I was driving to an assignment when I heard the news, the poppy dance track on the radio interrupted by a DJ tremulously announcing the attacks on the World Trade Center.
A few minutes later, I would walk, bewildered and shaken, into the office of a local therapist who I’d planned to interview for a series of health articles I was writing. But her expertise and my questions were put on hold, as we sat struggling to make sense of the senseless, unable to grasp the horrifying magnitude of events crackling from the radio between us, forever binding us in that moment in a way we could never have imagined.
We all have such a page in our collective history, the places we were, the activities we were engaged in, the people we were with etched in our memories and pinpointing the exact time we were forced to abandon life as we knew it to take up a wary and heartbreaking vigilance in a world of roiling fear, anger and uncertainty. There is no denying that Sept. 11 and the weeks and months to follow were among the darkest and most harrowing days many of us have ever known.
But as I reflect on the 10th anniversary, and all the painful memories associated with it, I also remember the moments that lifted us up, the cracks in our despair, the communities woven from a compassion that could not be contained. In the aftermath of the attacks, for all the talk of retaliation and war, with all the fear-mongering and Islamophobia, and amidst staggering and unspeakable loss, many of us became softer, more transparent versions of ourselves. The lines between strangers blurred in a common hunger for comfort, for hope, for a connection that would remind us of an inherent good even as we seemed to be cloaked only in pernicious shadow.
Throughout countless communities, a sense of kinship and legion acts of kindness rippled across the wreckage of a post-9/11 landscape, offering the promise of healing and a way to pay tribute to the thousands of lives lost and the thousands who dedicated themselves to grueling rescue efforts and the rebuilding of our nation. In embracing our shared humanity, we longed to gentle the ache and maybe even trump so many unthinkable acts of animosity and rage. Some of that spirit was manifested in mass movements, many of which are ongoing today or being revived on this 10th anniversary.
But for many of us, Sept. 11 also was an invitation to live beyond the surface of our lives. Suddenly, sharing our grief with a stranger wasn’t such a weird and frightening thing. Speaking from a place of deep need, of anguish, of bafflement wasn’t something we reserved for our most intimate relationships, nor were those the only places to dispense a heartfelt word of support and acknowledgement, or offer a warm and reassuring touch. We stepped out of our comfort zones to embrace others and allowed ourselves to be embraced exactly as we were. For some people, such vulnerability is their natural way of being in the world. They appear eternally open, always seeking a connection deeper than the superficial.
It is, however, a stretch for many of us to walk with our frailties so exposed, our hearts uncaged. It is easier, instead, to keep our distance, to skate the edge of the truly meaningful while we hide behind our feigned “fines” and fear the revelation of our most authentic selves.
Sitting in that therapist’s office 10 years ago, I remember how we met without our masks, letting ourselves be known to each other in a way we would not have done without that blade of fear, confusion and sadness pressing against our hearts. We did eventually get to our interview, but the gratitude we expressed at the end of our time together was for so much more than our professional connection.
As I returned to the office, a colleague was heading out. We didn’t speak, just looked at each other, my eyes filling with tears. She squeezed my arm, the gesture becoming a brief but awkward hug as we allowed ourselves that small solace in what still felt like a nightmare we had yet to shake off.
As soon as I sat at my desk, I got a frantic call from a friend who had yet to track down another of our friends in New York, who routinely walked through the World Trade Center on her way to work. A little later, we would hear from her that she’d been mercifully out of the area when the planes hit the twin towers. These two women hadn’t talked in months, the friend filled with worry having written the other off following some slight, but in their mutual relief, all was forgiven that day.
There were calls to and from family, other friends, all of us seeking reassurance even in our shocked and aching voices. “I love you” was the mantra and prayer we offered, the raft set across tumultuous seas.
When I checked in with ED, who I was seeing at the time, I couldn’t hold in those words, though his emotional unavailability usually made it hard for him to take them in, harder still to respond. But I remember the small pause before he offered them back, his reluctance to get off the phone and the way he held me, and my tears, when I saw him later that night.
They were small moments, variations of which would often be repeated over the next few weeks, with loved ones, with mere acquaintances and sometimes even strangers. All of us walking a journey more similar than we realized through a world at times unbearable. Moving toward a life of joy and purpose, healing and peace, we were also scarred by loss, speared by injustice. We were the haunted and the hopeful, filled with a fresh and devastating anguish or seared with the memory of grief.
And in the aftermath of Sept. 11, we emerged from the insular and isolated existence we may have kept, breached the walls we may have spent years building and allowed ourselves to really see each other. To me, that risk, to walk with an open heart, to choose trust instead of fear and to reach first for what would connect rather than raise a divide, is where our healing began — and a lesson worth remembering in these tumultuous times that we live.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times