Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ghosts in the machine

We all have our stories. Of where we were ten years ago today. And some of us feel the need to tell them again and again like a talisman, no matter how mundane or tragic. As if to say "I am still here" because "I was there then". 

I was in Paris that day, full of hope and wildly in love. It was the last trip before officially moving over from NYC. As a treat, Remi and I visited the Musée d'Orsay that afternoon and I have a photo of our faces smushed together like soft white moons. We strolled through the Jardin de Tuileries afterwards to the Ritz on the Place Vendôme. There was no doorman out front, so in we went, just to see. And I do remember that members of the staff were running around but trying to do so quietly. I thought that odd.

It wasn't until we got back to our empty, brand new apartment that I heard a frantic, desperate voicemail from my Mom just saying that my Sister was fine but to please, please call. She needed to hear from me. We turned on the radio, it was all we had. "Les jumelles sont tombée!" Remi shouted out. Of course I didn't believe him once he translated that the Twin Towers had fallen. Remi was still working at the Gamma Press agency and so we rushed to their offices. We were met with chaos and the hardness of professional news. I think someone took a photo of me crying while watching the television but I am not sure.

As a photojournalist, Remi was given priority and was on one of the first planes out. I followed a few days later. Already the cab driver seemed accustomed to the "No!" I let out as we drove across the Manhattan Bridge, the gaping absence. No Towers to welcome me home. The smoke was still so strong in Midtown and it was undeniably the smell of death that we were all forced to take in with every inhale. There were no answers and no escape. We huddled together in my small bedroom, Remi holding me tight so that my fear would not strangle me like snakes. 

And then, as with a sweep of angel's wings, the sense of solidarity. Of fellow New Yorker's looking at each other in the eye, of going out of their way to be, if not outright helpful then at least not to be harmful. Respectful as the Missing Person posters finally came down or were carried away by the wind or faded in the rain. Finally, all at the same level because we had all fallen so far, collectively. It was the closest thing to peace that I could feel during those first few weeks afterwards. And then, pushed forward by a plan that had already been set in motion, I was in Paris, leaving my beloved and wounded city behind. 

In the years that followed as Remi and I travelled for our stories together, I could see the ripple effect of that day and how far it reached across the world and back again. The shock of seeing a pro Osama Bin Laden poster in a desert village in Mali, a woman taking my hand and saying how sorry she was for what had happened once she found out that I was an ex-New Yorker, I don't remember where that was. Vanuatu? India? It is a black ribbon that tied us all together.

This past summer, my favorite exhibit in the Rencontres International Photography Festival was a tribute to the Mexican filmmaker Gabriel Figueroa. Screens were set up in the alcoves of the desacrilized Frère Prêcheurs church, the very same where flamenco dancers have been twirling and stomping this weekend during the Feria. Each screen featured different themes in Figueroa's work, all occasionally showing the famous "Figueroa skies" that I remember hearing about when I was an actress. Such depth, such contrast where black is black and white is white. Similar to how so many of us behaved in the days after 9/11.

Two screens were also set up at the opposite ends of the church, both showing a beautifully edited "best of" from his career. It was made up of small moments but I was riveted by the pull of a couple's embrace, a psyche floating amidst the clouds, the slow lift of eyes brimming with tears. The pull of pure humanity. None of us can resist it. I watched the series over and over again.

We are all marked by our memories of this day; they are our ghosts in the machine. I am feeling especially grateful as I type, listening to the Sunday morning bells chime, grateful for Remi in the next room, for my family and loved ones and friends. I am sending out love and strength to any and all of you that are suffering on this Memorial. 


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  2. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Sister. I am actually following the press, as I've never been able to follow any of it before because it depressed me too much! So I have watched t.v., read accounts in the Times, and am finally allowing myself to grasp, a little, the horrible sadness and loss of life from that day. I know about grief and know that acceptance is key; today I am trying to mourn, accept and honor those who lost their lives.

  3. Beautiful post..............xoxox

  4. Heather
    Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing this part of you and your life with all of us.

  5. I am rarely lost for words Heather, but reading your beautiful heartfelt words of so much clarity, I am just lost for words to capture a response to you that has enough meaning, except to say, a very large hug and much love to you. Virginia x

  6. Thank you so much friends.It is a day of loss for all of us, I think. Sister, I give you credit as I always do, for looking the truth in the eye, no matter how long it takes. Juile and Elizabeth, I am grateful for your support and Virgina, you know that I will accept that virtual hug freely! But more importantly; I am thinking of the others, those who lost so much that day.

  7. That day is burned into my memory forever because it’s a day I thought I had lost my husband. We lost fifteen friends and it wasn't until three in the afternoon that I knew my husband was alive. He was supposed to be on the top floor of tower two when the plane hit but thankfully the train he was on was late getting in NYC. My husband was just walking into the building when the plane hit and in the rush he lost his phone and couldn't call me and then had to walk out of the city. It was senseless and a terrible loss of life of innocent people. This was a beautiful post Heather and I'm glad your sister is fine too.

  8. Debra, I have read your comment three times, just trying to take it in. Sending thoughts of strength to you--although I know already that you are strong. I am deeply sorry for the loss of your friends and very grateful that Mister Man's train was late that day.

  9. A wonderful post & tribute. I'm sure everyone has a story to tell of where they were and what they remember that ill-fated day.

    ~ Clare x


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