Today is the birthday of the world…

by marjorieingall on September 11, 2009

Obviously I’m thinking about 9/11 today. This ran in the Forward in 2002 (it’s no longer on the web site). And now it’s almost Rosh Hashanah again; it’s hard to believe it’s been eight years since the towers fell.

A New Year in a Changed World

By Marjorie Ingall

We live in downtown Manhattan. The twin towers once loomed over our garden wall.

Last year at this time, I was almost nine months pregnant. I watched the first tower fall from the corner of my street, surrounded by neighbors. Everyone was crying in Spanish and English. By evening, the whole neighborhood seemed to be outside, seeking eye contact. People gazed at my belly and got teary. I heard “God bless you” more often in the next few days than I had in a lifetime of sneezing. Ordinarily I hated strangers touching my stomach, but now, over and over, people reached for me and I welcomed it. Serving as a Buddha-belly people could rub, a waddling good luck charm, was something I could do.

At Rosh Hashanah, we think about the fragility of life. Last year, the disbelief and horror of September 11th were new. Now the pain has settled into a dull ache. The towers are like a phantom limb; we still feel their shape, their solidity, the life that was once there.

The universe seems different now. Last year at this time, we New Yorkers obsessed idly about our mayoral candidates, gossiped about the death of R&B starlet Aaliyah in a plane crash, sniped about Gary Condit. Then the world exploded, and what we thought was news was no longer news.

I feel like a grownup now. It’s hard for me to say whether that’s because of the arrival of the baby or because of September 11th. The two are inextricably tied together for me. I also know how self-absorbed it sounds, to talk about one’s own life through the prism of tragedy. When the towers fell, after the initial horror, I worried about my child. What if I went into labor? How would I get to the hospital, since there was no surface traffic or subways anywhere near where I lived? Could the hospital even fit me in, given that it was also the trauma center closest to the World Trade Center? (As it turned out, as we all quickly, horridly learned, there were very few trauma cases.) Would the foul air harm the fetus? Would it be worse to stay home with the air conditioner on, or to go outside and walk the many blocks to anywhere? And if I did manage to leave the city, did I want strangers to deliver my baby?

We stayed. And soon, the vile mixture of fear, revulsion and anxiety we were living with was leavened with a new note: pride. We watched New Yorkers behave valiantly. People were so tender with each other, sharing cell phones and net connections, letting newly homeless friends crash on their couches. We learned more about the last moments of the firefighters; we saw hundreds of small acts of nobility.

Maybe it’s not the lesson of Rosh HaShana, but it’s a lesson. We wouldn’t know the sweet without the bitter. (Though we also have to ask: why, God, does there have to be so much bitter?)

The way I knew New York was healing was when everyone stopped gazing, all misty-eyed and fragile, at my giant belly. One day in early October a retro-windbreakered, yellow-sunglasses-wearing, fuzz-headed hipster walked past me into our apartment building, glanced at my midsection, and said “Dude, lay off the beers.” I laughed, and the sound was weird to me. I was so shocked and happy that I could laugh.

So we heal. On March 11, I went into my backyard to await the Tribute in Light, the beams of light rising from a site just north of Ground Zero to honor the dead. I looked at the horizon and reflected with disbelief that I’d forgotten exactly where the Trade Center used to be. Then a 12-year-old girl, orphaned by terrorism, flipped the switch. The ghostly towers took shape, sculpted in light, and I remembered. I stood in that cold yard with Josie wrapped in a blanket, looking at the lights, so glad to have the baby I didn’t have 6 months ago, so sad at how the world has changed since then.

And now, six months after that, I still rocket back and forth between joy and despair. I don’t know what I tell Josie about terrorism. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to tell her about Rosh Hashanah, faith, or predestination, either. I’m not clear on what parts of the Machzor to judge metaphorically, or what to tell my daughter about why we should be good when the world is often so bad.

I just looked at a picture my husband took of me in the hospital right after our daughter’s birth. My hair is wild; I look exhausted and triumphant and stunned, looking down at a tiny squishy-faced bundle in my arms. And suddenly I realized I’m wearing the same shirt I wore in another photo, one I was angry at my husband for taking. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he had photographed me watching the towers burn. My eyes are hollow; my mouth is twisted. But I’m wearing that same pink tank top. I know I didn’t put it on deliberately in the hospital a month later. But anyone who knows me knows that I measure out my life in clothing. I know what I was wearing when I met my husband for the first time; I know what I was wearing on the flight home from the hospital when I thought I’d never see my father again. Maybe subconsciously I put on that little pink tank because some part of me knew that the associations we have with clothing can be redeemed, just like humanity itself. Nothing horrific comes without a tiny beam of goodness—-goodness in tiny babies, in heroism in the face of sure death, in the possibility of a new year–and sadly, no goodness comes without the remembrance of evil.

Josie doesn’t understand this yet, but then, I really don’t either.

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