Tuesday, September 11, 2001
Destruction of the World Trade Center
New York, NY
I have nothing to say. There are statements I could make, political accusations, speculations on cause and involvement, blame, but all of it has been said already—over and over again. I assume that each of you is receiving opinions and information through your own channels, channels that are probably aligned with your own perspectives. Anything I would say right now would add to the propaganda—it would either be too far left or too far right of what you think. Or maybe it would be exactly aligned with what you believe. Either way, at this point, you would read it with your judgement cap on. You would take the opportunity to assess and judge and decide whether or not you think I am right. And none of it would get to the heart of how I really feel, how I really felt.
I felt as if I was choking on life. I felt as if the world was gagging, gasping for breath. I felt suddenly linked, if only for a moment, to the terrors of those living in war-torn countries. And when I got home, left the war zone, trecked across the Brooklyn Bridge with the rest of the fearful ones, I felt fucked in the head.
If I am giving you too few details, it is intentional. My particular story doesn’t matter. My presence in a subway tunnel when the first building collapsed is somewhat irrelevant. Irrelevant because my life is irrelevant on the scale of international terrorism and war. To world leaders, my life is collateral. Should I die in an air strike or a bombing or a terrorist attack, my life was only collateral damage. What is there to say? I lived. I was not down there that day. I was close enough to breathe in the fumes, to cough on the pulverized glass and asbestos and human remains and whatever else is flying in that thick cloud looming over and around the disaster area. Close enough to be coated in ash by the time I left downtown Manhattan, but not close enough to be hit by the wheel of a dismantled airplane or a body as it fell (or jumped) out of a 105th-floor window, not close enough to see scattered body parts such as the severed hand pictured amongst the rubble in the newspaper the day after. Yet it all left me speechless. Not angry, not fearful, not vindictive, just speechless.
I find myself unable to focus on the individual perpetrators. Maybe it’s because of what I’ve been seeing recently: Life and Debt. Maybe it’s because I’ve traveled to places and been shaken, inalterably, by the way much of the world is living. Maybe it’s because I’d just read an interview of former U.S. attorney general Randall Clark who broke down international affairs in a shocking and terrifying way. But I felt the walls between us and the rest of the world breaking down. And what is out there, beyond our shores, is hardcore. It is as if the world’s realities had come to smack us in the face.
I have compassion for those who are in a murderous rage. It is the rage of the hurt, it is the rage of the shaken, it is the rage of one whose world has been threatened. I felt that rage once. I was home alone in Fiji. Half awake because I was uncomfortable living in this house on a hill, surrounded by beautiful foliage, but ultimately open, vulnerable to anyone who wanted to climb up the hill. There was always rustling through that foliage, and with my bedroom light on I couldn’t see who might be out there looking in at me. Around three in the morning, I heard a clicking at the gate. I got up sleepily to let my friend in, thinking she had finally made it home. And when I looked, I saw that it was not my friend. It was a young man, shirtless with cutoff shorts. His hand was in the gate and he was clicking the lock as if thinking, I’ve seen this work before, why isn’t the gate opening? My heart went wild. I hid. Crouched by the couch, called every friend I could. Eventually he disappeared. Later that morning, when the police came with a young man with white cutoff shorts, I told them I didn’t think that was him (his skin looked too dark, the perpetrator had lighter skin), but I couldn’t be sure. And the thought rioted through my head, Why don’t you just beat him up and find out if he’s telling the truth? This young man hadn’t run an airplane into a building, hadn’t killed thousands of people. Even if he was the perpetrator, he hadn’t succeeded at doing anything to me. He hadn’t entered the house, he hadn’t hurt me, he hadn’t even touched me. But he was POSSIBLY the one who threatened my safety, obliterated my ability to sleep, made me need others around me to feel safe and I thought he should suffer for that. These are not rational thoughts, but victims are not rational beings. We are tender, destroyed things who often can think of no other thing, but retaliation to set our world straight again.
Of course retaliation won’t set our world straight again. There are people who still don’t know where their mothers are. Lower Manhattan is covered with flyers, flyers with photographs of the missing. “My sister hasn’t been seen since Tuesday, she worked at Windows on the World. Please call me if you’ve seen her.” “Our loving father is missing. He worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. He was last seen in building 1.” There are children, too many children, who lost their parents. There are those in full possession of their lives who won’t be able to erase that terror from their minds. There are those, I’m sure, who will go insane.
As I write this my girlfriend calls me shaky-voiced to say every time she closes her eyes to sleep, she’s back at the World Trade Center, on the 105th floor, where she once worked, and the plane is coming right at her. And I am filled with morbid thoughts. A gym bag is no longer just a gym bag, it’s a bomb carrier and I wonder what it’s doing in my office building. Two people holding hands are no longer just a couple, they are lovers holding on to each other in the face of terror and destruction and pain. And those white men reading the paper across from me on the subway and that Chinese woman sitting next to me, they are no longer “others” whose lives I cannot image, they are human beings who may have lost someone in that attack. We are all suddenly so human again.
We are all so human. Human is the woman who writes from the Middle East of the heightened campaigns against her safety while the world is mourning for America. Human is the man who asks when you bomb Afghanistan, what are you going to bomb? It’s been done already, we’ve already been destroyed. Ironically, those we suspect of committing this crime, those we believe harbored the criminals, the nations we are certain have created these terrorists are already paying. They are paying in a way we Americans can not relate to. They have been paying for years and I suspect that is why they paid us a visit. Murder, death and destruction in the war zones; murder, death and destruction in downtown Manhattan. This is our world. What are we going to do?
The silence is amazing. The quiet of people who have just had the wind blown out of them. Speechlessness. A silent New York. The patience is unprecedented. The lack of sucking teeth and loud complaining when the train isn’t showing up on time. The unity of conversation, we are all talking about it. How could we not?
And I don’t even know why I am writing this. I’m writing this because I’ve committed myself to communicating about this life, this writer’s life. I’m writing this because it would feel false to move on to the next topic without some word, some nod, to the hole that has been ripped through so many lives. I’m writing this, I suppose, because I write.
Can you imagine what it would take to make a human being fly a commercial airplane into the top of a skyscraper? I’m sure you don’t want to, but this is what addles me. What conditions of life could come together to make someone, anyone, choose that path of action? What depth of poverty? What poverty of opportunity? What closeness to death? What familiarity with war? What pain? What confusion? What terror? What desperation? What, as the media is naming it, hatred? And why do these conditions exist in our world?
In the tarot deck, there is a card called The Tower. The image is of a tower, a ray of lightning is striking it and it is in the process of crumbling. People are falling out of the tower and plunging to their deaths. It is a card of transformation. Literally it is the card of personal habits and beliefs being broken down by circumstances beyond the individual’s control. The situation has reached boiling point and something has to give.
I spoke to more people the day of and the day after the disaster than I had spoken to in months. It seemed the only thing to do: be with people. I spent the entire day after on foot, pretending I lived in a village, visiting everyone I could reach. I brought nothing with me, I took nothing when I left. Nothing save the solace of being together. It seemed everything else was a waste of time.
I feel as if someone close to me has died. The questions I battle with everyday as I work a 9-5 totally obliterated my ability to function last week. Today I am better. And I had to wait to write this to not simply advertise hysteria. Last week I felt suddenly that my plans are stupid, silly, frivolous. I felt that the anal, mechanical division of art during my commute or for a stolen hour before work is insane. My life had become (and knowing myself as a human being will probably again become) a meaningless merry-go-round. I felt like a rabbit or mouse, stealing tiny packets of time to live in. And when I got those packets of time I stuck them in my cheeks, squirreling them away for winter. But I had/have become a slave to my own plans. NOW-ness was totally lost on me.
It was a blessing to not have a plan. After the attack, I did not know what I was going to do in the next minute, the next hour, the next day. Only in that emptiness, only in this state of shock could I recognize what was lacking in my life. Only by being shaken to my foundations, could I recognize I had sentenced myself to mental lockdown. I was doing every THING I needed to do to be fulfilled. I started my novel, worked a 9-5, edited my stories, wrote an essay, edited someone else’s novel, and maintained three electronic groups. I socialized, having a grand time. But death stopped me. Death stopped me and said, if you die tomorrow, would you be happy with how you lived today? In the past, I answered that question with things: have I attended this event, have I published this many stories, have I traveled to this many countries? Today, this year, the answer is different. It is not just what I achieved, but how.
I have to look under those layers of achievement now, I have to go deeper. Not do more, but be more profoundly aware or interactive or present in all those things I do. I am attempting to dismantle my habit of planning my weekend before I get to it. I am trying not to be dominated by my date book. I have given myself permission to seek nothingness as often as possible. Before the planes hit the buildings, nothingness was wasted time. Nothingness was a lack, a lack of productivity, a lack of preparing for my future. But in the painful silence, nothingness is once again nourishing to me and I seek it with others.
Suzanne Falter-Barns, author of How Much Joy Can You Stand?, says “What I am left with in the aftermath of this tragedy is a deep, gnawing sense of need—to love harder, make more noise, take more chances, and really fulfill this life that God has kindly not yet taken from me.”
I claim this attack as a call to love. It is a call for international love, national love, and personal love. Love and compassion for our fractured nation. Love and compassion for those with missing, dead, or wounded loved ones. Love and compassion for those who are themselves missing, dead, or wounded. Love and compassion for the witnesses. Love and compassion for the perpetrators. Love and compassion for the systems and acts and motivations and fears and hurts. And most importantly, more love and compassion in our immediate worlds. I trust that everyone will make the theoretical adjustments their world views demand, I know that we will all support whichever political measures we deem to be correct, and we will all judge the people and entities we have decided are guilty. But I challenge us all to heighten the love in our lives, right now. Be more expressive of it, revel in it, create more of it, act because of it, live in it. Because when the plane hits your building, what else is there?
Be well. Be love(d).
: : : August 2001 – present : : :
Acceptances: publications: 1