On September 13, 2001, I wrote an email (full text linked) to some friends and family, with some first reactions to what had happened to America two days before. This email was from an account that expired about five years ago, and I had lost access to all the things I'd sent years before.
Those words should have been gone forever. But thanks to Facebook, I put out an APB on my lost words, and a friend - who had been on the initial distribution list 10 years ago - searched his mail, found my words, and returned them to me. This proved to be a gift to me - a chance to revisit my state of mind and mourning so many years ago, and to see what has and hasn't changed since that day.
But this isn't my real 9/11 post. My real 9/11 post is somewhere in the air between my brain and the keyboard, and aspires to arrive before the 10th anniversary, over the next few days. This is both prelude to that post and retrospective of posts past, a visit from and with my old words, with their different levels of shock, trauma, distance and contemplation. I share these words, from that previously-lost email, from this blog and from articles I've written - and dated 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, and 2009 respectively - below.
"The real 9/11 post" - that's tomorrow's job.
September 13, 2001 (from an email - full text here)
"As I write this, I have lowered CNN to a murmur in the background of my studio apartment,. But it seems like every hour, there is something new to report: an additional building in the World Trade Center complex collapsed. Explosions of undetermined origin were underway in Kabul, Afghanistan, purported home of Osama Bin Laden. From beneath rubble in and around the collapsed buildings, victims called relatives on cell phones. SWAT teams surround a Boston hotel to take suspects into custody. The Empire State Building, evacuated at the slightest threat.
Thousands of people who worked in the destroyed buildings in New York and Washington are classified as missing or injured. The New York death count, currently at 'at least 82' will only climb. Part of the Pentagon has collapsed from the force of the explosion, in which an estimated 800 are missing or dead. The Twin Towers have been erased from the New York City skyline. The smoke still billows forth. Citizens of New York and Washington are still screaming in pain and grief. The fires continue to burn as the smell wafts north.
The words of war continue to make their impact. Slowly, stories begin to graft faces and identities onto previously anonymous victims. One survivor, covered with a mottled combination of dust and blood, reported on rescue efforts: 'They told us to make a human chain, and we got each other out of there.'
It was these words that affected me most. Whether or not we believe in God, or Osama Bin Laden, or capitalism, or democracy, we need to remember that in the wake of tragedy, the human chain is what provides us with comfort. And though Psalms pale in importance when people we know and love are missing, we continue to recite them individually and in groups, trying to find meaning in the words that form a historical chain between the author of the Psalms and our modern selves.
In the coming weeks, we will need to believe in humanity with a whole heart, as general shock gives way to more specific horror, and as the pain of grief’s sharpness yields to thoughts of vengeance. Our fear and anger threatens to enslave us, but we need to break free of them and learn, once again, to believe that it is the human chain that can bring about redemption, that can resurrect both our hope and our peace of mind."
In the Margins: Imagining a "Book of Lives" (October 2003)
"In September 2001, I started to see the metaphorical tome’s pages filling in with indecipherable scrawls (apparently, God has poor penmanship) representing names of people whom I will never meet but whose faces haunt me still, like a bound collector’s-edition compendium of those 'missing' and 'have you seen…?' posters. Those flyers clung obstinately to telephone poles and littered the streets of New York City, even after hope had been relinquished, long after the people pictured in them had perished.
After the year of mourning for the victims of September 11 had passed, I returned to my image of the Book of Life again, desperate to make peace with it. Then, a spate of suicide bombings, having begun in 5762 and having crossed into 5763, conspired to sever my faith yet again. I remembered the words of Unetaneh Tokef, that on Rosh Hashana we are inscribed and on Yom Kippur we are sealed: 'who will die in his appointed time and who will die before his appointed time….' In my mind, the slo-mo CNN loops began running, with towers burning, planes crashing, bombs exploding and people dying.
Then I remembered having learned that God knows the whole course of human events but still gives humankind the power of free will. Our choices, good or bad, even within the structure of predestination, can change the future. And our actions as a community are that much more powerful. Perhaps the same conceit holds true for the Book of Life. Our deeds may cause God to judge us in a certain manner, but even God’s decree may be altered by human action."
"I never officially knew Nancy Morgenstern, although chances are we’d met. We had many mutual friends and ran in similar circles on the Upper West Side--I was friendly with her roommate. Because I couldn't place name to face to workplace for most of my close friends, let alone for people I didn't know, on 9/11, the name Cantor Fitzgerald didn’t ring any personal bells for me. But in Nancy's Upper West Side apartment, five blocks and two avenues from my own building, there were bells ringing everywhere--as her roommates fielded desperate phonecalls from Nancy’s family.
When I received word that my friend’s roommate was missing, I felt my stomach drop; I still couldn't match a face to the name, but I knew that Nancy was our representative on that terrible day: a woman with a career, an athlete with an active social network, a committed Jewish Upper West Sider on the scene.
And then, like so many others, she was just missing. In absence of an official confirmation of Nancy’s death, her family mourned, but only off-the-record. For more than three years, there was no burial, no shiva. This week, after a recent “official” identification of her DNA, the family went ahead with the burial in Beit Shemesh, Israel."
"The tragedy is not just New York, and on some level, even New Yorkers know that, but ours is the unfortunate urban epicenter of what happened, ours is the metropolis that drew people not just from within New York City's boundaries, but beyond, in search of "making it here so they could make it anywhere." And so we remain, literally or emotionally, standing at the edge of the Pit, contemplating the vast crevasse's emptiness and what that void, in its once vibrant and solid opposite, means to us today."
That Day: 9/11 - 7 (2008)
"After the flyers of the missing began to go up, as they fluttered there, on lampposts and buildings, papyrus-representations of a hope that everyone clung to even as they felt the-- .
[8:45am, moment of silence, first plane hits the north tower]
futility of hoping. In the months that followed that day, acceptance and grief took the place of hope, and the flyers began to thin out, only the most obstinately hopeful persisted, and these faces haunted our streets long after the funerals had concluded. To keep them up seemed misguided. To take them down...betrayal. [...]
Citing poetry and Bible for lack of any other way to explain, civic leaders take to stages and broadcast words worldwide, while accompanying guitars gently weep, as if we'd lost the capacity and required surrogates. As voices crack in rendering syllables that used to be people, the observers who were largely spared the immediate proximity of pain, feel the isolation descend, and our hearts extend in sympathy."
9/11 Again (2009)
"Now I'm in a new city, still thinking of that day, and all the days since; the lives lost, still others wrecked in a hundred different ways. Who knows what 9/11 means in the land of Hollywood dreams and plastic surgery nightmares? On a day like today, driving back from the airport after dropping off a friend at 6am, I hear the words on the radio: "on this day, 8 years ago," and I change the channel. It's still dark in Los Angeles, there's barely a glimmer of light at horizon's edge, and I can't face the anniversary until the sunlight arrives. I just can't."