Takeoff

Today’s weather is the same as it was sixteen years ago today: brisk and beautiful, with turquoise-blue skies. I’m not sure if there is a meteorological reason why September skies are often so deeply, vividly blue, but that’s how the sky was on September 11, 2001.

Logan Airport flyby

Sixteen years ago, I was living in Hillsborough, NH with my then-husband, and September 11 was a Tuesday. I’d just started teaching at Keene State College, but I didn’t teach on Tuesdays that semester. Instead, I was working a part-time temporary job at a publishing company in Portsmouth, NH, about an hour and a half away from home.

Jet Blue on blue

That morning’s drive to Portsmouth was largely uneventful, but there had been a car crash on the stretch of highway between Concord and Portsmouth, and police had blocked the road and detoured traffic. I remember driving on small, rural roads through communities I’d never visited before. These were the days before ubiquitous GPS devices, and I was genuinely worried I’d get lost trying to find my way to work, but the day was so lovely, I almost didn’t mind.

Overhead

When I got to work, I learned someone had died in that crash: the first of the day’s many tragedies. But since I didn’t know the person who had died, I quietly settled into the cubicle of one of the of two women on maternity leave I’d been filling in for that summer. While I was working, someone sent out an inter-office email saying the World Trade Center in New York City had been hit by a plane, and I quickly skimmed and deleted the email. Since I was juggling this temp job with the new school year at Keene State, I had a lot of work to do that day, so I continued working without checking CNN or turning on the radio.

Wild blue yonder

The same thing happened when another email came around saying the second World Trade Tower had been hit: I read the email and kept working. I hadn’t seen any photos or videos of the attack, so I imagined a scary but somehow explicable accident wherein two planes had gone off track, clipping a wing against one and then a second skyscraper. Because I was busy, I was able to compartmentalize the news: something bad was happening in New York, but I was in Portsmouth, and I had a tall pile of work to do. I was probably the last worker in my office–the last person in America–to realize the gravity of what had happened.

Fly-by

I wasn’t until lunchtime that I fully realized what was happening. I was supposed to attend a staff meeting, but everyone was so upset by the news from New York, several coworkers and I went for a quick walk instead. It was an attempt to dissipate some nervous energy on a clear autumn day that was too beautiful to spend inside. When we got back to the office, I finally saw my first glimpse of the attack.

Overhead

A throng of co-workers was crammed into a single cubicle, huddling around a computer to watch CNN, and that was when I saw for the first time the incessant replay of planes crashing and buildings falling. Like countless others before me, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It looked like a scene out of a movie, not something actually happening under an impossibly blue umbrella of September skies.

Overhead

Not long after my co-workers and I stood slack-jawed and silent around a single computer, our boss sent us home for the day: my co-workers to nearby homes and loved ones, and me to a lonely hour-and-a-half drive. The roads between Portsmouth and Hillborough were nearly empty, and I listened to the news on NPR while scouring the skies for planes. It’s been sixteen years since I took that long, lonely drive, and I still hold my breath whenever I see a distant plane fly anywhere near a city skyline, waiting to make sure it flies behind each silhouetted skyscraper rather than directly through.

The people of Massachusetts will always remember

Thursday mornings are hectic, as I cross off a laundry-list of chores before heading to Framingham State to teach an 8:30 am class. This morning as I neared Natick on my way to campus, I saw a flag at half-mast and the date dawned. Today, thirteen years ago. The tears came as unbidden and right as rain: tears for the grief, confusion, and fear everyone felt that crisp and beautiful autumn day thirteen years ago, and tears for all the lives that have been lost since then. How many flags at half-mast have flown these past thirteen years?

Dearly departed

The spring we put Reggie to sleep, I acquired the habit of weeping during my long drives to and from Keene: 90 uninterrupted minutes each way during which I had nothing to do but steer the car and marshal my own thoughts. My car provided a cocoon of privacy; nobody needed to see or know why I had tears streaming down my face, whether for a person or a pet or for the whole sad and suffering world.

Flowers

This morning I once again wept in my car: not for any individual person, but for the whole suffering world. I didn’t personally know anyone who was killed on September 11, but that day was a collective wound. Watching the news, hearing the stories, and seeing the flyers posted with pictures of the missing: these were enough to unite us in a shared upwelling of sympathy. When innocent lives are lost, you realize how tenuous and random your own survival is. The people who died on 9/11 and the people who have died in subsequent military operations could easily have been you, me, or any of our loved ones. How can any of us feel safe in a world where some of us are targeted?

Wreathed

Thirteen years is a lifetime, long enough for a child to ripen into puberty. Now that the first generation of post-9/11 children is entering young adulthood, what has happened to our grief and remembrance? They say that time heals all wounds, but memory (as Salvador Dali suggested) is persistent. Thirteen years was a lifetime ago–I was an entirely different person then, leading a life that now seems alien and unknowable. But the simple sight of a flag at half-mast is all it takes to melt the intervening years, the passage of time revealed as illusion. Grief knows no timetable, and sorrow has no season.

One wilted rose

We live in an amnesiac culture that ignores the past while chasing the future. In the pursuit of positivity, we are denied the chance to grieve, instead being told to “get over it.” September 11 is one of the few days a year when we are allowed to drop the pretense of optimism and cheer in order to be somber and still. I wish it were more acceptable to grieve whenever the occasion calls for it. To be awake these days is to have one’s heart broken on a daily basis. Planes fall out of the sky, black boys are shot in the street, and journalists are slaughtered overseas. How can we get over the grief of 9/11 when that day was merely the first in a thirteen-year-long litany of loss? At every turn, there is suffering, death, and mayhem; humanity, it turns out, is infinitely inventive when it comes to hurting one another. But with each instance of hurting also comes an instantaneous outpouring of help.

Memorial

September 11, 2001 was an impossibly beautiful fall day here in New England, an irony that has always struck me as cruel. But perhaps this juxtaposition of tragedy and beauty is merely reflective of the world we live in. In the face of heartbreak, there are hands to help. In the aftermath of suffering comes the strength and resilience to carry on.

I’ve previously blogged these photos of the Garden of Remembrance in Boston’s Public Garden, which I’d shot in May, 2011. In the years since then, this stone memorial is already starting to wear away.

Under her heel

This past Wednesday was the twelfth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, so after teaching my classes at Boston College, I walked the labyrinth there. The labyrinth at BC is a memorial to 22 alumni who were killed on September 11, so someone had left a bunch of maroon and gold flowers—BC colors—on the path’s periphery before I arrived, and the handful of students sitting quietly on the lawn and benches nearby seemed particularly quiet, subdued, and respectful.

Mary statue

I wasn’t alone in walking the labyrinth on Wednesday. A student was walking ahead of me, slowly and meditatively, and by the time I had walked to the memorial’s center and back, a small throng had gathered to pay their respects. One of them had set down a black duffel bag tied with a red bandana, presumably a tribute to Welles Crowther, a BC grad who worked in the South Tower of the World Trade Center and became known as the “man in the red bandana” after helping a dozen people out of the building before he died trying to save more. Near the entrance of the labyrinth, someone had set several more maroon and gold bouquets, waiting to lay them by the carved names that surround the memorial’s circumference. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that one of the bouquets bore a tag that had been signed “Mom & Dad.”

Even the landscaping has spirit

When you walk a labyrinth, you trust the path ahead of you to get you there and back, resting in the belief that each footfall will find its proper place. As I walked the memorial labyrinth on Wednesday, there was a single reddened maple leaf that had fallen on one of the flagstones, a harbinger of harvests to come. There is a Zen truism that every snowflake falls in its perfect place, and perhaps this applies to autumn leaves as well. But what about fallen souls?

First day

It’s poignantly fitting that so many lives were lost on a brilliantly beautiful September day: autumn is, after all, the season of falling, an annual reminder of impending mortality. Faith says our every footstep is guided by an unseen hand; faith reminds us that even the fall of a sparrow is heeded by the heavens. What wild and wending way led each of nearly 3,000 souls to their untimely end some twelve years ago? Were they in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were they precisely where they were (by some unspeakable mystery) intended to be?

Practice scrimmage

On my way back to my car, I heard the martial cadences of a marching band. When I’d arrived on the third level of the garage where I’d parked, I had a bird’s eye view of the BC football team scrimmaging on their practice field, recorded marching music piped over a loudspeaker. It was a quintessential autumnal scene—young and athletic men reveling in their strength—and it seemed particularly poignant, like the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams whispers “Carpe diem” while his students study the black-and-white photographs of former athletes in the glass cases in the school hallway.

Welles Crowther was a lacrosse player at BC, and he was 24 when he died. I wonder how often the healthy and strong athletes who play and practice on the same green fields as he did consider their own mortality and the sobering fact that we all are, eventually, following in his footsteps?

Sailing the Charles

Yesterday J and I went to the Charles River Esplanade for the “Massachusetts Remembers 9/11” concert and ceremony at the Hatch Shell.

Blue evokes blue

Sunday was a mild and sunny day–a day reminiscent of that turquoise-skied Tuesday ten years ago–so the Charles River was dotted with sailboats and kayaks while the Esplanade was thronged with cyclists, sun-bathers, and families with strollers. It was a day so lovely, you could almost pretend it was any ordinary Sunday until you came to a colorful patchwork tapestry spread on the grass like an enormous picnic blanket.

School children's flag mural

Half the size of a football field, this American flag consists of 50,000 red, white, and blue squares that contain messages written by Massachusetts school children in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks: a two-dimensional time-capsule to remind us of darker days.

School children's flag mural

J and I arrived at the Hatch Shell early, so we were able to enjoy a pre-concert performance by the Berklee College of Music’s Rhythm of the Universe, a collaborative project consisting of musicians from 90 countries from around the world.

Rhythm of the Universe

It seemed somehow apt that the first melodic line J and I heard as we approached the Hatch Shell was that of a headscarf-wearing woman keening to a Middle Eastern melody. It was a sound that was both moving and mournful, as clear and ethereal as a muezzin’s call to prayer.

Rhythm of the Universe

The two-hour concert and ceremony featured prayers led by the Massachusetts Interfaith Leadership Coalition and musical performances by the Boston Pops Brass Ensemble and the Boston Children’s Chorus.

Boston Pops Brass Ensemble with the Boston Children's Chorus

My thoughts, however, kept going back to the eclectic sounds of the Rhythm of the Universe, who illustrated quite vividly how the cultures of the world can come together to create harmony if they are united by a common melody.

Rhythm of the Universe

Click here for a photo-set of images from the “Massachusetts Remembers 9/11” concert and ceremony.

Hanging on

Loggers call them widowmakers: broken limbs or tree-tops that snag on the forest canopy, dangling and threatening to fall without warning. After tropical storm Irene gave our Newton neighborhood a thorough pruning last weekend, all that’s left of the wind and rain are a handful of blow-downs that never quite blew down.

Yard waste

In the immediate aftermath of Irene, it was prudent to watch your step, since our neighborhood was littered with leafy twigs, brittle sticks, and one ominous-looking cable that snaked across our street, the area cordoned off with red hazard tape. Once all those twigs and sticks had been gathered into trash barrels, leaf bags, and twine-tied piles, you’d best keep your head up when you walked, on the lookout for hazards overhead.

Now that I’ve spent the past week looking for widowmakers, I seem to find them everywhere: not just the new ones from Irene, but old seasoned specimens from past storms. The treetops, it turns out, are simply littered with broken limbs and dangling branches, each threatening to succumb to gravity at any minute. Who has time to watch their step when so much danger looms from above?

Widowmaker

Humans are fragile creatures, thin-skinned and vulnerable. We live much of our lives in our heads, oblivious to the dangers that surmount them. With our heads, we think we can control our fate by being careful: if we watch our steps, watch our diet, and look both ways, we’re all but guaranteed a long and healthy life. The widowmaker called Time looms to prove otherwise. No matter how carefully we try to control our destinies, an oncoming car careens out of control, a cancer diagnosis strikes like lighting out of the blue, or a precariously dangling tree limb succumbs to gravity. You just never know what is hanging directly overhead, held by the thinnest thread.

Bent tree

Time itself is a widowmaker, as is history. Ten years ago this week, a crisp September day began like any other until not one but three planes sliced our lives into the separate segments of Before and After. As the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, I keep thinking of the so-called falling man, a worker who jumped from the World Trade Center rather than waiting to succumb to fire and smoke. In his iconic picture, the falling man hangs upside down and aloft, his legs crooked like a runner. Who knew that morning what horrors awaited: who knew then how many flying souls would fall?

On my commute from Newton to Keene, a church marquee asks, “Tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes: how prepared are you?” Although I might quibble with the sign’s theology, I agree wholeheartedly with its urgency. Not even a single second of our lives is guaranteed; at every moment, the widowmaker of mortality hangs overhead like a sword on a string. It’s fine and good to watch your step, but even our best-made plans pale in a world where we’re left hanging in a forest full of danger, malice, and chance.

The people of Massachusetts will always remember

Earlier this month, on a rainy walk through Boston’s Public Garden, J and I took a moment to visit the Garden of Remembrance, a memorial to the Massachusetts citizens who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It was the weekend after Osama bin Laden had been killed, so the memorial was decorated with 206 white roses that had been placed on the monument the day after bin Laden’s death: 206 roses for 206 victims, a visual symbol that the people of Massachusetts will always remember those who died.

Dearly departed

Visiting a rainy memorial strewn with wilted flowers felt entirely appropriate. The Public Garden was largely deserted, so J and I had time to ponder the monument and read the chiseled names without the distraction of passing tourists. Almost immediately, I searched for the name of Patrick J. Quigley, IV, whose grave J and I first encountered on a walk through Newton Cemetery several years ago. J and I never met Patrick Quigley, but somehow he’s become the face of 9/11 for me: one name whose death personalizes the passing of all the other names. And sure enough, as soon as I saw Quigley’s name, I felt my eyes misting with something other than raindrops. Just like that, the memories of that terrible day came back, and with them a flood of sympathy for the families of the victims. This memorial is a visible symbol that we won’t forget the ones who were lost: how can we forget, when the families of the victims live on, their lives forever punctuated?

Flowers

In her book Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell describes the first time she visited the World War II memorial in Washington, DC, which I visited in 2005. Initially, Vowell finds the monument cumbersome with its ring of pillars for the 50 states…but upon seeing the “Oklahoma” pillar, she breaks into tears thinking about an uncle’s story about spending a month in wet socks fighting the Japanese for control of a hill.

Suddenly and forever the World War II memorial stopped being clunky architecture and turned into the sound of my uncle’s voice telling me that story. Now I don’t care what it looks like. They could have carved it out of chewed bubble gum and I would think of it fondly.

This, I think, is the power of memorials, both the stone monuments we erect for the dead and this holiday, Memorial Day: a day set aside for remembrance. It’s easy to forget our uncle’s stories, or the stories of other folks’ uncles. Stone memorials are designed to remind us of some stone-cold truths: people die, and our memories are simultaneously tenuous and as strong as death. It’s easy to forget the touch of a now-gone hand, but easy to remember a story that touched us. All we need to resurrect the past is a reminder–a marker, a monument, a memorial. The simple sight of a name carved on stone is enough to bring us to tears, raindrops erasing the fragile line between then and now.

Click here for more photos from the Garden of Remembrance in Boston’s Public Garden, and happy Memorial Day.