I got dumped on August 24, 2001, via tarot card reading. It was raining. I drove to my best friend’s house and threw pebbles at the windows till her mom let me in.
It’s been twenty years, and the memory is hazy, but I wrote it all down like I wrote everything down then, journal pages open in class, at restaurants, parties, bus stops. My teacher is boring and possibly high My burrito is messy see this burrito mess on the page → (20 year old salsa stain) Oh my GOD I cannot believe she showed up here after what she said last week before choir but now she’s acting like no one remembers but I remember I wrote it down (see 5 pages back) There is a man yelling I think he is on drugs I wonder if I should do more drugs but I think I would still be annoyed with people if I did more drugs
I brought the last of my journals from my parents’ in Arizona home to Alaska this summer. Rereading these pages, I see that the events that followed the tarot and the pebbles, the events of September 2001, collided with my personal rage in a specific kind of heartbreak that isn’t actually unique at all. Those planes and George W’s nasally threats and the sudden profusion of flag paraphernalia. Never forget and all that.
I haven’t forgotten. I wrote it all down.
On September 6, Winona LaDuke spoke in Flagstaff, and I scribbled three pages in the dark auditorium with her sentence fragments, ending with white men will (create change) when they realize these chemicals are making their testicles shrink.
On September 9, a friend gave me a half-inch thick stack of quotes he’d printed from a website (we used to print the internet, to read it later) called Third World Traveler, and I copied more quotes, ending with A terrorist is someone who has a bomb but doesn’t have an air force (William Blum).
On September 11th, a friend ran through the school halls before choir yelling about the possibility of the draft being reinstated right as he turned 18. I told him we can’t be at war unless we know who we’re at war against. I meant it as comfort but by the end of the day I’d abandoned that belief. It turned out we could be at war against any rung on what I would eventually call the ladder of abstraction. The ladder of post-9/11 war rests precariously on solid things, like buildings, French fries, or testicles, and climbs higher into abstract concepts, like betrayal, freedom, heartbreak.
A war or a sentence loses meaning the higher it climbs.
On September 13, I wrote, I’ve been pretty distracted by the whole possibility of world war thing, but mostly I’m still just thinking about [person who dumped me]. I laughed out loud when I reread it, as if it were funny. I’d remembered it the other way around.
I learned that fall of 2001 what much of the world knows since birth: politics is personal. Moods shape policy. It matters who’s in charge and who puts them there. And once something is done, it will never be undone.
I spent most of my time in class shouting into what felt like a void about how nothing would ever be the same again, and we’d all be better off accepting that fact and building what would come next, and my classmates rolled their eyes or did more drugs, depending mostly on how they related to flags. I spent most of my time after school roaming town in hopes of some meticulously orchestrated yet casual reunion with the ex, who’d been out of high school two years and seemed notably absent from public spaces.
When I did finally see him, he gave me a copy of a two-sided single-spaced handout asking, in all caps comic sans: IS WAR THE ANSWER??
It offered a perfunctory summary of Afghanistan’s history of occupation, and concluded: No. “In short,” it reads, “we have the opportunity to work together to end the cycle of violence and the culture of domination in all its manifestations. As poet Martín Espada tells us, ‘we have to imagine the possibility of a more just world before the world may become more just.’”
I made 50 copies on my high school’s copier, which somehow no one ever stopped me from doing, and taped them on the hallway walls. Most were torn down immediately. It was petty and dumb. All of it.
Another lesson learned that year: you are more likely to get what you want from someone if you do not treat them as a void waiting to be filled but as a human. A human can be wrong, but might change their mind. A void is a drifting nothingness upon which you cannot rest a ladder and nothing can be built.
I found the original handout and a few remaining copies in a binder full of typed and scribbled on poetry, tucked behind a xeroxed copy of some Marvin Bell poems. All but the original have absorbed the ink from other papers, layers of unreadable text. I can’t stop staring at it.
I’ve been trying to avoid the pointlessness of “told you so,” even in my own head. So much energy thrown in so many directions to stop something that happened anyway, and I have no real insights but a box of fliers and pamphlets and buttons and pictures of protest signs saying things that don’t sound all that different from what the military op-ed writers have pivoted to 20 years later. I do not mean to suggest that protest is or was a waste of time, but dwelling on the burnout that followed helps no one.
My memories of the next few years are a blur of marches, sit-ins, and lockdowns that went from energizing to routine to heartbreaking. Friends were arrested, tear-gassed, hit with police batons, spit on, laughed at, ignored. Some of us concluded that mass demonstration doesn’t work. Some of us concluded that voting doesn’t work. Some of us found, or lost, God, bought guns, got law degrees. I bought a one way ticket to Alaska, hoping to clear my head.
For a while, I did.
For years, I rejected the use of “we” when talking about the nation, as a rejection of all that was done in our name without consent, but I’ve come back around to the necessity of “we” in Espada’s sense. I am still part of the “we” of the white supremacist, white saviorism that got us here: to the botched end of a twenty year war against a concept. To the twenty years of blood spilled for oil, war in our name, the “we” who is asked to never forget, to support our... wait, who?
On September 29, 2001, the day I was first flipped off and yelled at for holding a peace sign on a Flagstaff sidewalk, Indian writer Arundhati Roy wrote in The Guardian,
(I)t will be a pity if, instead of using this as an opportunity to try to understand why September 11 happened, Americans use it as an opportunity to usurp the whole world's sorrow to mourn and avenge only their own. Because then it falls to the rest of us to ask the hard questions and say the harsh things. And for our pains, for our bad timing, we will be disliked, ignored and perhaps eventually silenced.
Joe Biden echoing George W. Bush in his promise that “we will hunt you down and make you pay,” even as he attempts to end the war, is stomach-turning and predictable.
To have been right doesn’t mean shit without imagination.
I expected to end this with a ladder metaphor, with a clever anecdote about Alaskans modeling ways to build and make do on ever-shifting surfaces as a model for reimagining our values. But to be honest, I’m not feeling it. My chosen home is melting. I don’t know where to put the ladder. The Southwest faces an unprecedented water shortage. The daily fall rains that punctuated my afternoons moping around the high desert are no longer reliable. I am wary of contradicting Winona LaDuke’s wisdom but it turns out white men will not, in fact, create change against something that shrinks their testicles or scars their lungs. I cannot count the times in the last year I have repeated some variation of “things will never be the same again,” and yet somehow, it all feels the same.
Re-reading my heartbroken, pissed off, teenage self, I see that a broken heart is a form of grief, and it evolves. It can fuel action, and make it hard to get out of bed. It is not linear. Life in this country is a constant cycle of heartbreak.
If people know only one tarot card, it's most likely Death, which signifies not an end but a change. This is the only card I remembered from that breakup reading, and the only one I could say anything about now, a card that says things will never be the same again. Everything I wrote that night is incoherent and embarrassing, and everything in the days that followed is angry and hurting, but at some distance, it's clear that change was the only outcome.
Maybe now I’m just back to digging in the mud looking for pebbles to throw at windows, waiting for someone to turn on the light. If enough of us throw pebbles, maybe something will break. Maybe we won’t need a ladder at all. And then?