Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September 11

Mostly I have avoided giving too much attention to September 11th, not because I feel callously towards those who lost so much that day but because it had become an opportunity for the current US administration to use the tragedy for highly questionable ends--the worst kind of opportunism in my opinion. The term "9/11" has come to mean so many things that there seems like there is little chance to really think about and remember what that day was like for people living in NYC at that moment. But last year, Dorothy King called me and asked me to write a commentary about 9/11 for the CBC morning show, particularly focusing on how those events shaped our decision to spend so much time here in Newfoundland. At first, I really didn't think that it had, but upon reflection, I realized there was a connection. So here is my piece, to be tossed into the pot with all the other words that this day has conjured up for us:

My first visit to the west coast of Newfoundland was in August 2001. I was participating in the now-defunct artist residency program in Curling. I stayed for the entire month of August with my husband and two young children in the old Bank of Montreal building, which had been transformed into artist studios. We traveled around the Bay of Islands, I made art, and we fell in love with this amazing place. We arrived back at our home in New York City in early September and had barely settled in when the events of September 11th took place.

Like everyone who was in the city that day, we have our stories—what we were doing at the moment it happened, what we saw and heard, and how we reacted. And like any witness to events as terrible and tragic as those that occurred that day, our stories are filled with the horror as well as the mundane; laced with moments of profound realization as well as moments of humour. Our stories, like many others, highlight the absurd juxtaposition of ordinary life bumping up against world-altering events. We cried and laughed. We felt scared for our lives and we did all we could to help our neighbors who had needs greater than our own. And like good, tough New Yorkers, we went back to work the next day. While the city was filled with the smell of smouldering remains, we went about our business, convinced that “the terrorists had won” if we let what they had done interfere with our life.

For my husband and I, Newfoundland became closely associated with 9/11. The contrast between what seemed to be an earthly paradise here in Newfoundland and the burning pile of rubble in New York never seemed so great. Newfoundland became a vision that we would conjure up when we needed to imagine a place where it was calm and felt safe.

We returned to the Bay of Islands in 2002, and within a year had bought a house in Gillams, on the North Shore. By 2004, we were spending as much of the year here as possible. I was working on a large art project, the kids went to school, and my husband traveled between New York and Gillams as much as his schedule, and our budget, would allow. We now find ourselves shifting our household to Gillams on a permanent basis.

When I reflect on the changes in our lives in the last five years, I reluctantly acknowledge the way 9/11 has affected our lives. I don’t really want to admit that it has helped to push us closer to leaving the city and made it easier to imagine a life here in Newfoundland. I don’t want to because I hate to think that I have allowed fear to dictate my actions. But I can’t dismiss the enormous sense of relief that is palpable as we drive off the ferry into Port aux Basques. It is a sense of relief at being back in the place that I have come to feel is home, but it is also relief at no longer wondering if each subway trip will be my last, always looking up at any low-flying aircraft, all the 1001 ways that anxiety about the uncertainty of life has flavored our existence in New York.

Yet, even as we may see Newfoundland as a kind of oasis in a brutal world, we hear stories here too. Stories about lost jobs and a lost way of life, about out-migration on a grand scale. Stories about a rapidly changing culture that describe another kind of world-altering experience that seems no less filled with anxiety as my daily trip on the subway. While it is unlikely that Corner Brook will be the target of a terrorist attack any time soon, and pot holes aside, my trip down the North Shore highway rarely leaves me my contemplating an untimely death, I see that life here has its own dire concerns, no less real to people’s lives than suicide bombs and hijacked planes.

It makes me think that September 11th is actually happening everyday only in a less dramatic way. I think the term 9/11 has become so loaded—emotionally, politically, even economically—because it is a graphic illustration of a fundamental truth about life, death, and change. Maybe one of the best lessons of 9/11 we can learn is to take a deep breath, look around at where you are and appreciate it. Be alive right now.

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