So, the thing is...  it's the small things that make me cry.


I wanted so much to write a funny column this week because I think we could all use a smile but I simply don't have the heart.  I can't seem to get my equilibrium back after what happened to America on September 11, 2001.  I find that it's the smallest things that move me to tears.  Yesterday I had to go take my driver's license test.  It would take a long time for me to explain to you how I got into the position of needing to take the driving test twenty years after I first took it, and this is exactly the thing out of which I could make a funny column, but I just can't bring myself to write it.  I felt completely ridiculous as I sat there waiting for my turn, parked behind an eager teenager accompanied by his mom.  And then I saw an airplane descending and I started to cry.  I remembered.


I feel like nothing will ever be the same.  There was the time immediately following the attacks when we saw our nation rise up as one to aid the fallen.  I don't think I've ever been so proud of the people in this country.  We saw enormous acts of generosity.  My husband has have been trying to give blood every day and the blood bank is too full to accept any more donations.  People inundated the fire stations here with money and in everyway exhibited a true appreciation for these unsung heroes.  We went to church and we prayed.  We matched the bigness of our country's spirit, without exception. 


Now there are small voices expressing a festering hatred and I fear that we have lost sight of our quest for JUSTICE in our very natural desire for VENGEANCE.  The political rhetoric is becoming increasingly harsh.  We are at that stage of our grief as a nation --the anger stage.  The blame stage.  The war stage.


And I think because so many people have no real outlet for their anger, there has been a rise in pettiness and hate.  I feel an almost incapacitating sadness over the shift from “united we stand” to outbreaks of harassment and violence against our dark-skinned fellow Americans.   I know it's not the majority of us reacting this way.  But a small faction feels it is appropriate to use this tragedy as an excuse for racism.  A Molotov cocktail was thrown into a mosque here in Austin.  It was a small gesture expressing a big hate; people who lived nearby put the fire out with a garden hose and there was minimal damage.  But it's the smallness of spirit shown by those acts that gets me --and the impotence I feel to stem that tide.


Even MY response to the aftermath of the attacks is conflicted.  I feel like my response should be kinder and more peaceful, in keeping with my spiritual beliefs.  I know first-hand from watching kids at the playground that acts of aggression that are met with retaliation only lead to an escalating fight.  But I also know that when someone hits my child, I don't care if he IS only three feet tall, I want him to PAY.  On the playground, if the bully remains unchecked, he simply hits again and again.  And it seems to me that if there is an organized network of terrorists out there (as the sheer scope of these well-funded attacks would prove), it voluntarily lost nineteen of its own and in every other way, it remains intact to murder MORE innocent people.  We lost close to 7,000 people. Seven thousand people who had no choice.  They didn't get to kiss their loved ones goodbye, or make love one last time or feel some grand nobility in dying for their cause. 


In fact, I guess I can't stop thinking about all the small things the victims of those attacks didn't get to do.  And it's the small things that move me --the thought that those people never got to say goodbye, that they spent their last nights paying bills and grocery shopping.  That they kissed their children goodnight and tucked them in and never knew it would be the last time.  I think about the couples who quarreled that morning before work and left their houses angry.  I think about all the children left without one or more of their parents or friends, who will desperately try to remember the last casual contact.  How can they possibly understand?  They're so defenseless, so small.


And then I feel this grief at not being able to do something noble and big to help in this situation.  It seems so wrong to return to my normal routine.  Five days after the attack, I had to go to Wal-Mart because we were out of hair mousse.  The country is going to war, New York is digging through the rubble trying to recover even the bodies of the fallen and I'm going to Wal-Mart.  It's just so SMALL!  I laugh with my kids and then I feel guilty.  How many people in New York City are laughing right now?  What right have I?


My husband and I have talked a lot about this because Austin has been so affected by the attacks, even though we're so far away.  He had a lunch appointment downtown this week and told me that downtown seemed really empty.  It seems that no one is going to restaurants right now for fear that they'll be the target of some terrorist attack because the President is from here.  So, because of those monsters and their hatred, some waitress in a café on Congress Avenue won't be able to pay her rent this month (despite my husband's efforts at hugely over-tipping). And this is happening all over the country --people are canceling their vacations and their conventions and their major purchases and we're all just sitting inside our houses, waiting.  Waiting for what?  For someone to send us yet another copy of a speech that was written in 1973 about the good-heartedness of Americans?  It is just all so small.


But, you know, maybe the small things are all we can do.  We can send each other cheering e-mails and we can go out to eat (downtown, even) and we can resume our lives so that those terrorists don't WIN.  If they shut down our country and our economy, they achieve their aim.  I have a trip planned next week, a quick weekend visit to see my best friend in Indianapolis.  Am I scared to fly?  Yes, frankly, I am.  But I am GOING.  It's a small thing that I can do to invest back into our country and our way of life.  Who knows, maybe I'll even forget to pack my hair mousse and Linda and I will go to a Wal-Mart and pump some money back into the economy.


Yesterday, I was giving Jane some Cheerios while playing with her on the floor in the den.  I had a fresh box of Cheerios and I gave her a few and popped a few into my own mouth.  Although I have bought enough Cheerios to feed Rhode Island, I haven’t actually eaten any in a while.  I was so surprised at how good they were, I said "Oh!  Yum!"  and Jane looked at me with the complete earnestness of an eleven-month-old.  She picked up a Cheerio and gazing at me with nothing but love and wonder in those huge, clear, blue eyes, she reached out gently and put it to my mouth.  She was SHARING with me!!  She wanted to GIVE me something!  Isn't that amazing?  Nothing has ever tasted so good as that tiny Cheerio.  My eyes filled with tears and I just had to say a little prayer of thanks for the small things that restore hope. 


Small Things with Big Love, especially.



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(c) Barbara Cooper 2001


Barbara Cooper is the mother of Ana (3) and Jane (eleven months).  She lives in Austin, Texas and will try very hard to make her readers smile next week.