"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Saturday, September 10, 2011


“We do not actually need anniversaries when there are things we cannot forget." Colum McCann, The New Yorker, September 12, 2011

The date 9.10.01, is meaningful to me for what I can’t remember about it. A decade ago, this turned out to be the last day of my former life…the “old normal.” For 10 years now, the 9/11 anniversary has been the point at which I chart a massive shift in my priorities and a re-ordering of my life.

I remember the days before and after 9.10.01 far better than the day itself.

On the day before, a Sunday, my parish held its annual outdoor service and picnic in the park. It was a pleasant, sunny morning. My husband and I took our contribution to the potluck, and afterwards he manned the grill. I chatted with fellow parishioners. Possibly I talked of our recent journey to London, Brussels and Bruges, or to Washington. I’m sure I spoke of upcoming travels—his impending trip to Madison, WI. Our journey—booked the previous weekend—to London and Paris. Camera in hand, my trusty Konica 35mm, I shot the kids on the swings, the people wading calf-deep in the Town Pond. We returned home, he to pack, me to do something. Perhaps we walked the dogs…the beloved, devoted predecessors of the ones we now have.

What happened on 9.10.01? He rose very early that Monday morning to catch his flight from MHT. A sleepy kiss, a “Be good, girls,” to the dogs. A solo breakfast while slumber dragged me back down, then off to the airport. This was our routine, so familiar. He would be back at midweek. Or so we assumed that morning.

How did I spend that last day of old normal? I never can recall. I’m sure I drank many cups of tea. Maybe puttered in my garden. Pondered what to have for my solitary dinner at day’s end. I was a writer in transition, seeking a new direction to my career after 12 published books. It was time of exploration, I had an invigorating sense of freedom—tempered by uncertainty about what I ought to be writing. I was intensively researching a nonfiction theatrical and literary biography while simultaneously noodling about with a contemporary relationship novel, but wondering if it was time to dust of a synopsis of another Irish book.

Just two days earlier, over in Scotland, my parents had celebrated a milestone wedding anniversary. I’d faxed them a “card” with their wedding photo embedded in it, and had rung them to offer congratulations. My brother was the quintessential professional guy, doing his thing in Atlanta. My maternal grandparents, the only ones I had left, were safely cocooned in their nursing home. That day I couldn’t guess the remainder of my grandfather’s extremely long life could have been measured in weeks. When someone attains the great age of 99 years, eventually you assume he is immortal.

At some point before I went to bed that night, my husband called in. He’d spent the evening with his university mates and a boyhood friend living in Madison. Whenever he stopped in town, they gathered for dinner and drinks. He’d flown out on Monday to accommodate this reunion. Thank God.

With the spouse away, I could read late into the night and well into the next morning. What book, I wonder, kept me up through the earliest hours of 9/11? I have no idea. But I read and I read until, no doubt, I dozed with the book propped on my chest. At some point I switched off the light.

As I groggily came awake, at approximately 8:50 on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was aware of the local public radio announcer’s voice reporting the collision of a “small private plane” with one of the World Trade Center towers. A couple of weeks before that morning, my husband and I had taken an early morning flight from Manchester down to Washington, DC. The mention of the towers triggered a very fresh memory—an early flight down the East Coast, our plane following the Hudson River south, edging Manhattan. It was just past dawn, and the first rays of orange and golden sunshine was lighting the lower portion of the island, reflecting beautifully from the twin towers.

I’d never much liked those buildings. It wasn’t a part of the city I cared about, or visited often—it was too removed from the Theatre District, the Waldorf, Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, the best shopping, Lincoln Center, the museums. But in the colourful light of a new day, the towers looked so beautiful, they and the adjacent water magically shimmering. My final view of them, in person, from above, was by far the best.

My 9/11 story is one of lonely despair. Airports closed, meaning my husband couldn’t get home. (Eventually he hired a car and drove cross country, from Wisconsin to New Hampshire.) My parents in Scotland were horrified by events, but so far removed. My cousins in New York were too close to the tragedy. A schoolmate perished in the Pentagon. Shanksville was every frequent flyer’s greatest nightmare made real.

Apart from the people in my small parish and a few locals, I had very few friends or contacts nearby. Lack of sleep (all that late-night reading), non-stop tv and radio coverage, tears, had wrung me out, messed with my head. Every time I put the dogs outside, I almost believed that terrorists were lurking in my own forest, about to pounce, to take advantage of my utter defencelessness. It’s hard enough to find our woodland abode with GPS…but fireballs and pancaking skyscrapers had obliterated logic.

So how did all this change my life from what it was 10 years ago today?

I actively sought the comforts of community. On Wednesday night I attended a special service at my church. (I drove bravely through the night, there and back, even though I knew terrorists might be tailing me.) A small thing, yet for me a very big initial step leading to significant engagement with my spiritual community. The knowledge that God is present and accessible in our worst times, a prayerful focus on hope and peace and unity in the midst of division—how we needed to hold on to these. And only Christians, but people of all faiths or none. Within months I was volunteering at the diocesan level, serving on high profile committees and smaller task forces. My sense of community expanded beyond my experience or imagining.

I answered a strangely compelling call to public service. The following year both I and my husband were candidates (unsuccessful) for statewide office. Four years later I ran again and was elected, and re-elected, to the House of Representatives. My four years there were rich in learning and accomplishment. I served on a nonprofit board. I joined local organisations. We served on the committee to build a new library in town and were major donors to the project.

I re-committed myself to world citizenship. In the panicked days following 9/11, when the thought of boarding planes was anathema, we didn’t cancel our trip to London and Paris. The following spring, as Baghdad fell, we were in London and Dublin. And so it continued, every year since. As usual, we spent this Labor Day Weekend firming up plans for the next jaunt.

Our working lives differ now. My husband continued in his profession but as a solo entrepreneur, focusing on international clients, in complete charge of his projects and schedule and travel. Eventually the strain of overseas commuting persuaded him to seek employment closer to home. He now works in an office, using the same skills in a different arena, with only a 20-minute drive door-to-door.

As for my work, I continued to pursue literary reinvention. But after a decade and a half cloistered in my home, tapping a keyboard, I felt an urge to go out into the world. I took a part-time office job—customer service—not too far from home. When the desire to resume full-time writing returned, I gave up the position. A few years later I took another part-time job, as a temporary fill-in, at a community college. Both experiences were positive, and proof that my default setting of “hermit” needs periodic adjustment.

We also felt it necessary to contribute to the economy and support the local labour force. Two weeks after 9/11, I bought a car. Not long after that we added a room and a third deck to the house. Then we completely renovated the master bathroom. Next came a kitchen upgrade. Then another bathroom. In the midst of recession, I bought another car. Yes, these purchases and alterations enhanced our comfort, but as we entered into them, we acknowledged their intended stimulus effect.

It has been a busy, bittersweet 10 years since the Monday that I can’t clearly remember. I’ve been interested to read and hear the reflections and remembrances of others—some closely, unbearably scarred by the multiple tragedies imposed by attack and warfare and economic distress. Others who have more distant, objective responses to all that has occurred. A decade is a big chunk of time to characterize and distill, whether personally or nationally or universally. I didn’t think I would want to, and I’m not entirely sure why I have done, or why I’m publicly sharing it.

I only know that hardly a day has passed that I haven’t thought about 9/11/01. I won’t be writing about it tomorrow, that much I know. It will be a time for feeling, not composing. Today, in preparation, I felt especially retrospective about 9/10, of what has changed since then. And what has not.

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