I guess it’s become the defining moment of a generation. Where were you? people ask today on the 10th anniversary of 9/11
I was in my bedroom, in Williamsburg, Virginia, in pjs, sipping tea, reading my Bible. Roy who was about to enter his classroom at William and Mary to teach at 9.30, called me hurriedly on his mobile. As he was about to enter, a Chinese colleague passed on the news in the corridor, “Palestinians have blown up the World Trade Centre.” “What?” I said, “I have to teach,” he said.
And so I logged on. The news unfolded: 2 planes, hijacked, had flown into the Twin Towers, another into the Pentagon, a fourth crashed. I walked over to visit my neighbour, a pilot. “Did the hijackers force the pilots to fly into the World Trade Centre?” “The terrorists flew the plane,” he said, disgusted. “No American pilot would fly into a building.”
The terrorists flew those planes into buildings. At the cost of their own certain deaths.
* * *
Later that evening, I talked to my younger sister, the director of a Wall Street firm of venture capitalists. She was standing in her office, on her phone, and saw the second plane hit the World Trade Centre. She rushed out, in her heels, frantically trying to locate her husband who worked at Morgan Stanley on her mobile. They walked for hours through the streets of running, crying people, trying to get home to New Jersey. In Holmdel, the affluent commuter suburb in which they lived, many of their children’s classmates had lost parents that day. The school bus didn’t run. There would have been no one at home in too many cases. Parents had to come to school to collect their children.
* * *
The world changed. My world changed. Xenophobia was in the air. I am Indian. Suddenly, I seemed to be getting second looks, narrowed eyes, even in parks. I began to feel self-conscious. Did my sweet husband resemble an Islamic terrorist? Apparently, some thought so.
Williamsburg, 8 hours from New York used to be a polite place. Suddenly, it too was frayed, at least where foreigners were concerned. I absent-mindedly drove into the church parking lot, where the lines were being painted, not noticing the cones, the sort of thing that par for the course, for a dreamy woman like me. The woman painting them swore at me. Rattled, shocked, I reversed rapidly, my new mini-van absurdly big, with poor visibility, driving over her freshly painted lines, driving into her pot of paint. She shook her fist and shrieked at me in rage.
I was so rattled. After meeting with the pastor, Roy spoke to me in a loud, stressed voice in the lobby as we were leaving. The receptionist whom I’d never seen before was nervous, and asked us a rattled question. She offensively asked a worker we did know, “Who are they? Do you know them?” He smiled and whispered “Yes. I know them.” Why would we not be okay? Come on, all brown skinned people aren’t terrorists. * * *
Our kids were young, 2 and 6, Roy worked intensely, and so to get away from the pressure, we used to go away on many weekends. To Virginia’s beautiful Eastern shore, Chincoteague, Assateague, Massanutten, Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks, renting a beach house or mountain cabin, enjoying beach walks or mountain hikes.
Virginia was polite. Live and let live land. Suddenly that changed. We walked into a homey down-market restaurant in the Eastern Shore, where admittedly, there are few foreigners. Conversation stopped, everyone looked at us. I felt so self-conscious. Should Roy trim his fine terrorist beard? Gosh, but I am rather partial to beards. I could not imagine being married to a clean-shaven one. The beard stayed.
Another time, when we were weekending in one of those small lily-white Virginian idyllic resorts, we ordered dinner at a restaurant. Our order was taken somewhat snootily. Several people who came after us were served. The waitress seemed uninterested in explaining why. We got up and left, just as our order apparently was arriving.
I had lived in America for 14 years by then, and barely experienced racism. As I said, the world changed.
* * *
We used to shop in an “Indian” grocery store, run by Afghans in Virginia Beach, 60 miles away, and chatted to the owners, got to know them. Good groceries, great sweets. When America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world unilaterally declared war on Afghanistan, among the most impoverished and resource-poor nation in the world, I got worried for them. I drove up to see if they were okay. We were relatively well-off, lived in a safe, gated community. They were not, did not. They were not there. Their shop was boarded up. No one seemed to know what had become of them.
I began to think of the Jews in the thirties in Germany during the Third Reich. The smartest thing for them to do, of course, was to get out. Not all of them saw this, of course.
We had been long eligible for citizenship; my husband was a tenured Professor. However, he preferred doing his research rather than applying for citizenship. We owned an expensive house. I insisted we get US citizenship just in case a wave of xenophobia became institutionalised, and we had to leave, losing our house. Memories of the Third Reich again.
* * *
And so we took the citizenship test, aced the written section, swotty us, failed one question in the interview. “Who had the right to declare war?” The President? I said. Nope, it was Congress. And they did. On Iraq. Despite Hussein’s repeated protests that he did not have weapons of mass destruction. The invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq struck me as profoundly unfair. I felt incoherently angry and upset about it.
I found myself at odds with my church culture, which showed American flags in the sanctuary and tearfully sung “America the Beautiful” in church. I led Beth Moore Bible studies in church in women’s groups, and the Person of Jesus studies for mixed groups.
Williamsburg is military country, there are army, navy, air force and a famous CIA base (Camp Perry) there or nearby. A large percentage of Christians were in the military, and supportive of Bush’s actions. Politically, ethically, I began to find myself at odds with even American Christian culture, even with my mentor, an older, saintly, wise woman, whom I met with weekly, and loved and adored, but who, though clever, was a product of her time and age, a patriotic American.
A brilliant American Christian friend of mine once told me why she could not worship in sexist churches.” I would bit my tongue so much, I would get an ulcer,” she said. Yeah, I was biting my tongue so much, I was in ulcer territory.
· * * *
I had just one mantra then. I have to leave America. I have to leave America. I had been very happy in Oxford as an undergraduate. I wanted to return. Roy said that British academic salaries were lower than American ones, and house prices higher. Dear reader, I did not care!!
And doors opened. He won a prize for having written the best paper in his field in the last three years. He was invited as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar to the Manchester University, then spent a year at the Mathematical Institute at Oxford University on another grant, and then was offered a Chair at the University of Birmingham. They asked what his American salary was, and topped it up by ten percent. So there, Roy Mathias, I was right.
Sort of. Taxes are higher. Property prices are far higher, especially since I bought the house I fell in love with, a 1711 cottage with a little mother in law apartment in the garden and a acre and a half and an orchard, without really, really being able to afford it . Private schools offer SO much more than state schools do; we put the girls in an academically selective one, where they learn Mandarin Chinese, Greek, Latin, Philosophy. I never needed to work in the US. Now, I had to. I am too much of a wild cat to work for someone else, and besides, I didn’t think I’d be paid enough for the school fees and part of the mortgage.
So I founded a business, a publishing company, in which I worked for 4 years, setting my writing aside. Now however, I no longer work in it, it’s become too big and too complex, and I no longer have the firm grasp of each detail and every bit of minutiae which is necessary to run a small business successfully. Roy is no longer an academic, but runs the company.
As I said, 9/11 profoundly changed our lives in more ways than one.
Decades and centuries later, people will look back on that surreal day, September 11, 2001. One man, Osama Bin Laden, declared war on the most powerful nation in the world. He hatched a scheme, never thought of before, meticulously planned and executed through years of preparation and training. 19 young men willingly went to their deaths, bringing down 3000 innocent men and women with them. It wasn’t as devastating as America’s atomic attacks on Japan, but those 19 lives did exact a staggering death toll.
And all for? Nothing! Two nations, not directly involved in 9/11 as far as I can tell, Afghanistan and Iraq have paid a dreadful price in human grief and misery, and suffered much economic, social and emotional devastation. Osama himself is dead, taken out by his rhyming nemesis, Obama. The world is a more suspicious place, billions spent on airport checks. It’s safe to say that the next terrorist attack will not happen in exactly the same way. But how will it happen? And where? The world is a less safe place.
· * * *
I was praying together with a group of women this Friday. Someone mentioned 9/11 in her prayers. I thought to myself,”Come one, let’s keep this to things close to our hearts.” And then, I thought, “And isn’t it?”
And then, in that group of praying women in North Oxford, I asked myself, “Is there anyone I hate enough that I would fly American Airline Flight 11 into them at the probable cost of my own life?”
And I thought, “No. I hate no one.” And then a quizzical voice within me asked,”Is this really true, Anita. Do you really hate no one? Are you home free?”
Sigh. And then I remembered a couple of people I felt intense anger towards, enough to metaphorically fly American Airlines Flight 11 into them.
* * *
It’s quiet at home these days. Irene, 12, was blissfully researching the Italian Renaissance for a school project yesterday. Zoe was reading Yeats for school. Roy was bonding with his laptop. So I locked the door, and lay down on my bed praying.
· The anniversary of the triumph of irrational hatred, even at the cost of one’s own life, was drawing near.
I had to forgive.
I had to forgive.
I had to forgive.
But what happened to me was unfair, unjust. They were callous, uncaring.
* * *
There is one sure way I know to get myself over the forgiveness bridge. It was seriously praying for blessing on those people.
Praying for blessing? But you see, God, I want justice. I want you to take up my cause and punish them for what they have done to me.
Pray for blessing on them, and you will forgive. And you will be free, said an insistent voice.
* * *
Joseph, thrown into the pit by his brothers. Joseph, sold as a slave. Joseph, who rises to be the head of Potiphar’s house. Joseph, unjustly thrown into a dungeon. Joseph, who rises to be the head of Pharaoh’s administration. Who saves his family, including his beloved father and youngest brother.
He would have been an affluent shepherd, if not for the empty well. He would have run Potiphar’s household, if not for the dungeon. Now, he runs Egypt. He rescues his family.
God had always given him intimations of greatness. The sun and moon and 11 stars bowing to him. His brothers’ sheaves bowing to him. But the way God chose to change him from a shepherd to a prince was the way of pits, dragons and dungeons. The injustices he suffered were part of God’s plan for promotion.
He finally sees it was all God. It was part of God’s plan, God’s drama. His brothers were just bit players in it.
He turned his focus from his brothers to God. And then he was able to forgive his brothers, just bit players in God’s great plan.
· * * *
And so I did that. Turned my focus from those who had hurt me to God. Immense good had come to me on of the different paths I took because of the injustice I had suffered (something I have not written about yet) and the metaphorical pit I was thrown into. I was able to find my path in writing and my creative life. In business and my financial life. Was able to make real money to bless my family, and others. All because the path I had initially chosen, which I now see was not in God’s plan for me, was closed off to me by other people’s scheming, competitiveness, lies, injustice and insecurity.
I am not going to tell the story of the injustice I suffered here, because heck, this blog post is already far too long.
But stories need to be told. That is in their very nature. A story not told is like a light hidden under a bushel.
And so I will tell it, when my own wounds have totally healed and my words might bring light, rather than a sword, because using a sword is God’s prerogative, not mine, and he will use it.
* * *
And I forgave. Again. And felt the familiar release of joy and creativity. You see for me , forgiveness is intimately aligned with creativity. When I forgive, I feel joy, and creative ideas flow. When I do not, I feel blocked, creatively, and my joy is blocked.
* * *
I have learnt another thing in my battles with forgiveness. It is two steps forward, one step backward. Two steps forward, one step backward. Slow, faltering, in zigzags.
So because I have forgiven them yesterday does not mean that the emotions of anger will not return. The sense of injustice. Of impotence and humiliation.
I have forgiven far greater wrongs that this one which is still raw. And I will forgive this. In time. With the grace of God which falls like rain on the rocky soil of our hard hearts.
Keep them soft, oh Lord. Deliver us from evil. Deliver us from all the Flights 77 and 11 which our enemies may fly into us. And, guard our hearts, oh Lord. May we never pilot them.