Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Remembering September 11 - Calculating Velocity

I wasn't planning on writing about 9/11 today. I figured my inbox would be flooded with remembrances and "lessons learned" blog posts, and I would just be adding to that, with no particular justification, except for having been a shocked and horrified observer that day. And today, I am someone who made several life-changing decisions as a result of that day, on the basis of calculated velocities. (More about that shortly.) Aside from a very excellent post on 9/11 by Jonathan Fields, (whose book, Uncertainty, I am reading now), there was mostly just the usual news in my in box. So that is why I am writing. Because 9/11 was not a usual day with the usual news, as you know.

On the morning of 9/11, I was headed to work. I lived in Weehawken, the closest to Manhattan you could be while still living in New Jersey, with an expansive view of the city skyline. My usual route was to take the New York Waterway Ferry across the Hudson River, as my office was on 11th avenue, all the way west.

I wasn't thinking about airplanes or smoke and fire, or buildings collapsing, or the fact that a jet airliner smashing into a high rise could level it in a matter of hours. I wasn't thinking about how a terrorist or those wanting to harm others, would have actually calculated the velocity of such an impact, to make sure they got the destruction right. I wasn't thinking about how in a few short hours, men and women in suits with briefcases and trenchcoats would be running for their lives in the streets of lower Manhattan, while others would be jumping out of 80-story windows as the only choice for salvation. I wasn't thinking about the word: salvation. I wasn't thinking about that last phone call or voice message or email that would serve as an eerie time capsule of what one family was. Or one hundred families. Or 10,000 families. I wasn't thinking about the wife or husband or child, who looked at a photo of their family member and wondered if that would be all that was left of them. I wasn't thinking of all that. But then, all of a sudden, I was. And now 10 years later, of course, I am.

So, that morning, which as you know was marked by a vibrant blue autumn sky and piercing sunlight, I was headed down a long stairway to the ferry to get to work, thinking about a million other things that are of course mundane in retrospect -- a writing project I had to finish, a possible vacation, how I needed to clean my closet and pick up some groceries later -- when I overheard a man yelling,"fire!" He kept shouting it over and over again, like saying it would somehow make it go away. I looked up, and at first saw the man, looking out at the skyline. Then I saw a dark mass of smoke coming from The World Trade Center. I didn't panic right then and there, I just stood there, taking it in. Maybe the fire would be extinguished, and everyone there would get out OK, by noon everything would be fine.

I boarded what would be the last ferry of the day, as the city was about to close all the bridge, tunnel, and waterway crossings. There was a strange look amongst my fellow ferry riders, as no one at 8:00 am understood yet what had happened. Everyone had made note of the crash and fire, as if small starbursts of yellow and black had been imprinted in our minds, like the patterns you see when you shut your eyes for a while.There were rumors, and fragmented headlines that we created as sudden self-made citizen journalists. "A small plane crashed into The World Trade Center," a woman announced. "That's what I just heard someone say..."

I got to my office feeling a combination of confusion and a growing sense of urgency. I found a momentary comfort in random details. The bagel guy on the corner where I got my coffee each morning was still open. There was a fresh fall breeze blowing. The air did not yet smell of burning metal and rubber, a stench that would last for months after that day. The small sunflower still sat on my desk in its ceramic clay vase. Nothing was visibly broken or fallen.

Within the next hour, the plane crash into The Pentagon happened. An hour later, we closed the office. I worked with nurses, so several of our staff went downtown to volunteer, and the rest of us went, or tried to go home. I tried to call my boyfriend, now my husband, and just got a busy signal. I tried to call my mother, who lived uptown. Same busy signal. I couldn't get home. Within the space of an hour, I couldn't reach anyone I loved. I might as well have been on a dessert island, and not the city of New York. In a strange moment of complete absurdity, I started arranging the pens in my pen cup and neatening the notepads on my desk into an organized stack. Don't we do things like this...when we don't know what else to do?

The rest of the afternoon was a sickening whirlwind of logistics and watching the news. The mantra get somewhere safe, was in the air. I managed to get an uptown bus to the neighborhood where my parents lived, a bus already filled with what would be called "refugees" from downtown. Men and women in business suits, with ashes coating their glasses, that they had not yet wiped off. Perhaps they were in shock, or perhaps it was a right of passage. Maybe they wanted others to know where they had just come from. New York had suddenly become 2 cities divided: those who had and had not been on those streets or that block or that building, on that morning.

I finally made it home. My mother was cooking a stew - comfort food, and seemed to find the same reassurance I had earlier: the local butcher and Gristedes Supermarkets were open. I think she was trying not to look upset, as was her way, but I noticed her hair which was usually in a neat bun, had fallen loose. We watched in horror the repeated images of silver onto concrete. We heard the newscasters calculating velocities in the early estimates of how many dead. My father came home early from the hospital where he worked, and eventually my husband arrived. He had started a new job that week in Brooklyn, and had watched from the roof of the buildings as the twin towers fell.

One of the legacies of Sept 11 for me is this concept of calculated velocities, in the good way. The idea that we are the sum of what happens to us, both with the decisions we make, large and small, and those decided for us, whether through fate, or other. Where we live and who we marry, the direction of our careers, whether we have children or not, what we read and create, what we give and what we receive. During the four years after 9-11, I made more decisions then I had during the previous 10, or that I probably ever will in the next 10 going forward. I got married and relocated to a new city, I targeted my career more carefully. I ate less and wrote more, and reached out to those from the past that I had lost connection with. I spent more time reading and writing, and less time complaining about stuff. I lost weight and gained weight, and lost more again. I learned yoga and started making earrings out of clay--the kind that can never break.

I wrote this on a train ride to an office this morning, where the conductor noted what day it was, and several people seemed to be looking over my shoulder when they noticed what I was writing about. Writing is my way of coping--another calculated velocity. Once I got off the train, I had the distinct honor and blessing-- now taken away from so many--of calling my husband to let him know I had made it in OK. Oh, and that I might be a few minutes late for dinner. He sounded close by, as if he could have been just around the corner, or down the block. And that in itself was a blessing as well.

What about you? What are the calculated velocities of your life?

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