Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Marisa Helene Dickmeyer was born to be on stage. The 19-year-old freelance choreographer grew up in Carmel, Indiana, and today studies musical theatre at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her passions include singing, dancing and performing. She has traveled to San Diego, California, and Savannah, Georgia, and has been on cruises. Marisa is Catholic. When terrorists struck America, she was riding a bus to the university for her first voice lesson with Melody Racine. She wrote her essay – an assignment for English class – a couple weeks later. It is titled, “The Value of Life.”
News spread of attack and we all ran for help, clinging to our useless cell phones. I didn’t know if all, or any, of my friends were still alive. I could have talked to them the day before, but I was too busy. There wasn’t enough time. Now cast aside: watches, along with previous appointments and classes scheduled. Why didn’t we care a day or an hour before, when time did matter?
Society needs death, disappearance, and heartache in order to appreciate the good times. Life is the physical, mental and spiritual experiences that constitute existence in union of soul and body (American, 2000). Everyday people talk about each other, criticizing their material items or choices, and making assumptions about what kind of person they are. We don’t find value in life, which is the utility and worth in usefulness by the possessor; to regard highly and esteem something (American, 2000). In my sorority house, some people are deceptive. Last year, I thought certain girls made great friends. Now that we are all living under the same roof, I realize some girls are really selfish and not the kind of people I want in my life. I’m sensitive and sentimental. I focus on the soul of a person, and not their shoes.
In the September 11th tragedy, lives were lost. Many of my friends live in New York City, and I did not know if or how they were affected. The urgency of wanting to talk to them, my family, and my other friends were my top priority, forgetting about my previous schedule. How many people are lost in our lives daily? Ilyani Ywahoo said, “The opportunity of life is very precious and it moves very quickly,” as the speed of the crashing towers showed us (Schaef, 1990).
I constantly write letters, call and e-mail. However, last week showed me that there were many with whom I had lost touch. I received a text message on my cell phone with one line saying, “Hope you’re ok, love you,” from Tom, a friend I had not talked to in three months. I began to worry about my friends who are in the military and think about the last time I saw them. Would our past visit be the last? We don’t realize the value of these people. We become too self-centered.
Life seems to be changing at times when I least expect it. My perspective has changed. My peers are all compassionate, reaching out to give hugs. I ask if all of their family and friends are all right and how they are doing. Compassion is flying through the air quickly, like the smoke that poured from the Twin Towers. More people hold doors for each other. There are more smiles. Like a film of the towers crashing playing speedily on rewind; out of this storm, a giant rainbow has sprouted. We begin to ask about each other to become united as one from many different backgrounds. Patriotism and unification now engulf our campus and country.
In college, some people join a sorority/fraternity to find unity. Some people join clubs and teams. Because they are in these groups now, spending time getting to know their other peers is limited. These groups are supposed to provide a place to bond, but all it has done is tear us apart more. We have less time to do homework, less time to talk to our families, less time to be with ourselves. In our society, strict schedules are kept. Somehow “getting to know each other” or “caring” is not a scheduled event. It is forgotten. We miss out on learning about other ways of life because we are too stuck in our own. We have become cold as stone and communicate less when we are in the age of communication. We have e-mail, cell phones, instant messenger, pagers, palm pilots and answering machines. Fifty years ago when none of these “helpful” devices were around, we all talked more in person. There were not ways to communicate besides home telephones and letter writing. Now that we have a huge list to choose from, we can’t decide how to keep in touch. We communicate less. We are numb to love and numb to pain. We are told to deal with pain and “leave it at the door” so we can continue on with our work. But we need to feel pain and love.
As the collapsing world icon fell, our means of communication were severed. Cell phones were out of service because the Twin Towers had crumbled in the streets. Ground telephone lines had been demolished due to the destruction. Computer systems were out and power was down. We could not do anything to communicate with our friends and family in New York City. Immediately, everyone went into shock. Frightened businessmen just wanted to talk to someone, to hear comforting voices. I wanted to know my friends and family were all right. Instantly, security was taken from us and only then did we realize how important it was.
Now after time has gone by, we may have begun to block out what happened. We start to worry about the petty disagreements again, instead of realizing that everyone has feelings, too. Toes begin to get stepped on and doors stop being held for a friendly stranger. Arms stop reaching out to embrace someone who was once an enemy and spontaneous messages cease. Our bubbles that were popped are now being hastily reconstructed. Creeping back in, bitter selfishness once again engulfs. Terror is not over. Learning to value neighbors is a lesson to reiterate. What tragedy will have to happen next to make us remember to reach out forever? Some terrorist thought over 5,000 lives would make us remember, but so many have already forgotten.
At the beginning of every year, many people are already looking to find new friends. We talk to everyone with smiles and want to meet so many people. In the winter, we all just want to be left alone. It is harder to go out and spend time together. Is one day not more important than the other? Literally each day is the same as the one that came before and the one that will follow the day we now share. What makes people less important in January than in September? Nothing decreases their worth, and we are all still the same people. At the same time, in September people are much faster to judge than in January. Everyone has to wear the newest fashions they picked up while shopping for new school clothes. If someone is wearing something that is older, no one approves. In January, we all wear sweaters that we wore five years ago. No one comments, and people are generally less critical.
From sorority rush, I realize how many generalizations and conclusions people draw after meeting someone for two whole minutes. No one thinks about if a certain girl is a “real person” or just someone they can cut off a list. Everyone has a different impression of the same girl, but one person is out to spread the bad news. The gossip tells all the girls in the house a certain girl is not cool. This is terrorism. Insecure girls seem to be thriving on hurting other innocent lives; not an acceptable way to live. We need to stop accepting gossip. Starting to notice each individual and remembering they are all as important as any other is our job. Remembering seems to be something we all forget about in our busy lives. We remembered life on September 11, 2001. But somehow we don’t remember birthdays or anniversaries. We don’t remember friends’ names or backgrounds. We don’t remember anything. No one cares enough to remember the simplest things.
There are some people who do notice the small things. I experience the best feeling in the world when my peers voice what they noticed. One of the older girls in my sorority, Alyssa, notices elements of kindness in girls in our house. During the run of Good News!, she supported me, and saw other girls tearing me apart for being away from the house. She stood up for me and was a true friend. She was my savior when gossips were lashing out at me. Lori, in my Argumentative Writing class, approached me after reading my paper. She told me that she could really relate to it. Lori always tries to hold the door for people and to casually pass a smile to a stranger in the hall. She is the kind of person I want as my friend. By the miniscule random acts of kindness, she shows she really cares about everyone.
My goal is to find and to surround myself with people who have similar views. I need positive people to maintain my own optimistic outlook. Daily while performing, classmates always talk about other people in our class – how they didn’t sing well or messed up the dance steps. I prefer not to worry about others and instead work on making myself a better performer. I find difficulty keeping a focused mind frame when I am constantly hearing about others’ faults. I never thought so many pessimistic people could survive being disappointed and sad everyday.
As I walk up and down the sidewalk, I see walkers with their heads down. Others look up and smile back at me in passing. I have wanted to make people smile my whole life. I want to see someone’s face light up, glowing from connection with me – understanding what I share. I perform to help people relate, communicate, and reflect on different forms of existence. I want to provide an escape from the stress and fear of living. The stage is not the only place where people can make others connect with their emotions. I never know who just failed a test or accomplished their goal. No matter if the weather is miserable or the circumstances dire, a smile can always brighten anyone’s day. I try to smile at everyone, even my worst enemies. Mom always told me to “kill them with kindness,” and that is great advice.
As a country, how do we sustain the importance of the value of life? We’re the melting pot of the world. How can we remember that we all thrive on the same thing? How can we remember to spread love with smiles and kind, heartfelt words? We know that we all have compassion inside. Unlocking and letting love smother our neighbors is difficult. When we are kind, it brings us the warmest feelings. I would think we would do it more often, but the reality is just the opposite.
I find it difficult in valuing every minute when I am exhausted because I can’t think straight. How could I make someone feel like they are important when all I can think about is falling asleep? Society expects us to live up to high expectations. I keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep walking. Opening my eyes, let alone smiling, is tough, but I try to be there for friends. I keep on trying. Even when I had a fourteen-hour workday ahead of me, I was on the phone taking care of an upset friend. The next night I worked until 2am, setting up two friends with dates to our Barn Dance date party that I could not even attend. Society is self-centered and concerned about the economy, fashion, education, rather than how each person’s soul is doing. Does society realize how important lives are? We can be ourselves if we nourish our souls. Embracing a little more, instead of glaring at each other, will make our society stronger, regardless of the material status.
We take for granted tomorrow’s sunrise. I had a best friend, Blake, who got in a car accident five years ago. We had an understanding that we were important to each other, but I never told him that he was special to me. Ever since that day, I have become incredibly sentimental. I try to tell people how much they mean to me before time expires. With Blake, I didn’t get the chance to do that. I told him later, but he can’t talk or move, so I had to trust that he knew. I remember the way we looked into each other’s eyes and what we knew without saying a word. We exchange these identical looks now, even though Blake is completely blind in one eye. Our communication lifeline was not completely severed. I don’t want my last day here to leave me with any regret. I regret not telling Blake I loved him. Many people walk in and out of our lives daily. Maybe so many won’t walk out if we share our soft sides.
Our generation needs to bond. We need to find common ground between the athletes and the performers, the sorority girls and the debate team. We need to unite and change the evil of this world. If we don’t take responsibility, nothing will happen. In thirty years, we will not have anyone to blame but ourselves for creating or not stopping a disaster. Just for one person to be noticed, lives are being taken by terrorists. Why can’t we just smile at each other on the streets in America and all over the world? Could a single smile exchanged twenty years ago have saved over 5,000 lives this past September? We will never know if we don’t start trying now.
I hope the patriotism that has been rekindled continues to be the fire of unity across America. Our communities and families need to reinvent camaraderie. We need to work on our relationships as much as we work on our paychecks. Life has more prosperity than our bank accounts will ever incur. The real value lies in how we make other people feel. If we comfort those around us, then we’ll find success every day. No one knows how much time we have left to spend together so making the best of every situation will let us leave without regret.
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Schaef, Anne Wilson. Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1990.