The following note is a bit scattered, but I wanted to share some of my memories from Sept 11th. Feel free to share your own experiences below.
Ten years ago today I was standing underneath the vaulting ceiling in Westminster Abby, sketching the face of a marble angel on the tomb of a young woman. His empty, opaque eyes were focused on the upturned face of the girl he was reaching out to. He had a beautiful face. The sculptor had captured a sense of peace in the pale, frozen features, and I wanted very much to capture it. I remember my neck beginning to hurt from looking up when my sister came hurrying up to me. "We have to go," she said urgently. "Dad said something really bad happened in New York." My family found each other and huddled together as my dad briefly explained what had happened. A priest had approached him and, after asking if he was an American, had told him the news. My dad had had to go to a pub down the street in order to watch (the second tower fell as soon as the begrudging barman had switched the channel away from the rugby game he was watching) the broadcast. Upon returning, ashen faced, he passed the news along to us. As we were standing there, a voice came on over the loud speaker of the church.
"There has been a terrible tragedy in the United States," the voice solemnly intoned. (At the time they still thought the plane crash was an accident, not an act of terrorism). "Please stop where you are and join us in prayer for the American people."
That night we all sat huddled around the tiny television in our darkened room, watching the towers fall again and again as the reports repeated the same small amount of information they had. It was frightening to be so far from home while things seemed to be going so terribly wrong. Little did we know that the rest of our trip would be punctuated by an amazing outpouring of love and compassion from citizens of the various countries we had yet to visit.
In another little church in England, a priest approached a friend who was traveling with us and, upon discovering we were Americans, proceeded to express his deepest sympathies and asked us to take his condolences back with us to America.
On a train to France, my parents sat in a car with an elderly Frenchman, who shared his newspaper (in French) with them, and expressed his deep regrets that the youth of France had such negativity towards the American people. "I was there when the Americans liberated us," he said in broken English. "I will never forget what they did." He showed them a number tattooed on his arm. He had been among those in the concentration camps in WWII. The newspaper he shared with them bore the headline "Today We Are All Americans" and had a two page spread in English. He explained to my parents that this particular newspaper had never printed a non-French version in over 100 years.
In Germany, my dad was passing through a large square in Munchen early in the morning where a memorial for the victims of 9/11 had been lovingly placed. As he approached, he saw a number of rough looking punks around it. He was concerned that they might be messing with it, but as he drew nearer, he realized that they were tending to it. It had rained the night before, and they were carefully pouring the water out of the candle holders, replacing the wet candles, and relighting new ones.
Everywhere we went, when people discovered we were Americans, they expressed their grief over what happened, and urged us to take their condolences back with us to share with other Americans. In shop windows there were rough, handwritten signs in English expressing sympathy to the American people. Such an overwhelming out pouring of kindness I have not and will never forget.
When we returned home from our travels, my high school art teacher announced on the first day of class that she had put aside her original plans for our first project and that instead we would be creating art for the families who lost loved ones when the towers fell. There were roughly 75 of us all told, and we set to work writing notes and creating water colors that we hoped would bring some small modicum of comfort to people who seemed a world away from us. Through that, as a 16 year old, my sense of connection to those families was deepened. My teacher decided that 75 images would not go far enough, and instead determined to create a book of all the images so that anyone who wanted one could have one. The following year, on the anniversary of 9/11, a group of us travelled to NY to distribute the art and books. We attended a candle light vigil that was dedicated to victims of violent crime. I was to share a poem that I'd written, and was really nervous to be speaking in front of a much larger crowd of people than I had anticipated. As I sat among the group of speakers at the front of the room, I remember feeling so inadequate and unworthy to be there. I had never suffered a loss like the girl who spoke before me. She had lost her sister to a gang rape, and I remember that she had crafted a beautiful, piercing analogy about the destruction of a rose. The man sitting next to me who was also to speak after me had lost his son when the towers fell. His son had been a firefighter who died trying to help people escape the building before it came down. I don't remember the man's name, but as we sat there, he showed me the program from his son's funeral, telling me all about him. His kind encouragement got me through reading my poem.
Every year since, my teacher has headed up a project to create pieces of art to take to the families who still gather annually for a memorial. Hundreds of art pieces have been given away. The families are always shocked that people from our little corner of the US return each year. For the past two years we have been creating tribute flags. We are assigned a name of someone who died, learn as much as we can about them, and then create a linoleum carving with an image inspired by the person's life. My high school art teacher pours in countless hours and funds to make this happen each year. If you want to know more about the project, you can visit the site here: [link]
You can also watch a video about the project here: [link]
Even though thousands of people die every day, I think it's important to not let anyone become a statistic. If nothing else, this experience has taught me that every individual is important and touches someone else's life. It's important to mourn with those who mourn and, hopefully, walk with them along the path to healing.