It’s been a long time without you, my friend

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Somebody asked me what I usually do on 9-11, and while I don’t really have any rituals, writing here has become a tradition of sorts. It helps me. It’s therapeutic and it’s important.

I believe that 9-11 enters my mind in some way most days—certainly more often than not. And while the visceral memories fade during the year, on the anniversary they return.

I remember so vividly that I could re-enact my experiences on that day in stunning detail. I don’t remember what I was wearing, but I remember what I was doing, who I spoke with, what I saw, what I ate. I can picture myself in my little apartment on Charles Street, blowdrying my hair and watching the news. I’d turned it on just after the first plane hit. I remember the anchorman’s tone when the second one came, when we could no longer pretend it was an accident.

I remember the phone calls, first to my mom and then to my ex. Nothing registered – at least not the loss of life at that moment, nor the implications for the rest of mine. I think on some cellular level we all knew that nothing would ever be the same, that life would be divided into pre- and post- , but I’m not sure most of us could have understood  just how intractable the change would be.

It was a perfect day. It was sunny and crisp and blueskyed, where the night before had seen torrential downpours. The night before we’d attended a benefit party for Women in Need and then darted from awning to awning to have burgers at the Cedar Tavern.

I remember standing on 6th Avenue in a stunned crowd of people watching the towers burn. Wondering, briefly, if I should go back for my camera and deciding not to. Ron, the homeless man I knew in my neighborhood, called out to me as I crossed 10th Street. “Laura! They hit us!” I spoke with him briefly and told him to stay safe, not yet understanding that that was impossible.

I got on the subway and most people knew. Got off in mid-town and learned that the towers had fallen. Loss of life was beginning to register, but certainly not to the extent that it would.

My coworkers, gathered around a live news feed, one in tears because her husband had gone to the buildings for a meeting that morning. He would walk in hours later, stunned and alive.

The rumors about the planes heading to Los Angeles and Chicago, learning about Pennsylvania and the Pentagon. Phone calls coming in from friends and family all over the country. Emails from people abroad.

Erika and I walked to my parents’ place, where my mom made us lunch (tuna salad on toast and potato chips) and from their windows we could see the smoke and chaos consuming lower Manhattan.

Walking, more walking, visiting with my dad, heading west and meeting Michel, then going down to my apartment. We went to Gus’s for dinner that night, ate Greek food because that was our plan and what else could we do? The couple behind us, an older couple, sounded as though they were on a very early date.

We went to a bar after to meet up with friends, including one who had yet to hear from her mother. She would learn, at some point, that her mother had stayed home from her job in one of the towers.

The Missing posters all over my neighborhood, the trickling in of information about so-and-so’s friend or family member who had died. The smell, that acrid smell of death and chemicals that clung to the air for months afterward.

I’m not sure which day I found out about Jonathan, but I think it might have been two days later. I hadn’t seen him in a bit, hadn’t known he’d changed jobs, hadn’t even heard of Cantor Fitzgerald until it was demolished.

That Friday a group of us volunteered at the site, feeding the rescue workers. We wore hard hats and goggles. The piles of steel were still burning. The heat was palpable.

The next day I went up to the country, travelled up with Phil; he had a house not far from my parents’. My dad picked us up and I spent the weekend with them. I remember taking a walk down their road and fearing snipers hiding in the woods. I remember seeing the biggest f-ing caterpillar I’ve ever seen.

How many times did I watch the planes hit and the buildings fall? It was unavoidable and yet I didn’t resent the coverage. I needed to see it, it was part of the process. My process.

The dreams continued for months. Dreams of buildings exploding and airplanes falling from the sky.

I remember the Portraits of Grief. I saved Jonathan’s and one day, months or maybe years later, I reread it, turned it over and saw the Portrait of someone else I’d once known.

In a very weird way, and please hear me out on this, I miss the aftermath of 9-11. I miss the closeness and kindness and we’re-all-in-this-togetherness. I miss the burying of hatchets and the overlooking of petty differences. I miss the tacit empathy and comfort we provided one another. The feelings of pride in my city, of gratitude for what we were able to do together. The checking up on one another. The collective therapy.

I don’t miss the flyers that stayed up for far too long, and I don’t miss the smell, and I don’t miss the frantic barking of dogs.

I don’t know what I will do tomorrow, I’ve started my 9-11 ritual early this year. I will think about Jonathan and I will think about others and I will probably watch some of the reading of the names. I will try to be a very good person tomorrow.

I will wish that we would all be kinder to one another, that we could all have compassion and celebrate our differences, that we would always remember to tell people we love that we love them, and that we would never take another day for granted.

I think I post this every year, too, because I think it’s beautiful, a snippet of a poem by my supremely talented friend:

In the blinking of an eye
Soon everything will change
From a blue September sky
The brimstone falls like rain.
If true Love
Soars the heavens
Pretend and we can fly
Soon everything will change
My love
In the blinking of an eye.

Neil Thomas, September 2001

I may write again tomorrow. Then again, I may not.

 

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In the blinking of an eye

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In the blinking of an eye
Soon everything will change
From a blue September sky
The brimstone falls like rain.
If true Love
Soars the heavens
Pretend and we can fly
Soon everything will change
My love
In the blinking of an eye.

NJT September 2001

It sneaks up on you every year, this day. Not that you didn’t know it was coming, but you knew in an abstract wow-it’s-been-X-years way, or an Is it weird to schedule X for that day? way. We’re lamenting the waning days of summer and gearing up for what will hopefully be a productive and energizing autumn and then, eleven days into the month, here it is.

My first wave of visceral 9-11 emotion came yesterday, when I was asking a friend if and how she’s had to explain it to her 6 year old. She told me about a children’s book that does a beautiful job with it. She told me that when he’s asked her about it she’s refrained from referring to “bad people” and instead described people who just felt they could no longer get anywhere using their words and so, instead, made some very bad decisions. Terrible decisions, that caused many people to die.

I knew three of them, and that is far less than the number that many people knew. I was, once, very close with one of them, as I mention every year on this day. I don’t mention him to “own” any part of this tragedy, though we all own part of it. I mention him because I adore him, and I mention him because he anchors me more tangibly to this day.

Not that I need anchoring, I was there. I was there the night before, in the pouring rain, attending a Women In Need fundraiser and then eating late-night burgers at the Cedar Tavern. My friend (you, KN) stayed over and she left early to go to work. I was blowdrying my hair and watching the news and what the fuck did I just see? And I unmuted the volume and the newscasters were saying, “…are calling it an accident at this point…” and then what the fuck—did that just happen again? and the reporters said, “…now it is looking like an act of terrorism…” and I called my mom, who looked out her window and saw what was happening, and I called my ex, because I worried about him and felt responsible for anything bad that might ever befall him, and he turned on his television and we agreed to speak later.

I got ready for work and I walked outside to Sixth Avenue and it was like that “Twilight Zone” where the world stops—hordes of people on the Avenue facing south, faces frozen in confusion, fear, in utter disbelief. They were on fire, the towers, and for several seconds I thought about going back to get my camera but that seemed morbid.

Somehow the loss of life that was occurring at that very moment hadn’t yet dawned on me. I’m not sure I knew, yet, that they were commercial jets, and I’m not sure I’d made the connection that people who worked in those buildings got to the office much earlier than people who worked in publishing had to. And that of course, even if they didn’t, there’d be building staff who had to be there and there was the restaurant up top where people had to be in the early hours and my God, what about all the people on the ground?

I’m not sure what dawned on me at that moment—we had nothing to relate it to. I had nothing to relate it to.

So I got on the F train and I headed uptown and the towers imploded during my commute. And the three people I knew died, along with a few thousand others.

And then, was it later that day or the following that I got the call from SK reminding me that Jonathan worked for Cantor Fitzgerald? I knew he did, I think, but I’d no context for that name until it was too late. He always worked for Name + Name companies that did Important Things and that were just words on a business card. He worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and he was missing and the family was hopeful and then some days later the family ran out of hope and we memorialized him without proof; proof wouldn’t come for many months.

When I realized it was coming to that time that I needed to write a post about this—because I need to write about this every year—I took some notes. I took them over a glass of wine on the back of a poem that a homeless man handed me earlier that day. This is what I wrote:

And now it’s two blue columns of light and a seemingly endless list of names and a generation+ that wasn’t here that day. Tiles and flyers and that smell of burnt rubber. I had it easy from X blocks away. 

A business card landed on my friend’s stoop in Brooklyn. Anther friend got the last taxi out. One friend had just found out she was pregnant, two were out of the country on their honeymoons. 

Of the people I know, three died. One of the first calls I got was from a friend who wouldn’t live to see the first anniversary. The homeless guy I knew in my neighborhood called out to me, scared, “They bombed us!” he said. 

And then the friend I was waiting for showed up, so that’s the last I wrote down the other night.

As hard of a post as this is to write, it’s even harder to end. There is so much more to say. There is everything and there’s nothing, nothing that hasn’t already been said, by me, by others, in more languages than I can name.

My God it was awful. The nightmares—they continued for a very long time. I had one just before I woke up to write this, only the enemy, the people who felt they could no longer use words and made terrible decisions, in my dream they took the form of James Holmes, who was avenging the death of Adam Lanza and who held my family responsible. I sat opposite him at dinner where he promised to put his assault rifle down; my dad had gotten a rifle of his own but it was upstairs and he’d locked the handgun I was holding and none of it seemed like a good idea but I deferred to others on what to do.

I woke up before dinner was served.

Some of you will hate this post, but you’ve read this far, so please don’t begrudge me for writing it.

Something good came out of this Terrible Thing that happened 14 years ago, and that was that we actually did unite, however briefly, and gain sight of what is important. We loved and supported and listened to one another, and we reached way down into the deepest wells of compassion that we all inherently possess.

And that lasted for a short time, short in the universal sense of time, but long in the day to day.

I don’t want to end this. I want to keep writing until 9-12. Maybe I’ll come back to it later on, but I probably won’t.

Here’s something else I wrote a few months ago, not related to 9-11 and at the same time, doesn’t everything, kind of, relate to it now? Here’s what I wrote:

be excellent to the people in your life

be excellent to your friends
if you keep people in your life be patient with them
if you don’t know them you don’t know their struggles
be excellent to people
there’s a person you should care most about
be flawless with her
she’ll forgive you if you’re not
but without you, she’s nothing
I wrote that to me, by the way.
I will amend that to say that even if you do know someone, you don’t know her struggles. Even if you know what her struggles are, or what she thinks they are, you don’t know what it feels like to be her. “Her” being universal, as “him” usually is. Not a feminist or politically correct statement, my default in the abstract is “her” because I am a her. Unless we’re talking dogs, because to me, all dogs are “him” unless I’m told otherwise.
My dog was born some months after 9-11. My Granny died right before. I’m grateful that they both missed it.
I’m glad I’m in New York today. I’m glad I was in New York that day.
I’m glad you’re all in my life.
With love, because that’s all I really know,
Laura

I’m only happy when it rains

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Well that’s not entirely true, but there are times that call for torrential downpours and this weekend is one of them. I have a lot of purging to do, literally and figuratively, and a rainy day would allow me to sit in my apartment without feeling guilty that I should be soaking in the waning days of summer (it’s still summer until the 21st and perhaps a bit after if it chooses to remain so), boxing up decades’ worth of books and photos and clothing and mementos whose significance elude me. It will feel really good to do this; it will be a start in the myriad steps I must now take to become the right version of myself, the one I’ve been shirking for 43 years. The one who relies on old pain to justify defensive reactions, on fear of my feelings not being validated to spew them in the most vicious and verbal way that I can in order to be heard. My childhood was a long time ago and it’s time I caught up to that reality.

And so I have begun taking some very important steps – and very scary ones, in some ways – as my dear L says, “learning to take care of ourselves first goes against everything we’re ingrained to believe” – or words to that effect. And she’s right. I’ve been called selfish, I’ve been called irresponsible, I’ve been called worthless – and those are some of the accolades – but the fact of the matter is that I’ve spent an awfully long time putting the needs of others – or what I perceive to be the needs of others – before my own. And so when my efforts to be needed are met with resistance, 43-years worth of frustration and loneliness and the absolute irrefutable “knowledge” that no one will ever really see me as I am or understand me as I want to be understood manifest in a torrent of ugliness that only a time machine could fix.

Mistakes I’ve made, many throughout my life and far too many in recent weeks, and while I do accept full responsibility for my actions, I have limited choices as to how to proceed now. I can apologize – and I do – with every cell of sincerity in my body. I can beat myself up (figuratively) and chastise myself and hate the little girl who rears her ugly head as a grown woman and says and does things she’ll forever regret. I can also breathe, deeply, use some of the breathing exercises a wise woman taught me this week, and I can begin to heal. I can learn from my past regrets and make what may seem like empty promises to never repeat certain behaviors, but until my final day on earth I will not know that I’ll never be “that bad” again. I certainly intend not to be – that is my goal. I can live in the present and pray for the future. I can accept my solitude because assigning fault or blame to it is fruitless; this is where I am today for reasons that are too complex for WordPress.

I can pour my vast stores of emotion into love and tranquility for myself and for anyone who enters my life from here on out. This is what I can do. I can not change the past, I can only embrace the present and strive for a better future. As I’ve said recently, I am pathologically optimistic (and yes, feel free to insert other ways in which you deem me pathological here). This is why I “ignore” signs that shouldn’t be ignored, and this is why I get myself into a terrible state where I ruin days and nights. I’m very, very tired of living this way.

In keeping with the poem I posted the other day, here’s another from Mary Oliver, which I’ve posted before. I know she’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but these words helped me once and they will again; I just have to learn to bear the lessons in mind and to stop sabotaging my life and ignoring the truth. If someone is hellbent on vilifying [you], no amount of repentance, explanation, or love can help. It’s time to move forward, hard as this may be:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.