Since THE MEMORY OF THINGS came out, I've been talking about 9/11 -- an unwitting emotional "expert" of sorts, by way of the research I did, and the story I told.
I believe my novel -- and others' stories -- on this subject are essential, because kids in desks, K-12, weren't even alive when our country was changed forever that impossibly sunny blue-skied day. They have as little feel for 9/11 and its aftereffects as I had for WWII when I was in school. They don't get it, and they don't care.
Science has shown that reading literary fiction builds empathy. Just last night, I had a message from a 15-year-old boy in Indiana -- I'll call him C here -- who read my book for school, and something resonated, something clicked. He is going through a rough time.
"I'm a student of [omitted for privacy reasons]," he tweeted to me, "and I would like to say I loved the book were reading in our class i read ahead and finished it and they recommended talking to u. I loved the book wich [sic] is odd because I never read books but I must say that is one of my favorite books."
We exchanged messages for about an hour. About music, about his recent breakup, about life. I offered to send him a signed copy of my book, and a few of my other titles. I just got back from the post office. "We need more kind people," he wrote to me.
Indeed, we do.
There are hashtags and sayings forever associated with 9/11: We're all in this together. #neverforget.
But are we? Have we?
We have a virus -- a pandemic in this country-- that has already killed nearly 200,000 people. Science and medicine have told us masks help. Masks work. Distancing works. And yet, day after day we are flooded with images of those who refuse to even try to help. Worse, those who harm those who try to help.
I know not everything after 9/11 was peace, love and harmony, that Islamophobia and conspiracy theories arose, that here and there, looters took advantage.
But mostly, there was an overwhelming sense of shared historic grief, a sense of urgent connection. A sense we were responsible not only for ourselves, but one another.
On a small scale, we've sure seen that since March. In our healthcare workers, our essential workers, and our educators, now, who continue to put their lives on the line for us every single day. But as a nation? It's heartbreaking, and I can't help ask myself the rhetorical question: What has changed?
Not everything is political. The fate of our neighbors, our friends, the fate of strangers, all matter.
We are all human. Our kids need us to rally TOGETHER. Not for a political party but for humanity.
Our healthcare and essential workers need us.
Our educators need us.
That boy, C? He reminded me of another male student, this one I'll call M, from Kansas, I "met" via my book a few years back who I stayed in touch with simply because of a story. My story about 9/11, and a time our country was in trouble. And we all came together. A story about one kid who finds his way through grief to cope, and in doing so, learns how to step up and be a better person. That boy, M, just messaged me two nights ago to tell me he graduated high school and is headed off to the marines.
"Wow, congrats! That's hard," I wrote. "You must be proud. And brave." We messaged on for a bit and soon enough I wrote my heart: "Please find a way to be tough. . . and also kind and accepting. A hard juggle."
"I will," M responded with a purple heart. "Thank you."