September is sunflower season in Kansas, when the wild sunflowers appear in ditches and pastures, the sunflowers that gave the state its nickname. They probably aren't native to the region. Most likely, they arrived as seeds in the blankets and clothing of the conquistadores riding up from Mexico and present-day Arizona, where the sunflower is indigenous. But the seeds germinated and the sunflowers thrived.
It was a mild fall day. Pale sky with high clouds, south wind quiet, sunflowers blooming all along the road from Hesston to Newton. It was a Tuesday. Two days later, I would drive to Winfield, in southern Kansas, to spend three days the way I always do the third weekend in September, listening to live Bluegrass and folk music at the (30th annual) Walnut Valley Festival.
I was driving out of Hesston, headed for work. I was News Service editor for the General Conference Mennonite Church, which would become part of the merged denomination, Mennonite Church USA, on Feb. 2, 2002. One week earlier, I'd learned that a job I had loved for four years would cease to exist in the new denomination, and so would my employment.
I was running late, which is why I heard something on NPR about "an explosion at the World Trade Center." At first, I was disoriented, recalling a decade earlier when a bomb went off in the bottom of the World Trade Center. I remember saying to myself, "Is this an anniversary? What are they talking about?" Then Bob Edwards and a reporter whose name I've forgotten began discussing the fact that a commercial jet airliner had apparently hit one of the World Trade Center towers. It must have been an accident. But before I got to Newton, eight miles away, the second plane had hit the second tower and the third plane had crashed into the Pentagon, and life in the United States of America changed irrevocably.
Maybe we had been living in a collective dream up until that moment, and this simply yanked us into reality. And maybe it was a shock to our psyches as profound as the A-bomb blasting Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Far more people died from the bomb and its after-effects. But I wonder if the exponentially greater speed of global communication on Sept. 11, 2001, coupled with the U.S.'s sole possession of first place in world dominance, didn't produce a result almost as emotionally shattering and widespread.
My 2001 Christmas letter was very short, only half a page. It was a brief list of significant events in my life that year. A pet I had had for most of my adult life, a cat, had died. I lost my job. One of the items said: "Sept. 11 - [two friends' names] 5th wedding anniversary."
A few weeks ago, I saw an article in the Wichita paper about the fact that couples were shying away from Sept. 11, 2004 (which was on a Saturday), for a wedding date, even though September is second only to June as a popular month in which to get married. They didn't want their wedding anniversary associated with that notorious date.
That may very well say a lot about some characteristics of Americans that are less than flattering, not the least how self-absorbed we tend to be. But I'll give folks the benefit of the doubt on something so personal as a wedding date.
Instead, I will be grateful to my friends for getting married on that day, even though of course it was five years before the planes hit the World Trade Center, and they never planned for the dates to coincide. And I praise all those couples who did go ahead and marry on Sept. 11, 2004, and who gave their friends and family something beautiful to remember on that anniversary.
It was a mild fall day. Pale sky with high clouds, south wind quiet, and I know the sunflowers were blooming all along the road from Hesston to Newton, because I'd seen them the day before as I drove to my new job, at another Mennonite institution, Bethel College. This was a Saturday, though, so I did laundry and cleaned house, went to visit my grandmother, played with my cat Helen who came to live with me in late June, and made plans for the (33rd annual) Walnut Valley Festival, which began this year on Sept. 15.
I thought about the wedding anniversary (#8), and how the child who was only 3 on Sept. 11, 2001, has now started first grade. Then I thought about how we in the United States just passed a media milestone of 1,000 killed in a senseless, bloody war in Iraq (a tragically ridiculous number, taking into no account the Iraqi civilians killed, in multiples of 1,000) and how many more thousands of affected people (families and friends) that number represents. Every once in a while, I think about the world and wonder if there is any place left to go.
Then I look at those sunflowers blooming in utter carelessness of war and terror and despair and human heartbreak. An old pasture or the railroad right-of-way along the road between Hesston and Newton, Kansas, is still a good place to go.
Maybe that's what Jesus meant when he said, "Consider the flowers of the field." He meant that we are to trust God to take care of us. But maybe he meant, as well, that there remain a handful of things we can count on. A handful of sunflower seeds scattered more than 400 years ago was enough to blanket Kansas in gold. A handful is enough for us.