It was a gorgeous late summer day in New York City. I had been out to walk my dog in Riverside Park and was settling in for a full day of voice teaching. Seems like a lifetime ago that teaching opera and Broadway singers in New York was my career.
A few minutes after 9 am, the telephone rang. It was a singer from Vienna who was coming to New York and wanted to schedule some lessons. We chatted and scheduled our working sessions, and just before we ended the call, he casually asked, “Have you heard the news this morning? It seems that a plane flew into the World Trade Center.”
At that point, we both assumed it must have been a small, private plane, but we had no idea of the day that was beginning to unfold.
After I hung up the phone, I thought perhaps I should turn on the radio (I didn’t have a television) to see what the news stations were saying. However, on the radio dial where National Public Radio should be, there was only the noise of static. I searched for other stations – still just static. Remembering that the broadcast antennas for many of New York’s radio stations were on top of the World Trade Center towers, I realized then that something serious was happening.
I left my apartment to go out into the street. There were people everywhere, all trying to find out what was going on. I quickly learned that it wasn’t just a little private plane, but rather a commercial airliner, and that a second one had also hit. The rest is history.
The following days were a blur. The island of Manhattan was closed – you couldn’t get in or out. More than anything, my partner and I wanted to escape to the solace and peace of our country house in the Catskills. But we were trapped. We had no choice but to stay right there in the chaos, the pain, the deep uncertainty and fear. We couldn’t run away.
As I recall, it took a couple of days before telephone service was restored. These were the early days of internet, and that service was spotty as well. As services came back, I started receiving phone calls and emails from friends and family from afar asking what they could do. It was not until those requests started coming in that I understood what it meant to be held in someone’s love – for someone to hold space for you. Of course, I had experienced being held in the love of my family, of my partner, and of close friends. Yet I heard myself saying to those people when they called, “Just hold us. We just need to be held in huge love and support and care. Just hold us in your hearts.”
Living in a New York neighborhood, you are used to seeing the same people in your building and on your block. You recognize people in the market on the corner, or the regulars in your favorite Indian restaurant just across Broadway, or the people you exchange pleasantries with in the park as you walk your dogs. You don’t know their names, but you still feel somehow like you know them. There is a familiarity that creates a sense of community as well as a sense of safety and security. They’re part of your neighborhood family.
In those first days after September 11th, I became very aware of people that I wasn’t seeing in my building, on the streets, in the restaurant, in the park. And my first thoughts were, “Where do they work? Are they ok? Are they still alive?” And then as the days went by, I would finally see some of those people. The sense of joy and relief in my heart was indescribable. Sometimes we would say something to each other, touch one another on the shoulder, share some expression of gratitude for life. There were even a few hugs. Even though we didn’t really know each other, we were connected by a shared experience.
And then you would witness friends finding each other for the first time since that fateful day and embracing on the streets, just holding one another. Whether or not we were hugging or touching or even speaking, there was a palpable sense of connectedness as New Yorkers – as human beings – and we were all holding one another. We were holding humanity. We were hanging on to connection wherever we could find it. We were seeking the sense of human love that sustains.
On the morning of September 12th or 13th, I don’t remember which, I was walking my dog in Riverside Park when I looked out onto Riverside Drive, the highway that goes all the way down the west side of Manhattan on the Hudson River. I was completely awestruck at what I was seeing. The highway was closed to the public and in the place of the usual traffic was an endless parade of construction vehicles of every kind imaginable. I just stood motionless with my heart pounding. Even now, I can’t find words to describe that moment. I must have stood there for at least a half hour watching this miles-long solemn procession of dump trucks and demolition equipment. It was the strangest and most powerful funeral march I had ever experienced. Tears stream down my face even now, 12 years later, as I remember that moment.
I have experienced great heart opening many times in my life. It’s part of the nature of my work, and for that I feel very blessed. Yet September 11, 2001 and the days that followed opened my heart in ways I never could have imagined. I was very lucky. I had friends and students who worked in offices in the World Trade Center and all around lower Manhattan, and they all made it out. Many others were not so lucky.
Last week I wrote about being conscious of what we say “yes” to in our overly full lives – about saying “yes” to connection, relationship, things that really matter the most to us. As we remember September 11, 2001 – as we remember the rip in the fabric of humanity of that day and the many people who lost their lives or whose lives were changed forever – may our hearts be open, may our hearts be open, may our hearts be open.
P.S. If you wonder what you can do to support healing in our world, perhaps a good place to start is the Loving Kindness Meditation that comes from the Buddhist tradition. It is a simple four-line mantra or prayer:
May I dwell in my heart;
May I be free from suffering;
May I be healed;
May I be at peace.
You can say that prayer silently or out loud over and over for yourself for awhile, and then shift the focus to an intimate partner or friend. Replace “I” with that person’s name. After a while, move on to someone else that is important to you in your life – a family member or close friend – and put their name into the prayer. Continue adapting the prayer for someone with whom you have a conflict, someone who you may see several times a week yet don’t know their name, all of the people you work with, the leaders of our world, and for all of creation. Of course, you can add any variations that feel right for you. And in the end, come back to yourself. You may notice a difference in how you feel saying the mantra or prayer for yourself after you have said it for so many others.
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