Never Forget – The Lessons of a Decade

September 11, 2011 in It is what it is - opinion column, News & Events, Other Than That - news, business & other nonsense | Comments (0)


Twin Towers, Circa 1999 - Courtesy of @JoanBrady

I did not intend to write this post today. In fact I didn’t intend to speak of what happened ten years ago. My plan was merely to include those whose lives were shattered and who lost their loved ones in my morning meditation and then go about my day.

And that’s how my day began.

Lighting a candle I said a prayer that those whose lives were shredded apart are finding peace. I said a prayer that maybe, just maybe, this anniversary can serve to remind us of the brief moment of goodwill that flashed across this country and around the globe in the attack’s aftermath. I said a prayer that I be able to remember to be careful in being proud of my country and my heritage that I open my heart and mind in compassion to all people.

Then my morning shifted.

I stepped outside to get the morning papers and encountered an almost eerily thick feeling in the air. Still. Heavy. Noting the oddity I opened the two papers leaving them unfolded on the table, did a quick check of some text messages, put down the phone and went to pour my coffee.

When I returned tom the table, I saw this…

9/11 reminder

I felt my blood chill, but before I sank into tears I hopped onto Facebook, hoping for some levity, some bad jokes or, at the very least, some LOLcats. No such luck.

The status updates already had began … “Ten years ago I was…”

I tried to write a quick thought that gave my location and activity at that moment – and then it all came back.

The rage. The anger. The desire to find those who had perpetrated such an act, and physically pull them apart. The rage that I know now after some time not only processing this event itself but also my own emotional intelligence and experience isn’t actually anger, but fear. More on that later.

It was directly to anger I went on that clear morning in September 2001. I didn’t think about peace. I didn’t think about understanding. I wanted to find the people who had shattered my way of life and kill them.

I was sitting by myself in a hotel room in Washington, DC, (Georgetown, actually). I was there on business for TechTV (we were to hold an event there that evening and then head to New York the next morning for another event). Opting to sleep in, I had skipped the run that would have taken me around the Pentagon that morning. Instead, I was sitting on the end of my bed in my hotel room eating breakfast and watching this exact moment of Matt Lauer on the Today Show.

From the moment NBC switched to their rooftop camera and showed the North Tower burning, my gut told me something was terribly wrong. They were saying it was a commuter plane, but as the wind shifted and the curtain of smoke cleared briefly, the gaping hole ripped across almost the entire side of the building spoke to a far larger aircraft.

Then things got worse. In the lower corner of the TV screen, another plane. This couldn’t be happening. It was impossible to fathom. Yet, there it was, a huge commercial airliner and then a ball of fire as it slammed into the South Tower.

I immediately picked up the phone and began calling my friends and family. While I was pretty sure that my hotel wasn’t a likely target of an attack, being walking distance from the White House and every other major building that houses the government of this country, I was pretty sure that danger was at least nearby.

I was right.

Not long after I began my phone calls, there came this report from NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski. It didn’t occur to me until a bit later that day, that had I actually gone for my run that morning I could very well have been nearby when that third plane hit.

The rest of the day and the events of the week are jumbled in my mind.

I remember wandering through the lobby of the hotel around 10:30am. They had opened the bar and people were drinking – a lot.

I remember walking outside to get some air and realizing how silent the city was. The streets were desolate save for the National Guards on every other corner standing by their humvees with guns drawn and the occasional screaming sirens and whooshing tires of motorcades taking one dignitary or another from place to place.

What I remember most was the silence from above. I hadn’t realized just how much air traffic generally flies over a major US city … until there was none.

Wandering along the Potomac a few hours later I reached Memorial Bridge and stared across the river to where wisps of smoke still rose from the Pentagon. Standing just behind the Lincoln Memorial the thudding rotors of a helicopter seemed to appear from nowhere and two Blackhawks careened around the edges of the Memorial and rose into the sky. Behind them the familiar sight of Marine one carving a turn over the river and then angling back towards the White House.

I remember being furious that President Bush was only now returning to DC.

For the next three days I spent most of my time trying to get home. In between calls to airlines, car rental agencies and Amtrak I wandered with my TechTV colleagues, clustering in bars and restaurants with strangers, and watching the news where those images of the towers played over … and over … and over. We would order extra meals as we left restaurants, taking them to go and delivering them to the military personnel standing watch outside our hotel. We would try to distract each other with stories about our lives, but the conversation always came back to the horror at hand.

Finally, late on Thursday night, success! I was able to get on a USAir flight out of Baltimore, changing planes in Charlotte, NC and then heading to San Francisco. The first flight was a short one, and probably the most quiet flight on which I’ve ever flown. No one spoke a word. The second flight was a bit more stressful. A group of young men were standing together in the boarding area. They were dark skinned. A few of them had beards and they spoke in a language that I didn’t recognize (I came to learn over the years through making a point of learning more about the variegated cultures of the Arab world that they were speaking Farsi). They all wore Western clothing, and had I seen them even just a week before I’d not have given them a second glance. On this day, however, I didn’t just glance. I felt myself staring, and I felt fear – and then anger. They were chatting easily, even laughing a bit. I watched as the other passengers all began to stare, and then watched as the fury I could feel from my own eyes radiated from others’.

Upon boarding, the men split apart and sat in different areas of the plane. From there, my memory is oddly numb. I wish I could remember the flight. I wish I could say that I broke through this fear, making eye contact with even one of these men and smiling. All I remember is sitting frozen in my seat, praying that I would get home safely and staring at the small American flag that I had bought in the airport and that I clutched in my hand.

I wish I could turn the clock back to that flight. I wish the person who I am today had been there in that waiting area to approach those men and introduce herself. I wish that instead of glaring with hatred and anger at a group of people who probably felt awkward and frightened themselves, that I had been able to rise above and offer a smile.

The person who I am today knows that the anger and fury has nothing to do with wanting to retaliate. It has everything to do with fear. Yes, that group of terrorists who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks showed no mercy. Yes, there are others in the world who follow their same beliefs and given the opportunity would do the same thing. But in allowing the anger to rise, in allowing their hatred and anger to engender the same response in me, they win.

Over the last 10 years I’ve spent a lot of time with what I like to call emotional and spiritual excavation – digging through the layers of life and experience to, well, try and be a better person. During this time, I’ve been back and forth to New York many times, but it was not until this past April that I ventured anywhere near Ground Zero. Each visit to Gotham drew my eyes to the sky and each time it felt as though the sky where the towers once stood remained a jagged hole that would never fill.

On my April trip I headed for a meeting with a long-time friend, Ellen McGirt. Her office sits directly adjacent to the former site of the twin towers. As the taxi made its way south and we got closer and closer to our destination, I felt my heart begin to pound. Walking with my colleague to grab a coffee before our meeting, it felt surreal. People were walking around as though nothing had happened, because to them life had moved on. I, however, had stepped into a time machine. We went up to the office for the meeting, and Ellen took us into a conference room to see the view.

Ground Zero from Offices of Fast Company Magazine

Something happened when I looked down. It was as though the excavation of my own spirit had a chance to calibrate with the progress from the site below. While the memory was still clear, progress had been made, things had evolved, people were moving on.

The personal growth I mentioned earlier has been a particularly focused endeavor in this last year, due in large part to the work that I’ve been doing with others around personal storytelling. When that fury arose in me this morning something interesting rose at the same time. This morning I finally allowed myself to mourn for all that was lost on September 11, 2001.

Perhaps now, the healing can truly begin.


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