Saturday, September 10, 2011

Healing Work: Spelman 9/11 Video Reflections

If I hadn't overslept on the morning of September 11, 2001, I probably would have been on the A train riding directly under the World Trade Center as the buildings were being attacked. Instead I found myself being rousted by an early morning phone call from my father alerting me to the first plane crashing into the North Tower.

I was watching the news and ironing - still thinking I was going to my job editing at Honey magazine - when I got a call from my boss at the time, Ebony magazine's current editor, Amy Dubois Barnett. Together we watched the second plane hit, and realized that we weren't going into the office that day.

Some memories of that morning and the next few days are foggy. Like I don't remember if I talked to anyone else on the phone that day - or for several days - because all the lines were jammed with people all over the world trying to reach their loved ones in the New York area. I think I remember sending and receiving emails some kind of way (dial up?), communicating to my family and friends that I was safe and staying put.

By the end of that week, I did have to go into work, as we were closing an issue of Honey that was scheduled to be printed in a few days. I do recall getting off the train at 33rd and Park Avenue and being accosted by the smell of the towers burning - a stench I'll never forget. By the time I walked half a block to my office, my clothes and hair were peppered with debris from the decimated World Trade Center that was still falling from the sky like snowflakes.

Getting off the elevator, my face was streaked with tears from seeing every available space - bus stops, business fronts, light posts, building walls - plastered with "Have You Seen?" signs, desperate posted pleas from those looking for their missing loved ones. I was overwhelmed by the thought that several days before thousands of people tragically lost their lives halfway between my office and my apartment.

As we worked to put the issue to bed, rumors of bomb threats in many of the skyscrapers and massive train stations kept the mood uneasy. We talked of buying sneakers in case we had to walk miles and traverse bridges on foot to get home, as places like the Empire State Building and Penn Station were continuously being evacuated.

My heart was so heavy that I felt like I was trudging along in a daze the last two and a half months I spent as a resident in New York City. You see, I had already been planning my escape.

Even though I swore I'd never come back home to Georgia (God forbid, where my parents lived!!), by the time the planes hit the towers on September 11th, my sensible self had nearly secured a position as the senior editor at Upscale magazine in Atlanta. I'd turned 30 years old earlier in the year and with that milestone came a crack in rebellious runaway attitude I'd let impact my decisions for the last 15 years. I missed home - and September 11th just sped up a transition that was already in the works.

Oddly enough, I don't think it was until these last few days, that I felt the full impact of what my parents must have been feeling a decade ago - their only daughter, their oldest child, operating in the center of the worst terrorist attack the United States had ever experienced.

Interviewing members of the Spelman College community - students, faculty, and staff - for a series of September 11th anniversary videos really brought it all back to me. Their poignant and emotional remembrances and the perspective I've gained about valuing the important things in life has made me realize that the decade since I left the traumatized capital of the world was a seminal growth period for me.

One Spelman staffer who worked across the street from the World Trade Center and lost 10 people they knew when the towers fell could not bring their self to participate in the video project. The person described their feeling about September 11th a decade later as still being "too raw."

I realized, too, a lot later that I was traumatized by my experience on that fateful day. And being a parent now makes the memory even more acute. I am grateful I had the opportunity to shoot my first pseudo-professional videos for the 10-year anniversary of September 11th. The subject matter of this project is historic. The process was therapeutic. And the work allowed me to revisit one of the most terrifying times in my life through the incredible stories of others brave enough to share their reflections.

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