the Place of Definitions
by William Rivers Pitt
"He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every
day surmount a fear."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
I remember this past summer. I spent a great deal of time
outside, feeling the sun on my face. I wrote a lot, walked
a lot, read a lot. I thought idle thoughts much of the time,
or else concentrated my attention on the battlefield of partisan
My brow was not furrowed all the time, as it seems to be
now. I was not afraid to fly, to be in a crowded place, to
go downtown. I did not hear a voice whispering in my ear,
deadly with menace, hissing of plots from the sky, and now
from the very air. I did not fear for the lives of my loved
ones because they work in tall buildings.
I remember teaching students who were berserk with the energy
of youth. They could not be contained, only harnessed and
directed to plow whatever intellectual field we could put
before them. Their voices in the halls raised riot and shivered
the timbers. Now, the word I hear most often in the hall is
I remember calling them "Children of Clinton" last May, kids
who were unaware in that visceral way of the Cold War, of
nuclear threat, of economic gloom. Most of them were about
six years old during the last recession. They were children
who had only known peace and prosperity. Now, they are Children
The lines in their faces show the strain of this new wisdom.
Some tell me they do not sleep well anymore. Many of my classes
collapse into long information sessions, where my lesson plan
is abandoned to their need for news. I tell them the best
way to fight fear is to know what is going on, to be informed,
to keep track of things. I say these words, even though doing
exactly that has not helped my anxieties at all.
I remember looking forward to September. The Democratic Congress
was preparing to lay down a field of withering fire upon the
Bush administrations dangerous, greedy economic plans. The
independent media consortium that recounted some 200,000 Florida
ballots to determine who would have won the election had the
Supreme Court not intervened. The cover of Newsweek on the
stands September 10th was a broadside against the legitimacy
of the 2000 election, a sure sign the consortium's review
did not have good news for Bush.
Now, any words spoken about Bush that is not wrapped in the
flag and devoid of anything but blind support and admiration
is tantamount to treason, and the consortium study has been
buried at midnight in an unmarked grave. Now, history itself
has taken a back seat to war.
I remember the New York City skyline. Coming over the George
Washington bridge, I would behold that jagged line of buildings,
looming like the walls of an impossible castle, and marvel
that human hands could bring forth structures that inspired
such awe. Above it all stood the World Trade Towers, a place
I visited with my father when I was a boy. The Towers managed
the improbable feat of dwarfing the rest of the city to insignificance
with their height, much the way New York dwarfs most of the
great cities of the world.
Now, I close my eyes and see them fall. I watch the faces
of those who fled, mouths like startled circles. I hear the
sound of papers bearing the names and faces of the missing
and the dead fluttering in gutters and empty alleys. I am
told the smell of the crater where the Towers once stood still
rolls down the broad streets and avenues, a constant reminder
of that terrible day. I am told the fires within the wreckage
How quickly it happened.
Tonight, I am afraid of my mail. I know it is stupid, but
I am afraid. The acorns falling on my porch outside sound
like footsteps. I am afraid to watch the news for fear of
another shock, but I can not turn it off, lest I miss something
of great importance. I wonder how much gas I have in the car,
in case I must flee. I worry about the water supply over at
the reservoir. I hope someone is watching it closely.
I remember hope. I used to hope that our politics could heal
itself of the curses it had inherited from the minds and deeds
of short-sighted men. I used to daydream about the Red Sox
winning the World Series, and I would spend hours listening
to games and reading the sports pages. I used to think about
marriage, kids, old age, and none of these thoughts led to
Now, politics is destroyed. There is no Congress anymore,
and there are no issues to debate. There is nothing but the
war. The future itself has been truncated, chopped short at
the fear of this moment. There are no politics, no issues,
no thought of anything beyond battle and unease. Thoughts
of life beyond tomorrow, of marriage and baseball and anything
that falls outside the shadow of today, are difficult to entertain
for long. They pass through my hands like sand and leave me
desolate, hearing the footsteps, fearing the air, scanning
And then I remember that we have been here before. My country
has suffered terrible blows, even fallen to its knees, but
has always revived itself.
We were torn asunder during the Civil War, baptized in the
blood of our own citizens, among whom the dead equaled the
stars in number. We were a different nation when that terrible
catharsis was done, a better nation. Members of my family
were involved in that fight.
We staggered through a protracted economic depression that
shattered the landscape, and invented new, creative and effective
ways to get through it intact. The legacy of that trial and
those policies are still with us, wounded by some errant decisions,
but worth so much that reputations were staked to their survival.
Members of my family endured that, and came through it stronger.
We were hurled into a world war that raged across oceans
and virtually every continent on the planet, fighting for
more than oil or the bragging rights of territory. The definition
of human civilization was at stake. Members of my family answered
that call, side by side with millions of their fellow Americans,
and together they utterly routed a powerful enemy whose evil
mocks that which we see today.
We suffered the horrid shock of assassination, when a President
fell under a hail of bullets. Members of my family can tell
you where they were when it happened. The world stopped, but
turned again in time.
We faced the dark side of our political and militaristic
nature in the jungles of a faraway nation, in a place where
good intentions mixed with napalm in a deadly brew. We saw
the bodies of our children and theirs, and we said no. Members
of my family stalked prey in those jungles, and shouted down
two Presidents on the sidewalks of Chicago and Washington
D.C. They were there, and today they are still here.
This is my time, and this is my challenge. I am honored to
stand in a long line of Americans who have faced and overcome
desperate tests from despicable foes, both within and without
the nation. I am afraid to my marrow, but the shades of my
ancestors and the living eyes of my elders urge me to a greatness
and a strength that must be bottomless.
I am afraid, but I will think idle thoughts, and watch baseball,
and wed, and have children, and grow old. I will feel the
sunshine on my face, read my books, and write. This will be
my strength, and will keep me whole when I must furrow my
brow and cope with the terrible demands of the moment.
My heritage is born of courage discovered through fear. I
claim it with all of my heart and passion. I am afraid, I
live in a terrible time, yet I know that these things will
make me stronger. It has always been so, with my family and
with my country. It shall be so again.