When an angel in a business suit grabbed my hand and ran me through the smoke and ash overtaking Wall Street, I was scared for my life. Now I'm scared for the world.
It's far simpler to be scared for one's self. When I was terrified, I breathed deeply, desperately drawing air through the makeshift mask I wore all the way home to Brooklyn. Now I often find myself holding my breath, almost unconsciously. Then I catch myself and breathe. That breath is nothing short of sacramental.
The morning after the air attacks on the World Trade Center, I awoke to the shock of being spared. Not wanting to be alone, I had slept over at a friend's apartment (This friend himself been evacuated from an office building near the twin towers.). Around noontime, he crossed his living room, stood in front of the blaring television, and said, "We have to get out of here." I was reluctant to venture outside; I didn't want to sacrifice my fragile sense of safety. But the horrors of the ongoing news broadcast drove me to join him in Prospect Park, where the two of us sat stunned on a bench instead of stunned on the couch.
If it weren't for the acrid smell of debris still burning in lower Manhattan, the scene might have been indistinguishable from a sunny school holiday, children tumbling over themselves, the parents collegial while they watched. A couple joined us on our small bench. As she dropped her bag beside us, the woman told the man, "I just need to know that things still are somehow okay."
|Given the scope of the New York tragedy, I feel some shame at my continued--even growing-- thrill at being alive.|
One tender mercy of the atrocious air attacks on the city is just how many managed to escape downtown alive. When I called my brother from Wall Street, I reported, "It looks like Armageddon." I almost thought it was. Rationally, while the attacks were ghastly, I now realize that they did not signal the end of civilization. Yet, to a degree I never was before, I find myself afraid of any conflict that might occasion further destruction. I know that other New Yorkers share in my fear. Recently, I called my brother to say, "I don't want the world to end."
"Nobody does," he assured me.
There are several thousands of survivors, several thousands of us who need time to fully appreciate the sweetness of still having so much to lose. Never have I been so convinced of the sacredness of participating in the commonplace, or the blessedness of drawing breath, or of the privilege of moving through this world day after day.
In "The Heart Is a Little to the Left," Reverend William Sloane Coffin observes, "what an irony it is that just as technology frees us to be fully human...soon we may lose the whole planet because we have lost our sense of wonder. For finally, only reverence can restrain violence, violence against nature, violence against one another." Reverence for life here on earth may be the thing that saves us all.
Given the scope of the New York tragedy, I feel some shame at my continued--even growing--thrill at being alive. For a week I left the relics of September 11 in the laundry room, uncertain of how to handle them. I threw out my shoes, convinced that they would never be clean of the ashes of innocents. I almost immediately regretted tossing them in with trash. It seemed a sacrilege. Then I washed my clothes. I regretted that, too, the attempt to wash away with water what should stain indelibly. Only my mask remains untouched. I keep it as a reminder: Breathe.
|Each day that I stay as a guest on this green earth suddenly seems outrageous good fortune.|
Since the day after the attack, I have become somewhat superstitious in my devotion to the park. I go there knowing full well that everything is not okay, but trusting that things are okay enough for now. Instead of a desire for global retribution, I feel a bizarre pity for people who don't frequent Prospect Park. Despite what has happened, kites fly high above the trees. I circle the park on my bike, and at the right speed, it looks like a carousel of life: kids of all sizes veering the wrong way on scooters, bands of drummer tempting people to dance, extended families playing volleyball with the awkwardness of amateurs, the stray Hasidim in traditional garb jogging in black and blue running shoes. The Talmud promises that humans will one day be called on by God to account for every beautiful thing we did not enjoy. Balancing on two wheels, I try hard to notice everything along that three-mile loop.
This past weekend, everyone noticed the fire truck. It came, as many fire trucks had in the past, to investigate smoke rising out of the park. This was smoke, thankfully, from a barbecue. How those firemen must have loved that barbecue, and in a flash, every nuisance barbeque before it. And the people at the barbecue certainly loved the firefighters. Brooklyn had lost so many of its bravest in the rescue effort, and the people in the park that Sunday surrounded the truck, reaching over each other to grasp hold of every firefighter, an entire chorus singing, "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" The firefighters clasped all the hands they could. I could barely pedal past the sight, slowed as I was by heartache and joy.
The greatest sacrament that survival administers is gratitude. After my bike ride, I ate a sacramental hot dog (the best I'd ever tasted) from a sacramental vendor working a sacramental cart at a sacramental entrance to the sacramental park that had been blocks away from me for years. Today I am reminding myself to breathe, to live in my place and time as best I can, in search of the next right thing to do. This is difficult, because lately, my disorientation is marked. Yet each day that I stay as a guest on this green earth suddenly seems outrageous good fortune. Between the routine crying jags and ecstatic moments, I plan for the future, which will arrive whether or not I hold my breath. This coming weekend, for instance, I plan-- Insha a Allah
, the Muslims say, God willing
- to bike several more laps around the park, fast enough to forget my fear, breath ragged, flying past mile after mile of wonder.