Five years ago I was on a big bus, coming home in an uncertain country, burying myself in books and watching the West of America rolling by out the window. I spent most of the ride taking up two seats, cocooning myself as best I could, trying to process the profound experience I and the rest of my country was going through. I observed America being America -- flags flying at half staff, bus passengers bickering or stoically traveling to what they hoped would be safety. We related only in that we were all in the same bus, all going somewhere toward a fair hope. We all knew that nothing would ever be the same.
The last night of the journey I spent in a decent hotel after a decent meal. The next morning I got to the bus station and asked for directions for a place for breakfast. I had learned from the trip that these days most bus stations are just off the Interstate, near a cheap motel and near a fast food restaurant. This one was in a small town, and the nearest breakfast place was an old-fashioned small town diner, just what I needed if I was going to have a good meal and confidence that the home I was going would still be there, intact, populated by the kind of people I knew.
I'll never forget that breakfast of sausage, eggs, good coffee and the comforting conversations of people I didn't know. There were newspapers divided into sections by the previous occupants of the tables, and the chatter in Southern accents of friends accustomed to seeing each other at this place every morning.
"Susie. Seen Carl today?"
"He uz here and gone. Said he had to take the pickup for service."
They could have been reciting poetry. There were inside jokes, remarks as funny as anything Jeff Foxworthy could have said, and lots of laughter. I was in the bosom of family, the family of strangers under stress, Southerners bonded by generations of being American, being prepared for the worst and keeping as cool a face as anybody ever saw.
The rest of my trip was hardly a day long. The bag I had checked through was at the station before I got there, and all I had to do to get my car was take a taxi to the airport where I had left it, then get in and go home. I visited my family and got back to the business of creating normalcy out of an anticipated chaos. We knew that this was bin Laden's best shot, but that it was not his only shot.
It has been like that to some degree ever since then. Politicians haven't changed; we have only been allowed to see what they want us to see and not a glimmer of the chaos beneath. Before 9/11/01 I was a frequent contributor to the Letters to the Editor of the local newspaper, excoriating the politicians I had bad feelings about. Since that date I knew how very little I had known when I shot my mouth off, and I didn't have the heart to wage such insignificant, ill-informed battles again. Much conflict lay ahead in my own personal world, when attacks came from hotheads against the one institution I knew to be pure, the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, and I had enough to deal with in withstanding the waves of controversy on my own turf.
After time, I began to pontificate once again, but only about personal matters and not about perceived wrongs by specific individuals who claimed to be my country's leaders. The layer of mistrust will probably never go away. The shield of safety has been stripped from us all since the day when those planes were used as missiles against us, tearing deep into our daily activities for the rest of our lives. When George Bush took that megaphone at the site of the devastation, for once in his life, he made the right move. But it meant nothing. He is a product of his advisors, who have been wrong about everything. The one time he acted alone, on his own instinct, it was reassuring and strong. That is the best thing that can ever be said about him.
Now we go forward in worse shape than we've ever been in, and the future does not hold promise for better leadership or clearer direction. Saying I don't pontificate about my perception of the big picture, I shall stick with that now. I've been wrong before and undoubtably will be again. I am in the process of learning how to live on a small scale, and I have a few years to get at least that right.
Whether Wal-Mart decides to build just outside the city limits really doesn't matter to me. That Wal-Mart exists does, and I am powerless about that. My little town faces so much in the near future that it is up to us to do our own personal best, and to remember that atmosphere of the diner where the jokes were flying and the food was substantial. In such a place we can be sure of ourselves. It will take time.