Wednesday, September 16, 2015

There Are 29 Other Days in September.... why is the ninth month of the year still so tragically marked by one?

I think, for me, it's because - in addition to being a witness to a national disaster and the worst act of terrorism to be committed on American soil all those years ago - I have developed an acute sense of mortality as I've gotten older.  

My own mortality, to be sure - I turned 40 six months ago, my poor eyesight is poorer, my left hip is achy and my right ankle weak, I'm starting to feel bad about my neck (thank you, Nora Ephron!) - but that of the people in the world around me as well.  Friends, family, pets, even places seem well-worn and a bit long in the tooth these days.

And the month of September underscores that faded, tired feeling.  Summer is over and it's time to get back to the daily grind.  Leaves once green and lush now litter the sidewalks, crunching under feet in socked footwear.  There's a certain small pang or twinge with the shifting seasons.

I suppose academics, optimists, and Jews look at September as a time of a particular kind of rebirth - a new school semester, a revival in trade, the "head of the year."  But I always feel a certain sadness as the weather changes and the light and air take on a new resonance.  Fall is one of my favorite times of year and New York is my favorite place to be in Fall, but I wonder if I take some small delight in my annual pangs and twinges.  Another Fall, another year gone by....

September 11th, 2001 was a gorgeous Tuesday, with a cloudless sky and the air still summery warm.  I was running late to work and it was in the shower that I first heard a low-flying airplane.

Dressed and still planning to head to the office, I saw the first tower collapse as I looked downtown to my right.  To the left, the Empire State Building glistened blithely in the sun.

September 11, 2015 was another beautiful day, a Friday.  I had wanted to be in New York (I like to hear the names of the lost read on TV), but I ended up staying the weekend in Washington, dragging out the late Labor Day holiday the whole week long, staving off "September" for as long as I could!

I was meant to see a dear friend of mine, Nia-Malika Henderson, Senior Political Reporter for CNN that afternoon.  Friends since we met at the Radcliffe Publishing Course in 1999, Nee and I had a lot to catch up on as she had recently left the Washington Post for her big new gig on TV.  And I was back from Tanzania for my stateside Fall....

We had planned to meet at DC's Union Station, conveniently located near a number of news outlets like CNN and NPR as well as the Capitol.  I was excited to see my good friend after a long time apart and arrived early.

But, we never got the chance to meet.

Stepping off the Metro at Union Station, I started to enter the terminal when a swarm of people began running out of the building towards the underground trains.  It was a stampede.  My first thought was that these people, in their rush to catch the Metro, were going to hurt someone!  But then it became clear that they were not running TO something but rather FROM something.

In the end, the incident turned out to be personal and deliberate, but during the minutes that passed when I didn't know what was going on, people all around me were running and screaming senselessly, and reports of a "live shooter" in the Station, I was terrified.  Was this the fear that people felt when the first plane hit?  When no one knew if it was an accident, an act of terror, some sick joke?  When no one knew what would happen next??

A domestic dispute gone wrong had prompted a plain-clothes security guard to shoot, and I suppose the loud noise ricocheted off the cavernous halls of Union Station causing lunching, shopping, commuting, touring crowds to freak out en masse and nearly trample each other in their hurry to find safety.

"Get on a train, any train," I was told by a woman whose husband worked inside the Station.  No need to say it twice.

Rattled but safe, I called Nia from a Metro stop away.  She had not yet left CNN.  We talked for a while as I relayed what had happened and she checked her news feed.  I was starting to calm down.

I guess my initial fear was of the Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook episodes where a disgruntled shooter takes at aim at whoever's in his line of sight, without a care in the world.  That I didn't know when the stream of people running would end and the person or people chasing them would begin was, and still is, a source of real fear.  We just didn't know what would happen next.

Now back in New York a few days later, the anniversary of the real September 11th behind us for the year 2015, I am still pondering the Union Station incident, why it has had such an impact on me.

I suppose the answer is this: that what was once implicit in nature became radically explicit in a split second.  I am not a victim nor did I see anyone victimized, but I did get a taste of that acute fear, more than a pang or a twinge, rather a stab or a blow, right to my my core.  Not a suggestion of mortality, but an unambiguous confirmation of it.

Death has been a meme this year with the loss of Vumi and the illnesses of various other people around me.  

But hurdling challenges has been another meme.  I had a pivotal birthday.  Climbed a pivotal mountain.  Am embarking on a pivotal expansion of The Toa Nafasi Project at year's end.  Without Vumi but in her treasured memory.

So, while I am definitely conscious of the absolute transience of everything that is going on around me, I am also mildly hopeful that among these swirling winds of change, the eye of the storm is a long way off.

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