A day so perfect, so crystalline; one on which there's truly not a cloud in the sky. That's what it was.
Until it wasn't. Still so clear, so achingly blue, of course, but otherwise changed, completely. We knew nothing; we were afraid. There on a green lawn on a perfect September morning, blinking in the sunlight after a boring introductory lecture was suddenly interrupted: get out, now. We stood there, in little groups of four and six, staring at tiny screens on big cell phones, watching calls not connect, trying not to stare only at the vast plume of smoke on the horizon not two miles away, trying to decide what on earth to do next.
Unimaginable news on the hallway televisions inside, then (no, get out now) unimaginable words on the radio (a transistor radio in someone's hands, turned loud; when was the last time you saw a transistor radio?). Going home meant going closer in, and that seemed out of the question. Going further out was, within a few minutes, essentially impossible, every road clogged, every government building suddenly sprouting cordons of security, and over everything a vast uncertainty: what had happened? Would it keep happening? What was in that black smoke drifting slowly, malignantly south and east?
We stayed put, for just a little while, and the joined the throngs on the road; a drive of usually ten minutes, tops, took 90, the highway jammed in both directions, people walking uneasily on the grassy shoulder, heading out of town. We ended up in somebody's hotel room, nervously joking about being up so high - the 14th floor, we realized, really the 13th, that can't be good - and so nearly on the flightpath into National. Hearing that everything was closing, we went to find some food, ended up in a bar, the sort of anonymous suburban nowhere place you normally find yourself only by accident, drinking perhaps with some uncongenial officemates. Everyone stared at the screens, ate the thrown-together, haphazard dishes coming out of the rattled kitchen.
I thought of Auden, I remember - right month, wrong day. Hardly an average day, but still we clung to it. Eventually I went home, to a temporary rental apartment, the leased furniture just delivered the weekend before. It took three hours to drive there - a matter of two miles - because I had chosen such a convenient new place just south of the Pentagon. I'd left the windows open that morning - such a perfect, clear day - to lose the smell of cheap new upholstery. I never really got the ugly white sofas clean again, and when I told the rental company my address, nine months later when I left that place, they knew why and didn't charge me.
It's another clear, cool day today in Washington, 14 years later. Everything has changed, and nothing has. I took a different Metro line than usual this morning, after an early errand or two, and when we stopped for an inordinate time in the tunnel under the river, we shifted uneasily, darting glances at each other, off-rush commuters in a half-empty train, looking for reassurance. Eventually, when the wheels groaned and the train moved, a sigh of something like relief. The average day.
We must love one another or die.
* * *
September 1, 1939
I sit in one of the dives On Fifty-second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade: Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of the earth, Obsessing our private lives; The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night. Accurate scholarship can Unearth the whole offence From Luther until now That has driven a culture mad, Find what occurred at Linz, What huge imago made A psychopathic god: I and the public know What all schoolchildren learn, Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return. Exiled Thucydides knew All that a speech can say About Democracy, And what dictators do, The elderly rubbish they talk To an apathetic grave; Analysed all in his book, The enlightenment driven away, The habit-forming pain, Mismanagement and grief: We must suffer them all again. Into this neutral air Where blind skyscrapers use Their full height to proclaim The strength of Collective Man, Each language pours its vain Competitive excuse: But who can live for long In an euphoric dream; Out of the mirror they stare, Imperialism’s face And the international wrong. Faces along the bar Cling to their average day: The lights must never go out, The music must always play, All the conventions conspire To make this fort assume The furniture of home; Lest we should see where we are, Lost in a haunted wood, Children afraid of the night Who have never been happy or good. The windiest militant trash Important Persons shout Is not so crude as our wish: What mad Nijinsky wrote About Diaghilev Is true of the normal heart; For the error bred in the bone Of each woman and each man Craves what it cannot have, Not universal love But to be loved alone. From the conservative dark Into the ethical life The dense commuters come, Repeating their morning vow; “I will be true to the wife, I’ll concentrate more on my work," And helpless governors wake To resume their compulsory game: Who can release them now, Who can reach the deaf, Who can speak for the dumb? All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die. Defenceless under the night Our world in stupor lies; Yet, dotted everywhere, Ironic points of light Flash out wherever the Just Exchange their messages: May I, composed like them Of Eros and of dust, Beleaguered by the same Negation and despair, Show an affirming flame.