charles Dickens: Bleak House

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Being irrational ......... and American

What scares you? There was a question like this in the 30-day blog but I found this list of phobias when I was searching something else and I was amazed at all the things people are afraid of and I started thinking about my most irrational fear and where it came from. Ironically it connects to the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 and a recent article I found on pledging allegiance to the American flag (funny how life works).

My most irrational fear is driving on the highway. I remember when I loved taking long drives to cool places. Twelve hours to Canada .... no problem. Back and forth to my parents house when I lived in New Hampshire ..... didn't give it a second thought. And then 9/11 happened. What does the attack on America have to do with my fear of driving on the highway, let me connect the dots.

September 11, 2001 was a gorgeous morning. I drove to the subway station, parked my car and jumped on the Blue Line to Boston. I had my headphones on, reading a book and then walked to my office. I remember walking in the door and saying something like "wow what a great day." My co-workers looked at me like I was insane and explained that one plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. I don't think we realized as we stood there that two planes had actually flown into 2 of the towers. We tried to get on the CNN webpage to figure out exactly what had happened, but it wasn't working. Then a horrified radio announcer said a plane had flown into the Pentagon. I remember thinking ..... this is bad.

We went upstairs to watch the news in the Media Services office. The people jumping from the building were worse than any nightmare I could think of. I just sat silently crying ..... how awful could things be inside that building that the idea of jumping 80+ stories was your best option. And how long did those people live, what were they thinking? It was all unfolding live in front of us as we watched from the safety of our office. My next memory of that day is so vivid it still wakes me up in the middle of the night on occasion. We watched as rows New York police and firemen marched into the world trade center buildings. I don't know how many ..... anywhere from 25-100, the next image really skews my memory. I don't know how many minutes actually passed between those men & women entering the building and when the building collapsed it seemed like seconds. We were all silent in the room because we knew that all those people had just marched in to their deaths.

At that moment one of the security guards came into the office and told us there were rumors that they were going to shut down the subway system. I literally ran downstairs, grabbed my bag and headed out the door. I don't think I had ever wanted to get home to my family more than I had at that moment. The city was surreal. Boston is a noisy place ..... horns, sirens, people, planes. But on that morning there was a creepy silence. There was a great deal of traffic on the streets, but noone honked horns, the people all seemed to be walking in a daze, including myself. I got on the train and could not believe the silence - it was deafening. The traincar I was in was half-full. Noone had books out, or headphones on and we all just kind of looked at each other from time to time .... wanting to say something but not knowing what to say. I don't know about anyone else, but this was my first realization that as I had been trudging past Logan airport on the train on my way to work ..... the planes that caused this death and destruction were taking off. Now as I rode past the same airport it was eerily silent with not a plane in the sky.

I went to the Middle School my mother was teaching at first once I got off the train since it was on the way from the station to my son's school. There was a line of parents outside the building waiting to pick up their children. I found my mom sitting in the teacher's lounge with her cell phone, dialing and redialing my number since she had not been able to get service. Once I assured her I was ok I set off to get my son. My oldest was 7 at the time. I got to his school and spoke with the secretary. She said that the children had no idea what was going on and they had no plans to tell them. I decided that terrorists probably would not attach my small no name city and so I decided not to interrupt his day and I headed home.

I became obsessed with the news coverage. The reality of 24 hour news coverage was not good for a lot of people at this time and I was one of them. I watched at home, I watched at work, I hardly slept. Over and over again I watched those people jump, I watched those buildings fall. I watched funerals and speeches. I think I was just trying to make sense of it all. Work was a nightmare. We had just opened a Mosque and each day there was a bomb threat and we would have to evacuate, parents called all day wanting us to guarantee their children's safety, several countries revoked student visas and we had to get them home. And then there was the anthrax. I remember the Boston police coming in hazmat suits to check out white dust in the lobby ..... if I remember correctly it was a powdered donut.

Then there was the day that the news reported they had caught some of the terrorists responsible for planning the attacks at the Copley Plaza in Boston. There were rumors that the suspects were still in the hotel. I left the office and ran to the Copley - hoping to see what they looked like, these evil heartless, soulless people. As I made my way there I thought I would be the only one who needed this closure, but there were thousands of us. Some I am sure just had a morbid curiosity, but the most I think needed to put a face to the horror. Not a 2-dimensional face, but a real face. I waited for hours until someone finally came over and confirmed that they had taken the suspects out of the hotel another way and we should all leave. I realized I was going overboard when my son hid under his bed because he heard military planes flying over the house and I began only watching and listening to the news after he went to bed.

I began having panic attacks. First it was on the train. We had gotten stuck in the tunnel between stops once. I was convinced that there was some sort of chemical weapon in the air ducts and we were all going to die. As soon as the train got to the next stop I got off. I physically could not get back into the subway station. A co-worker had to get on the train with me and ride with me so I could get home. Long story short the attacks got worse. There was one day I walked 2 hours from the airport station to my car because I could not be on the train. And I started having them at other times .... during a Celtics game with my son, a friend's wedding in which I was the maid of honor, on a trip to Washington DC with my son in 2002, driving along the highway while my son and I were driving to New Hampshire to visit friends. Eventually I quit my job in Boston because I could no longer bring myself to get on the train.

It was crazy ..... a couple years went by and I was still having panic attacks and anxiety attacks. I saw a therapist and went on medication for awhile. And then I went to New York with my mom and my son. I visited Ground Zero and I got to say goodbye. I shook hands with the firemen that had to look at that hole in the ground and remember their friends who had walked into those buildings and never came out. I sat and stared for the longest time at the hole in the ground - and the cross made out of parts of the building. I grieved. When I got home I decided that was that .... no more medication and no more panic attacks. I forced myself to get back on the train ..... I forced myself to drive on the highway. I got a job back in Boston and made it work. Somehow out of all that panic and anxiety I have held on to the irrational fear of driving on the highway. I don't know why that is the one that has stuck with me. If it is necessary I can do it, but I am anxiety stricken and can't sleep for days if I know ahead of time. It doesn't change anything that logically I know it is irrational.

And then yesterday I saw this article posted on a friend's Facebook page: Brookline Political Action For Peace, Seeks School Pledge Of Allegiance Ban. It makes me sad that we are arguing about this. The American flag is a symbol of what this country has been through and in times of trouble we as a nation look to the flag to pull us together. I am also offended that the Boston Herald felt it was necessary to start their column this way "Peaceniks in leafy, lefty Brookline are trying to ban the Pledge of Allegiance from town schools." I consider myself a "peacenik" and I am certainly left but never would I refer to the Pledge of Allegiance as reminiscent of a horrific totalitarian regime. I was confused so I did a little research about my pledge and came up with this document and I began to see his point: US History - the Pledge of Allegiance and US Flag.org. I realized that I took my pledge for granted. I did not realize that it was not recognized by Congress until 1942 and that in 1943 the Supreme Court ruled that children could not be forced to recite it. I felt almost unAmerican because I really should know these things (I probably did at one point, but just forgot). As an adult I have always had a problem with the "Under God" part of the pledge, not because of my feelings toward God, but because the Founding Fathers were pretty specific when they separated "church and state."

Having learned all this do I think there should be a ban on the Pledge of Allegiance in schools ..... NO! People should love their country, even with all its faults. There are so many countries in which I could be arrested for writing this blog. There are so many countries where you have no choice as to whether or not you want to pledge. If there is a problem of children feeling singled out because of the standing - then maybe we should let children sit at their desk so it is not so obvious and they don't feel bad.

My five-year-old learned in school this week that two planes crashed into a building in New York and that people were killed. I have a problem with this - it is just information I don't think he needed to have at his age. He was scared. He has been pledging the flag since preschool and has never come home afraid. I do understand some on the conversation points that Marty Rosenthal makes regarding our country and the flag. But to remove the Pledge of Allegiance from the schools reduces conversation, reduces children's knowledge of their country (what would flag day be without the Pledge), and reduces patriotism. I am American and I am proud ...... I am proud of all that we are, I am proud of our mistakes, I am proud of how we have fixed those mistakes, and I am proud of what we can become if we could just come together and realize we all really just want the same things.

I posted on Facebook today that I do not like to remember 9/11. It is sad and scary ..... I like to remember 9/12, when the flags went up everywhere and we came together as a nation, forgot the politics, forgot the bickering and just supported each other. It didn't last long, but that is what I like to remember!


  1. Leann, what a poignant and powerful piece. It seems perverse to say I enjoyed it - but you know what I mean. As a Brit your piece certainly filled in a lot of the jigsaw on the effect on the American psyche of 9/11. Thank you for that. I too have suffered from panic attacks for a number of years (thankfully mostly now behind me) and can empathise entirely with all that you say. We all know they are irrational but none the less real for all that. You will know from reading my ramblings that I have all sorts of problems with patriotic nationalism and the potential it has for breeding hatred revenge and the like but I support everything that you say about your flag and belief in your country. Best wishes.

  2. Thank you Tony - writing this piece was cathartic. I did read your post the other day I just have not been able to organize my thoughts enough to respond. I consider myself a patriot. One of the things I love most about being American is that I can disagree with my government and the way they run things. I can blog about it, I can call my Senator, I can hold a peaceful rally, and I can vote. Patriotism to me is having a country you can be proud of and it reminds me how fortunate I am to have had the luck of geography on my side when I was born. Nationalism on the otherhand is when your government tells you that you are fortunate and they do not allow you to say otherwise. I know it is kind of a simplistic explination, but that is how I seperate the two. I think having yung children pledge the flag gives them a sense of history and a sense of belonging. Hopefully to make them invested in what this country will become and realize that they have a responsibility as a citizen to be part of the process.

    As always ... a pleasure chatting with you and sharing ideas!