Sweetness Within the Sorrow

Eighteen years ago today I was living in Brooklyn. I walked to the subway under a cloudless, bright blue sky. I recall feeling gratitude for the lovely days of September, this great time of year when the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold, when promise hangs in the air and everyone gets a fresh start after the hot, hazy days of summer. My fresh start was a new school year at Brooklyn College, where I taught Alexander Technique to the graduate actors in the MFA program.

When the first plane hit the twin towers, we began to get messages that something serious had happened and that many students would be delayed or unable to get to class. But we didn't yet know why. It eventually became clear that we were under some sort of attack that involved the World Trade Center. My friend and private AT student David Nelson worked there, as did the sister of one of the acting students. No one really knew what to do. We tried calling the theater department office (located on the other side of campus), but cell phones didn't seem to be working. I briefly paused, thinking "this is a good time to use my Alexander training," and then the technique became fundamental in keeping us all calm and ready for whatever was coming next. At this point it still wasn't clear how serious the situation was, but eventually someone brought us the news of what was happening. Together, we walked over to join the rest of the theater department, where we watched the news unfold in disbelief. We shared some time sympathetically consoling one another, as we tried to contact our loved ones, taking turns using the land lines to call, mostly not able to connect.

The subways were shut down and I took a bus as far as they were allowed to operate. Then I walked across Prospect Park while ashes rained down on me in the bright sunshine, charred bits of paper (and what else? I tried not to think about it) blown across the East River. All I wanted was to get to my two young children, who were kept safe by their wonderful PS 321 teachers. I resisted the temptation to pull them out of school early, because we were asked not to do that. It would make it extra hard for the kids whose parents would not be picking them up as usual, either because they could not get home on time, or because they wouldn't be coming home at all.

My husband was safe in Manhattan. I knew this in my bones without needing to hear his voice or get other confirmation. I can't recall how he got home that night. Did he walk? Catch a lift with others? I just remember telling myself and my girls that he was on his way and we'd be seeing him soon. He found a way to call us and confirm what I already knew. And our little family hugged and hugged that night.

Image by Zan Lombardo

Image by Zan Lombardo

There followed the sweetest two weeks of my life, in terms of human connection, faith, and love. Just love between people who had been rudely and painfully awakened to the fact of our interdependence. It faded of course, but for a while there it was pretty close to perfect. Everyone opened their hearts to each other, worked together to do whatever was needed, and created community out of trauma and tragedy.

Like so many of you, people I knew and cared about died or were permanently disabled on September 11. Yet we also came to life that day. I met neighbors I had never known, connected with other Alexander teachers, birth doulas, ministers and healers to help the first responders, supported the local businesses on 7th Avenue in Park Slope where we lived, and found so many sweet, authentic connections. I saw in action what we talk about when we talk about community.

I experienced what is possible when people stop competing and start cooperating selflessly. I have seen it since, in other circumstances, but those days just after 9/11 are the most meaningful and some of the deepest in my heart. I wish it didn't take a tragedy to bring us together, and yet sometimes I wish we could get shocked again, because we are now living with continual attacks and we have become comfortably numb. We are isolated and polarized and it's killing us.

This is why I practice Vipassana and Metta meditation, why I am spending a month working for free at the retreat center that has supported my growth and my determination to keep waking up. This community infuses me with the strength to stay connected, open, and willing. My prayer and fervent hope is that we each will learn to love our neighbor as ourselves, desire the power of love rather than the love of power, and resist the conditioning of this American empire. Cultivate peace within, and work for justice wherever you are.