It’s the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. Three weeks from now will also mark the ten year anniversary of my move across the pond. As I’ve touched on before, the two are intricately laced. It’s hard not to reflect back on those surreal days come this time of year. I do a pretty good job of avoiding all press, documentaries, conspiracy theories and personal accounts, but still it looms. Most accounts seem exploitative and make me feel a bit sick but I’m finding this year I’m a little less bothered by it all. I’m not so angered at people’s desires to make films and write ad nauseum about September 11th. Everyone copes in different ways. People need to feel connected to events that shape the world they live in so they sit and watch the news all day once a year on Sept. 11th. I get it now, which I suppose is why I am breaking my own rule and finally writing about it.
It helps that I don’t feel like a New Yorker anymore. It was a different life and a post 9/11 New York is a different place. One I don’t know. That distance has given me perspective. I am not however, setting out to write a piece on the tragedy itself but rather how that day and the days that followed shaped my future. How it gave me the courage to jump off that cliff and move to London with a man who I had only seen a handful of times.
Paul left my Spanish Harlem apartment for his overnight flight to Heathrow on September 10, 2001. He had asked me to come with him but I said no. I wasn’t ready. Plus, I had to work in the morning. Dropping everything and flying to London on moment’s notice was just not my style. He flew into London bombarded with news coverage of dramatic events, one of which was taking place in the city he just left. New York’s phone lines were jammed and no one could get a line in or out. Meanwhile, I stood in amazement watching the whole thing unfold on the big TV screen in the middle of Times Square. I looked south for evidence and saw smoke and dust billowing into the sky. The smell of burnt rubble and paper would soon fill the air and last weeks. Times Square was silent. ‘Holy Shit’ was about the most profound thing I could think of.
It became obvious on my walk home with the thousands of other people, as the subways were closed and buses were reserved for people coming directly from ground zero (as we would soon refer to it) that this changed everything, not only politically but personally. Life, as it turns out, is indeed, very short. I was scared. Not of terrorists but of the thought of not fully living. What if I was on the top floor of one of the towers? Had I have lived enough? Was I ready to go knowing I had done my best? No. Not even close. Making my mark in the world suddenly shifted from the superficial wishes of my youth into more personal wishes that at one time I may have considered mundane. Those choices now felt vital. I could have been in London that morning if I had taken Paul up on his offer but I wasn’t. The idea of staying behind for a job I hated now seemed ludicrous. It was time to go. I chose love. Cheesy but true.
A few weeks later I sat on a virtually empty plane on my way to Heathrow. London felt an amazing oasis from where I had just come. The foggy city is surprisingly bright. The grey skies make the shading in material surroundings stand out all the more. The phone booths and double decker buses leap to the forefront of your sight as if you were looking at a sepia photograph with pops of red. I took to these cartoonish looking streets with my new best friend who would eventually become my husband. I felt awake. I hadn’t known I was asleep but I was. Life, as I had planned it, wasn’t working anymore. It’s a terrifying thing to realize but I could finally see that not realizing it was in the long term more terrifying. Those first few months in London were some of the most freeing times in my life. I felt like I was flying. I usually refer to my decision to move to the UK as jumping off a cliff, a jump I survived and am all the richer for it. My analogy is a curious one though, as the most haunting memories I have of September 11th are the images of the people jumping from the burning towers. I often wonder what they were thinking in that time of free fall. I am blessed that my jump was a metaphorical one, and one that signified a beginning rather then an end. I hope they lived while they were here. I pray there was peace in those moments.
I can’t say for certain that my life would have turned out differently if that Fall day in September 2001 went on to be the clear and beautiful day it was seemingly shaping into, but at the very least, I think it would have taken me longer to come to the same conclusion. I would have agonized over the whole thing, made lists of pros and cons and discussed it to death with friends. But instead I just felt my way through it. Your gut is always right. That very well might be the most important thing I took from that dark day. One husband and three kids later, I could not have made a better call.