I was in Paris, walking down a street near the Champs Elysees. I came upon a French woman trying to explain something to a foreign couple. She seemed very agitated and I stepped in to help. Buildings in New York had been attacked, she told me in French, and I told the couple in English. Two separate airplanes had flown into them, so we know it wasn’t an accident. It was terrorists. My heart began to race. Only a few days ago I had flown out of New York City, having just begun what was to become a doomed love affair with a man who lived at the corner of Broadway and Rector. “Which buildings?!?”
It was the closest thing I had ever felt to patriotism. At that time, I had spent the majority of my adult life living overseas. I felt like a stranger in America. I can’t say that changed on 9-11, but when I heard about the attacks, I just wanted to get back to New York. I had only lived there for a year, four years earlier. But it was the only place in America that I felt at home. On September 11th, I felt like my home had been attacked and I wanted to get back to help it. I may not have felt like an “American”, but I felt like a New Yorker.
I was angry at the people who had done this to “my” city. And I knew that there was little chance of most Americans recognizing the attack as an act of vengeance, of their spending even a few seconds examining their own government’s actions that might have played a role in motivating 18 young men to engage in an assault that would end their own lives. More than any of that though, I felt an overwhelming urge to make something. I felt so powerless against the dead terrorists and the inevitable government backlash that was yet to come. It seemed that the only way to fight back against the violent aggressors on both sides was to create. Anything.
The first thing I did when I got back to New York was to go to the grocery store with my boyfriend. We bought vegetables, and I made soup. At that time in my life, it was the most important soup I had ever made. I then set about finding a ballet class. I found one nearby, and there were days when we could smell the putrid stench of the site even in class. It is a very specific smell that I will never forget. People living downtown back then took to wearing surgical masks when they went outside. I used a handkerchief, and tried not to think about what I might be breathing in.
All of downtown was plastered in fliers. They covered walls, fences, lamp posts. They showed the faces of loved ones lost when the towers came down. “Lost” and “missing” really meant “gone.” We all knew those people weren’t coming back. The people who put them up probably knew too, but how could they not put them up? Someone they loved was gone and they couldn’t just do nothing. They had to do something. Anything.
The saddest of the fliers was one I now wish I had taken a picture of. Of course back then it would have been crass to take pictures (that didn’t start until a few weeks later, when crowds of tourists would pile on top of each other next to the fence surrounding the site, vying for the best angles.) A man had posted a picture of his friend, a man who had worked in the WTC. A man who, years ago, had taught his friend to ride a bicycle. The poster wrote a long paragraph about his friend, saying he knew he wasn’t coming back. He had tried for weeks to locate him, looking for any hint that he might have made it out of the towers. He knew now that he had not. He knew he would never see his friend again, and he just wanted to write about him, to memorialize him for everyone to see.
Ten years later, we are asked to “Never Forget” the 2,996 innocent souls who died that morning - but to ignore the more than 100,000 who have since perished as a result of our government’s opportunistic aggression overseas. The assault on our civil liberties at home, while predictable, has surpassed even what I imagined back then. “What have we learned?” everyone asks. And to their credit, more and more Americans are making the connection between their government’s aggression in the world and the aggression that then comes our way.
But what I learned back then, in those days and weeks after 9-11, is something I had learned before and something I’m sure I will have to learn again. I learned that the way to fight destruction is through creation. I learned that we - or at least I - are here to create, not to destroy. That even fighting evil, while perhaps a noble pursuit, is not our true purpose. I spend a lot of time “fighting evil”. I write about the evils I see in the world, in the hopes that it will help us figure out how to do things differently, how to live without granting the power to murder, abuse, control and steal to a select bunch of people and then expecting them not to abuse it. I think it is important to fight evil, and I’m not going to stop doing it. But I spend way too much time doing it. I keep having to remind myself that it’s not really what I’m here for.
So I spent yesterday creating. On the tenth “anniversary” of the September 11th attacks, I drew a picture. You can see it below. It may not seem like a big deal, but it’s one that’s been giving me trouble for a while. It’s a picture that will go in a book I’ve written called “Mermayde in the City”. I finally got it pretty much right, although I’m not happy with some of the details and will re-do it to fix those. Anyway, I did it and I’m happy with this first cut. I also cooked some things for my family and yes, I made soup. None of these things are as “big” as what happened on September 11th ten years ago, but they are much much more important. That's what I want to remember.