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United 93

In the years following 9/11/2001, I had a jarring experience that I needed to write about. Not sure how to wrap my arms around the task, I started an exploration that has continued since. The exploration included interviewing people who were in New York or Washington DC that day, talking to professionals in the field of grief and trauma, questioning philosophers, healers, holistic practitioners, attending plays on the topic of loss on 9/11, listening to survivors’ stories, visiting the New York Historical Society, art galleries, and returning to Ground Zero for the reading of the names, on several anniversaries.

In 2007, I returned to New York City during the week of September 11, and interviewed several friends, and one stranger, who were there in 2001.

What strikes me in reading the interviews now, and in listening to the conversations, is the depth of processing that took place in our talking. Six years later, we were still in the deep, working it out. There were emotional treatises on government action or inaction, and long reports on how people were seeking, personally, to understand ourselves and our places in a post-9/11 New York, country, world, and existence.

Fear, sadness, guilt, patriotism, shame were all in heavy rotation. For me, the interviews are a snapshot in time, each voice testing the tide, as we pulled our way through a roiling current.

The conversation that follows is part two of the interview posted yesterday. My subject had had a seat booked on United Flight 93, and changed it the night before take-off. The highjacked United Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field the next day, after passengers stormed the cock pit and forced the plane to miss its target.

Conversations on Fear

P: I interviewed, my teacher from that day. She said, “I immediately was sad because I knew we were going to go to war.”

She said, “From that point on, I have felt sad because the way that we felt on that day, how terrified we were and how we had no idea what to expect next — that’s the way our country, our government is making Baghdad feel. That’s how Baghdad feels every single day, still after all this time.” She said, “To be there, to live there in New York City, and to experience that happen and then to know that we are by extension part of—”

B: Repeatedly

P: “–other people’s experience of that terror, I just can hardly—”

B: And historically inflicting that terror and more. Hiroshima.

[Long pause]

B: I went to a seminar three or four months ago. It was about being fearless. Al Gore was the speaker and he was phenomenal. He talked about how we had an opportunity at 9/11 to respond. Imagine if we had responded peacefully, with love and understanding, instead of going into this military eye for an eye. Where does that get you? Violence begets violence and the cycle continues. But if we had responded in a way that – you know the whole WORLD was with us. You remember seeing candlelight vigils in Germany and Japan, our previous enemies! The Soviet Union. Here’s the world coming together. And we have since, I mean if you think about the perception of the United States in the world right now, it’s never been worse.

P: And what an opportunity to shift the direction of our entire way of doing things.

B: This was the subject of the conference. If you live your life and your actions are based on fear, even if you think you’re taking strong actions, but if they’re the result of fear–like in our nation’s security, we’ve got Homeland Security and our mission in Iraq is for security of the United States, and our way of life and democracy–it’s all still based in fear. It’s acting for the wrong reason. It’s acting on the worst instincts of human nature.

P: The fear, shoring up security. I’m sure some of this is necessary. But I get deeper and deeper with the themes of my book, and one of the themes I’ve discovered is grief and transformation.

And how there’s a time of grief. Yours might be five days, mine might be five years, someone else’s might be five months, that kind of thing. But at the end of the cycle we turn around and discover that we have transformed. That’s the point of trauma.

… 9/11 wasn’t a bomb in a marketplace. More than 52 people died. It hit our financial center. It affected the world in waves. It was an Achilles heel. When there’s a trauma to that extent, and then you factor in the theory that when something disintegrates, something else comes up in its place. Well, let’s disintegrate our whole tradition of responding with war or fear. What I’m trying to say is that we have an opportunity to create in the void that has been left, new ways of relating. And I see that in areas, but of course I still see parts of our society gripping on to old ways of doing things, while watching the old ways just not working. Warfare is not the same as it used to be, and the whole notion of being secure, having army bases in Germany, those don’t even make sense anymore.

B: And how presumptuous of us. And how desensitized everybody is. Every day in the paper? Every day in Baghdad?

P: Every day there’s a body count.

B: Some bomb. Some explosion, and it doesn’t even register anymore. The current administration fosters fear. Every time they’ve done something wrong, they raise the threat a level. To distract people to, “Remember the fear! Remember the fear!”

P: That’s a terrorist government! Hello, the use of the word “terror” in order to keep people in line.

B: Yep, but we’ve turned that word “terror” to “safety.”

P: Being Fearless. What an activist conference to have in the face of everything we’re under right now.

B: That’s why I think it drew so many people. I think there were over 1200 people.

. . . . .

P: …How do you begin to wrap your head around…what has happened, six years later thinking, “One of those seats was mine [on Flight 93].”

B: …I don’t know I just have extreme faith in the universe. Who knows 10 years from now, or whenever? My number’s up…

P: …It makes me wonder about the rest of your life, the people there are for you to touch, and the people who will touch your experience.

B: Which way it unfolds.

P: Each of those moments we cross paths, we change each other in tiny ways, and each of those interactions is part of grid that changes who we are forever, whether that’s good or bad.

B: I think it also has to do with your relationship with and your idea of death. For Tom, he’s very afraid of his death, and mostly of death of people he loves. I don’t know maybe I’ve put up a barrier, but I’m pretty stoic about it. …If I was on that flight it would have been my time to die.

. . . . .

P: It goes back to that theme of fear, becoming fearless. Courage is, even while you’re fearful, being in that space and seeing what comes of it…If our country’s government is leading us by fear–

B: Which it is.

P: Fear of death, fear of loss, of life–

B: Fear of loss of our financial security.

P: If we’re afraid to die, then we’ll always be controlled. By all our fears, by not going outside, by not walking at night. We’ll always be controlled by that fear. But if we’re aware, consciously aware that we’re gonna die–

B: We all are gonna die.

P: Then it seems like we’d be less controlled by the things that we don’t know. And that when we’re less controlled by what we don’t know, our lives unfold to… this mystery, this beauty, this constant beauty. Everything is always new.

B: Well, it’s such a distraction. If you’re afraid of death all the time then basically death’s got the better of you. Because you’re living your life with that end in mind and you’re not really living your life. It’s like Elizabeth Edwards. I loved what she said when she just found out that she had recurring breast cancer and there was no treatment for her. People were stunned that she was continuing with the campaign. She said, “You know, I really have two choices. I can start to die or I can continue to live. I want to continue to live. If I quit the campaign, then I’m starting to die. I’m not gonna do that.”

I just thought, that pretty much sums it up for all of us. You can start to die or you can continue to live. And that’s courage.

 

(You can read all of the Memory to Light stories in order on the side bar –->)

. . . . . . . . . . .

Thanks for reading Day 17 of “Memory to Light: 31 Days of Stories, August 11 – September 11, 2011.” It is an exercise in writing about loss, for the purpose of letting grief wake, live, and pass through the system. Grief is transformation. Story is transformation. Our world could use a some wakeful transformation right now. Take a peek at the introductory post for the full story of what we’re up to.

P.S. Names were changed in my story today, in the interest of focusing on the story rather than the identifiable in it.

Join me

Consider this project an online story circle. Read a story that moves you. Write your own on your blog. Link it to the comments below, so we can read your piece. If you don’t have a blog, write your story in the comments.

Let your memories live. Let small corners of your grief breathe. Let your loss be swept into the collective experience of people sharing, witnessing, and letting be.

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P: I have a memory of you guys visiting New York, or visiting New Jersey, and being stuck here.

B: Right.

P: And I have a memory of you saying– Were you guys supposed to be on one of those planes?

B: Flight 93. We were supposed to fly out on Monday night the 10th and there was a fire at Newark Airport, major fire in the luggage area, so they had to cancel flights and delay flights. We waited around for a while that night but we decided, “You know, forget it, we’ll just get on the flight in the morning, and we’ll go back to my sister’s house.”

So the United person said, “I have a flight in the morning and a flight at 1:00 in the afternoon.”

I said, “Let’s take the morning flight.”

So she said, “Okay,” and she put us on that.

And Tom, just as we were about to walk away, he said, “You know, by the time we get back to your sister’s house, get to sleep, and then it’s an early flight– We’re basically going to get a few hours’ sleep and come right back. What’s the rush? Why don’t you call work and say you’re not going to be in at all tomorrow?”

I was trying to get back so I could work a half day.

So we turned back to the counter person and said, “Actually can we take the one o’clock?”

And so the next morning, to wake up and see that.

P: Did you connect it right away when you saw it?

B: No because when we first woke up, the first plane had hit the World Trade Center. But that was one of the Boston flights. So they hadn’t, Flight 93 hadn’t crashed yet in Pennsylvania. So just the shock and horror of seeing what happened. Then we pieced it together, and we didn’t remember the flight numbers, but when they said it was from Newark to San Francisco–

P: When did you realize that? You heard it on the news or something like that?

B: Yeah.

P: What’d you do? What happened in your gut or your head, or with each other when you heard that?

B: You know I think it was, you wanna say relief but it wasn’t relief because it was still such horror at what happened. I don’t know, I feel like so many people felt so close to all of the tragic events. If that were another situation where I was flying to Colorado or something and I missed the flight and took another one, I might feel more personally singled out, or, “Wow, that was a near miss.” In this case it was so overshadowed by, just the tragedy all around. It almost felt selfish to think, “Oh thank God.”

Plus it was personally overshadowed by the fact that my sister’s husband worked in the World Trade Center, and we hadn’t heard from him. She couldn’t get in touch with him. So she’s freaking out.

P: Yes

B: We did have a sense, because the timing that he left that morning was a little bit late. She was thinking he might not have arrived to the World Trade Center, and that if he had, he would not to go in. But still, the fact that she couldn’t reach him on his cell phone, she was flipping out.

P: When did you guys finally hear from him?

B: Three o’clock.

P: Holy— Wow.

B: Yeah

P: Were you guys all together until that time?

B: Yeah, so you know it was just one of those— Everybody in Westfield, the town lost 15 people, most of them were men. The whole town, neighbors, you could hear people wailing. And everybody who didn’t have somebody who might have been in the World Trade Center was galvanizing around the people who hadn’t heard.

The fact that we narrowly missed that flight, like I said—it’s only in retrospect, to realize that I wouldn’t be here today. On that day, it didn’t really register.

P: Has 9/11, whether that day, that coincidence, the experience with your family, how has it registered over time? Between then and now, have you related to it differently? How do you carry the memories of it?

B: You remember what it was like here. The world stopped. There was not a soul walking around that wasn’t stunned. We were all zombies here, emotional. You’re just, hugging strangers, this, you can’t describe. And then we got on the plane [after a week of grounded flights], we went to San Francisco, and when the plane landed everybody applauded, because people were so afraid to fly at that point.

I still was in the bubble of being consumed by what happened. I got back to San Francisco, and it was distant. People were definitely—I think most people in the country took that day off, even a couple of days. At ____ they gave everybody off the next day. But a week later, which was by the time we were able to get a flight back, it was business as usual. I heard the most trivial conversations on the street, like, “Oh that’s a cute skirt!” And I’m thinking, “How can you say it’s a cute skirt, how can anybody even think about a skirt?” I felt like shaking people, “Don’t you realize what happened?” But you know, it was across the country.

You remember being here. It was so real here.

P: Yes

B: The smoke, you could see it, you could smell it, you could almost feel it in the air.

. . . .

P: I understand there were so many other, bigger things going on than you taking that plane.

B: Right

P: But then retrospectively, thinking that it’s not only a plane that you skipped like any other plane, its one of the planes that changed our nation forever, and in addition to that, one of the planes that had all this communication from it–

B: Yeah to think of the terror of that, yeah–

P: –calling family and friends.

B: I thought about that. I thought, knowing Tom, he would have been one of the guys to stand up and help.

[Very long pause]

P: That leaves me speechless. How do you begin to wrap your head around that? Once you move past the experience of being with your family, your brother-in-law coming home, taking in that trauma and the media every single day of what has happened, six years later thinking, “One of those seats was mine.”

B: Maybe I haven’t processed it. Every time I tell the story and people are, you know, their jaws drop. I almost feel like I’m telling someone else’s story. So I have this distance with it. But maybe it’s me not dealing with it, or– I don’t know I just have extreme faith in the universe. Who knows 10 years from now, or whenever? My number’s up. So I can’t quite feel lucky. I do. Not to sound ungrateful. I do feel lucky. But those people didn’t deserve it. I’m not going to celebrate and think I’m special.

 

(You can read all of the Memory to Light stories in order on the side bar –->)

. . . . . . . . . . .

Thanks for reading Day 16 of “Memory to Light: 31 Days of Stories, August 11 – September 11, 2011.” It is an exercise in writing about loss, for the purpose of letting grief wake, live, and pass through the system. Grief is transformation. Story is transformation. Our world could use a some wakeful transformation right now. Take a peek at the introductory post for the full story of what we’re up to.

P.S. Names were changed in my story today, in the interest of focusing on the story rather than the identifiable in it.

Join me

Consider this project an online story circle. Read a story that moves you. Write your own on your blog. Link it to the comments below, so we can read your piece. If you don’t have a blog, write your story in the comments.

Let your memories live. Let small corners of your grief breathe. Let your loss be swept into the collective experience of people sharing, witnessing, and letting be.

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