Sunday, September 11, 2011

Watching New York from Afar on 9/11.

It's 10:09 a.m., and we're in Piedmont having turkey sausage biscuits and coffee for Sunday breakfast. The 9/11 memorial service is on TV, and New York City feels so very long ago and far away. I realize that I don't know that place anymore, that site where AG and I played music for the relief workers in the big white tent in the weeks after the towers fell, in those days when every other song we sang took on an unexpectedly tragic tone. I never visited the memorial later. Didn't want to.  Now, I breathe a great sigh of relief that FF and I have found a safe nest far, far away from the City. New York City, 10 years and two wars later.

Photo: AFP
Ten years ago today after the first tower fell, I walked 92 blocks from Chambers Street back to the Upper West Side and waited on the stoop hoping that AG would materialize eventually. It was a preternaturally crystalline blue fall day. And in the street were delivery boys and pastel mommies pushing strollers mixed in with bedraggled business people clutching odd assortments of office stuff, women in bare feet and ripped pantyhose, and bewildered men covered in soot. I did not have the strength to walk the next 63 blocks to my apartment in Harlem, and all the phones were down. If I didn't wait there on his stoop, I wouldn't know if AG was OK or not. So when he came galloping around the corner covered in sweat, I was profoundly grateful and relieved.

Stark fear kept AG and I inside that apartment for two days. For two days we stayed inside, as the plume of black smoke drifted above the city like a toxic feather boa, and we talked about getting the heck out of New York City. We started that day plotting to take our songs and guitars to Europe and possibly even stay there for good.  Within two years of that day, AG and I were headed to Switzerland. We stayed for three years.

The feeling that New York City had become too much like a rat trap took root in me then, and it's a feeling that has never left me. I could no longer feel the magic of living in New York, and even after I met FF and started spending most of my time with him in Tiny Town, on my weekly trips back to New York I found myself imagining how I would escape if the bridges closed, if the tunnels collapsed, if this whole gigantic, man-eating pinball machine became broken and uninhabitable again. On the commuter train, I would meditate about how I would walk back to Tiny Town, how FF would find me -- somehow. And I knew that as long as I had chattel and business in New York City, I would continue to live with these nightmares.

I didn't want it.

When AG and I came back to the United States, it was because we missed Americans, not the city. How I love Americans! Our arguments, our passion, our humor, our music, and our magnificent diversity which is the very source of all our arguments and is also all that makes us great.  In Europe, in the beautiful historic cobble-stoned towns, on the modern high-speed trains that we took from gig to gig,  life felt harmonious and socially advanced. We played music for astonishingly well-disciplined and well-socialized Europeans who seem so adult and well-mannered compared to Americans, and who paid so well for music. I kept experimenting with the thought of living the rest of my life over there. But despite Europe's beauty and romance, despite the comforting order and sheer social intelligence of Europe, I couldn't see myself fitting in there. I missed America like a lost tooth. Or, rather, I missed Americans. And I wanted to go home.

Today, Vice President Joe Biden gave probably the best speech of his life to the assembled mourners at the memorial park in front of the Pentagon in Washington D.C., He said, "The true source of American Power does not lie within that building; we draw our strength from the rich tapestry of our people." He spoke about the courage that lies within the heart of every person and how it is right that sometimes that courage must be summoned as it was on September 11, 10 years ago. He spoke of the irreplaceable nature of every person who was lost on that day, and as he choked up you could tell that he was thinking of his own irreplaceable loved ones lost in an auto accident on another less spectacular but still terrible day so many years ago.

We all love and we all lose.  Every day. The hero that lies waiting within each of us of whom Biden spoke is honorable, whether or not we are the ones called upon to race up the stairs of an inferno to save someone's life. It is the tragedy of our condition that someday all heroes must die, that we all must die.

I would argue that it ultimately doesn't matter when or how or where you lost your beloved.  We project ourselves into the experiences of other people, especially those whom we love, and it hurts to think that they hurt, makes us cry to think that they suffer. Have we developed the wisdom yet to project ourselves into the experiences of people who are not like us, and to feel their pain as keenly as we do our own? And if not, why not?

It seems to me as I watch these ceremonies on TV on this 10th anniversary, that there are less people crying out there in audience, less people weeping as they read the names of the dead. That's good. As a little boy who lost his Dad in the towers said "I get a little agitated sometimes, because I don't want to be known as someone directly affected by 9/11: I want to be known for who I am." What wisdom! May the adults take heed, and begin to lay to rest our culture of victim-hood. May we heed the words of this child and ease his burden. Let us know that it's wise to heal and it's strength to accept and go on, released of the binding chains of suffering while informed by its lessons. I hope that this 10th anniversary comes with a lessening of pain in the world, not just in America, and that the culture of victimhood that sprang up in the years following 9/11 will begin to fade away. Hanging onto anger and to hurt is ultimately not a creative act. It is possible to honor heroes without suffering their passing, just as it is possible, and necessary, to make justice without vengeance.  If we don't, September 11's will continue to happen both here and around the world until we perish from this Earth.

1 World Trade Center is finally going up. Mayor Bloomberg calls it  a "symbol of our freedom," which to me is an absurdity. The Twin Towers were as this new tower will be, a symbol of American money and power, which is exactly why terrorists attacked them in the first place. It would behoove us to start telling more truths, and to be more clear-minded about who we really are. It would behoove us to get our symbols right, and to understand that freedom is not something that you build with steel and concrete but rather with wisdom, compassion and truth and by defending the rights of your neighbor as ferociously as you would defend your own.

I fear that in our passion and our willingness to be led by flag-wavers, we Americans are setting ourselves up to ignore the lessons of 9/11. What if we get it wrong again? What if we become only more arrogant, and not more wise? What if we become more deluded, and not more clear-headed about the world and its problems? What if we never learn that our very survival as a species depends upon us caring as much about the suffering of a child in Iraq as the suffering of a child in New York City?

In Piedmont, it's a sunny day. Here, I am as safe and happy as I have ever been in my life. The New York City apartment is now sold, Tiny Town is behind us, and I have FF by my side here at our peaceful homestead in the Carolina forest. In a material sense, the break up with New York is complete.

Behind me, the muted television continues to flash terrible images of a decade ago interspersed with views of New York City today, where clean reflecting pools and flowers fill the space that once was all fire, smoke and ruins.  Our big kitchen windows look out on a green lawn, and the winter garden is sprouting kale and cabbage in the autumn sun. The piney forest stretches out beyond, filled with the hum of living things. I will go out there to the forest today with my gloves and tools. I will go to tend to the Garden. And if I remember the places I've left behind, it will be with love.

4 comments:

jo(e) said...

Beautifully said.

Urban Exile said...

Thank you jo(e). Thank you very much.

Susan said...

I lived in NYC for 11 months before 9/11. Eleven years later, we moved to Atlanta. The 10th anniversary made me horribly homesick for the city I love. Glad to have found this space, it's like reading my own thoughts.

Urban Exile said...

Thank you Susan for visiting and I am glad you found some kinship with my experience.

I had not realized until I got your note this morning that I have not blogged in a month. My average was once a week before this. I think that this blog summed up so many feelings I have about Breaking Up With New York that I haven't been sure really where to go from here

That said, as you suggest, New York City lives on inside of all of us who have lived there. There will be more to come.