I remember as a young woman, as November 22nd approached, my father sharing his memories of that day in 1963. He worked in New York City at the time and was walking down Madison Avenue when news poured out of doorways and into the streets: President Kennedy had been shot and was dead. Complete strangers wept in the streets, while others gathered to listen to news anywhere they could find it. I don’t think I appreciated Dad’s memories as much then, until I lived my own, just outside New York City, 14 years ago.
At the time, I taught English literature at McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, New Jersey. My colleague, Mike Riley, a history teacher and basketball coach, came into the room (it was his classroom, which I used during first block). He asked whether I had heard the sirens and whether we had looked out the window. I had, in fact, heard several sirens, but I did not think much about it because the school was around the corner from a hospital. I did wonder whether an accident occurred nearby, but the thought went in and out of my head quickly as I stayed present to my teaching and my students. With Mike’s arrival, we all gathered at the window. From the far corner, we saw billowing black smoke and what turned out to be the first Twin Tower collapsing.
To say that the rest of the day was surreal cannot begin to capture the mental, emotional and spiritual “fog” so many of us in the school – and around the world – experienced. For more than five hours that day, I was part of a team of teachers, counselors and administrators who helped students make arrangements to go home, call parents (when phones actually worked) and prepare for the unimaginable, the injury or death of a loved one. I remember opening the yearbook office, watching news on the school TV and talking to a lot of students, many of whom I did not know personally. Not until I prepared to drive home and reached the entrance to the New Jersey Turnpike, where a police officer asked to see my license and registration, did I begin to cry, as I realized the magnitude of events.
When I think about living through that time, I also remember staying grounded in my faith in God. Despite everything which occurred, I remember the warmth, kindness and care so many people shared that day. I witnessed how compassion and presence can be a spiritual practice, that God’s Presence is active and alive among both friends and strangers.
Nowhere in sacred scripture does it say God is burning towers. God is divine creator, unconditional love and infinite compassion, even when towers burn to the ground, because we each are divine expressions of God. Tomorrow, I invite you, Blessed Reader, to remember with me, not only where you were, but who and whose you are.