20 years

Twenty years ago on September 11th, I was just getting settled at my desk at work after returning from the trip of a lifetime. I had just spent two weeks exploring jungle caves and Mayan ruins in Belize, and wasn’t quite sure how I was going to re-adjust to my tech support gig after being out in The Actual World for basically the first time as an adult.

As I was signing into my email, my phone rang.

“Are you watching the news?” Becky sounded slightly breathless.

“No, I just got to work, why? What’s going on?”

“Bring up a news site. Something is happening. A plane just hit a skyscraper in New York.”

I pulled up a site and saw a picture of a plane hitting a building, with a little blurb about breaking news, but the internet was a much different place in 2001 and it was actually fairly hard to find much as it was happening. Becky was home and had the news on so she was relaying information to me as it was reported. We watched the second plane hit in as close to real time as was possible at that point.

A couple minutes later, someone down the hall from my office yelled that everyone needed to come watch the news. They had a TV set up and CNN or something was on. It was a small office, only a handful of us. We stood around, fixated on the set, still not understanding what was going on. Cell phones started ringing, then office phones. People wandered off to take calls and then came back, sometimes with wet eyes, sometimes with pale faces.

Our little office in Vermont was a long, long way from Manhattan, but some of my coworkers had family down in that general area, and we were all booked to go to a trade show in the city at the end of October. I had just flown in to JFK on my way home from Belize two days before. The friend I had been travelling with was still there, spending time with other friends for a few days before his flight back to London. They were staying just a few blocks from the towers. We had walked by them one night on our way to dinner before we left for Belize.

Nobody in the office really knew what to do with themselves. Someone said that the local Catholic church was doing mass shortly and several of us decided to go. I don’t think a single one of us was Catholic, but it was more about being with other people and trying to wrap our heads around what was going on.

Mass was surreal. I had never been to a Catholic church before and had zero understanding of what to say or do. I mostly just sat and cried on and off as waves of emotion washed over me. Everyone else was doing basically the same thing, although most of them knew when they should be kneeling, at least. When it was over, my coworkers and I wandered back to the office in a daze. We were greeted with the news that two more planes had been hijacked – one crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside and the other hit the Pentagon.

I don’t remember if we got sent home, if we just left, or if I stayed the whole day. I think I probably went home early. I was still living with my folks at that point. My dad would have been at work still, and I think my mom was still working nights then, so she would have been asleep I guess. I honestly don’t remember a thing about that afternoon or evening at all. It’s just gone. All I remember is being very worried about my friend in the city and not being able to get through to his cell…which was understandable, of course. I know I eventually did get an email from him a day or two later and he said they were all fine, aside from some breathing issues from all the dust in the air, and of course some mental trauma.

After the attack, I remember weeks and weeks of almost every channel we had showing the footage of the planes hitting the towers over and over again. They did finally stop showing the clips where you could see people jumping / falling out of the windows, so that was a small relief, but still. Looking away felt like dishonoring those people in some way, I think…so we just kept watching and watching. Trying to see where it all went wrong, maybe. But it’s pretty hard to learn from mistakes when a country can’t admit that it actually made any.

We did end up going to the trade show at the end of October. My mom was worried. She kept asking what if it happened again while I was there? All I could do was shrug and, with a wisdom well beyond what my 21 years should have afforded me (and which I since have seem to lost the vast majority of), say “life has to go on”.

The venue and our hotel were a good three miles or so from the footprint of the towers. One night as we were getting into the elevator to head back up to our rooms, a guy in a hard hat and orange vest waved at us to hold the door for him. He was maybe 25 feet further down the lobby and walking very slowly. When he got closer, we saw that he was absolutely caked with dust and dirt. When he got into the elevator he apologized for making us wait.

“I would have walked faster but I’m kind of beat,” he said half-jokingly.

“Are you working down there? Where…it happened?” one of my coworkers asked.

He nodded, keeping his eyes trained studiously on the ground. My coworker silently put out his hand toward the dusty guy, who reached out and shook it with a quiet “thanks”. It was a long, quiet ride up to the 20th floor where my group were staying. When we got off the elevator, we turned back to wish the guy good luck but he was leaning back against the wall of the elevator, eyes closed, chin tipped like he had nodded off. We didn’t disturb him.

I hate what the anniversary of 9/11 has become. I hate that it has been co-opted by the ‘Murica crowd with their These Colors Don’t Run t-shirts and their Terrorist Hunting Permit bumper stickers and their racism. I hate that they refuse to learn history, to understand context, to grasp nuance. I hate that they can’t see that this cycle will continue to play out over and over again because this country keeps making the same mistakes, keeps voting for the same wrong-headed politicians pushing the same wrong-headed ideas. I hate that we can’t seem to find a way to honor the lives of all the people that died in the attacks and the aftermath without turning it into some kind of garish, jingoistic, self-masturbatory political spectacle. Those were real people, with real families, real lives. They deserve better than some bullshit parade full of rednecks waving Don’t Tread On Me flags. They deserve better than a country that continues to vehemently deny it bears any responsibility in the way the world is crumbling around us.

But life has to go on.


Last night I had a dream that I was on a rock in the middle of a huge body of water.

Not an island, but just literally a bare rock. Big enough to stand up and walk around a little bit…probably like 10ft by 8ft, tops.

There were other similar rocks around in the water, and I had this deep understanding that I really needed to get off my particular rock and on to the other ones if I wanted to live. But the other rocks were all just far enough away from mine that I’d have to get into the water and swim to between them, and the water was so, so dark and murky, and seemed incredibly deep (swimming in deep water has been a life-long fear of mine, even in clear water where I can see the bottom).

I kept thinking I could see sharks and other scary things zooming around under the water out of the corner of my eye. The water felt very very unsafe to get into even though I understood that, if I didn’t get in and get to the next rock, I’d eventually die there on my rock.

I’d love to be able to say that I mustered up the courage and jumped into the water, got to the next rock and the next, and on to better things…but I didn’t. I just sat there being petrified until the dream changed to something else.

And I’m not sure anyone could come up with a more accurate-feeling metaphor for my life, to be honest.

The pandemic has taken so much from so many people. Loved ones, jobs, homes, schooling, friends lost to disagreements over public health policies that have no damned business being politicized and yet continue to be. So, so much. And I have been so incredibly lucky: my job immediately and smoothly transitioned to fully remote and my employer has no interest in forcing anyone back into the office, and my husband’s job takes swift and proactive measures to keep everyone as safe as possible. Hubs and I were able to get vaccinations relatively quickly and easily. Neither of us had bad side effects from the vaccination. Neither of us has caught the virus so far (although that’s not fully luck as we are very, very careful). My folks got fully vaccinated and are conducting themselves relatively responsibly despite their having quaffed their fair share of the right’s thoroughly tainted Kool-Aid. Almost all of our friends and extended family have been pro-vaccine, pro-mask, pro-safety, pro-the-greater-good.

I have very, very little to complain about.

And it’s not that I’m complaining, exactly. It’s more of a…reality check? A personal “coming to Jesus” thing, but in slow motion, and without actually involving Jesus because I’m not Christian?

Basically what I’m trying to get at is that the pandemic has been showing me a lot of things that I should be grateful for, but it’s also been shining a big-ass spotlight on some themes in my life that I had not been previously picking up on. And that’s something to be grateful for, too…the opportunity to do better for myself. And having these realizations while I’m still relatively young means I’ve theoretically got time to work on things.

But I’m on that rock, you see. And the next rock is just over there, but there’s so much deep, dark water in between. And every time I turn my head I’m pretty sure I see a shark…

the mechanic

A few weeks ago…ok, probably a month ago? I’m bad with how time works. My brain reads hours as minutes and weeks as days more often than not.

Let me start over.

A month or so ago, I’m pulling out of my driveway when my neighbor flags me down. Our individual driveways merge into one small road that goes out to the main road, so we see each others’ comings and goings fairly regularly. I roll down my car window and smile.

“Hi there! What’s up?”

“Did’ya know your tail lights are out?” His voice is gravelly from years of heavy smoking. He’s got about four visible teeth in his mouth, presumably due to the same.

“Oh no, are they?” I had no idea. I’m never in back of the car when it’s running, let alone braking.

“Both of ’em. The one in your back window is working, but it’s small. Better get those fixed before you get hit,” he says sternly.

“You bet. Thanks for the heads-up,” I say. We pull away and continue along down the drive.

Of course I instantly forget about the tail lights.

A week or so later, he flags me down again, this time headed into our driveway.

“Tail lights still out,” he mutters. His rheumy blue eyes betray that he’s more disappointed than he sounds. And he sounds pretty disappointed.

“I know it, I meant to stop in at AutoZone and get them fixed but I’ve been busy, and then I forgot, and…you know how it goes. But it’s on the list, I promise.”

He nods and waves me along. As we pull up to park, I say to my husband, “You watch. One of these days he’s going to get sick of my shit, come fix those tail lights, and not even tell us”. We chuckle and don’t think much more of it.

This afternoon I’m sitting here working and my cell phone rings. It comes up with the neighbor’s name so I answer it.


“Hello. Your keys in your car?”

“Uhh, no. Why?”

“I was gonna come over and fix those tail lights.”

“Oh, I’ve got an appointment at the garage next week, I was going to have them do it then.”

“Not safe to drive around without ’em. I’ve got the bulbs and the tools. I’ll come do it for you real quick.” And then he hangs up.

Well. No sense arguing, I guess.

He’s maybe 15 years older than me, but he looks much older. Decades of heavy drink and smoke will do that to a body. He recently had part of his pancreas and stomach removed, spent six weeks in hospital, and was out mowing the lawn in ten-minute bursts within a week of coming home. Once he was feeling better and moving around more easily, he started in on trimming back the limbs along the shared part of the driveway because he wants to have it widened and re-graveled this fall. His flower garden is extensive and immaculate. The man truly doesn’t know how to be idle.

While he’s here fixing my tail lights, he notices that my tires were really worn down. I say I was kind of putting off replacing them because I’ll need to buy snow tires soon enough anyway and I don’t really want the expense of buying two sets at once. He leans down, brushes the dirt off the sidewall of a tire and reads out the size.

“195/65 R15. I think I have a set of used ones in that size at the shop.”

“Oh! That would be great, I’d be happy to buy them off you.”

“Used. They wouldn’t cost you anything. You couldn’t run them a whole season, you’d still have to buy a new set come spring. But they’d get you through inspection and last you ’til you get your snows put on.”

“Ok, well…let me know, I guess. My inspection appointment is Thursday.”

He nods slowly, then starts walking down the driveway, back toward his house.

“Hey, what do I owe you?”

He turns his head halfway back over his shoulder as he continues walking.

“Nothin’. It was just a couple lightbulbs. See ya.”

So I guess the moral of the story is, if you’re forgetful and not good at car maintenance, get yourself a mechanic neighbor with a lack of boundaries and a generous heart.