Long Ago, It Must be, I Have the Photograph

I am a big fan of British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett and my favorite of his works is Night Watch. In it the main character goes back and meets his own younger self. There is a moment - over a political discussion when the older version of the character hears the younger give his opinions and thinks, "Was I ever that young?" and also that if there were something he could tell his younger self he wouldn't, because the younger self wouldn't "get" it. He had to go through years of experiences and kicks in the teeth, till the twerpitude of youth burned away and he became the older character.

I could say the same, looking back on my younger self. How brash, how foolish, and what strange opinions I held.

Only there's a hinge that divides the me then and the me now, and the hinge swings around 9/11/2001. There was a me before then. There is a me after then.

Both the mes believe strongly in individual human beings; both the mes are suspicious of faceless, collective entities and enemies of coercion upon individuals; both the mes want most ardently to be left alone to think and be. There the resemblance stops. The me before believed in a lot of nonsense - the power of negotiation, for instance. Or that abundance and modernity could dull all tribalism, eradicate - in time - all fanaticism. That there was a primary cause for evil and that "evil" people weren't and only acted out of poverty or suffering or oppression.

I wasn't even aware of believing all this, but on 9/11/01 I was finishing my third published book and -- after a week of watching TV and baking obsessively and meeting my husband he drove across half the country to get back home from the place where he was on assignment at the time - when I returned to my manuscript these ideas seemed absurd. Reality had changed and my internal view had upended itself in those days of stunned shock.

It seemed obvious, glaringly so, that we'd been hit through no fault of our own. It seemed obvious and glaring that the ideology of the attackers, if allowed to prevail, would mean a terrible life for everyone. A world of nine elevens.

I've been accused of being cynical. I don't think of myself as such, but I confess I was only half surprised when people started pointing fingers at their own nation and saying we caused it. Some people always blame the victim. And some people hate themselves. But most people who blame us do so because if we caused it, we can stop causing it. They just wanted (and want) to go back to who and how they were then on that beautiful September morning.

Would I do that if I could? Oh, hell, yeah, in a heart beat. Since 9/11 I've lost friends; I've lost touch with relatives to whom I cannot explain why I'm different; I've become much more politically involved than I ever wanted to be; I've worried about my sons' future more than I thought I ever would: I've wondered if it's inevitable that both will get drafted when this war gets hotter. And if it's better or worse if they aren't. And most of all I've worried that when this is all over the America I love - sweet land of Liberty - will be gone forever.

But I know I can't go back. The event happened. That door is shut. The past is another country, and its borders are sealed against reentry. Even if the choices we have ahead of us all seem evil, some are better than others, and we must choose the least evil because we must go on living in the present and for the future. We can't hide. We can only trudge ahead, day by day, until eventually we find a path to another place, perhaps better than that past we lost.

One of the last discussions I had with the late Mrs. Heinlein was about the trade off between constitutional freedoms and survival of the nation, and how you can never be sure what you surrender "temporarily" will come back. But how we also cannot allow barbarism and terror to triumph.

Oh, yes, I would give everything I own to go back to five minutes before the first plane hit. Five minutes to bask in peace, to savor that golden September sunshine in the twilight of an era about to vanish forever. But it wouldn't work. I know now we were not at peace, but simply refusing to admit others were at war with us. Ostriches are not safe with their heads in the sand.

At the other end of twerpitude, of the starry-eyed innocence of youth if you will, lies not cynicism but adulthood. Adulthood has many disadvantages: there are bills to pay; there are dependents to protect and care for; there are obligations, commitments and things we really do not want to do, but must.

Only one things atones for and compensates for those burdens: liberty. Liberty is not freedom with which it's often confused. It doesn't mean you can do as you please.

It just means you have the facts and can choose your course in a perilous world. It means you know no course is perfect, but some are definitely better than others.

It means you wake up, you eschew the simple fairy tales that keep you sedated and happy - like the idea that if you close your eyes, nine eleven will never have happened, and everything will be fine. It means you lift your burden, assume responsibility for your course from now on, and you forge ahead.

And you tell evil it cannot pass and it cannot win. Because adults must protect the children and the weak. And adults do not let evil win without a fight. Even if the battle changes them forever.

posted by Sarah on 09.11.10 at 09:34 PM


Good introduction

bunuel   ·  September 11, 2010 7:52 PM

Good introduction

bunuel   ·  September 11, 2010 7:52 PM

Nice post, Sarah.

I too like Terry Pratchett a lot, and Night Watch is one of my favorites. You could flip through his novels and find an endless series of passages useful as jumping-off-points for blog posts.

So you knew Virginia Heinlein? Please tell us more about your conversations with her! From everything Robert said, she was a fascinating and superbly intelligent individual.

pst314   ·  September 11, 2010 10:31 PM

Never read Pratchett. I'll have to give him a try. Thanks for the recommendation.

I hope Tony Daniels publishes his next soon. I got through Amity Shlaes' book and also Matt Ridley's, but I'm getting a little bored of nonfiction. I've gotten awfully discriminating in my middle years, though; I barely like half of what I read anymore. I've gotten in habit of just rereading my Zelazny collection.

Poor Roger. I wish he could have seen the 21st.

Stross is sometimes very good, but he and I got in a bit of tiff over the liberation of Iraq, and rather than admit he was wrong he shut down the forum, which I found amusing, andit colors the experience of reading his books now. A dull mauve, I think, the pastel of my youthful, quickly disproven assumption that someone whose writing was so brilliant must at least understand the pro-liberation position and acknowledge the facts of the situation, even if he did not agree. I blame the Guardian.

TallDave   ·  September 11, 2010 11:34 PM

Tall Dave -- blaming the Guardian is always a good idea. :) Judging from my family in Europe, they just don't "get" it. They're stuck in a time warp sometime mid seventies as far as their media goes. Let it lie. I'm rather fond of F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack series, though apparently listening to it on audio makes me dream about it. Which is not good. Of course you could read me. Well, if you run out of everything else and the TV is broken.

Sarah   ·  September 12, 2010 12:15 PM


I didn't exactly "know" Ginny. (Weirdly, despite several requests to call her that, I could only do that after she died.)
You see, I named my son Robert Anson Hoyt. He was born on Heinlein's birthday, a couple of years after Heinlein died. My husband took advantage of post partum insanity and made me send Mrs. Heinlein a birth announcement. She sent back a fluffy white bear (which which the big lunk still sleeps -- shh) and a letter and invited me to keep her informed of the boy's progress. She died when he was thirteen. In between our correspondence moved off snailmail to email and AIM, she AIMed with Robert a few times, and he sent her some of his drawings.
Let me just say that RAH's description of her was, if anything, understated. I have a lot of brilliant friends (I think they become friends with me for the variety) but Ginny was, without exception the best read, most intellectually curious person I ever interacted with. I spent most of my youth reading, but everytime I talked to her I got a reading assignment.
As for telling more. I'm about to start a series of posts "Hoyt On Heinlein" about Heinlein, or at least about the Heinlein bio (volume I)by Patterson, now out. At least Eric told me I could do it, though he KNOWS that the internet is 50% porn, 25% cat stories and 25% Heinlein flame wars. I'm hoping to start today or tomorrow (subject to working hours and family.) Put on your fire proof suit and jump in. :)

Sarah   ·  September 12, 2010 12:46 PM

Um... sorry. Not enough coffee. I got the post tags wrong. My second answer is to PST 314. While on that, Tall Dave, you should definitely read Pratchett. While his books present as commedy, there's some interesting stuff there. In fact, I often find echoes of Heinlein and wonder if he's one of the Children of Heinlein. (Of course, even those in Freudian revolt against him, often seem to be.)

Sarah   ·  September 12, 2010 12:50 PM

A Correction

Time it was
And what a time it was
It was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences.

Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They're all that's left you
Paul Simon

Alan Kellogg   ·  September 12, 2010 10:06 PM

Allan, you are absolutely right. You know, I thought I had written "a" and only noticed the next day I'd done "the." Eh.

Sarah   ·  September 13, 2010 8:24 PM

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