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'When Is It Right to Begin to Get Back to Normal?'
An Essay by NPR's Susan Stamberg

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Susan Stamberg
Susan Stamberg

Sept. 13, 2001 -- With so many lives lost this week, life, for the rest of us, has been on hold. After the initial shrieks and sobs, many of our voices were as muted as our skies. The streets -- in most places except Lower Manhattan -- were quiet, too. And a kind of limbo set in: motions frozen, or at least notched down to idling.

This is the way a nation -- and an individual -- reacts to trauma. Shock converts to numb converts to disbelief converts to anger. Then, gradually, action.

Our leaders spoke out early, in condemnation. And on the evening of that horrible day, on the steps of the Capitol building, members of Congress unexpectedly, softly, began to sing one of the country's oldest songs:

"God bless America , land that I love! Stand beside her and guide her Through the night with a light from above."

"This is the way a nation -- and an individual -- reacts to trauma. Shock converts to numb converts to disbelief converts to anger. Then, gradually, action."

Susan Stamberg

So corny. So heartfelt. And in some ways brave and sad. Politicians, falling back on lessons learned in elementary school, where we began being shaped into citizens -- the proud words of a song about ourselves, words of idealism and love and commitment. The small and potent weapon of patriotism -- fallen into disrepute in recent decades, but there, in an emergency, to serve as solace and a vow.

On Wednesday night, the same song floated over Pennsylvania Avenue, sung by some 200 people gathered spontaneously at the White House gates, holding candles in memorial, their voices younger now.

And, before the official calls for their display, American flags sprouted -- from windows in Manhattan, porches in Washington, D.C., Main Street in Grants Pass, Oregon, many places throughout America. Again, a small but powerful gesture; just bits of cloth in bright primary colors. We learned to salute them when we were young -- or learned it later, as new citizens who worship differently, in some cases, but salute the same national symbols. Now, in an emergency, the banners stand for so much.

These simple things -- a song, a flag -- are balms by which we could emerge from limbo. This week, weddings have been put on hold; parties, celebrations, performances. Obligatory phone calls were not made, dates not kept, schedules abandoned. We begin, now, to wonder: When is it right to begin to get back to normal?

We're waiting for some signal -- and the songs, the flags, may be the bridges back. Except that after this week, "back to normal" will mean something different to us. And that new meaning will add resonance to the old songs we sing.

Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.