Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11 — last year's look bears repeating

we sat in upholstered chairs this morning in a small Episcopal church in mid-coast Maine. no kneelers, just clear glass windows looking out over scrubby pines dotting the landscape. save for one small stained glass window above the altar depicting Jesus calming an angry sea, and these words: Fear not.

we shared our chair pew with four friends we have met in the past eight years. the six of us are in Boothbay Harbor taking in the crisp air and celebrating 80 years of marriage between us. at supper last night, we shared memories of our earliest years as married couples, laughed at our naiveté and marveled at our sticktuativeness if there is such a word. the oldest among us married at 22 and 23, will celebrate 40 years together on Sunday. the newlyweds have been married just 10, tying their knot tightly around each other and changing their world as a couple, just 10 days before our whole worlds changed — 10 years ago today.

the readings for today were about forgiveness, how when Peter asked Jesus how many times he was supposed to forgive someone who had wronged him, Jesus launched into hyperbole, saying seventy-seven (or seven times seven, depending on your translation.) and then He talked about the master whose slave owed him the equivalent of around a billion dollars in today's world. a price he could never pay back.

'we owe God everything,' the priest said. 'just because we opened our eyes this morning, we owe more than we can ever repay.'

i listened, waiting for the lesson about 9/11, and it was there, in the middle of all that need to forgive. how personal forgiveness, which is often the hardest, is based on the illusion that we might have had a better life if the person who had wronged us had not done so. and how as Americans living in a post-9/11 world, forgiveness is not so simple anymore. it was no accident, he said, that our lessons for today — of all days — were about this subject. chosen years in advance, this is just how God works.
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in the past week, my husband and i watched several specials about that Tuesday 10 years ago none of us will ever forget. it was harrowing to watch once again, as planes that seemed to come out of nowhere hit the Twin Towers and forever changed our lives as Americans. as i watched and listened to survivors and our nation's leaders tell their stories, i said a silent prayer that nothing like this would happen again.ever.

our daughter lives in NYC, and last week, she and her husband moved into a new apartment. her Upper West Side home is far away from Ground Zero, but as the anniversary of that day approached, i knew it is much on her mind. when i talked with her yesterday, they were staying home. traffic had been horrible since Friday, when the only news, it seemed was about a new, credible threat.


she was a senior in high school the morning of 9/11, and i was set to teach writing to members of her class later that morning. at home, preparing for the day, i saw the second plane hit in real time. then the Pentagon plane. it was almost impossible to pull myself from watching to get to my work. a little more than an hour later, after both towers had fallen, and as i walked up the steps to the high school, i listened to a silence so absolute I could not remember a time when my world had ever been so quiet. a man i didn't know came out of the building and we stared into each other's eyes for more than the split second strangers allow.

six months later my daughter and i visited Ground Zero ourselves with my best friend and her daughter. we stopped in at the office of one of my husband's colleagues, an Indian woman who told us the story of walking across the Brooklyn Bridge toward home and how it took hours to get to her little boy. 'the smell is gone,' she said as we stared into the canyon that still seemed to smolder. it was not gone. she was only used to it.


we were deeply moved awhile later by the thousands of fliers and bouquets of flowers posted on the fence that surrounded St. Paul's Chapel —the nation's oldest public building in continual use — which stands across the street from where the towers once stood. the minutia of the grieving, put there by families searching for loved ones missing when the towers fell. from September 2001 to May 2002, St. Paul’s opened its doors to firefighters, construction workers, police officers and others for meals, beds, counseling and prayer.

Doug Remer, a former associate rector at my church and a family friend of my friend Anne Boone,  was a relief worker at the chapel and invited us in. we knelt in pews where George Washington worshiped. we read some of the hundreds of letters lining every pew and wall, written by children from all over the world and sent to relief workers, thanking them for their service.

this is not something you ever forget.

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the priest today said people have approached him in the years since 9/11 saying: where was God in this? why did God cause this to happen?  "i don't know what kind of God you believe in,' he said, 'if you think God caused it to happened." he did not believe in that kind of God. nor do i. i can tell you where God was. in every single fire fighter and police officer who entered that building. in the couple, as the priest reminded us, who jumped out of the burning buildings, holding hands, knowing this was something that could not be done alone.  there, in the community of strangers who huddled together for comfort, in elevators, in stair wells, on the top floors unable to get out, in those airplanes as their fuselages broke the windows of the towers, my God was there. 

i found myself weeping  — i can't remember a sermon in a long time that has made me weep — for the 3,000 souls gone, for the children of 9/11, for my daughter living in a city targeted yet again by terror. and closer to home, for the man sitting next to me, whom i have failed to forgive too many times, but who never fails to forgive me.

10 years ago, i had not yet met the friends that occupied my pew today. we were all in different places in our lives — Tim & Linda living in Birmingham, Lee and David living on base at Fort Bragg, NC. Lee had not even unpacked her belongings when David — who was supposed to be on vacation — came home to tell her he would be needed at work. (last week, as we recalled our 9/11 memories, several of us spoke of the quiet. Lee could not help thinking of how at Fort Bragg, there was no silence at all. just mayhem. 


within five years of 9/11, the six of us would be brought together by church, and as Tim said over dinner last night, our connection to each other has changed us all.

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after church we took a car ride to a beautiful little island and found a tiny church built in i think 1918, nestled in the pines and rocks, right by the sea. inside, i knelt, finally, and said my prayers, once again, for having safely arrived at this spot, on this day, with these people. for my children, husband, parents and siblings. for the world, and peace.

this afternoon, we sailed in 12-knot winds aboard a three-masted 60-foot schooner. i braced my feet against the side as we heeled, her rails almost into the chop, tried to take a few pictures. and i thought about how to connect all the moments of this day: the church, the priest's message, the friends, my marriage and this sail.

i thought about the small stained glass window of St. Columba's, depicting to me, Jesus calming the waters during the storm. "fear not' read the words in one corner of the small window.

i didn't know until just now this about the window: "the theme 'fear not'  was adopted  (by the church) soon after the tragedy which we now know as 9/11.  It also takes into account that we are a seafaring town. the touches of green signify the headlands of a safe harbor as the angel speaks peace from a bruised and stormy sky."

well. after 9/11, we are all bruised. though it's a gift to be married so many years, sometimes it bruises us, too. as the priest said: God is in the midst of them. and us. in our lives and in our friendships, in our tragedies and our marriages. 

fear not. angels speak peace from a bruised and stormy sky.



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