I wrote this column eighteen years ago. It was originally published in The Nevada Appeal on September 26, 2001
My Own Battlefields in This New War
“It’s awful here. BUT I’M ALIVE,” our older daughter finally wrote in response to one of my frantic emails. She had moved to New York City just six days before the attack. Phone calls, even cell-phones were useless as all the other worried mothers around the world tried to get through. The entire morning I anxiously imagined her protected in large God-like hands. All the while, she slumbered in the arms of Morpheus, asleep 150 blocks away from the World Trade Center.
Maybe I had neglected that piece of her training: In case of national disaster, call your mother. But what precedent did I have? Who could have imagined this?
And a week later, as I listened to President Bush tell us about this new kind of war, to be fought on different kinds of battlefields, my imagination ran to the places where we might have to fight. I know he meant military actions, but what battles will we here at home fight? Where will I, a middle-aged, married, teacher, and mother in Carson City, Nevada, be asked to fight?
I will fight to keep my awareness of world events and this war in its proper place, in balance with my real, everyday life. While I want to learn as much as I can about the situation and the sacrifices being made, I don’t want to become so paralyzed by fear and worry that my real life can’t go on. I’ll need to turn away from the TV now and then so that the images will not continue to flood my psyche, desensitizing—or re-sensitizing—me to the horror. People on every continent have endured horrific acts of terrorism. We can survive. Our lives, although forever changed, will go on. Must go on.
As citizens, I’m sure you’ll agree that we will struggle to focus on what is really important. We have been jolted from our complacency and have learned that there are some things worth fighting for. Right now, that thing is to make our world safe again. What happened to us was a shameful act. I hope that our response will not make us ashamed but will prove us worthy of our place in the world.
My larger battle however, will be to simply feel normal again. I’ll go through the motions of whatever “normal” is, hoping that soon my feelings will catch up to my actions. I’ll attend meetings, make appointments, plan birthday celebrations, and go shopping for the perfect shade of lipstick. I’ll admire the fall colors. We’ll take that raft trip through the Grand Canyon next summer. However, the first big test of my trying to be normal will be to travel to the reading conference in Las Vegas this weekend.
“Not on a plane!” My good friend in California seemed incredulous.
“Yes, a plane.”
“Can’t you drive?”
“Drive eight hours each way for a two day conference? I don’t think so. I’m not giving in to fear. I’m flying.” We’ll see how I brave this citizen-soldier feels tomorrow night as she boards the plane.
As a teacher, I will strive to keep focused on my goals and objectives as well as to use this teachable moment to explore geography, history, and tolerance. I will also work to counteract the violence and fear my students may have seen on television or the hatred they may have heard expressed. In addition, I must be vigilant and protect my young students from ignorant, misdirected anger and hatred. I’ll do what I can to prevent that bit of collateral damage.
The battle with my emotions will be a small, very private struggle. I merely want to be able to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” without the tears and without the catch in my throat. That California friend says she hasn’t dared wear mascara since that awful day. “What’s the use?” I imagine her with those black streaks running down her sweet, sad face. The vision makes me smile. I’ll need to laugh again too, out loud, with my friends.
We will all need to prepare ourselves for our own private battles in this war. We’ll all need to find ways to keep ourselves focused, grounded and sane. But how do we do that?
We can begin by doing what soldiers throughout history have done before going into battle: Count your blessings; remember you’re not alone; gather your loved ones close; tell them you love them.
And remember to call your mother.
I admit this recent election has left me disheartened and disappointed. I keep looking for signs of hope. And I’ve found a few.
The nearly four million members of Pantsuit Nation on Facebook continue to share stories of everyday and heroic kindnesses they witness. Good people across the country endeavor to “go high” when others “go low.” They’ve stood beside someone being harassed. They’ve bought coffee for someone in a hateful mood. They’ve refused to look away. Small things can turn into big things and remind us to start where we are.
One much quieter thing I did to improve my frame of mind was to read David Axelrod’s memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics. I’d heard David on NPR soon after the results came in and I detected in him the same search for hope that I felt.
Axelrod was infected by the politics bug as a child, when his babysitter took him to see John F. Kennedy speak. While he was too young to understand the nuances of JFK’s words, the message that he took away from that experience was simply this:
“…we are the masters of our future, and politics is the means by which we shape it.”
In the book, he traces his roots to his Jewish immigrant grandparents and his mismatched parents. David finds his way to college in Chicago and then a job as an idealistic young journalist tilting at the windmills of Chicago politics. He marries Susan and tells of the heartbreak when their infant daughter begins having seizures. The inability to protect her child from seizures as well as the devastating effects of the medications meant to control them leads Susan Axelrod to found CURE.
David begins taking a more active role in campaigns with Senator Paul Simon, whose refusal to sell out impressed him when Simon said, “I’d rather lose with principle that win by standing for nothing.”
As a journalist, Axelrod seemed to understand at an instinctual level that campaigns were about telling compelling stories. His earliest campaign efforts reflected that.
While this narrative stops short of the most recent campaign it details not only the election of Barack Obama but also the challenges and issues he faced as President. Axelrod acted as a senior adviser through the first two years of the Obama administration then returned for the 2012 campaign.
It gets into the weeds of personality, policy, and politics as they tackle the housing meltdown, the auto bail-out, unemployment, deficits, stimulus, Guantanamo, healthcare, and more. It’s a long read. You might find yourself skimming a few of the weedier sections, as I did.
No one comes out as perfect here. Everyone made mistakes. There were some failures and a few embarrassing moments. Nonetheless, for this lifelong Democrat, it reminded me of all the good that was accomplished in the last eight years. The reality is that in spite the current uncertainty, a President—no matter how “great”–can only do so much. Furthermore, the only way for us to shape the future is to stand up, be counted, and never stop believing.