Friday, September 9, 2011

Nine Eleven

It's been downright impossible to escape the memory of 9/11 this week. There are so many articles and stories in this week's papers, each with its own angle. Adding one more to the archives may go unnoticed but I feel the need to write it anyway.

Ron and I have been out with a lot of friends since 9/11/01. It's strange how the topic still comes up in conversation. The question invariably is, "Where were you when the planes hit the towers?" I can answer that in one simple word: Work. But the memory is much larger than that and its lessons much deeper.

It was a beautiful day, just like everyone remembers. So beautiful that it seemed impossible for anything but beautiful things to happen. I was sitting in my cube, nose stuck in my computer monitor doing something inconsequential as is the norm in most jobs. I had my back to the aisle, focused on my work.

I was startled by a hug. It was my friend Patty who had just arrived to work late due to a dentist appointment. As she hugged my shoulders she said quietly, almost emotionless, "Get on the internet. We're under attack." I switched to and saw the headlines. Stunned, I said and did nothing except grab Patty's arms, still holding me tightly from behind almost as if she were trying to keep me from slipping away.

"I love you," she said. "I love you, too," I choked out almost too late for her to hear it. She was off to tell the others.

I instinctively called my husband at work. He had just heard as well. The next thought that came flying through my fingertips was to call my parents. Dad answered.

"Turn on CNN," I said firmly.
"A plane flew into the World Trade Center. It doesn't look good."

Dad turned on the tv and said that both towers had been hit. I tried to refresh but too many others had the same idea. I had no access to news and was frantic.

But not as frantic as my father who went into a panic because my mother was out at the hairdressers. They only had one car and he couldn't get to her. He, like me, was wondering just how far this attack could reach.

By now, the office was buzzing. Someone found a tv and hooked it up in the conference room. I worked at a semi-small company and quite a few of us could fit into the room. We sat in silence with the exception of an intermittent "Oh my God" as each person came to terms with what was happening.

We were sent home shortly afterwards with instructions to drive carefully. We left in a fog. Parents worried about their kids; I worried about my cousins who worked in Manhattan.

Driving in those conditions was dreamlike. Everyone on the road was looking up at the sky as they drove, trusting the ground would find a way to get us home.

When I arrived at my house, I turned on the tv and sat on the couch. I sat there in some sort of trance. My dog Brittany hopped up on the couch next to me. She sat intently and stared at me with that motherly look she gave me when she didn't understand what I was feeling. Every so often she'd lift her front paw and tap me on the shoulder pulling me back to Westford.

I watched the towers implode over and over. No matter how many times I saw it, I still couldn't believe it. I called my mom and talked to her about it. She had all the phone numbers for our family in NY and was trying desperately to get through.

The next several days were just more of the same. Mom did eventually reach our cousins who were safe. But the rest of the time suspended. The tv in the conference room was moved to the cafeteria. It seemed okay with management that we mingle in and out and check for the latest updates. They knew on Tuesday that the week was a loss.

Ten years later, I look back not just on that day but on the months that followed it. I see now how that moment in history gave me valuable insight into the true nature of the people I interacted with.

My friend Patty who broke the news to me that day will always be that person - as if time stopped. When I see her now, I can't disconnect who she was in that moment from where she's at now. Everything I see in her is wrapped around that hug and that "I love you". In that 30-second timeframe when she thought we might never be together again I learned who she is at her core - a caring human being and genuine friend.

People rise or fall to occasions during extreme stress. My friend Chris invited a Muslim co-worker (who, by now was being looked at differently than he was on 9/10) to sit with him and explain the Quran as he understood it. Chris's open-mindedness and genuine embrace of difference is what I see most in him now.

My dad's instant panic about losing my mother still exists today. Now that my mom is gone, he still lives his life around needing to be with her. And for mom, her concern was for others in a crisis. That's who she always was, even when the crisis was hers.

And me? I don't know what my reaction says about me. I felt like I was sleepwalking but I'm sure I did more than that. I do remember calling my mother-in-law on 9/11 and saying how horrible I felt for all the kind Muslims who would suffer for the act of a few.

It's been ten years but the insight I gained about others will always stay with me. And I think, too, about how the US has this one moment of terrorism that shook the nation and exposed our vulnerability. It makes me wonder if nations like Iraq, Northern Ireland, and Kashmir mark each date when terrorists killed their people and destroyed their sense of peace.

Maybe they stopped noting the dates after the first time. No more firsts to mark; all the lessons have been learned.

Friday, September 2, 2011

If the label fits

I've always believed that before I give myself or anyone else a label, I had better know what I'm talking about. Not only do I not want to use a word incorrectly (there's a concept), I also don't want to offend.

Before I go off on my rant, let me say that I'm a good UU. I try really really hard not to use any sort of labels at all. Some, however, are inescapable. Like that fact that I call myself a UU. That is my religious affiliation and an appropriate label.

When people call me a liberal, I tend to bristle. I am liberal in some areas, but a moderate in others. For example, most liberals I know are opposed to the death penalty and have never voted for a Republican (gasp!).

So when someone uses a label inappropriately, I do correct them lest it lead to their using it incorrectly again, or cause them to form an opinion about me that is not true. This applies to strangers also since I am a communication Nazi.

Today in the supermarket - where, I've noticed, I tend to leave with some sort of rant every week - a woman called herself a vegetarian and then proceeded to tell me about the lobster rolls she loves and the chicken salad sandwich recipe her mother gave her.

I said, "Then you're not a vegetarian." To which she shockingly responded, "I am too. I don't eat red meat!" 

I told her that being a vegetarian (like me) means that you don't eat meat or fish. Which caused her to use yet another incorrect label - vegan. I had to then explain to her that I am not a vegan because I eat dairy and eggs where vegans do not. If you don't eat meat but do eat fish, you are a pescetarian.

I've stopped counting the number of times that I've had to make that distinction to people. Maybe more people are calling themselves vegetarians because it's the new in thing so I'm hearing it used incorrectly more often.

But whether the label is food-related (and, p.s. I'm not a vegetarian because I'm on a diet) or not, it would seem to me that before you give YOURSELF a label, you would look up the definition first.