Love and I have always been acquainted. Like that friend of a friend you always see at cocktail parties or occasionally run into at the grocery store, their name always on the tip of your tongue, but can’t quite recall. Love is just there. It’s the undercurrent of everything we do for the greater good; a hug, a holding the door open, a dinner party, an apology, a prayer.
Some of my earliest memories of love came as a child. My mother’s love of wonder as she danced me around at dusk under the glow of the fairies, which I later found out were fireflies. Her patience of my tantrums as she allowed me to pick a new mommy out of the Sear’s catalog, watching as I stormed up the street with my overnight bag waiting for the “New Mommy Bus”, she knew would never come. My father, newly shaken by his experience in Vietnam, but finding solace in singing “Puff the Magic Dragon” to me on his guitar. These memories and the love surrounding them cocooned me as I continued to navigate this life and became an inherent part of my character.
So I’ve always known love to be an element in my life, like air, or water, or the earth on which we sit. Yet, to understand the meaning of love invites a deeper exploration. Love means so many things, but if I had to pinpoint the one time where it was deeply sonorous it would be the day of September 11, 2001.
At 7am in California, my phone began to frantically ring. My steadfast voicemail ran block each time. Finally rising out of bed and heading downstairs, the phone began again. I answered, it was my mother sobbing through the line from the east coast, telling me to turn on the television. It was the morning of September 11, 2001 and the first World Trade Center had just collapsed. As I turned on the news the second tower was crashing before my eyes. My first thought was of my uncle who lived on nearby Greenwich St and worked close to the towers. My heart raced as I was unable to reach him. I sat like a deer in headlights, stunned by what I was seeing. Really unable to comprehend what was actually happening I went numb and proceeded with my daily routine of getting ready and going to work. At our office we all sat glued to a television until the magnitude of this event was realized. Our country was actually under attack. We closed the office and headed home, wandering in the fog of what this meant. For the remainder of the day, I remember the need to find green grass and just sit on a blanket in the park trying to grasp the surrealism of it all. On my 4×4 quilted square I felt the reverb of New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, every state, county, city, household. And then I looked up at the very still, very blue sky playing its eerily silent din.
The attacks on September 11, 2001 left all of us, everywhere, devastated. The immediate days following were hushed, somber, as if the fallen ash had made its way across the globe and covered each of us in gray mourning. Many were enraged, many still uncomprehending the lives lost and destruction, yet the undertone informing it all was a deep, heart-wrenching grief. The kind of grief which opens the heart and leaves you no choice but to simply stop and allow the floodgate of tears to take hold.
I’m fortunate that I lost no one close to me in those attacks. My uncle, finally getting to a phone, called later that afternoon letting us know he’d been on vacation in Key West the entire time! That day, however I felt the loss of everyone and I also felt the depth of humanity. The men and women racing as first-responders, the families who were falling to their knees, the people around the globe reaching out to our country with their heartfelt remorse. I sat the remainder of the day, feeling helpless and For the first time in my life I felt love for each human being I encountered.
When the attacks of September 11th happened, it reached a deeper place within me. The sadness stretched open my heart to reveal a bottomless outpouring of compassion, not just for the lives lost, but for the lives still living. Each human being became a miracle, each breath became a prayer. Along with the mourning was a global unity I’ve never felt in my lifetime. I realized this was the meaning of that 4-letter word, l-o-v-e, I reserved for only close friends and family. I suddenly loved the world..and it was weird!
Pema Chodron wrote in her book The Places That Scare You, “We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.” As I allowed myself to experience the fear, grief, frustration, bewilderment, I was simultaneously undergoing an intense heart-opening. It was collective. Before the weeks of political rhetoric, retaliation and paranoia set in, before we sat eyes wide shut, dividing ourselves from the rest of the world, there was a love which unified us as a planet. In the few days following September 11th the world caught glimpse of each other with the opened eyes of infants.
Not particularly religious, but a spiritual person, I sought solace one evening in a prayer service at a small catholic church near my home. The walls of denomination fell as people from all faiths gathered to simply sing out, hold hands and acknowledge each other as inhabitants of a local community and participants of this world. It was felt everywhere, in line at the grocery, in traffic on the freeways, it was an honest-to-God Whoville and Osama starred as the Grinch! We all simply did what we could to reach out to each other offering the bounty in our hearts with a longing for peace in our eyes.
On a recent visit to New Orleans, my beau and I rode bikes across the ferry to Algiers. We met a couple riding their bikes and in typical southern gentility, invited us into to their home for a glass of lemonade. They had just bought the home and were in the process of renovating and moving in. Finding a familiar Long Island dialect spoken amidst the ubiquitous drawls, I asked if they were from New York. They smiled and the first thing the woman did was pull out a photo creased from her wallet. It was a black and white image of her covered in gray ash, uniformed and radio in hand. “I’m a retired captain of NYPD.” she said. She was one of the first-responders on site. She spoke briefly about that day with both pride and heartache and not necessarily in that order. Yet there was a light which beamed from her eyes, welcoming you in, just as they had welcomed us into their home. She and her husband decided to retire in New Orleans. Interestingly another place which has endured horror and still filled with abundant heart.
As we arrive at the anniversary of September 11, 2001, we now see the frenzied-media replay of that horrific day. It was what made me cancel my cable service back then. The images and interviews today reach inside me and draw out that grief I thought was packed up and away. Yet paired with that package is the remembrance of the love which emerged and embraced so that we were somehow able to endure and heal.
Sending love & prayers to the families who experienced devastating loss on that day. May this love embrace them and their memories.