Separation, division, and unity — reflecting on 9-11

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This is the story of my experience before, during, and after 9-11 — and how it still affects me 19 years later in this once again fraught moment.

My story starts on September 1, 2001. I had hired a construction company to replace 120 feet of water, sewer, and gas pipes leading to my house in a Boston suburb. This was a big and complex job; lacking water, my house would not be habitable for a week. So, while guys with bulldozers dug up my yard, I took a week’s vacation from my job at Forrester Research and travelled with my family to the island of Martha’s Vineyard. My kids were little: 5 and 2.

On September 4, the president of Forrester Research, Bill Bluestein, died suddenly at the tragically young age of 44. Bill was brilliant. Nearly everything I learned as an analyst, and much of what I learned as a writer, came from his editorial feedback over the six years I worked with him. (His approach was brutally honest, but always enlightening.) Bill was my mentor. I was heartbroken. The company came together as one and our CEO and founder, George Colony, led them in mourning a man who’d inspired so many of us, but I was not there. It felt very strange to be separated from my colleagues at that moment — my wife didn’t know Bill, and could only try to comfort me in my lonely grief.

At the end of our week on Martha’s Vineyard, my contractor told me that the job would not be completed on time. We had no choice but to extend our vacation. But I had to work. So, on September 10, I left my wife and family behind and flew from Martha’s Vineyard to San Jose. I was due to spend the following morning leading a consulting and feedback session with a client about a new product they were planning.

That day, of course, was 9-11. I woke up and turned on the TV to see the unimaginable — we were under attack, and New York and Washington were burning. I called my wife — I reached her cell phone while she and my kids were on a short boat ride traveling between islands. “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center,” I told her. “You mean the one in Boston?” she asked, thinking I meant the small convention venue we’d visited once or twice. “No, the big buildings in New York,” I said. “That’s impossible,” she said. She had to get off the boat; I promised to call her later.

My clients and I were scheduled to meet in a drab and generic hotel meeting room. Like me, they were upset and unable to concentrate. We went through the paces of the meeting anyway. No flights were flying. They drove their rental car back to their homes in Portland, Oregon, a ten-hour drive. I had no choice but remain holed up in my San Jose airport hotel.

The rest of that week was a time of deep longing and separation for me. While I wasn’t friends with anyone who died on 9-11, I was still mourning Bill and longed to be with people who I loved. I was separated from my family; none of us were able to go home. I could not concentrate on anything and the walls of the room closed in. Watching TV felt like pornography — compelling and degrading at the same time, and free of useful information. I remember that I read an entire 800-page Harry Potter novel in a couple of days. I visited with some friends in San Francisco — people who I didn’t know well who were very kind to me.

My family was able to return to our home a day or two before I did. The water was working, but the land around out house was now a dusty and rocky ruin that recalled the surface of the moon. It seemed like yet another ugly gash in the familiar and comfortable life we had been living.

I felt as if the death of my mentor, the wound the country had suffered, and the damage to the land around my home were all part of a single experience of having our normal way of living ripped apart. There was no such thing as normal. At a time like that, family and close friends were what you depended on, but my family and friends were thousands of miles away at the end of tenuous phone connection.

Days later, as soon as the airlines started flying again, I cobbled together flights from three different airlines and got back home. It was a tearful reunion.

As my family life continued and my house slowly returned to normal, I watched the country come together as well. I had not voted for President Bush and I wondered about some of the choices he was making, but I felt as if we were all part of a shared goal to restore the nation’s psyche. American flags began to appear everywhere — on porches, on highway overpasses, and in front yards. We were one nation, and we were coming back.

I healed along with my country and surrounded by the people I loved.

I know my experience cannot compare with the pain felt by those who lost loved ones in 9-11 or the wars that followed. I claim no special pain. But it was my experience, and it affected me and my outlook on the world.

Now, 19 years later, we are again facing a crisis. At least George W. Bush had an enemy to blame. We have only an emotionless virus. Many more of us have lost loved ones in the last year than did in September of 2001. It is unclear what recovery looks like, just as it was back then.

In an alternate version of this world, we would have come together in the wake of this crisis, as we did to heal after 9-11. We would feel a national unity in recovery from the crisis, as the people in Italy do. We would follow our leaders in a resolve to take action and support each other, and make shared sacrifices as well.

That is not the America we are living in right now.

We are living in a country divided — between Black and white, between red and blue, between “coastal elites” and “rural conservatives” — and between those who wear masks and those who find them a symbol of fear. There is pain, but there is no unity.

A different leader would find ways to bring the country together in this moment. Instead, the leader we have is doing everything possible to divide us and inflame us. No healing is possible when hate is on the agenda.

The pain I experience about our divided nation feels familiar. I felt it in a tiny hotel room in San Jose, miles from home, mourning the loss of the great and familiar. Back in 2001, I wrote an essay about what I was feeling; the title was “My Heart is Torn.”

My heart is torn again in this horrifying and endless moment. I want to begin healing. Do you think any of us will ever get the chance to do that?

3 responses to “Separation, division, and unity — reflecting on 9-11

  1. Thank you for sharing this. Just before reading it I had reached out to my then co-worker at the Boston Globe on 9/11/01, as she was the person who poked her head into my office to tell me “a plane just hit the World Trade tower”, to see how she and her family were 19 years later. I also want you to know that I also often wish that we as a nation would come together to support each other during this current crisis, as we did then.
    Take care and stay well.-Donna Rice

  2. This is a good essay which certainly reflects the emotional experiences I, too, experienced that day and for months afterward whilst living in a wee cabin in the Humboldt County redwoods.

    9/11 certainly “brought America together” (except for myriad Islamophobic retaliations against fellow Americans which continue to this day) for a short while; however, this national and international outpouring of good will was wantonly squandered by the underlying perfidy of the Cheney/Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations over the following 19 years. I’m not really one to use body counts as some kind of barometer, but one has to concede that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq allowed US and allied forces to kill a few more than 2,996 civilians in the process of “getting even.”

    Trump’s America has no pity-party situation like 9/11 around which to garner international kumbaya-fests: to varying degrees ALL countries are affected by COVID-19, racism, economic turmoil, class divides, and political snarkiness. The difference lies in the moral integrity of their leaders and the lack of the same in Trump and those he controls. Trump’s MAGA-bots––those flag-waving Americans who simultaneously long for––nay, DEMAND––adulation from foreigners for being a mythic “shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere,” yet demand border walls and cages for children, are uniformly ridiculed for their hubris. For God’s sake: most Americans can’t seem to fathom that the vast majority of people in the world neither care about nor have even heard of a “Kardashian”!

    I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  3. At that time I worked in mid-town NYC but my sister worked in building 7. She was late that day and made it home before the subways shut down from that area. But she couldn’t get a hold of us until hours later. It was a numbing day for me, but so much worse for so many. Last Fall I took my 13 year old son to the memorial …it is riveting. We had seen the memorial years before, but to go down in to the museum and hear the voices is an experience not forgotten.
    I believe that we can come together once again when we are led by someone who has that top of mind. It will have to be a main point on a daily basis that we must work together and remember our values. The people need help to remember; we need guidance. I believe that there has been much rot and corruption and I feel hopeful that we will be able to root it out; it must be done fearlessly!

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