Today as we remember the events of 9/11, I am sharing this chapter from my new book, … And I Breathed, My Journey from a Life of Matter to a Life That Matters. It is Chapter 24 entitled, Bacon-wrapped Hot Dogs, and offers a different perspective on war, patriotism, and the lasting memorials of the values that define us all. I hope you enjoy.
Big hugs of love, Jason
Bacon-wrapped Hot Dogs
Not long ago, my wife and I spent some time with Grandma Aggie (Agnes Pilgrim). At age 89 she is the oldest living member of the Takelma tribe of Native Americans and the chairperson of the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers — a group of indigenous leaders from around the world who are looking to improve the world through the unity of their traditions and beliefs.
Before meeting Grandma Aggie I expected her to be a frail, quiet, demure woman with a long robe and moccasins. Instead, I was face to face with a feisty, stubborn woman in a golf cart hollering orders through a megaphone. She was more Thelma Harper from Mama’s Family than Pocahontas. She’s a grandma, but she’s also the tribal leader and knows how to get respect.
I overheard a conversation between Grandma Aggie and a reporter that stuck with me. Grandma Aggie was explaining the connection between all humans and nature. She told the reporter that this connection is the beauty of the world.
The reporter responded with a logical question: “So what do you do when you encounter ugly in the world?”
Grandma Aggie, with the stubborn knowing that is her hallmark, replied, “Young lady, there is no ugly. Haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve been saying? It’s all beautiful. The whole world is one — you, me, the trees, the river, the salmon — everything is one. And it is all beautiful.”
I was pondering those words one day as I went for a walk from my house to the beach. How could such a strong woman whose ancestors had been slaughtered, their land confiscated, and their values trampled see only beauty in the world? How could she believe that we are all one?
I walked by a memorial outside my neighborhood firehouse. I’d seen it many times. It’s a large piece of a charred steel beam taken from the rubble of the World Trade Center. Written on the stone column that supports the beam are the words “9-11-2001 Never Forget.”
I understand the intent behind this memorial. I know the city and firefighters who built it meant well. They wanted to remember their fallen brothers, the brave men and women who rushed into the burning towers to save others. They wanted us never to forget the heroes.
For a moment, though, let’s put aside the intent. Let’s think about what this memorial really says. What feelings it truly provokes. I’ll tell you what I feel. Every time I walk by and see the burned steel I remember the terrifying image of those planes flying into the World Trade Center. I remember people running for their lives down New York streets as the buildings collapsed. I remember all the people I knew in New York who were in a state of panic. And I get pissed. I want revenge.
“Good,” some people say. “That will keep this kind of savage attack from every happening again.”
But is that true? Haven’t we actually seen the exact opposite happen?
I remember the first few weeks following the attack. Do you recall? Americans united, standing together. Remember the feeling? The love you had for your neighbor? The newfound respect for police and firefighters? We gave money in record numbers, forgetting about our own physical needs to help others. This was the concept of “we are all one” demonstrated before our very eyes. Hell, we even liked George Bush for awhile. Remember him standing with a bullhorn on top of the rubble inspiring us and the world?
Then something changed. What was it? We like to blame it on Bush or Congress or Halliburton. But that’s not fair and to believe it misses the subtle truth, the lesson in all of this.
We stopped focusing on the moment. We left the NOW. The event shocked us, took us out of our programmed lives. It made us forget our individual needs and instead focus on the larger community. In an instant those planes brought us into the present moment. In the present only love exists, the same love that Grandma Aggie sees.
Then just as quickly we snapped out of the NOW and our subconscious took over. Programmed with fear and a belief that everything good has come through great struggle and sacrifice and violence, we retreated back to our animal instincts of survival. We rallied together not to rebuild, but to retaliate.
In short, we went from seeing love to seeing only hate.
Then what happened? We went to war. Not one but multiple wars. Wars that rage on today. Wars that show no sign of ending, perhaps ever.
We have manifested those words on the firehouse “Never Forget.” But instead of remembering the love and heroism, we remember the anger, hate, and death of an ever-increasing number of young men and women, Americans, Iraqis, Afghanistanis, moms and dads, sons and daughters. We don’t need a memorial of charred steel. We have a real-life reminder playing out each day, transmitted on the Internet and on the nightly news.
This isn’t new. This is our history. Like my family story passed from my grandma to my mom to me. We have a national story, passed from one warring generation to the next to the next and on and on.
I remember taking a trip to Hawaii when I was in seventh grade. My mom was dating a NASA pilot. He was sent to Hawaii to do some work and somehow, with his help, we were able to go with him. It’s where my love for the ocean began. Not because of the ocean itself, but because of the effect it had on my mom. She was relaxed, like all the fear melted away with each ebb and flow of the ocean tide. I also learned something else on this trip.
In order to get time off from school, I received assignments from each of my teachers. My history assignment was to visit the USS Arizona memorial and to write about the experience. Standing on the ferry, straining to get a glimpse of the ocean memorial, I had an experience I’ll never forget.
I was surrounded by older, white men. Many were wearing shirts or hats emblazoned with logos of their military division. They were World War II veterans who had come to remember their fallen friends. Mixed into the crowd, shorter and not as noticeable to me, were many Japanese tourists. They also had come to remember and were busy snapping pictures and talking amongst themselves. I was too young to realize this was a recipe for disaster until a tall, elderly white man pushed one of the Japanese tourists and yelled, “You Japs did this. Now get out of the way and let us remember in peace.”
I empathize with the pain the man must have felt. Recalling the fear of war, the pain of loss, and then having to share the space with someone he was taught was his enemy.
But the truth was, and is, that the Japanese tourist wasn’t his enemy any more than I was. He was just a man. Maybe inside he was feeling the same rage. Maybe his brother or father was buried under the sea, or back at home in an unmarked grave. Just like the hunk of steel outside the firehouse, this memorial of death was provoking thoughts of fear, rage, and revenge.
When I was in fifth grade I had a teacher’s aide. I can’t remember her name, but I will always remember her face. She was an older Japanese woman whose kind eyes and warm smile lit up my young heart. I never thought about where she had come from, only that she was there for me. On August 6 that year, I learned her story. She had grown up in Hiroshima. On August 6, 1945 she and her older sister went to school like all little children around the world. The difference that day was that a bomb was coming their way. A bomb dropped by American airmen in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor. My teacher’s aide was one of the lucky children that day. She had been sent to clean the school’s laundry room and when the air sirens began to scream she instinctively jumped in the iron cleaning tub and hid, not sure what was going on. That tub saved her life; her sister wasn’t so lucky.
As an adult I always wondered what it was like for her to teach American kids about that war, the war that had taken her sister’s life. How could she read us those American History books that described the tragedy of lives lost at Pearl Harbor, and then went on to describe August 6 as that great day in 1945 when we dropped the bomb that ended the war? What did it feel like for her that the history book overlooked her story and the story of her dead sister?
God bless America … what about her? And the rest of the world?
What’s the point? War is bad? That’s too simplistic. The real question is, why do we celebrate it? Why do we confuse the heroism of brave men and women with the need to memorialize death and tragedy and fear?
How different would that firehouse be with a memorial of a firefighter reaching his hand out to a small Iraqi boy? What kind of experience would we have if the USS Arizona memorial was a room of chalkboards where men and women, Japanese, American, all nationalities and races, could come and write messages of peace and forgiveness? What if we took all the money we spent hoisting pieces of burnt steel outside city halls and used it to help the young men and women coming home mutilated by war; what if we used the money to build places where moms and dads who had lost their children to war could gather? What if our history books taught history from the point of view of the world in which we want to live? Instead of taking kids through the history of this country war by war, battle by battle, what if instead we focused on the innovations, the creativity, the courage to love that characterizes so many great men and women throughout history? What if we taught that America is a great country, a country in a community of great countries we call the world? And that we are citizens not just of our country, but part of a global community of people just like us — exactly like us — 99.9999% the same as you and me. People who love their families, work hard to provide, and dream of all their lives can be.
I went to a baseball game the other day. It was the World Series and the San Francisco Giants were playing the Detroit Tigers. My friend Dan is a Giants’ fan so I flew up to enjoy the game with him.
When the 7th inning came around attendees stood to do the traditional 7th inning stretch. “God Bless America” was performed by a military bugler. It was a touching moment. Everyone took off their hats and lowered their heads. Those who didn’t were reprimanded sternly by the seriously patriotic men showing their level of their love for our country. We were told to remember the men and women fighting for our freedom around the world, and then …
… then we started singing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” Just like that. From war and fallen soldiers to peanuts and Cracker Jacks, and then back to the ballgame.
At the end of the game we meandered out of the stadium along with 50,000 other fans. On the sidewalks surrounding the stadium were vendors hawking blankets and jackets and hot dogs wrapped in bacon. Sitting alongside them were men in wheelchairs, signs identifying them as veterans, down on their luck looking for some help.
Here we were. The same 50,000 people who had removed our hats, lowered our heads, remembered the men and women fighting around the world, and then sang in unison “God Bless America.” Did each of us reach into our pocket and help out the very people we had been singing about an hour earlier.
Nope. More people dropped seven dollars for a bacon-wrapped hot dog on their way out than bothering to drop even a few quarters into the veterans’ hats. If we’re honest, those who did probably had thoughts like, “He better use that change to buy some food and not waste it getting loaded on beer.”
Kind of like the three beers we all had watching the game? But that’s different. Right?
You see, it’s not that we’re mean or bad or don’t care. It’s that we get so caught up in what we think we’re supposed to be doing — working, singing “God Bless America,” rushing out of the ballpark to get home, building a memorial, remembering a tragedy — that we don’t take the time to stop and feel. We forget what Grandma Aggie said, that we are all one.
Not one of us, if we took the time to put ourselves in the place of the disabled veteran, legs blown off in a war he was told to fight, looking for a meal and a smile, would callously buy a bacon-wrapped weenie and walk on by. That’s just not who we are as a people. But we do it because we’re in a rush to get to the next thing, because no one has given us a gold star in life for taking the time to feel.
We keep ourselves feeling productive by staying endlessly busy building things like memorials. We pause long enough to remember to give a speech. Then we jump back on the hamster wheel and buy a hot dog on the way out of the game because we won’t have time to eat before fighting traffic to get to the next meeting we need to attend, to plan where we’re going to build the next memorial … this is exhausting! And I’m not pointing fingers. My hamster wheel was whirring at a dizzying clip for most of my life.
Here’s another possibility. Let’s take just a moment to breathe … to observe, feel, take it in, and consider that every individual and circumstance has a unique viewpoint. Every one of us sees things through the bias of our life experience. We are all doing our best given our version of the world. But there is a place where we’re all the same … where we can find compassion and understanding for everything. In order to access it, we have to turn down the volume of our programmed brain’s ramblings and instead listen from our hearts.
Just like my sweet Japanese teacher’s aide and just like Grandma Aggie, two women with every justification to hate America and Americans. Instead, they both look beyond the fear and anger of their childhoods, they find the NOW, and they center themselves in the oneness of us all.
In doing so they remind us of the true beauty that lives in our hearts. That makes them the greatest memorial of all.
Big hugs of love,