This year, more than any other, I feel incredibly protective over the memory of 9/11. I have been surprised by a feeling of anxiety and dread during the drumbeat leading up to today and have found myself getting angry at the inevitable media reflections and documentaries that were to come.
But, as I woke up this morning, something interesting happened, the anger had vanished. I am sad but, I also have a sense of calm. As I reflect on today and the ten years that have passed, I've come to realize that 9/11 and my experiences downtown have shaped me in ways that I am only now beginning to understand, it is a part of me, how I view the world and how I choose to lead my life.
I have written before about my experience Downtown as a volunteer in the days after 9/11 as well as reflections in the year's since, but I have always felt a bit strange about highlighting my experience. I have told myself that my experience was not that unique. After all, I was just a volunteer that arrived on the scene that evening. I watched the buildings collapse from the safety of my rooftop on the Upper West Side and thankfully did not lose any immediate loved ones. I spent most of my time as a volunteer a few blocks from the Pile [the actual burning carnage at the center of the relief efforts]. Over the years, I have honored the day quietly in my own way always with a feeling of sadness. For the past few years I did not even post my thoughts as I had in the years immediately following - I simply tucked them away.
However, today, with perspective and a greater willingness to look inside myself, I realize that for the first time in ten years my primary feelings around 9/11 are not about sadness or grief or what was taken away but about what the events of 9/11 have given me and taught me. As strange as it may sound I considered and consider myself lucky to have been able to volunteer Downtown. It gave me a sense of purpose and a place to focus my shock and grief. On the evening of 9/11, I began the first of many 12 hour nighttime shifts as a Red Cross volunteer working with first responders -getting them to eat, take breaks, change clothes and talk. As the work on the pile "normalized", I did weekly shifts with a group set up to outfit firefighters for the 30 day tours of duty that continued for months [the NYFD could not afford to keep re-outfitting the teams as they wore out their gear too quickly]. My experiences enabled me to witness first hand the incredible essence of humanity at its core ; when people perform acts of bravery and dedication and come together to do what's right, even at great risk to themselves. My experience was not the horror and chaos in the moments that followed but of dedication and seeing the best of who we can be.
There are many specific moments that stick with me to this day; the family in a pickup truck from Ohio that pulled up in front of our post at 3am with piles of socks and boots, t-shirts and food; the cliche macho Fireman who after 48 hours on the pile looked me straight in the eye and collapsed in my arms as he dragged me to the ground sobbing after I simply smiled at him; the chaplains and clergy who toured the site and performed their sacred duty with compassion and respect; the camaraderie of sharing a 12th cup of coffee with fellow volunteers as the sun rose over NY; getting a lift up the West Side Highway to my apartment and the rows of cheering people and signs that lined the route; the restaurants below 14th street that stayed open for weeks round the clock to feed the volunteers; the massage therapist who smartly realized she would be needed and dragged her table downtown and seemingly never left; how the NY tech community, came together to provide much needed hardware and software to help process the thousands of people who lined the Red Cross wanting to donate blood and volunteer.
There was a unique atmosphere in this hobbled together group of people from all walks of life, economic status, races and religions. None of these people were seeking fame or glory - they simply showed up because there was work to be done.
I realize now that these experiences and others down at Ground Zero informed many small and large choices I have made in my life. In many ways the seeds of my passion around Tummeling and the Social Web were fueled during the days and months that followed. Peter Merholz posted my initial thoughts on his blog [my first unofficial blog post]. I spent almost two years launching and running a community center in Lower Manhattan focused on revitalizing downtown using many new technologies to galvanize community, I worked on the first Personal Democracy Forum conference and I moved to San Francisco to join Six Apart. Sure, I was interested in community and tech before but I had proof of the power of emergent communities and individual people to make a real difference and --well-- this faith has stuck.
Anniversaries exist for a reason, they provide us with milestones and opportunities to honor those who are gone and hopefully to find perspective. On the Jewish calendar 9/11 comes out during the month of Elul. This month is set aside prior to the start of the Jewish New Year for reflection, accounting for the past twelve months and preparing for those coming. As I set aside time today to reflect on 9/11, I have mixed emotions as I do every year, I struggle with how best to think about my experiences; and 9/11 in general; am I overdramatizing or not acknowledging enough? This year, I now know that although my boots and hard hat are tucked away in a storage unit in Manhattan, I carry with me always the lessons I learned Downtown and I am blessed to have been given this gift of first hand knowledge of the best we can be as people. I try to live from this place.