``I'm so damn scared.''
e-mail from a reader
It's been more than three weeks now. How are you doing with all this? Are you all right?
If the answer is no, join the crowd. Medical experts are reporting terrorism-related increases in high blood pressure, heart ailments, chronic pain. We've become an anxious nation. People aren't flying. People aren't shopping. People aren't sleeping.
People are buying gas masks.
And through it all, our leaders - and our hearts - plead for us to just get back to normal. As if normal were a safe spot on the map, a fixed and physical place from which we were snatched but, with sufficient determination, can return to again.
I used to think that way. Yet as the days pile into weeks, I find myself convinced that there's something futile in that idea. As the TV news anchors began saying on Sept. 11, everything has changed. The world is different now.
I'm not sure we were really equipped, three weeks ago, to understand how profoundly true that was. Maybe now we are.
To wander through America of the 1990s, to survey a nation where crime was down and the Internet making millionaires out of 17-year-olds, to consider a frivolous and self-absorbed land where a celebrity murder trial and a presidential indiscretion were labeled crises, was to be seized - if you were historically literate - with an uncomfortable sense of parallel. A sense that you were living in days of prologue. Prologue to what, you couldn't say. Still, hadn't we seen this movie already?
We had. Saw it twice in the last century. It's not that the gin-soaked '20s or the picket fence '50s were ever as sweet and uncomplicated as memory makes them out to be. The one decade was filled with political corruption and gang warfare, the other with blacklists and Cold War paranoia. The point is that each era was followed by another that taught us by comparison what trouble really was - turbulent years that brought global depression, genocide, war, political assassination, social upheaval and the specter of revolution. Each time it happened, it made us yearn for what we realized only in hindsight was relative innocence.
Now it has happened again. The '90s - the prologue - came to an end on Sept. 11. Once again, we wake up in a disorienting new era.
And I wouldn't be surprised to learn that our response echoes that of our forebears when the same thing happened to them: A crying need to get back to normal. Meaning, back to where we were before.
But Fleetwood Mac had it right. Yesterday's gone.
LIVING WITH IT
We will never again be without Sept. 11. The only thing we can do now is learn to be with it. Thankfully, human beings are gifted with an extraordinary capacity for that. Somehow, we always adapt, always find a way to flourish in whatever wedge of space is left by circumstance.
Consider London during the Blitz. Night after night, wave after wave of German planes dropping bomb after bomb on civilian targets. You left for work in the morning not knowing if the office had survived the night. You slept in underground subway stations, bedding down on the tracks. You hoarded food, bought a gas mask for the baby, cringed at the sound of airplanes overhead.
You lived in fear, but you lived.
In Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster's book, The Century, a woman named Sheila Black tells a story from that time. She once came across two women gazing at a bombing victim whose mutilated corpse was in a tree. The dead woman was a bottle blond, prompting one of the observers to turn to the other and say, ``My goodness, her roots needed doing, didn't they?''
PASSING FOR NORMAL
Here and now, it sounds callous. There and then, it was what passed for normal. The lesson, then, is that normal is not a fixed position in a world of peace. Rather, it is weeping, courage, fear, sex, love, laughter - life - going stubbornly on in a world of whatever. For me, at least, that knowledge makes the present state of things a little easier to bear.
It's understandable that we struggle to return to normal. It's also comforting to think that, in some sense, we never left.