Sunday, September 11, 2011

Determining the Course of Remembrance

Ten years ago this morning I awoke to go for an early morning run only a few weeks after beginning life as a college student in San Diego, CA. As I walked down the stairs into the front lobby I was surprised to find several guys in the common room watching what looked to be a disaster movie on tv, a strange occurrence that early in the morning. The oddity of the situation grabbed my attention and I paused to try and determine what they were watching. As I stood there I slowly began to realize that this was no movie; this was live footage from New York showing a flaming gash in the side of the World Trade Center. And then, even as I stood there watching, trying to take in the magnitude of what I was seeing, I was gripped by the image of a second plane striking the second tower. It is a moment I will never forget, an image forever burned into my memory.

There has been much talk and discussion as we have approached the 10 year anniversary of these events. There are many differing perspectives as we stand here now, with ten years of experience with which to judge the events of 9-11-01.  I am writing here this morning to set forth my own humble offering for general perusal.

Tragedies have a way of sticking with you far longer than most anything else in the fabric of human experience. Personal tragedies will often dramatically alter individuals for the rest of their lives. Corporate tragedies have the power to change nations. The attacks of September 11 have proved their power to do exactly that. The nation we live in today is dramatically different than the nation I woke up to ten years ago.

For many of you this is the ninth email that you have received from me on this date. My perspective and thoughts have ranged significantly over those years but the core spirit of reflection has remained the same. Something about this day inspires us to stop and think about what it is that we stand for and what it is that we believe. For what we believe is perhaps the most significant and important aspect of who we are, not only as individuals but as a nation. There is nothing that determines our actions so much as what we believe.

In his recently published book “Love Wins” emergent theologian Rob Bell writes that, “our beliefs shape us and guide us and determine our lives.” In these words Bell joins a chorus of others stretching across centuries of human thought and development who have advocated for the prominent role of belief in shaping the human experience.

There are many ways in which beliefs shape our lives. In September of 2001 many Americans believed that this nation was largely untouchable, that we were divinely destined to prosper and remain at the forefront of the world scene. Ten years later many are questioning those beliefs and considering what it is that both this nation and they as individuals stand for.

We are a nation living in fear of the unknown. That is no more evident than in the new governmental department created in the post 9-11 world, an entity with the sole purpose of protecting the essence of what it means to be American. I refer of course to the department of Homeland Security. One of the more recent innovations to come out of this department is the full body scanner, now conveniently available at an airport near you. To stand in one of those scanners made me feel quite a few distinctive emotions. A sense of deep and abiding security and trust in the safety being provided was not amongst them.

Today we mark the ten year anniversary of the attacks that changed America in the midst of a time of significant recession even as our current president is proposing his plan to pull this country back to a place of great prominence, success, and even envy in the eyes of the rest of the world.  As I listened to the speech he delivered to congress Thursday night I was impressed by the similarity of much of his language to that of his immediate predecessor in the aftermath of the attacks.

Amongst the many statements made by President Bush were the following…

“Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”

“America was targeted for attack because we are the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world and no one will keep that light from shining.”

These were inspiring words. Whatever your opinion of President Bush or President Obama, it is difficult to not appreciate the power of their words. Both have the ability to unify the nation around a principle, especially those principles upon which this nation was founded.

And these principles are worth uniting around. There is little of more value than the ideas of freedom, liberty, equality, and opportunity that were so much a part of the rhetoric of our founding fathers. I believe it is to these principles that both Presidents have so often referenced and even paid homage to. And it is belief in these principles that lies at the very foundation of what this nation is meant to be.

This year marks a notable anniversary for September 11. Ten years is oft recognized as a significant milestone and much is being done to commemorate reaching it. One such event is the dedication ceremony at the newly completed memorial for flight 93 in Shanksville, PA. Alison and I nearly got to visit this memorial earlier this summer, but were sadly unable to stop. I have yet to see it, but when I do it will complete the triad of 9/11 sites (along with ground zero at the WTC and the Pentagon in Virginia) that symbolize the tragic events of that day.

Though I have not walked on the ground where United Flight 93 met its fateful end, I have walked on much other sacred ground in this past year and have come to realize that September 11, 2001 is not the only date marked by a significant anniversary this year.

The world “Anniversary” is one that we often use to commemorate all manner of things from
birthdays and weddings to deaths and national tragedies. Simply defined the word refers to the commemoration and/or celebration of a past event that occurred on the same day of the year as the initial event.  First officially applied to commemorate saints during feasts in the Catholic Church, this concept is one that has been commonly applied in recognition of significant historical events that have helped to formulate and define the fabric of our national identity here in the United States of America. The year 2011 marks a significant anniversary of several such events.

This particular day marks the Decennial (10 year) of the September 11 terrorist attacks, but that is far from the only defining and influential moment or development in the history of the United States being commemorated this year. Among the other especially notable anniversaries celebrated in 2011 are the following… 

This year marks the Semicentennial (50 year) of the establishment of the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy, an organization created with a threefold mission to, 1. Help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained personnel in particular fields, 2. Help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and finally, 3. Help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.  The people served by American volunteers in participating areas often have a dramatically different opinion of Americans than many others who live outside of this nation.

2011 also marks the Dodranscentennial (75 year) of Shenandoah National Park, where I currently reside. Shenandoah was founded in order to provide easy access to a protected wilderness area for the millions of Americans living in the mid-Atlantic region. It provides both recreational opportunities (I have personally hiked more than 250 miles in the park this year) and a venue for re-creation, in which the spirit can be renewed, rejuvenated, and reborn. 

Often overlooked in our history is the Battle of Tippecanoe, the battle in which Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison successfully defeated the confederation of American Indians led by Chief Tecumseh in 1811. Marking its Bicentennial (200 year) this year the Battle of Tippecanoe was in many ways the final straw for an American people who had grown increasingly perturbed with Great Britain in the years following the Revolution. When it was revealed that British officers had supplied Tecumseh and his men with firearms and munitions, the already volatile public opinion quickly blamed the uprising of Tecumseh’s forces upon British interference. This battle served as a significant catalyst leading to the American declaration of war against Britain only six months later.
But perhaps the most significant of all the anniversaries being celebrated this year is the  Sesquicentennial (150 year) of the American Civil War, arguably this nation’s single most defining experience. You don’t have to know me long to know that I am a huge nerd when it comes to the Civil War. So it has been of great interest to me to follow the various commemorative events centered upon the 150th anniversary of each battle and campaign. I nearly got to work as a ranger at the 150th anniversary of Manassas this summer but alas, things did not work out. I retain hope that I will get to do so at one of the other battlefields in the next few years.

Each of these anniversaries marks something significant that has helped to shape the character of America and determine what we, as Americans believe in, 9/11 no less than the others. So as we remember those who lost their lives ten years ago this day we would do well to remember what this nation stands for, the ideals it is founded upon, and what it is intended to represent. We would likewise do well to take a moment to go beyond our national identity and reflect upon our own beliefs about this world we live in and the role that God is calling each of us to play. Our beliefs shape us and determine the way we live. Let us believe in something worth the believing, in the loving compassion of a God that desires that all of his creation be reconciled unto Him so that each element might both bring glory to His name and live as it was intended to live, in an existence characterized by freedom, hope, community, and love.  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Beware the Bloody Bard of Bears

This weekend, for all practical purposes, officially marks the end of summer. It is the last major weekend of travel and adventure before Thanksgiving.  The weekend will be little different in terms of what I do as I am working Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, but the number of people I am interacting with in the visitor center is dramatically higher than what it has been recently due to all the extra visitors. So my holiday weekend is being spent serving the American public.

That is not to say that I have not experienced my share of adventure in the last few days. Just last night when I left to ride my bike home from the visitor center the road was shrouded in fog and it was challenging to see much of the way ahead. Whenever I am riding back and forth I look about the trees to see what animals might happen to be in the vicinity. This action most commonly results in sightings of deer, turkeys, or nothing. But last night things were different. As I looked down an access road off the main road I realized I was looking at the snout of an adult male black bear protruding from the trees through the foggy mist. I stopped to watch until he backed up into the trees and disappeared. The rise in excitement that I felt from this experience quickly changed as I made the turn onto the road leading to my house due to the dramatic appearance of a second bear (a bit smaller than the first) standing in the middle of the road looking up at me in great surprise. It made for quite the ride home!

If I were to identify a single word to describe the remainder of this past week apart from bear sightings it would have to be “bloody.” That word would more precisely be applied to Wednesday last, a day marked by distinctly bloody experiences.

At the repeated behest of the Red Cross Alison and I decided to attempt the adventure of donating platelets to be used to treat young children and cancer patients. I have donated whole blood on sixteen previous occasions, but had never donated platelets. It is an entirely different experience.
Alison was unable to donate platelets (but did donate whole blood instead) because they could not identify a good vain in each of her arms, for they require both of one’s arms to donate platelets, one out of which your blood will be sucked, and a second where your blood will be sent back into your body. It was a long and rather uncomfortable experience to sit essentially immobilized (as both of your arms have needles in them and should remain motionless) for two full hours watching  while the majority of your blood is sucked out of your body and then fed into a machine and spun around through a series or tubes  before being returned to you once more less an ever increasing number of platelets which are instead sent to a bag hanging overhead.

I thought that the experience would be easier to recover from than a donation of whole blood since very little blood would actually be lost in the process. I could not have been more wrong. I was so impacted that in the cantina afterwards Alison had to hold a can of juice up to my mouth so that I might drink as I was incapable of taking such action myself with either arm.

I have never experienced anything like the draining of life that was donating platelets. Apparently the human body completely recovers from such a loss within seven days, so I could donate again every week indefinitely. Judging by the lack of life and energy that I am continuing to feel at this moment, that is not going to be happening.  Apparently my body does not react well to the loss of platelets!
The theme of blood continued later that day when Alison and I acquired free tickets to and then attended a splendid production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The actors did a fine job and the performance was both stellar and memorable, especially since we were seated in the second row and felt as though we were nearly on the stage ourselves.

If you are not familiar with the story of Julius Caesar you would, first of all, do well to remedy that failing, and secondly do well to know that a great many people die a violent death. This particular production did not skimp on the fake blood and by the end of the scene in which Caesar was fatally stabbed the white robes of not only Caesar, but also all eight bearers of the knife and Marc Antony were splattered with blood. It was quite a spectacle.Since Wednesday I have had to be especially careful not to injure myself as the blood would flow freely out of my body as a result of the recent diaspora of platelets. I have restricted myself to an electric razor, fearing the results of an unwary nick of a regular one and made a point to attempt to avoid situations in which I might have to wrestle a bear or fight a cougar.

Unlike Caesar my loss of blood (or parts contained therein) will most likely not result in my demise nor change the course of world history. Nor is it likely that anyone (much less Shakespeare since he himself is rather deceased at present) will either write or perform a play about the subject. So I suppose I will have to stick with bear spotting and explaining to people why it is worth planning a trip more than two hours ahead of time so that there is actually a possibility of finding a room or campsite available upon arrival to a national park on Labor Day weekend.