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.
Though I had mostly kvetched about the job and my co-workers for the week and a half I was working in the towers (it's a cringe-fest to look at old notebooks and see how catty I was about people with days left on earth), suddenly each person I had met seemed beloved and important, precious and irreplaceable.
On Sept. 24, I attended a funeral for nearly 200. It was at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and a picture of the crowd's energy would have looked like the scribble of darkness over Charlie Brown's head when he's upset. The Archbishop of New York, Edward Cardinal Egan, spoke; Judy Collins sang. More than 3000 people attended, some via offsite video. It was impossible to feel much of anything--I was filled with icy gray shock; how can you cry for that much loss? Where do you even begin? Also, they had yet to release the names--or precise count--of the dead.
Then, surreally, we headed to the plush Waldorf-Astoria hotel for brunch; a caravan of walkers in black. A car drove over an uneven steel plate in the street; we all jumped at once like jittery cats. "What is all this?" a passerby asked. I couldn't tell him A funeral for almost 200. That would just be too unbelievable and somehow, rude. No one answered him.
Over shiny yellow eggs, another temp named Zenny told me who she knew had died--she had been in touch with many co-workers. She herself had left the building even though a voice over a loudspeaker told everyone to stay put after the plane hit the first tower. "I was here in '93 [for the bombing]," she said. "There was no way I was staying." She took the elevator down. But Denise, my cubicle mate, and Lizie, my supervisor, were not so lucky. Or Michele, a girl about my age, or a tall, dignified secretary named Paula.
The night of the 11th I wrote: "Why was I there right before? Did my presence lend pre-healing to the soon-to-depart? Did I need to be in contact with them because of what they were giving me?" Well before all of this a psychic picked up on my general neurosis and told me, "No one is out to get you this lifetime. You are so scared, but you are going to be fine." Sometimes I want to go back and ask, "Um, what was that 'fine' all about?"
But maybe she meant fine, as in, "You'll come so close to death and fear that you will see through it to the very center of God and light and therefore have no more fear, because the truth of everything as divine love will be illuminated and you will be free." Maybe that's what she meant. That's what I'd like her to mean: that trauma buffs us more than it breaks us, that if we let ourselves, it can bring us closer, on kissing terms with the divine.
People often ask me why I think I was spared--if it was luck, karma, or divine intervention. And if I think I was saved for any particular reason. This is when it gets tricky to believe in an ordered universe, to believe in any sort of plan; Denise had two teenage daughters, Lizie had three young children. All I know is that each time I have imagined myself arriving a few minutes earlier to work that day and actually in the tower--as I did again and again in the days following--I got this kind of eerie feeling of calm and acceptance. As if even if the worst had happened somehow it would have been okay. And though I may not be so changed for the good--more broken than buffed if I'm being honest--or even edified on the nature or plan of God, at least I think I've learned that when it comes down to it, even the most horrific moment holds safety and love, a refuge if you're looking.