We Are A Part Of A Hyphen Nation

American Flag

This is one of those posts written at 3:00 am. I have a head cold and I’m awake. I couldn’t breathe — the congestion tide rolled back up into my sinuses and the only cure for me at the moment was gravity.  So, I’m sitting up and thinking — and these are the middle-of-the-night ramblings of a stuffy, sleepy me.

Tomorrow is September 11 — again.  For fourteen years, the date has been the slab of sidewalk lifted by a tree’s roots. It’s the one you trip over while on a walk, the one you become cautiously aware of on each journey, the one that remains long after the homeowner or the town has removed the offending tree.


Fourteen years. That means that every infant and toddler, elementary and middle school student, and the high school freshman class weren’t even born when the events of that day happened.  All they know of what is, to them, ancient history comes from news footage and stories from us.

And as we relive each second of September 11, did we learn anything?

Consider recent news events. As a nation, we always seem to be at war. There’s a war on terror, a war on women, a war on gays, a war on Christians, a war on drugs, a war on immigrants, a war on police officers. We’re even at war with one another on whose lives matter most: black, white, or blue.

It’s at this point, I channel Scarlett O’Hara as she’s talking to the Tarleton boys under the trees at Twelve Oaks. “Fiddle-dee-dee. War, war, war! This war talk’s spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream.”

Scarlett O'Hara and Twins

I really could scream — out of frustration.  Out of anger.  Out of sadness.

We are a nation separated and ripped apart by a small piece of punctuation.  The simple act of hyphenation has turned us into a hyphen nation.

On the one hand, the hyphen is the mark that places us into our tribes, giving us a sense of pride in our uniqueness from one another.  When I consider my own hyphens — and I have enough to encircle the globe — I wonder if they truly define who I am. My hyphens, as numerous as they are, are only a small part of me and do not paint a complete picture.

In celebrating our differences we seem to have lost sight of our sameness.

Maybe it’s because of the 24-hour news cycle or that it’s campaign season and those who would like our vote can only do so by keeping our hyphens firmly affixed, but lately it seems as if our hyphens have gotten thicker and heavier.

It’s starting to feel as if our hyphens are a wall boxing us into our borders so that we can no longer speak or hear one another.

Community Garden

Recently, I visited a local community garden. It was clean-out day, a time when individuals and groups remove the remains of summer crops, feed the soil in the raised beds, and plant seeds for the fall growing season while leaving some room for the winter growing season. This is zone 10, after all.

There, among the dirt and tools, plants and hoses, it didn’t matter what hyphens the gardeners brought with them. In fact, hyphens were checked at the garden gate.  Conservatives and liberals, Christians and atheists, straights and gays, blacks and whites — all worked together.

The only life that mattered was garden life.

Community Garden

It was, in a sense, September 12 all over again — the day that, despite our pain and loss and shock, we existed without hyphens.

As we go through the day on September 11, memorializing those lost, reliving our personal moments, and educating those who weren’t yet born — maybe we could take a few seconds to remember that the only ones who do not see our hyphens are those who would like to do us harm.

And maybe — just maybe — we could tell the younger generation what it was like on September 12, that hyphen-less day.

For more reflections on September 11, feel free to visit these previous posts:

Lessons Learned From A 9/11 Survivor

9/11 And A Summer Long Ago

Facing 9/11 For The First Time

18 thoughts on “We Are A Part Of A Hyphen Nation

  1. So true in all respects, Kevin. It is so very sad that it now appears to require either a national crisis or a shocking event of mammoth proportions (as opposed to the ones that only last for a 7- or 14-day news cycle) to prompt our politically-dismembered nation to truly put aside our differences and work together for more than a fleeting few hours or days in a row.

    • Hello M’Lady. I so agree with you. I find that most of the chatter out there is meaningless — and what’s truly important seems to get lost in the noise. I know there are good people — wonderful people — out there who are doing amazing things. I think part of the blame is the news industry. It’s less news and more entertainment — and at the end of the broadcast, I feel unfulfilled and uninformed. Such is the nature of the news beast in these times. Stay well.

  2. Very thoughtful musings, Kevin. I don’t think it’s true that hyphens didn’t exist on Sept. 12. Rather, we were very intolerant of differences so that those hyphenated identities had to be suppressed. Remember that Arab Americans were attacked for no other reason than that they looked Arab. A friend of mine of South Asian descent, fleeing her office in lower Manhattan, had to show ID and prove she lived there before she was allowed into her Brooklyn neighborhood. I remember trying to explain to another friend, a Japanese-American, why it would be very dangerous for her to fly the U.N. flag rather than an American flag outside her house. As unpleasant as the current divisiveness can be, I think it’s less dangerous than enforced unity.

    • Hi Jean. I love your comment — and I would love it even more if we were sharing a pot of tea. 🙂 Seriously, I know in the days following 9/11 (and still today), those who even are “perceived” to be Arab are often victimized. Perhaps this is just my musings are my perceptions. I know when I went to work the next day on Long Island, with the smell of smoke in the air, I was stunned at how people (students and adults) seemed kinder to one another. The support for those who lost loved ones or were frantically searching or who were part of the rescue efforts was overwhelming. When we put ourselves together and ignore the hyphenated tags, we can do amazing things. Perhaps this is Pollyanna-ish of me. Perhaps it’s part of human nature to categorize and judge one another, no matter how many anti-bullying workshops are created. I just think we lost a moment when we could have grown, when something was missing in the dialogue of the moment — especially when we watch the news from Black Lives Matter, current campaign rhetoric, and a county in Kentucky. We seem to be more at war with ourselves than with anyone else, and I worry when we step too close to the edge. I don’t believe in enforced unity, but I do believe in the process of achieving unity. To me, it makes more sense to talk and listen and reach for some common ground than to throw sticks and stones and hateful words. Thank you so much for sharing your point of view. Be well!

  3. Kevin, each of your 9-11 posts have been memorable and I have been touched by what you share. I think that living on the west coast and “experiencing” that horrible day was about as bad as I can imagine, yet for those of you living in NY at the time, I can only imagine. It doesn’t surprise me that you can write with such sensitivity about the thoughts that keep you up at night! We did really come together, speaking to each other with respect and concern on September 12, 2001, and thereafter for quite awhile.I am also very sensitive and deeply troubled at how divided we are as a nation today. As troubling as it is, what I can take hope in is knowing the young adults I work with and seeing how much they have to offer the world. They are so open and not at all eager to label people–hyphenate and divide! I have very, very high hopes for how they will impact the negativity we are currently living under and the changes in that tide expect them to deliver. Thank you for such a sensitive post. And I do hope you’re feeling better!

    • Hi Debra. Thank you for your kind words. What stands out in your comment is to maintain an open, non-judgmental line of communication — particularly with young people. Our world has changed so rapidly in our lifetime — and the world they are stepping into is not recognizable for us older folks. With each of the issues that seem to be ripping us apart, I cannot stress enough the need to hear and listen and to move toward a better understanding. I worry that in our techno, speed-of-light world, the idea of empathy is lost because attention spans are shorter. Just watch a morning news show and watch how quickly the newscasters emotions swing from comedy to seriousness to all-out manic. There is little time to process all the information being thrown at us. I’m thrilled and thankful that your students have you. Be well!

  4. I stopped watching the news years ago, and if I had to drill down to when it really may’ve been, I believe it was 2002-2003.
    I don’t feel the news is in business to paint humanity with any sense of realism, let alone idealism. They are in business, and as such must play upon (and prey upon) the human addiction to tragic, dramatic, and divisive in order to gain viewers and increase ratings.
    Sometimes this means I’m a little late to the loop on world events, but at least in the meantime I’m able to read stories about two sets of identical twins switched at birth in Columbia, or a pit bull saving a family from a fire, or pieces full of unification and empathy and education regarding hyphens.
    Someone I know who witnessed 9/11 in person, has started noting all of the joyous, joining, and life-loving moments on 9/11s. I thought that, like your 9/12, was a lovely way to honor such a date.

    • Hi PlumDirt. I think your friend’s way of honoring the date is a terrific way to take it back without forgetting. I often find that celebrating a life while mourning is more helpful, and it allows the mourners to regain some control over a situation in which there was little to no control. Be well!

  5. Love this post. I remember on Sept. 11, I wanted to rush home, gather my family around me and keep them “safe”. Years later, my husband and I went to ground zero. The memorial was finished and was beautiful, but what I remember most was St. Paul’s Chapel. I cried and cried as I walked by the scratched benches where the firemen laid down to rest with all their gear on. I agree with you-people WERE nicer after that. I was nicer-events such as this make you appreciate what you have and the good people you know. People seem crazier now (to me) and just going for a walk or shopping concerns me anymore. We need to get the kindness back-maybe build more gardens?? It works for me!

    • Hi Brenda. In these days of campaigning and mass shootings and general meanness, I often wonder where the kindness went. Where did it disappear to so quickly? Why are we all so quick to judge? There are days — whether true or manufactured by the media — that it seems as if we will implode upon ourselves. I agree with you — perhaps more gardens or projects where people can work together, get to know one another as people despite differences. Like it or not, we probably have so much more in common with one another than we realize. Hope all is well with you and yours. 🙂

  6. I guess good things really can come out of uncomfortable sleepless nights…
    For some reason this year I looked out at the younger kids and finally realized how veterans of the Pearl Harbor attacks must feel every year. It’s a note on the calendar for me but for another generation the date must be equally poignant.
    Sad how history repeats despite our attempts to avoid it. I was listening to someone complain about the US taking in any Syrian refugees and wondered how they could ignore that same feelings of distrust that arose throughout the years towards Germans, Asians, Italians, Irish, Jews… each in turn being the ‘freeloaders looking for a handout’, ‘different and not willing to accept our culture’, ‘destitute and bringing nothing of worth to our country’…. and then they just become Americans.

    • Hi Bittster. Yes! At one point, we were all outsiders and looked down upon. Perhaps the fear comes from guilt of how our early explorers and settlers (outsiders) treated the native peoples in this hemisphere. They were quite welcoming at first, and look how that turned out for them. I know I’m on a slippery slope here, but welcoming people is a constant process. There are so many walls that need to be broken down.

  7. A very lovely post. (Though, yes, on September 12 I did worry about some of my friends who were perceived to be Arab-Americans.) I’ve lived a lot of places, and while in every place people have their own culture and even different values, people are still much the same. It is often fear that drives division and distrust, and it is too bad that such fear is often exploited by politicians, news networks, etc. Sadly it often takes a disaster for people to think about what really matters and work together. I’m glad that there are certain smaller things like gardening that can also reach across all those hyphens and bring people together.

    • Hi Indie. I think gardening and food can break down barriers and bring people together. In my travels, I often find great comfort in talking to local people about their gardens, their secrets and tricks. The hyphen seems to disappear because all of us want that most beautiful rose or more most delicious tomato. 🙂

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