When the planes flew into the Twin Towers, I was out of the country. It took me more than a week to be able to get past the sealed borders and return home. One thought consumed my mind during that agonizing week of separation from my house, pets, friends and the city that I loved. I craved to be of service to my community.
At that time I had served New York City as an urban shaman for 26 years. The New Yorker magazine had even dubbed me "the unofficial commissioner of public spirit of New York City. The World Trade Center had been the site of half of the seasonal celebration rituals that I had facilitated and so I was especially bereft at the loss of my public altar.
My response to the terrible tragedy was to undertake a "Walk Your Talk Pilgrimage." One by one, I engaged the people whose paths I crossed: friends, the UPS man, the guard at the bank, the waitress at the coffee shop, the washing machine repairman, the people who actually live, work and love in New York City. We engaged in these amazingly intimate, sweetly profound conversations that inevitably ended in a hug or an extra-firm handshake.
It was the human face of this tragedy and its resulting extraordinary state of affairs that I chose to focus on. I did not want to lose track of the myriad emotional and spiritual interconnections that people are capable of making -- with each other, with their own best selves, with the greater universal good of all.
I experienced this kinder, gentler city the minute I got back to Brooklyn. A delivery guy was just leaving my building as I arrived home with all my heavy travel bags. When he saw me trying to wrestle them up the stairs, he ran to help me, thank goodness. He wouldn't accept a tip and insisted that he just wanted to help. When I asked him if all his relations were safe, he said that they were all fine, but that he felt terrible, because he wanted to do something to help. "You just did," I reminded him. He was extremely pleased with the notion that this, too, was peace making.
On the way to the coffee shop with friends the next morning, I ran into my neighbor Monifa walking with another woman. We stopped right there in the middle of the street, traffic not withstanding. (And nobody honked.) "How are you?" "How are you?" "No one dead?" "Everyone OK?" We ran our eyes up and down each other looking for signs, for clues of damage. We all six embraced in relief and mutual comfort and then we introduced our selves to the ones in this circle who we didn't know. We hugged first and asked names later! A sign, surely, of sanity in psychotic times. (And still nobody honked.)
I went to visit the 2nd Fire precinct in my neighborhood on the two-week anniversary of the conflagration to pay my respects. The neighboring community had blanketed the sidewalk up and down the street with offerings of flowers, candles, cakes, tears and messages -- one written on World Trade Center stationery and sent as a thank you for saving his life on that fateful day of reckoning.
There was a chalk list of the missing from this firehouse posted outside with eleven names on it. There had clearly been a twelfth, just recently erased, but I didn't have the heart to ask whether this missing fire fighter had been found alive or dead.
I shook the hands of one traumatized but sturdy young man and thanked him. I engaged his misting eyes with my own and told him that I prayed that their dedication and sacrifice would be the foundation of a new way to live together as a world community. He locked my eyes and squeezed my hand and bit his quivering lip. He had seen quite enough of war, thank you very much.
At the bank I greeted the lobby guard as usual. I asked him if he was OK. "Not really," he told me as his eyes filled with tears. His stepfather had been in the building. He escaped, but was shaken to the core. The guard (who I talk to practically every day and whose name I am ashamed to admit I do not know) said that he felt that his step dad would never be the same, like some Viet Nam vets whom he has known who will never be the same.
Then he confessed to me something remarkable. Actually, it was the most profound thing that I have heard anyone anywhere say on the subject. "I hate my uncle" he told me. "And I have hated my uncle for so long that now I hate anyone who looks like my uncle. 'Why for you got to go look like my uncle?' he quoted himself in his West Indian lilt. "Now I have to hate you." He looked me right in the eyes and said that he realizes now how wrong that is. That he can no longer hate all uncle look-alikes. That he is now even working on trying not to hate his uncle.
I called Judith, one of my sister celebrants, who was feeling particularly despondent. A nurse, she had immediately ran to one of the hospitals on Tuesday morning to lend a hand, but after the first batch of the injured passed through the emergency room there was no one else to help.
An ill wind blew the smoke, ash and smoldering bits and pages of paper from the World Trade Center into her yard three miles away on the other side of the Battery Tunnel. She was worried about her two small children. She was desperate to move out of this place of feeling helpless. "I wish there was something that I could do."
"You could call Linda," I suggested, knowing that she had had a recent painful falling out with a good friend of hers. She allowed as she had known deep-down all along that in light of everything that has just happened, she should, she wanted to call. But she couldn't. "Just do it, honey. Make peace." And she did! And they did.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
There is an intense white light, an inner glow that now emanated from the people of New York City. We had risen to an unthinkable occasion and we liked ourselves for doing so. We reached out to our neighbors and we found that we liked them, too. And everyone really liked how good it feels to feel good about themselves and each other. People want desperately to do right, to do good, to be good, to live right.
In the hardest of times, we managed to transcend what makes us human and embodied what makes us humane. We saw the putrid smoke of destruction burn clean with the spirit of true communion. We in our beleaguered town have tasted grace. We recognized it for what it is and we cherished living in its beneficence.
So many people have expressed to me their apprehension that as things return to normal, people will lose some of their newfound consciousness of perspective and interdependence. But why go back there? What used to be normal didn't really pan out all that well, it seems to me. That old normal isn't nearly good enough for us who are divine and beautiful beings. Our challenge and our joy is to make this miracle of living in caring community be the new normal.
The way I see it, we are at a crossroads in our evolution. Either we will figure out how to live together on one planet without violence. Or we won't. We expect this of our kids at school. We expect it in our families and at our jobs.
We are modern dinosaurs and it is up to us whether this meteor storm that we have suffered will drive us to extinction. As Glen, the copier machine mechanic remarked, "this is like a wake-up call." Well it is actually more like an air raid siren going off in the middle of the night. Emergency. 911.
I have just been reading Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss about the original Siamese Twins who were, in fact, from Siam. Here were two men, fraternal twins, a double-boy, physically dissimilar and with radically different personalities who lived for 64 years connected to each other at the chest by a 5 inch long band of muscle and cartilage which housed their single stomach.
They married two sisters and had 21 biracial children between them. This in the constrained society of the Victorian American South. These twins managed to make an awkward, untenable situation work because they had to. They couldn't walk away or hurt the other without suffering that same harm themselves. They learned how to live together because they had no choice.
Can we do less?