Friday, September 9, 2011

He Took Her Hand. She Took His. Together They Jumped.

The day is coming. The big anniversary of that awful day. Each year I feel it again much the same as the year before. Last year, I wrote about a day at home with family on September 11th 2010, a good day for us then, but still the old feelings were not far from the surface as that evening we stared off toward the east, toward the big beams of light shining from Ground Zero.

As the tenth anniversary approaches, I am reflecting on those events, and on the days and years following, much as I imagine many Americans are. The image that comes most clearly and poignantly for me, after the buildings falling, is from a day or two after the tragedy. I was living in southern Vermont and working night shifts at a hospital in Massachusetts back then, so my commute took me home through tiny Berkshire towns in the early morning hours when everyone else was just starting their day. There was a light rain falling on this morning, and I recall a heavy feeling in my body that was more than just the need for sleep after a long shift, and more than the clouds and rain outside. I had turned off the radio for a bit as the car wove along small main streets, past town greens and white-steeple churches on my way home. I think it was either Cheshire or Adams, Massachusetts where I saw a man out jogging. He was a handsome, older fellow with dark salt-and-pepper hair, if memory serves me. He had the kind of physique that told you that this jogging was something he did regularly, probably along with some other kind of workout. As the rain came down, he moved with purpose. This morning, after putting on his running clothes and lacing up his shoes, before heading out the door, he had grabbed a small American flag, which he carried as he ran, in silent tribute, his face stern and sad.

I used to run in those days, too. Even in the rain, if not too heavy. I used the time to unwind, and to work through problems in my mind, or to work emotions and excess energy out of my body. I wondered that morning about the man I saw with the flag, if he sometimes ran for the same reasons. I thought, “How far will you run today, friend? How far to out-distance this pain? Is there a road long enough for us?”

A few years ago, driving into the city on September 11th for a Tango event to mark the occasion--couples dancing silently together in various places in the city--I came around the curve toward the Lincoln Tunnel (they call it the helix) and traffic was slow. I sat there staring at that altered skyline, the big gaping hole in it, just as other drivers did. I noticed all heads turned that way, some with tears on their faces, perhaps thinking the same thing I was through my own tears. I also noticed less aggressive driving, more courtesy, as if the memory of those days of kindness following the tragedy still lived somewhere within each person behind the wheel. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be able to dance on this day, and how many others would never have that chance again. I remember thinking “tonight, I will put my soul into each step. I will dance for those who no longer can. Let my legs and my arms and my heart be a vehicle for them.” Crazy what goes through your mind in grief. Or maybe not so crazy. Who’s to say.

A year or so after that, my mother and my young niece (too young to remember 9/11) came to visit us in our old Jersey City apartment in the month of October. I don’t recall how the subject of police and fire fighters came up, but it did. I remember trying to tell her something about the value of what they do, about the need to respect and give thanks for people who do what they do, and I couldn’t get the words out right away. I started to cry, and I started to tell her about what they did, the sacrifices they made at WTC and elsewhere. She and my mother looked surprised, and I was, too, to find those feelings so close to the surface so many years later. I think my mom was maybe a little worried that my tears would alarm or frighten my niece, but I don’t think they did. I hope they made an impression, though.

Pentagon 9/11 Memorial

I am also remembering living in New England on the year anniversary of 9/11, and listening to coverage of a memorial service on the radio. I was driving, and I held it together pretty well until the sound of every boat in New York harbor blowing their horns came through the speakers. It was so potent, these waves of sound, like the wailing of thousands of voices, weaving together in one huge din that wrapped around the city. It streamed through the speakers and wrapped me in it, too. I felt such a strong connection to NYC then, and imagined people everywhere listening, feeling the same. The distance shrank, and a sense of peace came over me. This was the sound of grief which is, at its core, the sound of love, and it moved through the city and across the nation in a giant wave.
This year September 11th is even more on my mind, not so much because of the 10th anniversary itself, but because of new threats. Though I remember keenly each year on September 11th, I do not make it a preoccupation the rest of the year. I do, though, start at least every week day with it’s memory. That’s because Rudi awakens me each morning, if only briefly, to kiss me goodbye before he commutes into the city. I don’t mind it, even if I would be able to sleep a little later than he can. This is too important. When you live or work in the cross-hairs of zealots, the simple, painful truth is that you never know if you’ll get that chance to say “I love you” again. You never know which kiss might be your last. That probably sounds grim, and I guess it is. But it is also the way things are. True that anywhere in the world tragedy can strike. It just feels a little more real here than in any other place I’ve lived.

That said, there is a lot of talk about evil in the world. The word “evil” is tossed about rather more casually than I would like, frankly. I wrote about this upon the news of Bin Laden’s death . Most of the time, I must say, I’m not so sure I believe in “evil”, at least not in the sense that I hear many people use it. Perhaps I misunderstand their meaning. I’m not sure. But even if it does really exist in and of itself, as a force, if you will, I know a more powerful force of which I’m quite certain.

There is a program I highly recommend, which was produced by PBS’s Frontline. It’s called Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. It originally aired in 2003, I believe, but you can watch it online now. It’s focus is on how 9/11 affected people of faith, and people of no faith, and how people from all walks of life and all spiritual frameworks tried to make sense of this tragedy in its aftermath. I’ve seen it three or four times over the years, and always it’s disturbing and sad and honest and beautiful.

One of the most important points, for me, comes very near the end of the program. The then-editor of Tricycle magazine, a Buddhist publication, summed up the situation eloquently (as did many others on the program). What she said was a great comfort to me, and an important reminder, for all of us. This is what I mean by that “more powerful force” I mentioned earlier.

She said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the WTC and Pentagon attacks took time, and planning, and secrecy, and money, and organizing, flight lessons, deception, recruitment, and a host of other unseen machinations. But something arose from the smoke and flames, and it arose in an instant, and it arose in a place as notoriously jaded and pushy as New York City. It required no planning or deception, no special funding or recruitment. No thought, even.

People helped each other.
People helped strangers, carrying them to safety.
People comforted each other,
sought one another, in private and in public.
Volunteers came from everywhere.
People donated blood, money, labor.
Priests heard confessions as firefighters and police went in . . .

and that one hits me most of all. I know what that means. I grew up in a Catholic family. If you take the time to confess to a priest before entering a burning building, you are fully aware you might not be coming out.

And yet they went.

Speak to me of evil if you want, if you must. But always I will tell you it is no match for this force.
It arose in an instant from all around, in every neighborhood and around the world as news crossed the oceans, because this is what we are. Before time to think about blame and anger, this is the light that greeted that dark force.

This is what we are.

Amid the flames and destruction, as people watch in horror, a man takes a woman’s hand and she takes his. Together they jump.

This is what we are.

As I remember that day ten years ago, I must remember this, too.

Photo credit: Zafar Ahmed/AP/Newsweek

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