Nine-eleven Fourteen Years On

Cityscape, by Michael Leu, etching from the collection of the author.

Cityscape, by Michael J. Leu, etching from the collection of the author.

September 12, 2001

Brooklyn, New York

Yesterday our world changed and our lives will never be the same again. Yesterday at 8:46 a.m., while I was driving to my Manhattan office, just yards away from entering the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, I looked up at the twin towers of the World Trade Center. What I saw will be burned in my memory forever. I saw the North Tower explode into a fireball, with confetti-like showers of shattered glass glinting in the sun across the blue sky around the buildings. Plumes of black smoke began pouring out. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I looked to the people in the cars around me, and no one else seemed aware of it. I had 880-News Radio on, and they were not speaking of it. I tried to call 911 but couldn’t get through. I called (my friend and colleague) and told him what I was seeing. By then I was going into the tunnel, unable to leave the queue in which I found myself. As I proceeded with painstaking slowness, often dead-stopped, I listened to Don Imus on the radio and CBS radio also. About 20 minutes after the first explosion, which I now knew was the impact of an airplane, I learned another plane had crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Before I emerged from the tunnel into the now-war zone of lower Manhattan, I also heard President Bush speaking of the crisis for the first time.

When I emerged, I saw both towers flaming and spewing clouds of black and gray smoke. All traffic was diverted to downtown, emergency vehicles and MTA heavy equipment blocking all routes north. Unable to get to my office, which I would have done if permitted, I got on the FDR heading toward the Brooklyn Bridge. There were very few vehicles on the FDR, and most were pulled over by the side of the road, their occupants standing together, cameras trained on the WTC towers, which were still burning furiously. I opened my window and shared a sentiment of shock and dismay with a man standing by his car. Car radios were all on 1010-WINS, as was my own at that moment, the doors open and the sound of the news briefs and unfolding events in the air. I got on the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. Traffic was very heavy and slow onto the bridge. I saw masses of people streaming north and east, away from the Financial District. As I listened to unfolding events, I learned that the South Tower had collapsed and wasn’t there anymore. Suddenly people began running onto the roadway where I was, running furiously away from a large, billowing white cloud rolling from Ground Zero towards me. I had to use my wipers to remove the ashes and dust that began to accumulate on my windshield. I put on my fog lights and headlights as my car and those people around me became enveloped in a thick dust cloud. We crept onto the bridge. Pedestrians clogged the center walkway, and I had seen probably thousands walking across the bridge to Brooklyn before my view was really obliterated. As I crept across, pedestrians hurried along the paved roadway, too, and at times they seemed to engage angrily with drivers ahead of me, but I was not aware of why. At one point, a car came at our queue head on, speeding the wrong way towards Manhattan, filled with men who looked like plain-clothed police.

When I got to the Brooklyn side of the East River, I stayed on surface streets and laboriously wended my way home. I parked my ash-covered car in my parking garage, and tried to find out about (my husband). His brother didn’t answer. I knew he was in the field, working the New York City primary election. I didn’t know which borough he had gone to, and I was worried. I called my mother to tell her I was okay. She had been beside herself with worry and had tried to call but all circuits had been busy, she said.

I finally got through to my husband’s boss who said he had heard from him and he was in Brooklyn. As we spoke, he came through the door to our apartment. I have never been so glad to see anyone in my life. We have been together since, attending meetings and calling friends and family. He has been unable to reach anyone in his organization. I can’t get to my office because no one is permitted below 14th Street in Manhattan, and my office is between 12th and 13th Streets. I have called my patients. As far as I know, they are all okay.

Today I made arrangements to stay with my husband wherever I go, and to meet (a close friend) at a meeting. We’ll have lunch together. I also left my name and phone numbers with two local hospitals in the event that my services as a clinical psychologist are requested. I have heard that the volunteer response to this act of war has been incredible. (Our son) and I spoke last night. He has his own challenges now, but he was relieved to know we are safe here.

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September 11, 2015

Brooklyn, New York

Today I elected to pull a long-ignored journal from its place in my office armoire at home, thinking I would read what I wrote about my experiences on 9/11/2001. It’s interesting to me to read what I believe are discrepancies with what actually happened, but then perhaps those details that feel real and true now are the discrepancies from what actually occurred. For example, my recollection is that I looked up and saw a gaping hole in the North Tower with flames pouring out and sparking shards of glass, which we later learned were mostly papers floating out from the offices that had been blown open and were now on fire. For days afterward we found some of these papers, singed or intact, on our lawn in Brooklyn. My recollection now is of compulsively calling my mother while I was in the tunnel, but unable to get through. I believe I was in there over an hour listening to eyewitness accounts of what was going on above. I carried a cellphone and had for several years, but my husband did not, so I never tried to call him, not knowing where I’d find him that day.

Photo courtesy of Bay Ridge Phantom, 2006

Photo courtesy of Bay Ridge Phantom, 2006

A year or so later I published a professional paper, “Impact of the World Trade Center Disaster on a Manhattan Psychotherapy Practice” and gave my impressions of that day from my experience and from the perspectives of my patients. Reading it later I cringed at how patriotic it seemed, but such were those very overwhelming days. I don’t mean to suggest that loving one’s country is in any way undesirable. But in the months and years after 9/11/2001, love of country seemed often to be co-opted by some for political gain, or fearmongering, or whipping up war fever.

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We drove across the Brooklyn Bridge today, just blocks north of the memorial events downtown. The traffic was brutal what with closed streets to accommodate the dignitaries and the grieving survivors of that awful day. Our city now is vibrant and still ever on the build. Cranes abound as new skyscrapers arise, and parking spaces are harder and harder to come by in Park Slope.

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The best thing about the news today that I sampled on my iPhone as we traveled to the country for the weekend was the photo of a group of 14-year-olds on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, all born on September 11, 2001, wearing t-shirts reading Hope, and Unity, and Kindness. Life goes on, and that we must never forget, even though we eventually will die, as will all those we love, but this is as it should be. Impermanence is an oft denied reality of life as we know it. The shock of knowing it so starkly as we did that day knocked us sideways. I conclude this post with a version of the Buddhist Metta Sutta, adapted from that offered by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in his book, Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice (2011, Parallax Press):

May each of you be peaceful, happy and light in body and spirit.

May you safe and free from injury.

May you be free from anger, fear, afflictions and anxiety.

May you learn to look at yourselves with the eyes of understanding and love.

May you be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in yourselves.

May you learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving and delusion in yourselves.

May you know how to nourish the seeds of joy in yourselves every day.

May you be able to live fresh, solid and free.

May you be free from attachment and aversion but not be indifferent.

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They are Everywhere

UPDATE: I just reread this post after more than two years. It merits sharing again, especially in this new, frightening climate of political extremism and the threat of diminishing entitlements for those who need them most. — Shielagh 2/23/17

They are everywhere. 

The Four Noble Truths: – The truth of suffering – The truth of the origin of suffering – The truth of the end of suffering – The truth of the path to the end of suffering

 

I cannot help but see how they suffer. I am not sure what the blessing is in suffering through homelessness and hopelessness. I see them on the subway, asking for money, food, Metrocards, help, hope. I see them sleeping in corners and in doorways, laid out awkwardly across subway platform benches that are uncomfortably partitioned for four. I see them at the end of subway cars, sleeping or pretending to sleep, surrounded by bulging bags of their things, some with a plastic hospital bracelet on one wrist. Flip flops in winter, dirty feet in slippers or worn-out shoes, sometimes in wooden surgical boots. Reddened, swollen ankles blotched and shiny with edema. Often and more now than before, I see well-groomed men sitting behind polite cardboard signs asking for compassion, for a hand up, bus fare home, a meal, as they read a book or magazine, avoiding eye contact. Groups of grimy kids sleeping on cardboard with dogs or cats, their cardboard signs asking for money for food or a hotel room before the next storm hits. I see the long, matted blond dreadlocks about begrimed, drawn faces of kids young enough to be my grandchildren, skateboards under arms and sleeping bags and backpacks weighing them down as they move from place to place, rousted by police or in search of something much needed right then. I see the African hair, wild and long, grizzled into shaggy beards framing dark, dusty faces. I’ve seen men and women, in couples and alone, sleeping against buildings in midmorning in mummy bags or bedrolls, their things in bags about them, the smell of old urine strong by the nearby broken payphone enclosure. Once I looked up from my own thoughts to see an old woman defecating into a plastic bag between the bike rack and the litter can by a busy intersection downtown. I didn’t want to see. I felt her suffering, a reality that seemed to say, there is nowhere else for me to go.

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)

Homeless man on the F train

I see the bloody socks, the bandaged hands, the haunted faces, the vacant eyes. I see the plastic rosary beads around scrawny necks, the cigarettes, the brown-bagged cans and bottles, the battered paper coffee cups hopeful for change. I hear the  guitarist on the subway platform singing a Neil Young song as tenderly and tunefully as Neil himself. I watch as passersby waiting for their train or heading towards the stairs drop a dollar into the guitar case, or hurry by unaware of the fragile life of the man behind the instrument. I have seen him for at least ten years now. He no longer has teeth. I have given many dollar bills over those years. Once he stood near the stairs crying and asking if anyone could help him get new guitar strings before the music store closed, saying someone had damaged his guitar at the hospital. I gave him a five and told another woman who stopped, looking worried, that he sings as beautifully as Neil Young. He was too upset to respond and kept weeping. There is something very broken in him now, because between his haunting songs he sometime yells and screams at no one in particular about world injustices, thoughtless people, all the “motherfuckers” and “assholes,” whoever and wherever they may be. I am sure he suffers greatly.

I hear the crazy rants, the anger, the fear, the hopelessness, and see the dirt, the empty eyes, the pathos written all over the faces. I used to tell myself they were students in a sociology class, running experiments to see how others react to homelessness, poverty, need and hopelessness.  It’s been a very long time since I comforted myself with that fantasy. I know there are police patrols and pairs of homeless workers who travel these streets to see who needs help, but many withdraw from them and are not seen. When winter comes and rough weather prevails, vans traverse our streets with workers trying to get homeless men and women into shelters for the night. Places they’d rather die than go, mostly. Addictions, experiences being robbed, histories of abuse, compounded fear and layers of hopelessness scare them away from shelter and often from helping hands up and out of their despair. Such suffering.

I hear the pleas on the subway cars as we rattle between Manhattan and Brooklyn, from the tall man in fatigues asking, “Can you help a homeless Veteran?” From a small dark-eyed woman with a large child on her hip, both with doleful expressions, who stands in front of each passenger holding a sign that says, “I am deaf and mute. We need food. Can you help us?” And the young woman with several children in tow, repeating the length of the car, “My house burned down, we have nothing. My children and I are homeless, can you help?” Sometimes while the person is traversing the car, an announcement comes over the loudspeaker reminding us that it is against the law to solicit on the subway. “Ladies and gentlemen soliciting money in the subway is illegal,” it drones. Ignore the suffering, it suggests. Others will see to it.

I don’t always, but I’ve offered what I can, a Metrocard with a few trips left on it, a little money, a protein bar, a sandwich, dog or cat food for a homeless person’s animal companion. And when money or food or something else is offered, they nod and sometimes say, “Thank you.” “God bless you.” “You are very kind.” And when nothing is offered and they stand at the doors as the train comes to a stop, I’ve heard, “You folks have a good day now.” “Hope you never know how hard this is,” and “God bless you.”  And then there was the weather-beaten old woman I once offered a plastic container of holiday cookies that I’d planned to share at the office. She screamed at me incomprehensibly and batted away my offering with as much force and rage as if I’d pulled a knife.

They tear at my heartstrings, and their suffering fills me with fear from depths unknown, fear of destitution and homelessness, fear of extreme isolation and loneliness, fear of rejection, fear of untreated mental illness, fear of surrender to hopelessness, fear of losing faith in my ability to manage, fear of losing the belief I will be taken care of if ever I cannot take care of myself, fear of giving up and giving in to addiction, fear of illness and parasites and dirt. Fear of growing into very old age alone and defenseless, of outliving savings. And my practice has taught me that it is out of fear that aversion grows. Every day I aspire to be free from aversion, attachment and indifference. I am learning to see past fear and into fellow beings, beings whose lives are as transitory as my own, to see their suffering, to have compassion, and to remember that within each of them learning and growing and karma are also taking place.

So I read every single day, and recite aloud most days, the Buddhist text of the Metta Sutta. I often read it in the morning during my subway ride. My version says, “Let none deceive another or despise any being in any state,” to despise no beings–none, to have loving kindness for all, no matter how small or great, no matter the circumstances. To love each being, human and otherwise, “freed from hatred and ill-will,” to love them all dearly, as a mother loves her only child. How difficult this is to do, and yet how important it is to try.

And today this is my practice.

Namaste

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Celebrating the Metta Sutta

Metta Sutta

The Metta Sutta is dharma from The Buddha to guide those of us who follow his teachings in the manner in which we ought to manage our attitudes, our intentions and our actions in all areas of life. This translation is the “Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness” (Sn 1.8) translated from the Pali by The Amavarati Sangha.  Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 2 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.08.amar.html

We can begin by reading the Metta Sutta often. We can post a copy of it on the wall of our home or office where we can see and be reminded of its powerful sentiments throughout the day. I created the poster of the Karaniya Metta Sutta you see above using one of my own photographs for this very purpose in my life. When we sit to meditate, we can read the text and reflect on the words as we focus on our breathing, and we can aspire to the sentiments for ourselves, our loved ones, those with whom we have or have had conflict, and lastly for all beings everywhere, in every status of existence. Sharon Salzberg in her book Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Shambhala) explains this in detail and offers exercises with which to begin to implement the Metta Sutta. I highly recommend the book to anyone wishing to bring loving kindness into fruition more fully in his or her life.

We can realize profound psychological benefits from practicing Metta, or Loving Kindness, meditation.

  • We begin to have loving thoughts towards ourselves. This is huge and very healing for any of us who suffers low self-esteem, shame, guilt or insecurity. This is not a negative selfishness but an empowering, enlightened self-interest. It is not possible to revile the self and exalt others with heartfelt sincerity. We must allow ourselves to receive self-love, self-acceptance, hopefulness for and on behalf of ourselves, and to desire to experience joy and happiness, even as we experience the inevitable suffering life brings. Only then are we capable of feeling love, acceptance, hopefulness, and wishes for joy and happiness on behalf of any other being.
  • We expand on the love we already perceive for our family and other loved ones. This allows us to focus mindfully on them while wishing goodness for them, just as we wish it for ourselves. This aspect of Metta can soothe the conflict that arises in even the most loving relationships when we feel misunderstood, taken for granted, abused or exploited. Sometimes the other person needs our loving kindness more than our scolding or our rebuke, even when we feel the least like providing that loving kindness.
  • We wish for goodness for even those with whom we’ve experienced great conflict, felt anger, carried resentment, or harbored negative emotions, intentions, judgments or sentiments. When we do this, we are freeing ourselves from the toxic poisons those negative thoughts and feelings imbue in us, toxic poisons that can be addictive in their own right. When we begin to wish positive aspirations for those enemy persons, we are freeing ourselves from optional suffering, right then. Recently I practiced Metta on behalf of a public figure for whom I had felt anger due to the appearance of corruption and abuse of power. When I did this, I felt a sense of relief.
  • We wish for freedom from suffering for all beings, and that includes non-human animals as well as those persons living and not-yet-living, as the Metta Sutta says. We wish for goodness for people we know and those we will never meet, and this positive energy is very powerful.

I recommend savoring the Great Bell Chant that features Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh chanting and speaking a message of Metta. This video is beautiful and can bring peace to anyone who allows the sound to envelope his or her being, if even for a few minutes.

Loving kindness practice is a process. We allow ourselves to begin it, with no particular expectation, no mandate to get there by a certain date or time, but to simply begin, if and when we wish to begin it. And until we do, many practitioners of Metta around the world are wishing it for us, as they do for all other beings

I suggest you try Metta meditation for yourself. Please comment on this post to let us know what happens for you. Or feel free to contact me via either of my websites listed on the About page.

Namaste

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