Back from nearly two weeks of adventuring, I find myself with over 2000 photographs to process and a whole collection of e-mails to respond to. But first, today, this, which feels obligatory somehow--though not in the cranky-making way that I know many people around me regarded the observation of moments of silence and public grievings a decade ago.
Somehow, it had escaped me that we were coming up on the tenth anniversary and that I would be out of the country for it--until, suddenly, there was an announcement that director Rupert Goold's theatre company would be doing a production called Decade in September and early October this year, in a disused commercial building near London's financial center. In the months since I booked my students and me tickets for that production, I've found myself thinking about that morning and its aftermath nearly as persistently, I think, as I did a decade ago, when, in shock and fear, I gathered together as many newspaper and magazine features about the attacks as I could, thinking consciously of myself as building an archive, and thinking of building that archive as some kind of gesture of hope that we'd all still be around in even a year's time (much less a decade).
I remember exactly where I was; how many of us have said that, over and over, in the past decade? How many of us will keep saying it, over and over, today and in coming days and weeks? I didn't know anything was happening until it had all been going on for more than an hour: that semester, I taught an 8:40 a.m. class, and people didn't have smartphones to check surreptitiously under seminar tables yet. (I learned what a Blackberry even was when reports started emerging of people's calling their loved ones from the dying towers via their Blackberrys.) We were on day three of Shelley's Frankenstein, and I spent most of the 75 minute class period at the chalkboard, my copy of the novel in hand, taking notes as my students called out things they'd uncovered during their pre-writing assignment for the day. I remember that I was having a particularly hard time finding passages on the pages they were calling out, because my copy of the novel was so covered in my own annotations that unless a student was referring to something I, too, had noted, it was difficult to see what they were talking about. I remember that I wore my stretchy mid-calf black skirt--the same skirt, I realized yesterday, that I was wearing on the one occasion when I ventured down to lower Manhattan and sat outside the towers eating the breakfast I'd bought at the Ecce Panis in the mall under the towers (my friend always misread it as Ecce Penis on her way to work in the World Financial Center), reading either the end of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (which I'd had to put on hold while finishing my master's degree the month before) or the beginning of Philip Roth's new novel The Human Stain, which I'd bought half-price at the Strand. Just over a year later, I was teaching in that skirt and a white Gap button-down shirt with strange elbow-length sleeves that buttoned up. I was wearing my red patent leather platform Mary Janes--because the weather was so lovely that it felt like a good day to go a little flash, and because the boy I had a crush on had just, the night before, invited me to a party at his lakehouse. I wore my grandmother's faceted silver hoop earrings (the same pair of which I lost one back in late February 2007, you may recall). I had definitely been up most of the night preparing for class. I remember that my left bra strap kept falling off my shoulder, and every time I tried to be surreptitious about reaching into my blouse to pull it back up, I knew that I wasn't succeeding in being surreptitious at all, and I thought of the social studies teacher at my high school whom people called "Looney June," one of whose defining gestures, in those people's characterizations of her, was that she would reach right into her blouse, in plain view, and pull up her bra strap. I remember that somehow we made it through what had felt like a chaotic class and that I was ready to go home and take a nap and then to try to work on the chapter of my dissertation I was trying to draft.
And then, as my students trickled out at 9:55 a.m., and as I started to erase the chalkboard, a student coming in for the next class said, "Have you heard what's happening?" "No," I replied, "what?" "Planes have hit the World Trade Center." It wasn't believable, obviously, though I also remember doing the math, which I knew from the bombing in 1993. "Sixty thousand people work in those towers," I said. "That's a small city of people." I remember wondering if they were evacuating, or what was happening by now, and I remember walking out of the classroom and planning to go to the computer lab on the top floor of the building to see what the New York Times was reporting. First, I'd stop by the department office and check my mailbox. On my way, I ran into an administrative assistant and asked, as is my wont to do, "How are you?" She looked at me incredulously, her eyes open wide, and said, "I'm terrified. Two planes have hit the World Trade Center." I said that I'd heard and that I was going to go check the New York Times upstairs. I must have been smiling, probably laughing lightly in a "can you believe it? what a crazy thing to happen!" way. (I'd laughed that way when I'd heard about Challenger in my elementary school's cafeteria fifteen years earlier, so it shouldn't have been that much of a surprise to myself that I was doing it again.) She told me that it was all but impossible to get onto the web at all; things were all jacked up with people trying to get in touch with their people.
She ran off, and things started to speed up. I went to my office and tried to call my mother but couldn't get through. I realized that my father was in Mexico on business. I went to the departmental office and sat listening to a radio with everyone else, and the towers collapsed. I called my friend whose parents live just outside Washington, D.C., to see if he'd heard. I realized that I felt some need to see what I'd just heard described on the radio--how something that big could do what they'd said those towers did just didn't make sense. I realized that there was a big-screen television in the newly renovated campus store and that they were probably broadcasting what was happening. I went there. They were broadcasting to a room full of students, many of them from NYC and its surrounding towns and counties; I was at Cornell, after all. We sat on the floor or leaned against shelves of tacky Cornell merchandise and stupid photo frames, and we watched and watched as they showed footage of that second plane over and over and over. It took me a couple of viewings to realize that the plane hadn't come out the other side of the building. I realized that this was because of Egerton's apple. This realization seemed important enough to buy a new pocket notebook and start writing things down. I have no idea where that notebook is now.
A friend drove me home in her car, whose make I can't remember--though I know that it was a surprisingly luxurious brand, a car she'd gotten from her father. An old Saab, I think. I was glad for the ride home both because my completely inflexible patent leather platforms were, as usual, playing havoc with my feet and also because I wasn't quite ready to be by myself, or with people who would want to talk very much, and she was also stunned and silent. I remember saying, as we crossed the arts quad, "Now everything is going to change. But wouldn't it be even stranger if nothing changes?" The sun kept on shining. It was warm enough--the high 70s--that I was sweating under the arms, and not just because of the adrenaline.
I have no memory of what I did in my cable-television-less apartment for the next few hours, before my mother came home from work. I imagine that I was on the phone with my friend whose parents live in Washington. We were always on the phone even when impossibly tall buildings weren't being crashed into by hijacked planes and then collapsing; why wouldn't we have been on the phone that afternoon? The next memory I have is of sitting on my couch, talking to my mother, and realizing suddenly how much I needed to hear from my father in order to know that he was okay and that there was a plan to get him back from northern Mexico to southern Indiana. I think we made contact around 4:45 p.m., by which point there was a plan--though earlier in the day, no one at the American embassy in Mexico City had had any idea what advice to give him and his coworker when they called to find out whether they should stay put or try to get home. (They eventually were driven by a Mexican colleague to the Mexico/US border in Texas, where they crossed on foot and took a taxi to the nearest airport, where they were scrutinized by heavy security forces before being allowed to proceed to collect a rental car, which they drove northeast for the next few days--though my father's colleague wanted to drive the 48 hours straight home, without stopping to rest.)
I remember calling the Red Cross to find out whether they would be lifting any of the embargoes that prevent people like me from donating blood (in my case, because of having lived in the U.K. at the height of the "mad cow" crisis in the mid-1990s), and I remember being told no. I must have placed that call on Tuesday, because by Wednesday I think we already knew that no extraordinary supplies of blood would be required in lower Manhattan.
I remember being at my Washingtonian friend's house with a few others, that first evening--where we'd gathered such a short time before to watch that year's Video Music Awards--and people's starting to talk about feeling unwilling to participate in the national mourning and solidarity that were already feeling compulsory. Later, I would know people (and even date one) who resented New York and New Yorkers for having gotten so much of the nation's attention for so long, "as though nothing bad had ever happened to anyone else before"; I remember being shocked by their resentment, and by its depth.
I remember that as the week went on and we all filtered back into our classrooms, we discovered the weirdest resonances in our reading assignments. At least one person had to walk right back in on Auden's "September 1, 1939"; another, I think, had to go in on Auden's "Two Songs for Hedli Anderson,"--or maybe that was the same person (my Washingtonian friend, again) who had to face both poems.
I had to pick Frankenstein back up--only to discover that our Thursday reading assignment began with the following passage:
Nothing is more painful to the human mind, than, after the feelings have been worked up by a quick succession of events, the dead calmness of inaction and certainty which follows, and deprives the soul both of hope and fear.
I remember that we asked each other, all of us fairly young teachers, what we were supposed to do with and for our students. Should we address what had happened head-on? Should we pretend nothing had changed since we last saw them? By Wednesday, I had heard from the one student in my class who had been absent on Tuesday morning. I was running late, he wrote in an e-mail, and as I left my dorm, I saw a television that was showing the twin towers on fire, and I have relatives who work in lower Manhattan and needed to try to get in touch with my family and knew that I wouldn't be any good in class anyway.
It occurs to me now that if he had come to class, we all would have known what was going on an hour earlier. The New York Times put up an interactive feature last week that allows you to show where you were and log a brief comment. (36,000 people have commented.) Someone who was a student that day noted his/her location and said that the professor wouldn't allow them to turn on the television or to leave class. I find myself wondering how they knew anything was happening--was that person in a 10:10 class? Now I look again and see that the person was a student at the other university in town.
The New York Times "Where You Were" feature also requires you to log the emotion you feel upon thinking back on that day and the decade since. The emotional choices are color-coded, but the options are strange: you can be angry (a dark brown-red the color of dried blood), fearful (a fiery orange), unmoved (grey), secure (a kind of seafoam), or hopeful (a light grey-blue). But no sad, and no stunned, and no disheartened, and no incredulous.
I remember skipping all of the memorials and public moments of silence and rallies that week. I remember crying when the subdued substitute theme music came on during All Things Considered, while (I guess) it seemed inappropriate to play that trumpet theme I'd heard since before I could remember--and which I suddenly realized I felt I urgently needed to hear in order to feel that someone, somewhere, knew something about anything.
I remember feeling, when I started reading Frankenstein again for my class, that it was the perfect book to be reading in those days because of its awful moral ambiguity: violence is never right, always shocking, always world-destroying, but its motivations are sometimes startlingly close to understandable, and what did it mean even to think such a thing? My sympathies went everywhere, except toward myself; as the semester went on, my emotional state grew more and more ragged, as I kept trying to turn and look at the horror of that morning, trying to deal with the fact that I still couldn't see the world resolving into bad guys vs. good guys even though I felt so strongly that I'd just had a very thin veil ripped off of the surface of a world more violent, festering, painful, and full of suffering and deprivation and hatred than I'd ever realized, and that my not having realized it before, not having had all this violence obtruded upon my notice before age 25, was simply a matter of blind historical accident, of the sheer grand luck that put me down where my life is rather than where and how else it might have been. I remember that my sense that none of us deserves what we have or what we get grew a lot stronger that fall.
I remember backing out of a conference I was supposed to attend in California that October, pleading ill health and concerns over the safety of transcontinental travel, not yet fully accepting that the latter, rather than the former, was the exaggerated one of those two excuses.
I remember sitting in the boarding area of the local airport at Thanksgiving, on the brink of tears (if not over that brink) because of the machine-gun-armed National Guardsmen at the metal detectors.
I remember that for months afterward, seeing an image (much less a video clip) from that morning without advance notice shot adrenaline through me.
I remember that I finally realized that I needed to hide the newspapers and magazines I'd bought because I couldn't stop looking at those photos, with all their gorgeous colors. When I moved two years later, I packed them in the bottom of a box that didn't get unpacked at my new temporary home. When I repacked for my move to Ohio the next summer, I peeked at them, to see whether I could stand that blue sky, that fireball, that smoking tower, those horror-stricken faces, that perfect black on black New Yorker cover that Spiegelman pulled out and that I went around Ithaca to find a copy of, since I'd let my subscription lapse that summer.
I packed them back into the bottom of a box, where they are to this day.