September 11, 2006

On This Day

Today, my daughter's teacher asked the class if they remembered what they were doing on 9/11. I've been thinking about that since she told me casually while we were picking up groceries for tonight's dinner.

That year we were living in Vermont at a residential Buddhist meditation center. Back then, the community was still set up to have "open days" when the retreat center closed down and everyone was off for the day. We would work for two weeks including weekends, and then have 2-4 open days. The first thing most of us would do on an open day was to go into town to visit the bookshop, the restaurants, or see a movie.

I walked up the long driveway that morning, wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Summer was lingering in Northern Vermont and the sun was shining. When I reached the main house, a couple of people were on the porch enjoying some morning conversation. A car was parked in front and the engine was running. Someone was in the passenger seat listening to the radio. I figured it was Vermont Public Radio because I could hear news. We didn't have televisions and didn't subscribe to any newspapers at the retreat center, so we got our news every couple of weeks from radio.

I walked up to the passenger window to say hello to one of my co-workers and community members. She shushed me as I leaned in, then she turned up the radio. It was around 9:00 in the morning. A reporter had interrupted a music show to announce that a plane had just flown into one of the twin towers.
Having gotten used to being somewhat removed from the media, I didn't hang around long to hear the report repeated in a half-dozen different ways. At that time, it sounded like a tragic accident and while I felt sadness I didn't want to perpetuate it.

I walked up the steps to the large front porch and joined the others already there. I told them what I had just heard on the car radio and for a minute or two this was the topic of conversation, fueled by general curiousity and compassion toward the passengers on the plane. It had not yet occurred to us to think about the people in the building. It had not yet occurred to us that this was anything more than an accident.
Abruptly, D came out the front door onto the porch and without looking at us, announced that the second tower had been hit by a plane and another had gone down near the Pentagon. Her skin was sickly white and she was looking through us.

"My son...he works in one of those buildings.", was the last thing she said before disappearing back into the house.

The three of us sat there staring at the space where D had been just seconds before. We didn't know what to think, where to begin, what to do. We were stunned, confused, suddenly afraid. We had gathered that the plane crashes were no accident, but rather some sort of attack on the U.S. In low voices we wondered aloud to each other if we were at war on American soil. We couldn't even conceive of what that would mean.

Dazed we got up one by one and held the door for each other to go into the main house. We found people gathered around a radio in the dining room. Upstairs someone was retrieving a television from a storage closet and later we would gather together in a small room and weep as we watched the news footage. All of us were particularly raw having lived in a small community, many of us for more than a year, and working daily on developing and cultivating compassion. To add to our vulnerability, we had all voluntarily removed ourselves from the bombardment of media. (A year later when I would leave the retreat center, I would find normal television painfully overwhelming...the noise, the rapidity of movement and screen changes, and certainly the violence.)

The director called us to the main shrine room, and there we gathered in the only sane way we could. We did the only thing we knew how. On September 11, 2001, I and forty or so other Buddhist lay practitioners sat in meditaiton together in a renovated farmhouse on 500 acres of Vermont woodland. We cut through pain, confusion, and fear. We sat there for hours without talking, without working ourselves into a frenzy...the kind of frenzy of fear that the Bush administration would prey on to wage their war against Iraq...without perpetuating and prolonging fear and we let the sadness sit fully. At that moment, it was the best any of us could do.

It may seem passive, or in some ways slightly ridiculous that we thought the best thing to do was to just simply "sit". But what were the alternatives for us in that moment? We could relive the horror, over and over, by watching the news and let fear and worry overtake us. Essentially, become ripe for poor decision making. We could talk incessantly about what should be done and spread fear and hatred amongst ourselves causing the harm done by the terrorists to extend far beyond the lives taken.

We chose instead, since we could do nothing directly in that moment, to at least cease the spread of confusion, hatred and fear. I now feel immensely thankful for where I was that morning.


Alexandra said...

I wish more people had been of the mind to "simply" sit...


famjaztique said...

I admit there were moments where it felt futile, where I would feel the tears running down my cheeks, but in the end it did feel sane and right and later when I would others' state of mind on the matter, I felt blessed.

famjaztique said...

In that last comment it is meant to say, "later when I would meet others' states of mind on the matter..."

Anonymous said...

You were blessed to be there. I went home immediately. Gradually the children in the neighborhood gathered on my porch to talk. It seems that in our shock we had forgotten them. They shared their fears and cried openly. The looked up to me, hoping for words that could make what they knew go away. They hoped I could tell them something to make it feel better. I told them to talk and feel with me. We held each other. My son noted that the biggst buildngs in NY had been attacked and wondered if his school was next. He reminded us that it was the biggest building in our small town. It was as if all the children were my own.


famjaztique said...

Fear and tragedy has a way of bringing people together in intimate ways.

At my children's school, they would not dismiss them early, nor would they tell them what was going on. If parents wanted to pick up their children, they were not allowed. They knew something was wrong, the children, but they didn't know exactly what.

Anonymous said...

Hello there Nifty Lady,
I had a rather hysterical college roommate bust into my room and wake me with the news of the first hit and I was down stairs in time to see the second.
I had some of similar feelings at first that with the first hit, there had been some tragic accident. The second hit tripped the alarms.
Another roomie had relatives out that way he was on the phone with checking their status and it took another five hours before I new how friends I had out there were doing.
I hate to say this, but I was not surprised by this attack, and not for the main stream, media driven reasons, just... deeply, deeply saddened.

famjaztique said...

Hi Nifty Muppet,

Still has a bit of a surreal feel to it.

How's your corner of the state?

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I'm gonna spit in all y'all's eyes!