2021 Update: I wrote this in 2011, as I reflected on the events of 9/11. Another ten years have gone by now, and so I revisited this post to see if my thoughts have changed since then, which I’ve included in a postscript at the end.
Ten years is a long time. And it goes by in the blink of an eye. I know how I remember the events of ten years ago – Sept 11, 2001 – but memories change. Like watercolor paint seeping across the page, they become lightly tinged by your current vantage point and experiences you’ve had since then.
I didn’t live in the U.S. on 9/11. I was studying abroad at Cambridge University in England – a decision my college roommate and I made the minute we read the email that the deadline to sign up was approaching.
We’d never discussed studying abroad before, but it sounded like fun. So we registered and then let our parents know what we’d be doing come August of that year.
Cart before horse? Yes. But what did it matter? The things we truly wanted to do, we didn’t have to think too much about. We just made it happen.
A Seemingly Perfect Autumn Day
On September 11, we’d been in England for three weeks. It was a Tuesday. Sunny, warm, a perfect autumn day. Classes were done for the morning and so my roommate and I walked down to the train station on the other side of town to check the train schedule for that weekend’s trip to Germany.
The thirty minute walk took us from our house at one end of Cambridge, past all the colleges, markets and pubs, and finally to the train station at the other end of town.
On the walk back, I wanted to stop by a cafe in town that looked like it could be a fun place to go for drinks later on.
We walked over the cobblestone side street up to the menu board on the outside wall and looked at the entertainment menu for when the cafe opened as a pub later in the evening.
The doors were closed on that side, but the other side of the cafe had a whole wall of doors flung open and a large crowd was gathered at them, looking into the cafe.
We made our way around the corner to see what the crowd was all about, and saw two TV’s blaring in the cafe. The first tower was smoking. The crowd was buzzing about a plane hitting the tower and it possibly being terrorism.
I remember grabbing for my roommate as it dawned on us what we were looking at just as the second tower was hit. My skin tingled as terror washed over me. I’m not sure who let out a yelp, but tears immediately sprung to my eyes and quickly turned to shaking sobs. “What is going on?!” “Why is this happening??”
“They are Americans!”, the crowd heard our accents, “Get them your phone, let them call home!”
Cell phones were thrust in our hands as we tried dialing home. The lines were already down, we couldn’t get through. I don’t know who we thought we’d reach, all of our parents would have been at work at that time.
We simply wanted to hear voices we knew tell us it was ok.
We ran up the street to a convenience mart to buy phone cards to use in the little red phone booths. Somehow, those land lines still worked. But there still wasn’t anyone home to pick up our call.
We both left frightened messages for our parents (which probably scared the shit out of them, what with their daughters an ocean away and nothing they could do about it).
After stepping out of the phone booths, we collected ourselves and walked back to the cafe to watch the TV’s and get as much information as we could. A few hours passed. We drank coffee that someone else kindly paid for. And we watched.
Nobody really knew anything. Everything was unconfirmed. And we didn’t want to leave that TV for fear of missing something, anything, that would let us breathe easier.
When we realized the rest of the house would likely be wondering where we were since we’d left hours ago, we decided to walk home. All eighteen housemates were there laying, sitting, and crouching on every piece of furniture in the living room, watching the TV and waiting to hear from family back home. We all wondered the same thing: how does this change things?
9/11 changed me in many ways, as I’m sure it did for everyone who experienced it. But one thing it didn’t change was my acceptance that life comes with bad and dangerous things, and you cannot stop living on account of the fact that there are bad and dangerous things in the world.
While we cancelled our Germany trip for that coming weekend, we were right off the next week on an extended travel trip through several European countries. We all exercised more situational awareness in our travels, but I didn’t stop going out and doing things just because something bad was done intentionally to Americans.
I had the time of my life that year and was ready to move to the UK permanently by the time my trip wrapped up. I have to imagine that had I pulled back, shrunk away from interactions, and lived from a place of fear, I’d have had quite a different experience.
Life comes with danger and risk. I knew that more acutely than ever. And yet, I also knew inherently that I had to decide how much danger and risk I was willing to accept and then live life on those terms. I know people who think traveling alone as a woman is too risky. And I know others who think jumping out of airplanes is well within their risk tolerance profile.
(All things considered, my life is not risky at all when compared to what the brave men and women who serve in the military and as first responders face.)
The point though is not to make it a comparison game. It’s to make a conscious choice about the risks I’m willing to accept, and then make my life choices accordingly. That, to me, is freedom.
It’s horrid that any human could want to cause harm to another human. It’s terrible that people can be just minding their own business and they end up in a wrong place/wrong time scenario and become the victim of a crime. I hope to never find myself in a situation like that. But the only way to guarantee that is to never leave my house. And even then…
To try and guarantee a risk-free life is to never use my god-given freedom to experience life and the world around me. To never interact with any other person on this planet. To never go looking for new experiences.
No, thanks. As far as we know, you only get one ticket to take this particular ride and I’m not going to waste mine.
Twenty years on from this experience, I am certain the watercolors of this memory have seeped with age and accrued wisdom. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.
At the age of 20, I knew without knowing that I valued freedom, living life on my terms, and trusting myself to choose my risk tolerance profile. Today at 40, I know that I know I value these things. I’ve built an entire business around helping people to become unbreakable, a word which encompasses far more than just your physical strength or flexibility.
Becoming unbreakable is about:
- learning that you know better than anyone else what is right for you and your body.
- building trust in yourself by making choices every day and then taking note of how your body responds.
- making yourself strong – physically, mentally, and in that intangible way that you can’t put your finger on it but you know it when you feel it – so that you go out and live life as fully as you desire.
- building your body, mind, and spirit, so that you can fully partake in the glorious freedom of living this one amazing life you’ve got.
The watercolors have seeped and rather than messing the picture of this memory up, they’ve made it better by giving it more depth and understanding than I could have had at 20 or 30 years of age. I can only hope that the next several decades of my life further enhance the picture of this and all the rest of my memories.