I was 18 and 2,600 miles away from home, freshly new at a university where I knew no one. I wore overalls to class and was enamored by the fact that I could eat frozen yogurt sprinkled with Fruit Loops for breakfast if I wanted. And because I had been on teams my whole life and was now faced with the prospect of not being on one, I’d joined the crew squad. No matter that I lacked the upper body strength and had zero interest in practicing at 6am every day; I just thought it was what I was supposed to do. Between sleepy crew practices and my diet, you might say this Oregon girl was a bit lost in the world.
And so on that Tuesday morning my teammates and I boarded the bus back to campus from Lake Onondaga. I was tired and homesick and a bit depressed and struggling with how I was going to tell Coach that I wanted to quit the team. At some point on the ride, he got a call, stood up and announced that a plane had flown into a building in Manhattan. By the time I was back in my dorm, the first of the towers had crumbled.
I called my mom to say something was happening. We both watched the TV in silence as the second tower fell. I think we both cried, but I don’t remember. Hours passed, and we stayed glued to the TV. “What should I do?” I asked my dad when he got on the line. “Take a shower, eat something, go to class,” he said. “There’s no safer place for you to be right now.” My father had a lot of faith in academia.
At some point, I did wander onto campus and to my home building, a highly touted school of public communications and journalism. I wish I could remember, in the hours and days and months that followed, a rich, intellectual and engaging dialogue about what happened, maybe not an explanation, but at least something rational. Instead, I remember feelings: sadness, anger, vulnerability, fear. I remember seeing one of my more intimidating professors cry in a lecture, and being so disarmed by that that I too burst into tears. I remember the darkness in the days that followed, and staring at the ceiling of my room at 4am while helicopters hovered loudly around the hospitals near campus, delivering the overflow from New York City’s emergency rooms. I remember a group of us wandering down to the Red Cross to give blood, but being turned away, and so instead we bought some construction paper and glue sticks and made cards with inspiring quotes and song lyrics for NY police and firefighters. We had turned into little children, and found comfort in creating simple, childlike things.
And I remember trying to make sense of things, but had the awful feeling that all of my concentric little worlds kept failing me, one by one. The university I desperately hoped would challenge me with knowledge and reason and openness instead did the worse thing possible: nothing. The government began to send people my age (for the first time in my life) to invade places far away. The spiritual community I had clung to lured me with the promise that we were all God’s beloveds, but damned every other soul who turned to something even a little bit different. It was confusing. If I couldn’t rely on intellectuals, or politicians, or the faithful, then who could I count on? This is probably when I became an adult.
So I clung to friends, old and new, and to my family. We created and held the space for each other to grieve when grief was needed. And then we rallied each other to action when it was time to move forward. I remember this, the people around me who were generous and patient but also motivated and strong. We were together, and September 11, 2001 was our violent entry into adulthood, together.
So ten years later, what will I do? I will get up, make coffee and take my dog out for a walk through our neighborhood, not even a mile from where two towers once stood. I’ll go to yoga and meet a friend for brunch. Later my husband and I will watch football at a friend’s apartment. As a reflection, I’ll re-read what I believe is still the most thoughtful, elegant and sensitive essay on 9/11 ever written (by David Foster Wallace, read it here). Why these things? Because ten years ago, the people that surrounded me rallied in beautiful, loving ways, and convinced me, without question, that to live is the best way to remember.