In the fall of 2001, I sublet an apartment in downtown Manhattan, and accepted a schedule of meditation classes that began the night of Tuesday, Sept 11th. The Friday before, I went home to Massachusetts for the weekend and stayed an extra two days to see a Tibetan lama visiting a friend of mine.
That decision had me packing on the morning of the 11th to return to NYC in good time for my evening class. When the phone first rang, and a friend told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, I casually assumed it was a small plane, and an accident, and said, “Well, it isn’t all that close to my apartment. I’ll be ready to leave in an hour and I’ll get going.”
Then the phone rang again, and another friend, as deluded as I, offered, ”The West Side highway will probably be crazy. You should really just go down the east side when you get there.” “Good idea,” I replied, and went on packing.
Finally the phone rang once more, and a third friend exclaimed, “Thank God you’re not in New York”. Puzzled, I replied, “I’m just about to leave.” She said, “No you’re not. Turn on the television.”
I spent the next days glued to the television, watching the towers fall again and again. At first I couldn’t get back to the city, which I felt compelled to do, because the roads and bridges were closed. When they opened again, I could not get in because my sublet was below the police barricades at 14th Street.I couldn’t get proof of residency to cross them because the rental office was also down there, and closed. When the barricades moved further down below my apartment I worried about going in because I have asthma and the air quality was so uncertain.
I finally got into New York about Sept 18th, and then stayed for several months, determined to resume my classes. The air quality was indeed horrible, and I spent much of my time wearing a Hepa filter mask. Some of my friends and students had lost people they loved, and were grieving. Some were volunteering at Ground Zero, and came to my class with haunted eyes. Many were frightened, and viewed each subway ride, not unreasonably, as a potential risk to their lives. Still they all came. I looked up at the beginning of each class, and knew what courage it took for many to simply physically get there, to be willing to go inside their minds, to make the effort to find awareness and compassion for all their myriad, tangled feelings.
I was writing Faith at the time, in a steaming studio apartment where I couldn’t turn on the air conditioner or open the window because of what it might draw in from the outside air. I used my asthma inhaler, sweated, struggled to find words, and thought a lot about my NYC students. I felt emboldened by their courage, made a better person by their efforts to find goodness in life. I decided to spend as much time in the city as I could, a decision I’m still carrying out today, four years later.