I had sent out e-mails the Friday before: “Hi. Writing from my temp job on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center. I'm bored out of my mind. But the view is amazing. Love, Valerie.”
It's been five years, and I would like to think that as a guilty, grateful survivor, 9/11 and the smoked weeks after changed me for the spiritual better--like the Rumi quote: "for I am like the candle: burning only makes me brighter." I hoped my brush with death would burnish me, strengthen me, enhance my spiritual connection. Anything but add to the ordinary burden of trauma and make me feel old, fast.
I believe in transformation, in magic, in the alchemy of a conscious life. I believe that everything happens for a reason and that some day it will all make narrative sense. Yet I can't stop asking "Why?" Not as in "Why-do-they-hate-us?"-why or "How-could-our-government-let-this-happen?"-why. Not even "Why-me?"-why. But spiritually why--about the whole thing and my tiny part in it.
Maybe that's why I cried last night as I ran my fingers over the names of the dead published in a local magazine for this anniversary. Maybe that's why every time I tell my story of that day I feel an inner shake. The quintessential New Yorker, I've managed to tune out most of the 9/11 aftershocks in everyday life , jumping back into the stream of our noxious, beautiful, overloaded city. I drown out the terror scares as political fear-mongering, the "our country united and forever changed" as manipulative grandstanding. I've gone from shock to mourning to numbness to outrage at our eroding rights and privacy (inspect this, officer) and back to mourning again and then a quick slide back into numbness. On a yearly cycle.
Every time this anniversary comes around, we're asked to inspect anew, asked to re-gauge our responses (Are you still close enough to care? What has this year done to your feelings? And this year?) as we inevitably drift away from the hot nexus of the day. On Beliefnet some members have expressed annoyance at the annual acknowledgement and rehashing. Are their complaints born of a need to move on, a need not to relive the pain, or a need to evade the exact moment when grief becomes (became?) indifference--or to avoid knowing that maybe part of us has been uncomfortably detached all along?
Perversely, I feel blessed to have my own personal video of the day in my head, sounds and smells and images lit by inner klieg lights of emotion. I was running late for my temp job--a flurry of outfit and makeup changes to impress a guy on our floor--and the E train was late. I was walking into the WTC's underground concourse when I saw the newsstand employees waving their hands and shouting to get out.
Jaded but obedient, I and my fellow skeptical commuters slowly headed outside. As I emerged into the sunlight, everyone was shocked still, looking up at the fresh orange gash in the tower. It was like that episode of "The Twilight Zone" where the woman yells “Shut up!” and the world stops, the nuclear weapon frozen in midair. Someone said a bomb went off. And then something in me said, run; there was too much stillness in my never-still native city. I called my mother who thankfully hadn't turned on the news yet.
In my jog north I heard the second plane hit, saw a woman leaning on a mailbox crying, gathered information--737, two planes, not an accident--and, not knowing where to go exactly, slowed at the open gates of a church near Washington Square Park. I entered the tiny garden and sat, prayed, chatted with other stunned wanderers. After a bit, a security guard told us the sanctuary was open. I'm not so churchy. Yet at that moment “sanctuary” felt like just the thing. The world might be ending, but as long as I could sit on the floor between the first pew and a low wood wall in this high-ceilinged place that had been filled with prayers, I would be safe.
As I sat there writing in a notebook and eating the hardboiled egg I had packed for lunch, I heard screams--unbearable, horrifying, pre-apocalyptic--and imagined armed men roaming the streets. Soon the security guard walked past holding his head. “It’s gone, it’s gone, it’s f___ing gone,” he said. "They're both gone," I wrote, in shaky handwriting. I smelled smoke.
Then I closed my eyes, and it was like opening them. Not one for visions, I was surprised to see a different realm at the chaotic site downtown: fleets of angelic rescue squads, groups and gaggles of EMT angels swooping in to help the injured, departed, and departing. It was a wide panorama of rushed yet calm activity like nothing I had ever seen or imagined. They were translucent, but clearly there, real, and helping in a parallel space merged with ours. I offered my energy, my love, my prayer pledge dollars to their plight.