By Jenifer J. Corwin
There’s a 3’x5′ American flag, or at least the shreds of one, that hangs on an outside wall under our covered porch, just to the left of the front door. We purchased it the day after the terrorist attacks of 9/11–the day after because accomplishing a simple task like the purchase of a flag to commemorate an event so patently incomprehensible was just too complex a transaction to put together that first terrible day. I was like the survivor of a car accident, or a drowning person plucked from the sea, in shock and shivering on the seat of the life boat, capable only of ragged breath. And yet, I’d been safe–100 miles and a world away from the horror, the mind-numbing carnage–safe in a little brick school, on a nice, tight little island, on a gorgeous, early-autumn Tuesday with no mountainous, malevolent charcoal grey cloud obliterating our famous September light. It turned out, however, that some islanders–or their loved ones–had, in fact, been in harm’s way: a son working in his office high up in one of the towers had barely made it out, a husband who would’ve been in his office on the 89th floor of Tower I but for an early dentist appointment. One of my daughters was slated to start her classes at the Swedish Institute down in the Chelsea district that morning. At first I couldn’t reach her. Thank God there was a phone message waiting for me when I got home for lunch. As it turned out, the first plane had hit minutes before she’d planned to leave for Manhattan and, from their New Jersey condo, she and her sister had watched in disbelief as, just across the river, the unbelievable played out. 2
When, during the next few days, our community managed to take its collective breath, it was
spent, in part, sharing “where-were-you” stories and marveling at the enumerable “close calls” and “coincidences” that had miraculously intervened to save from certain death a cousin, or a friend, or a friend-of-a-friend, or strangers we heard interviewed on television. But the day after –the day we bought the flag–I had learned that of the many New York City firemen who were missing, one was the brother of our school psychologist. In spite of the anguish he must have felt about his brother, this consummate professional had come to work for two days after the attacks so he could be there for the island’s students. It wasn’t until that Friday that he went to join the search–a search that, tragically, proved futile. Miracles had been in short supply after all.
Days passed, stubbornly in accordance with convention–Wednesday, Thursday, Friday–and yet, at least for me, time seemed to be either standing still completely or twisting back in on itself. I remember that while I was teaching class, I somehow could forget the whole soul-shattering…thing, but, with the end of the period came the horror, flooding back as if it had just happened, or was happening again. So, during the day I’d lurch back and forth between distraction and raw despair and, at night, my husband I would sit transfixed before the television. As days turned into weeks, one thing was clear: what innocence we had ever had as individuals or as a nation was lost forever. No one would ever feel completely “safe” again.
I think the shock waves of that excruciating day lap at us still–on a daily basis–all the more insidious for their subtlety. I think in the years following that September morning, some of us have chased that lost safety, or at least the illusion of it, by hunkering down behind bunkers of addiction–to work, drugs, alcohol, eating, sex, shopping, gambling, and all manner of technology. For others that morning was a rude awakening, and the safest thing seemed to be to
just shut up, shut down and politely go back to sleep. But for some of us, and who knows why, in spite of our terror it was an awakening, an involuntary wrenching open of heart and mind and spirit, having nothing at all to do with our being more “courageous” or “cool-headed” than anybody else, but–maybe accidently–coming to recognize that if we wanted to live richly, fully and consciously in this post-9/11 world, we would have to find another kind of “safety,” one which would involve being more open, more honest, more compassionate, more attentive, more aware, more awake than we’d ever been before. But how? I’m convinced that 9/11 happened because we all were sleeping, all addicted in one way or another, all nodding off as we have for decades–our bellies bloated, our brains befuddled, our senses blunted to everything except where our next “fix” was coming from instead of to where we were headed as we entered this 21st century we’d all heard so much about. There are many reasons–a “perfect storm” of them–why this should’ve been the case with ourselves, with our country, but whatever the causes, the residual effect is a short circuit between us, both as individuals and as a nation, and the spiritual well-spring that has fed the best of human values and vision and achievement since the beginning of what we call “time,” a well-spring that is not based in any particular religion or ideology but seems to be hard-wired into the human organism. Perhaps it manifests in that stubborn sense that there is something in the mix of existence that is larger than we are–something that calls us to explore what it means to be fully, meaningfully human, to find out where we fit, and how do our best and become our best. Somehow, amidst our society’s incessant demand for immediate “answers”–to our pain, our boredom, our confusion, our fear–we have forgotten to ask ourselves those big, messy universal questions. They’re not academic nor rhetorical, they are essential and do not lend themselves to quick-fix