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When Seeming Failures Are the Opening for Grace

September 26th, 2016

Those of you who have read previous blogs or Facebook postings know that the keyword for describing my 9 weeks in Britain was … magical. Magical, just magical.

But, in many ways, the sabbatical was marked by failure. First was the failure to get the Lilly Foundation grant that would have made it much easier for the church and for me. Then, in the last Church Council meeting before heading off, I shared my three goals: to finish Circling, begin research on Returning, and lose 20 pounds.

I failed – and yet the sabbatical still was magical.

And now I wonder: is there a connection between seeming failure and undeniable magic? Was there something that God was trying to teach me? Have I focused too much in life on success? Might I have tried so hard to accomplish the goals that our culture identifies as the hallmarks of success that I overlooked the less obvious and more tender qualities of God’s ever-present grace?

I’ll let you ponder that as I give you a brief chronology and overview of the people and places that have caused me to rethink my life…

First of all, there’s Maurizio. Some of you have heard me talk about him before, and most everyone was skeptical. It’s wonderful when you get to a certain age and your children begin to worry about you (nice switch from those decades where parenting was just a synonym for worry and guilt). And so my daughter is on the phone hearing about my plans and asking, “So how do you know him, Mom?” I explain his email connection with the family when he was researching the role of my grandparents in improving the lives of the Sardinian villagers 100 years ago. To which she says “Yes, but …” She then asks how old he is, what he does for a living, whether he’s married or not …” I don’t have answers to any of those questions. Fortunately she’s gracious enough to simply admonish me to be careful rather than call me a blooming idiot.

My plans were just to meet Maurizio in London over lunch or dinner. We had occasional email conversation over the last seven years, but that was all. When he asked where I was staying, I replied that I was looking for an inexpensive hostel or Air B&B because, after all, I did not receive that wonderful grant that would have paid for nicer hotels. He found a convent that had been converted into a B&B, but it was still 125 pounds – or just shy of $200 / night (this was before the Brexit vote) and I was hoping for something cheaper. So I kept looking and then got an email that his good friend Patrick, a chamber orchestra conductor who lived two blocks from Westminster Abbey, would be happy to host me for a week. Magic.

Patrick was delightful and so were all of the assortment of young international musicians who came over to party, practice, and plan their next two concerts. The flat was filled with laughter and music. Another woman staying there was going through some challenging emotional stresses, and she liked to hang out with me and unload. And Maurizio, who had decided to end his work as an economics researcher and concentrate on renting two flats and doing professional tourism, became my personal tour guide for all of the highlights of London. He knew everything and everyone, it seemed. Magic.

We took a four-day trip to Sardinia where I met his family and an elderly couple that had been married at the church that my grandmother helped establish. Everywhere I went, there were hugs and thanks – along with free cappuccino or a glass of wine. They all professed knowing about my grandparents, although – quite honestly – I think they were just being nice to Maurizio and me. Magic.

Maurizio went back to London as I headed for Northumbria, in northeast England, where I stayed in the manse where another new friend, Dave Herbert, lived. Dave was a friend of a friend of a friend, who learned of my appeal to find inexpensive lodging in exchange for helping in whatever way possible. He was going on vacation, and I agreed to manage the garden, preach twice, and deal with any pastoral emergencies. This never would have happened if I had been awarded the Lilly Foundation grant.

Yet I failed here as well. My intention in staying two weeks at the quiet manse was to finish the first book Circling. But I had lost my laptop on the airplane and with it, the latest draft. I had a copy on the desktop but that was a continent away. So I read and walked and watched sheep and played a few too many computer games. I spent time with several women who were part of the associated parishes; one was considering ministry and the others just enjoyed chatting about issues with their churches or life in general. I didn’t accomplish my three goals, but enjoyed the way we each became agents of grace for each other. Magic.

Spending two weeks on Iona with Philip Newell and a bunch of other new friends, I was filled with new ideas and great excitement. But while there was lots of reading and walking, there wasn’t much writing and no dieting. I had become a happy failure. I returned briefly to Northumbria for another preaching opportunity and visits with my new friends before returning to Argyll (the western isles of Scotland) to research ancestral history. And then came what I later realized was a watershed moment.

Wanting to visit the center of the Campbell clan in Inveraray, I reserved a room at a small B&B in Ford, about 8 miles away. A young family ran it; it was homey rather than fancy, and it was cheap. But driving there from Edinburgh took twice as long as I expected. It involved endless miles on small rural roads that were sometimes dirt and often one-lane roads will pullouts for cars to pass each other. Sure, it was 8 miles from Inveraray … as a crow flies. It was 50 miles and well over an hour by car. I arrived around 9 pm and discovered that there were about 5 homes and no store of any kind in this little town of Ford, in Argyll, Scotland. The owners offered to make me dinner, which I accepted happily.

Waiting, I silently chastised myself for my stupidity. In my haste, I had selected a B&B in the middle of nowhere. What an idiot! What a … failure …

Dinner came. It was delicious, and of huge proportions. While eating, I watched a young man in the small living room eating dinner from a paper bag. After finishing what I could, I offered the rest to him. And thus began an unforgettable evening.

Leon is a German working in Scotland embarking on a new career importing fine Scotch whisky into his home country. After the usual pleasantries, I learned that he had a rather traumatic background and wasn’t close to his parents, who were divorced. I also surmised that he had gone through a number of challenges in his youth and that he was now in his early 30’s and hoping for a new start. He worked at a distillery north of Edinburgh and was in Ford exploring distilleries in Argyll. He returned my kindness of sharing dinner with a lesson in how to drink whisky. The young couple and their daughter and dog came and went for the rest of the evening.

I listened as he talked about his family, his work, his love life, his dreams. He had several heart-breaking love affairs but recently met a woman who was nearly 10 years younger but they really liked each other. And, all the while, he punctuated the stories of his life with an education on whisky. Magic.

The next morning, he came down for breakfast and thanked me for our conversation. He said that, although he wasn’t sure that his new girlfriend would ever be “the one,” he realized that he was worthy and good and there was happiness in his future.

He went off to local distilleries and I took the long drive to Inveraray, coming home to another delicious dinner with Leon and more in my whisky education. This time we talked about his business plans. I asked a number of questions and made a few suggestions based on the years when I was running a consulting business years ago. Three hours later, I went off to bed, again feeling warm and kindhearted. In the morning, Leon came down and said he was totally rethinking his business plan based on our discussion. We haven’t seen each other since, but he has sent me several emails and Facebook postings thanking me for our time together and letting me know the success of his new strategy. Somehow, my “failure” in booking a B&B in the hinterlands became an opportunity to bring magic into someone else’s life. It felt wonderful!

I then headed to Leeds to pick up a colleague from the US, and we returned to Scotland to explore her family history – and again spend time with some of my new friends. After dropping her off in London, I picked up Maurizio, who decided he wanted to learn about Celtic Christianity. [This was a big and unexpected compliment because he is a good Roman Catholic boy who hadn’t had much interest in the progressive or Celtic church.] But his heart was opened – more magic.

Maurizio and I went to Lindisfarne (Holy Island) with one of the three ladies I mentioned earlier, and visited the Lindisfarne Scriptorum, where I purchased a beautiful poster. The front is beautiful script, and it reads:

“Love is always patient and kind. Love is not boastful or conceited. It is never rude, and never seeks its own advantage. It does not take offence or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. These remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest is love.”

The back reads:

“Based on 1 Corinthians 13: 4-13. A good exercise is to replace the word ‘love’ with your own name to see if you match up – not an easy task but one worthy of aspiring to.”

I tried that: “Felicity is always patient and kind. Felicity is never boastful or conceited. Felicity is never rude, and never seeks her own advantage…” Ouch! Oh yes, I am a failure indeed! I am not always patient and kind. I am sometimes boastful and conceited. I can be rude and seek my own advantage… I could go on and on.

And so it was in reading this at Holy Island that I had my epiphany on the connection between failure and magic. The failure was in the need to accomplish something; the magic was with the present and the presence. The magic was the pure and simple grace of sharing time, hearts, and minds with others. The magic was that, for two months, I had been patient and kind. I had not been boastful or conceited; I had never been rude or sought my own advantage. I had not taken offence or stored up grievances. I did not rejoice in wrongdoing….

My need to be successful had become a stumbling block to living in the present and in the presence of divine grace. My failures had nothing to do with losing the sabbatical grant or not completing my three goals. My only failure was that I had forgotten about the magic that comes when one is open to God’s grace as explained by St. Paul in this much-treasured passage.


Donald Trump: The Devil or the Holy Spirit?

July 1st, 2016

The United Kingdom voted last week to un-unite from the European Union, and the world is suddenly in free fall. Facebook posts from those under 40 are filled with fury while those from the older folks express fear and frustration. What are the implications for us in the still-United States? What are the implications for our world? For our faith?

It’s six weeks into my sabbatical in Britain and, until last week, most people would just raise their eyebrows if the subject of Donald Trump came up. When I either nodded sadly or cast my eyes to heaven, they would respond with silent tenderness. There are clear parallels between Trump’s popularity and the appeal of those who voted to leave the European Union, but even the most passionate Brexit conservatives are at a loss to understand the logic of those Americans who believe that Trump would be a worthy CEO for the most important nation on earth.

What is going on? First – and some would argue most persuasively – there’s the issue of hot air, literally and figuratively. In Britain, to “trump” is to break wind, i.e., fart. While I struggle to honor the gifts of my name (“felicity” means happiness), I don’t believe that Mr. Trump has any trouble living up to his.

The troublesome issue is not Mr. Trump but the people who see him as a solution for the mess we’re in. At another time, I may explain the victim-abuser seesaw and the danger of victim mentality, but right now I want to explore the possibility that Trump is the embodiment of the devil tempting us with simple solutions, prosperity, and peace. In what ways could he be a modern embodiment of the devil that tempted Jesus during his forty days in the wilderness?

As you reflect on this, remember the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. (Mark 1: 9-12)

What is going on? A supposedly loving God honors Jesus as the beloved and then immediately sends him into the wilderness, where he has to deal with the horrors of hunger, terror, and vulnerability. In this physical and spiritual desert, the devil tells Jesus to:

  • Make bread out of stones to relieve hunger
  • Jump from the highest mountain and rely on heavenly spirits to prevent injury or death
  • Worship the devil in exchange for worldly power

Certainly there is a connection between this devil and Trump who asks us to buy into his idea of (figurative) comfort food, financial security, and power over lesser mortals.

But again I return to the Biblical narratives and wonder how a loving God could drive Jesus into such a place and situation… Could it be that the devil was just the Holy Spirit in disguise?

However you explain that, I believe the answer is the same as it was for Jesus. Each of the three temptations forced Jesus to examine his understanding of himself, the world, and God. What follows fear? Is it fight, flight, or faith? As Jesus dismissed the devil’s taunts, he also discovered his power and his role as a beloved child of God. And so I argue that the challenge – and the gift – of the wilderness is that it pushes us to identify three things: our power, our passion, and our purpose in life.

The Jesus whom we honor shows us that the path to heaven (certainly in this world and perhaps in another) begins with a faith that (excuse the pun) trumps fear. But he only was able to do so because he had gone through the wilderness where he learned who he was, who God was, and what the world should be.

Our country, if not the entire world, is smack dab in the middle of the wilderness.  We miserable, we don’t know where we are, and we’re desperately looking for a guide to lead us into a modern Promised Land.  Who will it be?  Will Donald Trump a.k.a. the devil win? Will we succumb to his false temptations? Or is God using Trump to make us examine what it means to be the United States of America? Is the God of Love pushing us to discern what American power, passion, and purpose looks like for the 21st century?

That is the challenge. And so it is not Mr. Trump, but the American people who will decide whether he is channeling the devil or the Holy Spirit.


Feeling the Love on the First Fortnight Away

May 30th, 2016

In the two weeks since I left the US, I’ve experienced the best the world can offer — new friends, beautiful architecture, wonderful history, music, food — in a word, magic. The first week was all about London, where I stayed with Patrick Norohna, a retired-lawyer-turned-professional-conductor, who lives just a block from Westminster Abbey. In the many trips around town, I was escorted by my new friend Maurizio, a researcher, archivist, and professional tour guide. We managed to see most of the important sites as I was regaled by stories of London’s greats. Then I returned to Patrick’s flat where a large gathering of musicians from around the world were rehearsing or planning musical venues. Methinks I died and went to heaven!

A week ago yesterday, Maurizio and I took a quick trip to Sardinia where I stayed with his parents and saw Santa Barbara Church and “Villa Wright,” the home of my grandparents for almost a decade. This is where my grandfather initiated key safety improvements in the local mines and where my grandmother (a devout Episcopalian) helped persuade the Vatican to build and staff a Roman Catholic church for the villagers who lived more than five miles from the nearest parish.

After an airplane flight from Sardinia and an overnight bus trip, I arrived in northeast England on Wednesday. Northumbria is reminiscent of the Finger Lakes, with rolling hills, green fields, and rural peacefulness. The only sounds are the singing of the birds, bleating of the sheep, and gentle patter of a soft rain. I’ll stay here at the manse for two weeks, preaching occasionally and helping with any pastoral emergencies while my host, Rev. Dave Herbert, is on vacation in Europe. Then I head to Iona, the sacred isle of Scotland, before returning here to Northumbria.

And all the while, I’m thinking, “How could this have happened? What did I do to deserve such good fortune? Once strangers, Maurizio, Patrick, and Dave have all opened their hearts and homes to this unimportant visitor from the US. What did I do to deserve this?”

But as I asked that, I knew the answer. I did nothing. The blessings showered on me are the fruits of other people’s labors. Maurizio was researching the history of mining in Sardinia when he discovered stories of my grandparents who lived in the small town of Ingurtosa, just a few miles from where Maurizio lived before moving to London. He contacted my brother and another cousin about seven years ago, and since then we have shared our stories and relished the documents he has uncovered. When I approached him to get together for coffee or lunch while I was in London, Maurizio responded that he would look for inexpensive accommodation as well. He then approached his friend Patrick who was willing to let me stay for a week. And Dave was not a friend, nor a friend-of-a-friend, but a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, who responded when I was asking around for inexpensive places to stay in exchange for helping with pastoral duties.

In considering this immense good fortune, there are three important lessons that I want to share:

  1. Good deeds — even those done 100 years ago by others — have a way of coming back again and again to bring new connections and delights. We just need open minds and grateful hearts.
  2. It’s important to write and share our stories. It was my grandfather’s memoir Tales to My Grandchildren that I shared with Maurizio for his research six years ago that brought us together. And now I claim the Pigas as my “Sardinian family.”
  3. Sometimes not getting what we want is the best thing that can happen. As disappointed as I was in not receiving the Lilly Foundation’s grant (especially because it would have been helpful for the church and my children), it forced me to push the boundaries and reach for new ways of financing the sabbatical. Had I received the grant, I would be taking trains and using rental cars rather than buses. I would be staying in hotels rather than spare bedrooms. And I would not be experiencing the enchantment that I am now enjoying.

Truly God is like a big beautiful spider that is constantly sending out filaments of grace, most of which never land. So God reels them back in and flings them out again until one tender thread lands, then another, and another. Suddenly a web is formed and we experience God’s connective grace in wondrous new ways.  We find connection between past and present, now and then, here and there, one with another.

We give thanks!

PS — For those who want to follow my travels more frequently and with photos, please ‘like” me on Facebook:



May 27th, 2016

The young man plopped his backpack on my sofa, scowled, and announced that he would not be driving back with my cousin, staying instead in my small timeshare studio apartment until I worked out a plan to … do what ???

So much for my quiet vacation to finish the book. So much for solitude. So much for … whatever ….

The cousin left abruptly, seemingly pleased with his sudden freedom, and the young man offered a sheepish thanks, apparently assuming that I would do something other than throw him out on the streets, penniless and without even a driver’s license since he had handed that over to my cousin and forgot to ask for it back.

It’s a long and complicated story that I don’t wish to revisit, except to note that my response was uncharacteristic. Specifically, I was kind, I was generous. I found the young friend a room, bought him an airplane ticket, and paid for a taxi to the airport. When he left three days later, I was $900 poorer and feeling blessed. It seemed that the nasty Mr. Hyde part of me had evaporated, leaving only lovable Dr. Jekyll. I liked the peace and pleasantness of the new me but wondered what caused the transformation.

In my gut, I knew. The generosity was not from me but from others: I was simply channeling the tenderness of those who founded The Park Church 170 years ago – people whose love of God translated into acts of uncommon courage and sacrifice on behalf of runaway slaves passing through Elmira. I was channeling the love of those in the church who continue its legacy on behalf of people who are differently abled or of different sexual persuasions, or undervalued and challenged for whatever reason.

I was channeling the generosity of so many friends who have helped me navigate the challenges of ministry throughout the years. I was channeling the kindness of Robin, my best friend from elementary school with whom I had recently reconnected, and her sister Randa. Hearing their stories of courage and sacrifice, my heart went out to this young man, so alone and scared by what was happening to him.

I was channeling the generosity of my grandparents, who made such contributions to a small Sardinian village 100 years ago that a young researcher reached out to my family in kindness. A month after I contacted him in hopes of meeting over coffee or lunch, he informed me that he had arranged for me to stay for a week at a friend’s flat just a block from Westminster Cathedral and two blocks from Big Ben.

It wasn’t me that was kind. I was merely channeling the kindness of ordinary heroes and heroines from my church, my family, and my past. I was channeling the kindness of new friends who extended hospitality in welcoming me to Britain for my sabbatical, finding me free lodging and use of a car during parts of my time there. The blessings from others overflowed such that that they had nowhere to go but onto this young man.

And isn’t this the Kin(g)dom of God?

I am not an especially kind or generous person but on this day I was caught in God’s web of eternal connection. The largesse of the peace more than compensated for the shrinking of the purse.

We give thanks.


Pilgrimage as Embodied Faith

April 29th, 2016

“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”

— Rabbi Abraham Heschel

 Who are we and why are we the way we are?  I surmise that our identities are fashioned by those people and places that have combined to give us our values and thus our identity. Some of these were given us (family, country of origin) and some we acquired on our own (friends, college, job, travels, spouse).  It’s true of organizations as well.  The church I pastor is a progressive church because of our location (in Elmira, a central conduit of the Underground Railroad) and the people who filled its pews and pulpits in the past.  With different people in a different setting, The Park Church might not have emerged as a national landmark and leader in justice issues.

But too often we take these values as defaults without exploring, questioning, discarding, or celebrating them.  The result is that we live on autopilot without exercising much control over our destinies.  It was for this reason that God (or, if you prefer, the earliest wisdom teachers who collected their culture’s wisdom in the form of the great religious texts) developed the idea of Sabbath, the seventh day of the week during which God rested and instructed us to do the same.  This kind of holy rest is not vegging out at the beach or hanging out with friends; it is a deliberate time set aside to reconnect with the best of ourselves and reclaim our identity as beings made in the image of God.

In exploring our identity and values, we also need to consider the role of faith, which is too often confused with belief or contaminated by heaven-or-hell pronouncements of the institutional church.  This ignores the fact that doubt is to faith as dissent is to democracy – you can’t have the latter without the former or it’s sham.  We meet fundamentalist Christians – or Muslims or belligerent atheists or anyone else with simplistic truth-and-falsehood, good-and-bad, heaven-and-hell explanations of God – and they just don’t seem … real.  Rigidly held beliefs are so antithetical to the human experience that it’s hard to take them seriously; faith is not authentic if there isn’t some doubt at its core.

A wise elder shared an important insight about twenty years ago when I was tormented by whether or not to go into ministry.  My head said this religious stuff was just phooey, but my heart was telling me that the call and the joy, however inexplicable, were real.  On a spiritual retreat, I met with the resident priest, explaining that I was spiritually bipolar; my head and heart were in constant tension.  After listening to my plight, he leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, “It’s not your head and your heart at war; it’s that you – like everyone else in the world – is on the seesaw between mystic and cynic.  Mysticism, however tenuous and inexplicable, brings joy, whereas cynicism is deadening.  You’re a mystic trying to follow the rationalist explanations of the modern world, and you’ll never find peace until you honor the validity of the experienced God as the source of peace since the beginning of time.  Remember, that’s why we call it ‘the peace that passes all understanding.’”

In short, faith can never be understood or explained scientifically.  But there is the very real experience of connection with something outside of us that brings joy, peace, and energy.  It is not rational or irrational; it is extra-rational.  It is of the heart, not the head.

Events that take us to a new understanding of God and ourselves are not reserved for holy nutcases.  On the contrary, several recent studies have reported that fully half of all Americans have had a life-changing religious experience at least once in their lives.  In other countries, the percentage is even higher.  As a rule, mystical experiences seem to be like grace, an unbidden gift from above.  But there are definitely things we can do to connect with the divine.

One of these is a pilgrimage. The ancient Jews were expected to go to Jerusalem three times a year – for Passover, Shavuot (or Pentecost), and Sukkot.   To this day, Muslims are required to travel to Mecca at least once in their lives. In our Christian history, those of us of European ancestry will think of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Pilgrims on the Mayflower – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Pilgrimage has been a major component of all the major faiths since the beginning of time – either mandated by the religious texts or encouraged by the culture.

Dear readers, have any of you ever gone on a pilgrimage?  If so, what prompted you and what did you get out of it?  Friends of mine who have undertaken a formal pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca or along the Camino de Santiago or to the places of their ancestors typically return with a clearer understanding of their own identity and purpose in life.  They return with a sense of the peace that passes all understanding.

As I begin my sabbatical with pilgrimages to Iona, Lindisfarne, and a collection of ancestral sites, I welcome your insights and prayers, for truly a pilgrimage is embodied faith: the work of the heart and the journey to discern our identity as children of a loving God.

Blessings on the journey!

Rev. Felicity



Trying to live like a saint … or perhaps just a hero in my own story

November 2nd, 2015

On this All Saints’ Day, I’m recalling those people — grandparents, ministers, teachers, friends — who have lived as saints for me, by which I mean those who live in such a way that one knows that their love of God is central to everything they feel and do.

Whether or not I might qualify for sainthood, the bigger problem for me its just being a hero in my own story. Here’s the history and the challenge…

Many years ago, I jointed a support group for parents of children with birth defects. During the introductions, the psychologist, an elegant older woman who reminded me of the renowned psychologist Anna Freud, asked for a one-word synonym for parenting. Most of us came up with the usual schmaltzy stuff – “caring,” “nurturing,” “loving….” Some were more honest, with responses like “anxiety” and “worry.”

When we finished, this classy woman who reeked of wisdom sat back in her chair, took a long pause, and smiled knowingly. “Bullshit! There is only one true synonym for parenting, and it is ‘guilt.’ Get used to it; guilt will be a major part of your life from now on. The only difference between you and other parents is that you will have a worse case of it, because you have the added guilt of whatever caused your children to be here in this hospital. Learn to live with it, and don’t let it rule you.”

Over the years, I’ve shared her wisdom with new parents everywhere. Guilt really is about the most honest and fundamental synonym for parenting that I’ve ever heard. It was many years after my daughter died that I understood the kind of guilt that I felt – the guilt over inexplicable events – was its own kind of hubris. In my own way, I was playing God just by holding myself responsible for things I had no way of causing or understanding, let alone fixing.

A decade later, a pastoral therapist and close friend summarized it differently: “Try to live life so that you can be a hero in your own story. Things go wrong. If you’re responsible, then fix it. But don’t play the blame game. You can blame your parents, your spouse, the President, God – but that only makes you a victim. Acting like a victim is a terrible, destructive way to live. First, they are no fun to be around, and second, they may unwittingly use their victimhood as justification for abusing others – witness religious militants. So work at being a hero in your story, managing life’s challenges with grace and courage rather than succumbing to them. That’s as good as it gets.”


When Hell Meets Heaven

September 11th, 2015

After spending the spring and summer of 2001 teaching a new computer system to Port Authority employees in New York City, I was briefly assigned to another client in nearby Newark for a three-day class in early September. This meant that I was 25 miles from my classroom at the World Trade Center and 200 miles from my home in Washington, D.C., when the world witnessed the event that would forever change our lives.

I return in early October to help the Port Authority staff at La Guardia Airport. Most haven’t learned the new system, and those who did take the class can’t remember diddlysquat. The documentation that my team developed has, literally, been vaporized. But bills are piling up, vendors are demanding payment, and equipment must be purchased.

I spend two days with Jane, who was in my classroom on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. She and five others escaped, but two classmates went to a different stairwell and were never seen again. Three weeks after the bombing, I see that Jane is still too traumatized to take an elevator or enter a building of more than two stories.

Her husband had been on the 74th floor. He, three colleagues, and a janitor with a lunch box and cleaning bucket, were bunched in the express elevator speeding upwards from the 44th floor, when it suddenly plunged downward about hundred feet and just as abruptly stopped. Picking themselves off the floor in the pitch-black cage, they had no idea where they were. Prying the elevator doors open, they found only a dark wall.

Smoke is seeping in through the elevator cracks. Covering their noses with handkerchiefs soaked in milk, they take turns with the metal edge of the squeegee to laboriously cut through the sheetrock. They eventually bust into a bathroom, but then have to break through ceramic tiles. Emerging on the 50th floor, they walk downstairs single-file leaving room for firemen who are running up. They see the light of day just four minutes before the building crashes. If the janitor had not had a flashlight, a squeegee, a pint of milk, and the cool to mastermind the rescue, no one would have lived to tell their adventures of the morning. Was he a guardian angel in disguise?

Several days later, I am at the agency’s temporary headquarters in Hoboken sharing an office with Diane, the training manager, a delightful middle-aged woman with whom I have spent many happy hours over lunch and in meetings. But now, she’s a different person. Once attentive to her subordinates, she has morphed into a protective mother bear; determination and deep weariness have replaced the twinkle in her eyes.

I don’t know what war is like, but I have an idea of what it’s like to “go through the wars”: it is the process by which we are forced to acknowledge our vulnerability. For most of us, war is external; its “over there,” or “back then,” and it involves others. But after 9-11, war is here and now and within. The reality of who we are is struggling with our preconceptions about ourselves. Suddenly we are fearful, and we don’t like the people that we have become.

Another reason Diane has lost her sparkle is because her commute is now 2 ½ – 3 hours each way, instead of an hour previously. This means that she leaves home just before 6:00 am and doesn’t usually get back until 9:00 pm. Twice in the last week, she was an hour late because Penn Central had been evacuated for “something” (never explained); this required her to walk almost a mile to the subway and a then several blocks to the PATH station, extending her one-way commute to nearly four hours. And some of her weariness is because the computer system is often down; what once was a simple, two-minute transaction is now a cause for major celebration.

One morning, as I am reflecting on the difference between heroes (all of the people in or anywhere near that building on September 11th) and saints (those who have devoted their lives to God and God’s people), a woman enters to drop off files. Hearing her mutter “Jesus Christ” under her breath and assuming that she has just broken a fingernail, I look up to see what is wrong. Instead of a scowl, I am greeted by a warm smile and a cheerful “Good morning, sister” from a woman I have never before seen in my life.

After brief courtesies, Victoria shares her impressions of that day. She was sitting at her desk on the 63rd floor when the plane hit. Rather than run or scream, she dropped to her knees in prayer. She had a clear vision of God “sitting on His throne” looking down on her and saying, “Look at my baby girl calling on me in the midst of this terror.” Directing some unseen angels, God told them, “Go and see about my daughter.”

When the image of God’s radiance faded, she went with waiting colleagues to the nearest stairwell. Walking down, she began reciting the 23rd psalm and singing praise songs. Others joined in, and many came up later thanking her for the calm faith she radiated in that dark, smoke-filled stairwell. Is not Victoria an angel and a saint?

The next day, Don and Raoul share memories of walking down from the 70th floor. People were orderly at first, mostly because so many had survived the 1993 bombing and trusted the structural integrity of the towers. Don and Raoul were nonplussed by burn victims and others who were actively bleeding, but they never feared for their own lives until the 20th floor, when the smoke intensified, making it hard to both breathe and see. An incredible, inexplicable, rolling, deafening roar (which they later learned was the crash of the other building) made the north tower shake intensely, cutting off the emergency lights and causing people to stumble over each other. After this, it was a superhuman effort to maintain control, and some began weeping. But still, the group kept talking to each other to stay calm, groping their way down, most of them holding hands, some sobbing, but with little screaming and no pushing – just cold, stark determination.

In the middle of this horrific retelling, Raoul blurts out, “And, you know, we were the lucky ones. We had no idea of what was going on. When the south tower fell, we knew something dreadful had happened, but our stairwell was fine and our tower still stood…. Actually, people like Diane had it worse. She was walking in from the plaza and froze, not knowing whether to rush up and help people or run away as fast as she could. A policeman ordered her to leave – which was good because this was just when debris – huge blocks of concrete and metal, enough to kill you if they landed – started falling from the sky.”

Raoul feels sorrier for Diane than he does for himself…

When employees arrive for a meeting and see someone they haven’t seen since 9/11, work abruptly ends and co-workers pour out from cubicles to chat. It is like the excitement that accompanies a woman returning from maternity leave with a new baby in tow. But unlike the gushes over the beautiful child, this is a chastening calm with unspoken but clear affection. It is both endearing and terrifying.

The following week, after anthrax poisoning has replaced hijacked planes as the terror of the day, the agency conducts daily safety drills and distributes safety glasses, nose masks, rubber gloves, and flashlights to all employees. Diane is away when a flashlight is placed on her desk; within two hours, five coworkers stop in to ensure that that the batteries are installed and her flashlight is working properly.

People look around at their ordinary colleagues with their ordinary foibles and realize that their ordinary assumptions were all wrong. They now realize that they have been working amidst heroes, including the two procurement officials who returned from the stairwell to retrieve their blind colleague from the 71st floor, the ten co-workers who carried a 250-pound, wheelchair-bound man down 69 flights of stairs, and the two marketing managers who got Tina and her motorized wheelchair down from the 68th floor. Of the Port Authority employees, only 74 of the 2,000 in the building were killed (half of them the police and firemen who – according to the people I speak with – seemed to know that they were going to their deaths). In both towers, only 2,753 people were killed in the collapse. Everyone credits the low number of casualties to the fact that mutual care trumped panic and pushiness.

Returning just before Thanksgiving to my company’s home office in Columbia, Maryland, I find myself suddenly depressed. In the midst of the hell that surrounds us, I have been graced to witness the best of the human condition. For some, self-sacrifice for others was absolute and cost them their lives; for most, it was timid and tenuous – but nonetheless transforming – if only for a time.

And I know that I too am forever changed, for good as well as ill. The trivialities of life gnaw at me. After spending six weeks in the company of saints and heroes, ordinary mortals seem frivolous and self-absorbed. With the exception of faith-filled Victoria who sang and prayed her coworkers to safety, I do not know the religious beliefs of the employees at the Port Authority. But watching people show genuine care for each other, I realize that I have just witnessed the kingdom of God on earth.

I just wish it had not come to this.


Noah Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and Their Message for Spirituality and Religion

April 14th, 2015

Garrison Keillor, in today’s Writer’s Almanac, reminds us that it was on April 14, 1828 that Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was published. We at The Park Church celebrate Webster for his literary and genetic gifts: we love (or should love) his dictionary, and we love (or should love) his granddaughter, the magnificent Julia Jones Beecher, celebrated wife of Thomas K. Beecher, dear friend of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”) and treasure of Elmira. (You can do a Google search or just wait for me to get around to writing about this extraordinary gift to the human condition.)

Keillor’s reflection reminded me of the connection between religion, spirituality, and the history of dictionaries. We yearn for a belief system or set of life principles that will guarantee either eternal salvation or earthly glory or both. We disagree, however, on how to read the road map or which of several different roads to take. Some of us prefer the fast route; others want the scenic one. Some of us prefer well-worn boulevards; others want to forge new walkways.

The various religions only add to our confusion. They all promise that if we follow their tenets, then we are likely to live with joy and die in peace. Some suggest it will happen in the here-and-now; others promise rewards in the afterlife. Some have rigorous life-style specifications, including what we can eat (and when), whom we can marry, how we must worship. Others emphasize self-control, charity and justice in more general terms. What are we supposed to do? What decisions must we make, what religious path should we follow, in order to live with joy and die in peace?

I believe that divining a personal theology is like creating a dictionary. Seventy-three years before Webster and a century before Oxford University began work on its great dictionary, Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language was the most successful attempt to codify the English language. The six-year effort by the second most-quoted author after William Shakespeare is impressive not only for its breadth (43,500 words defined using 118,000 illustrative quotes) but also for its underlying philosophy. Unlike the “Forty Immortals” that have met since 1635 to create and maintain a national standard for French language and usage, Johnson believed that language, if it were to be an effective way of communicating, could be no more fixed than the changes of the season. Ideas change, needs change, knowledge changes – and so must language.

Arguing for an immutable dictionary akin to the Forty Immortals was Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who wanted to define correct pronunciations, correct spellings, correct usage, and decide which words were or were not proper. Swift wanted a yardstick against which to codify correctness; Johnson wanted a process by which to measure common usage.

Is it not that different from comparing the Ten Commandments (that spell out the do’s and don’ts of acceptable living) with Jesus’ broader commandments to “love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.”
Detailed rules or general guidelines: why is it that some people need well-defined creeds to codify their philosophy, while others are comfortable with more general belief statements? Is there value in creating two theological lexicons – one for the Johnsons and Websters and another for the Forty Immortals and the Swifts?

— Or can we just focus on the basics (love, peace, and justice) and ignore the details and the judgment?


Circling Excerpt 4: Part I (Soaring) — Chapter 1: Geography (Third Section)

September 18th, 2013

This is the last section in Chapter 1, about a wondrous time in my life — teaching Alaskan natives in a boarding school in Mt. Edgecumbe, Alaska.  It was eye-opening (or should I saw “heart”-opening) in more ways than one:



“In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses – and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak – there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.”

Thirty shiny faces stare blankly at me and then each other. I do the same. Except for the occasional three- or four-letter word, I might be speaking ancient Greek or whatever it was people spoke umpteen centuries ago in Timbuktu. Hell, they don’t even know to snicker at the word “bosom” and probably haven’t heard of “boobs” either.

When I glance again at what I have just read aloud to them (the first line of George Eliot’s Silas Marner), it – despite the dashes for which I share a fondness – suddenly morphs into the worst and most incomprehensible piece of writing that the English-speaking world has ungraciously bestowed on poor ordinary mortals.

But are we “ordinary”?

Oh yes, in many ways we are quite ordinary. We follow the same syllabus as tenth graders in the “lower 48” (the continental United States), so we can rest content with the happy knowledge that millions of public school sophomores are suffering the same ordinary despair that we so keenly feel. But arrayed in front of me are thirty students ranging in age from sixteen to twenty-six with otherworldly faces reminiscent of tribes wandering the steppes of central Asia many millennia previously.

When they realize I am as clueless as they, they respond with warm smiles – which is good because they outnumber me in mass, might, and experience (even if I can pronounce and understand words like “bosom,” “pallid,” and “brawny”). By contrast, their reading comprehension is between second and fifth grade, fully unprepared for George Eliot at her best – to say nothing of her worst.

So I re-read it, describing such foreign things as silk, spinning wheels, lanes, and (God help me – you know I try – “remnants of a disinherited race,” i.e., itinerant peddlers and weavers of which Silas Marner was one). I explain English country life with its classism (which they cannot grasp) likening it to racism (which they can). They respond with more blank stares – although this time with a hint of mischief or chagrin.

It is going to be a long nine weeks.

Along with three other students from Bennington College, I have entered the unhallowed halls of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school created on a small island adjoining Sitka for educating Alaskan natives. Except for this, only the five largest cities – Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka – sport local high schools, effectively disenfranchising those natives who live in remote areas. So the Bureau pays for two students from each village to come to Mt. Edgecumbe to finish their studies. And here they are – Eskimos from the North, Aleuts from the western archipelago, Athabascans from the interior, and Tlingits and Haidas from the south, with a few students from smaller tribes scattered throughout the state.

Bennington College’s Non-Resident Term is an exciting opportunity for the administration to save money on heating and snow plowing during the winter, for faculty to do “real stuff,” and for students to work in museums, prep schools, government agencies, and non-profit organizations in Boston, New York City and other hubs of civilizations. Very few manage to make it west of the Appalachians – to say nothing of 57 degrees latitude (further north than Moscow). But some wonderful person has worked out an arrangement with the BIA to hire four of us as teacher’s aides, and so I (a freshman) and three sophomores show up on January 2, 1966 – exactly one day after the great fire that destroyed St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the great landmark of Sitka. More to the point, however, it was on that day that one of the English teachers decided to quit – on the spot.

So, in addition to our planned assignments (orchestra and band for me), Debbie Brown and I are assigned two classes each of tenth grade English. No problem, explains the principal – here is the lesson plan – we go by the same requirements as the schools in the lower 48 – they just finished their year of American literature in which they read Moby Dick, Scarlet Letter, and Huckleberry Finn….

Now standing at the front of the classroom, I mutter under by breath: “No problem for him – perhaps it’s easier for a man to explain bosoms….”

The second paragraph of Silas Marner (arguably the worst of the “great English novels”) poses different challenges:

 “The shepherd’s dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag? – and these pale men rarely stirred abroad without that mysterious burden. The shepherd himself, though he had good reason to believe that the bag held nothing but flaxen thread, or else the long rolls of strong linen spun from that thread, was not quite sure that this trade of weaving, indispensable though it was, could be carried on entirely without the help of the Evil One.”

I struggle to explain “aliens” and “shepherds” and “flaxen” and even “linen” to the curious faces before me. When I get to “without the help of the Evil One,” I know I am on fragile ground, for truly it must be Satan, in the guise of Silas Marner, who has come to torment me and the winsome students of Mrs.-Steinberg’s-now-Miss-Wright’s first tenth grade English class. The only thing they can understand is “early winter sunset,” for winter comes early in the far north of Alaska (September, to be exact). Here in early January in the southern archipelago area – fondly called the “banana belt,” – we enjoy about two hours of daylight, with an hour of dark twilight on either side. Each day, however, adds about twenty minutes of sun, which means that I and the other three interns can explore and fall in love with this beautiful country and its people.

Religion and education have been historically intertwined in Alaska since 1884, when Congress authorized funds for the Secretary of the Interior to provide free education to Alaskan children without regard to race. Sheldon Jackson was appointed to oversee the opening and operation of schools throughout the territory. He, a Presbyterian, encouraged his church and other denominations to open missions and schools throughout Alaska. Functionally this now means that most children of the North Slope are Presbyterian, whereas Quakers dominate the western coast, and the inland middle are Episcopalian. Scattered among them are Roman Catholics, Mormons, Baptists, and Russian Orthodox. I reflect that Alaska is a miniature of the Christian world, noting how various Protestant denominations prevail in different countries, with Roman Catholic and Orthodox influences throughout. But even with good religious training, my students glaze over at mention of “the Evil One.”  Would that I could do the same.

My father’s father (a mining engineer and world traveler) had warned me that I would never escape the charms of Sitka and its surrounding area, regaling me with stories of his work as a geologist with the National Geological Survey in 1900-1902 to map the area from Glacier Bay and Skagway south to the southernmost tip. He later studied and lived in various places throughout Europe and South America, and so I believed him when he said that Sitka was the most beautiful spot on earth. “You get glimpses of this beauty in western Scotland and parts of Italy and Greece, where steep hills crash into the ocean – but nowhere are the mountains as majestic, or the coves as tranquil, or the color as intense. And, of course, nowhere else are the people as friendly, and nowhere else will you see bald eagles as plentiful as sparrows, and whales, seals, moose, and caribou in such abundance. It is an opera for your eyes and a ballet for your heart.”

Grandaddy is right – about both the terrain and the people. If there is one word that describes everyone we meet – student, teacher, shopkeeper – it is friendly. Sour, surly and standoffish are foreign concepts here. Everyone is nice; everyone seems happy that we are here.

But this only makes the imaginary-but-keenly-felt presence of Silas Marner, a.k.a. Satan, all the more disquieting. The students grasp neither the Victorian culture nor the overwrought language. Forcing this horrific tale on these friendly innocents feels like stuffing them with raw rice followed by gallons of water; I am torturing both them and me. (The sudden departure of the previous teacher begins to make sense.)

Something’s gotta give, but what? The principal gives me carte blanche to devise a better approach while also reminding me that Silas Marner is the approved curriculum and that other teachers have used it without complaints.

What am I to do? From tutoring for several years in the inner city, I know that education needs to be both challenging and playful; it must respect students as they are while also encouraging them to stretch their limits. Here in Alaska, tests and contests would fail, for the students are non-competitive and unwilling (or unable) to show off. Whatever plan I devise must respect a culture in which individual superiority is scorned, and humility and community are celebrated.

At some point, seemingly out-of-the-blue, Divine Inspiration or the Muses of Literature and Education come up with a solution: I tell them to read as much of the novel as they can stomach, giving them a one-page summary in simple English and swearing them to secrecy. Then they can honestly state that they “read” Silas Marner.

For the next two months, they work in pairs as each writes a simple “how-to” instruction. “How to prepare whale blubber, how to sew a sealskin parka, how to construct an “umiak” (Eskimo boat), how to roast a duck or make caribou stew – or whatever – try to be as thorough as you can – write it for someone like me who is totally ignorant [I make a stupid face and they laugh] – and use simple, clear English.”

After writing, they exchange with their partners and discuss both “essays.” They can rewrite as many times as they wish, and when their partner understands what they have written, they each get an “A.”

We spend the first half of each session writing and discussing the essays. Some are overly spare: “Take boteandspeer [boat and spear] anfindawale [and find a whale] killitantakehoam [kill it and take home]. Missing are punctuation marks and spaces between words – to say nothing of detail. Others are challenging in opposite ways, e.g., a run-on sentence that lasts three pages. And some are quite wonderful, worthy of Hemingway at his best. For the second half of the class, I put samples of their writing on the chalkboard, explaining basic spelling, syntax, and grammar. I find examples of both good and unclear writing, always keeping the authors anonymous. Not as charming as my father, nor as steely as my mother, my “can-do” style is birthed in a military high school in Germany and a Native American one in Alaska.

Or would it be more accurate to say smug and solipsistic? Despite the respect I had for the gentle demeanor and communal culture of the students, I am equally impressed by my own Yankee ingenuity – with its full measure of attendant arrogance. Would I ever learn? Would the heady joys of being helpful and successful in a land filled with beauty and kindness ever reap their rewards?

Looking back many years later, I realize that I shared both Dad’s innocence and Mom’s toughness. (Sadly, I mastered neither Dad’s easy charm nor Mom’s brilliant manipulative skills.) Until I was thirty, I approached life like Dad, presuming that if I were friendly and moderately responsible, nothing unpleasant would happen to me.

My head and my heart were constantly dueling, and yet I presumed a happy outcome where both parts would win.

I had so much to learn.




Observations and Memories from 9-11-11 at the World Trade Center

September 11th, 2013

I’m taking a break from “Circling” to revisit the first days and months after 9-11.  It was life-changing.  I was part of a large corporate training team working at the Port Authority in the summer of 2001.  I would have been there on 9/11, but I was one of the few who knew the “old system” of SAP and was reassigned for two weeks to Dow in Newark, NY.

Then I was asked to return to Port Authority in October, and I witnessed the kingdom of God up close and personal…  Here’s what I wrote at the time.  We deplore the horror AND celebrate the courage of the American people.


Felicity Wright:  Notes from working at Port Authority just after 9/11:

Although I had been assigned to a different project for the first two weeks of September 2001, I had spent the previous summer working at the Port Authority in the north tower of the World Trade Center (the first one hit and the last one to fall).  After the bombing, I was honored to be one of three people (out of an original group of nearly forty) that were asked to help the agency regroup.  Here were my observations at the time:


Week 1:  October 8 – 12, 2001:

I spent last week helping people at La Guardia airport manage their way through the new computer system.   All of the documentation and training materials for the system (which we had developed over the summer) had been available on the internal web site, but the servers were destroyed in the WTC bombing.  So most of the airport folks had not yet gone to class on the new system, and the training materials and procedures were non-existent.  Those who had gone through training had no brain cells left after 9/11 and couldn’t remember a thing of what they were supposed to do.  But bills were beginning to pile up, vendors needed to be paid, and equipment (including new security scanners) needed to be purchased.  So I was asked to help mentor them.  Here’s what I found:

The Manhattan skyline from Queens looks very bland — like most of the people I’ve met.  Even those who were nowhere close to WTC are still in shock, and the stories from the survivors are truly mind-numbing.  I spent two days with one woman who had been working in the WTC when it was bombed 7 years ago.  She got a promotion and was transferred several months ago to La Guardia, but she had gone back for training on the 78th floor of WTC1 (the same room where I had been teaching all summer).  She made it out, along with three others from La Guardia, but two others in the class went to a different stairwell and haven’t been seen since.  (Of course, this fact gave me considerable pause, since if I had been teaching in that room on 9/11 as I had been throughout the months of July and August, the odds would have been pretty good that I would not be here writing this…)

But now, a month later, “Jane” (not her real name) is still too scared to take an elevator.  When we went to the main terminal for lunch, she decided not to mail a letter in the airport post office for fear the airport would be bombed and the letter wouldn’t make it to her friend.

Her husband was on the 74th floor.  He and five others got out, thanks to a janitor with a small metal window squeegee and a knowledge of building construction.  They were on the express elevator that runs from the 44th floor cafeteria to floors 69-74, when it suddenly plunged downward, and then, just as abruptly, stopped.  (This was the same elevator bank that I used when I wasn’t training, for our offices were on the 71st floor.)  Trapped, they had no idea where they were.  They were able to force the doors open, but saw only a dark wall.

As smoke was seeping in through the elevator cracks, they shared handkerchiefs soaked in milk (which the janitor had just bought from the cafeteria) to breathe, while they spelled each other using the metal edge of the squeegee to laboriously cut through the sheetrock.  They eventually broke through into a bathroom, and then had to break through ceramic bathroom tiles.  Somehow, they emerged on the 50th floor, and walked single-file down the stairs leaving room for the many firemen who were running up.  When they made it to the 15th floor, they felt another huge jolt and thunderous roar – the crash of the south building. They managed to make it out to the street just 4 minutes before the north tower crashed.  If the elevator had stopped at the 55th or 60th floors, instead of the 50th, they would not have made it.  If the janitor (a guardian angel in disguise?) had not had the squeegee, the pint of milk, the experience, and the cool to mastermind the rescue, no one would be alive to retell their adventures of the morning.  It’s a truly unbelievable story that made it into the NY Times, and is now making the route of some of the TV news shows.  His wife kept shaking as she retold the story.  They did not know that each other was safe until late in the afternoon, for both had managed – finally, since telephone service was mostly non-existent for the whole area for most of the day – to get through to their son, who is in college.  It was in the early hours of the morning that both were finally home and reunited.  (I still get teary as I relate her story.)  Of course, all those firemen running UP the stairs have disappeared…

I’ve heard tales of numerous (and I mean LOTS) of Port Authority police and NY Fire Department folks who were off that day, but drove to the WTC immediately to help — and have never been heard of again.  Since all were coming in from the outside, it is pretty clear that they knew what they were getting into.  The survivors who were coming down the steps all say that the looks on the faces of the firemen and police going up the steps was such that they must have known that they were going to their deaths.  There were also several “ordinary” office workers who called loved ones from the plaza or elsewhere to let them know that they were safe, and then decided to go back into the buildings to help rescue others… and then disappeared…  (I’ve captured a few of these at the end, but there are many more.)

Many of us working on the 71st floor remember Omar, the blind man, with his wonderful dog Salty.  Two colleagues in the office went back to make sure he got out.  The four of them – two friends, Omar, and Salty — were among the last to make it out.  Then they really started running for their lives.  In describing that day, he focuses on the strange and constant crackling sounds (later understood to be the death rattles of the steel girders), the acrid smoke, and the smell of jet fuel – all of which will live with him for the rest of his life.  It seems like a terrifying equivalent of how the smell of Madeleine cookies brought back memories from Proust’s early childhood that then resulted in The Remembrance of Things Past

In any case, of the 50+ people I’ve spoken with this week, not one of them has gone back to view “ground zero” – or plans to…

They’re all heroes in my book, even the “ordinary folks” who were there, like the six RWD staffers and the 30+ Port Authority people with whom I had spent the summer.  To stay calm, if only on the outside, to be humane, to make way for the injured and fearful, not to stampede each other — these are incredible stories. Of the Port Authority folks, only 74 were killed (half of them the police and firemen who knew that they were going to their deaths) out of the 2,000 or so who were in the building.   Another interesting statistic that speaks volumes: less than 5,000 people were killed in the collapse of the two centers, compared with 25,000 who were safely evacuated.

Next week, I will go to a temporary office to work with the information systems folks to try to reconstruct the written procedures and training materials – a whole summer’s worth of work – that was lost.  I expect that it will be a good deal more difficult than being out at La Guardia, where only a few were directly affected.  I will be working with the people who were on the 70th and 71st floors, many of whom lost friends and colleagues.

I remember being in severe shock during three different times in my life – the kind of truly dysfunctional, mind-numbing, panic-attack-type-shock that makes getting out of bed an act of incredible stupidity or superhuman courage.  But then it was just one person (me), and there were plenty of others around to help me stay functional.  So how do people manage when EVERYONE they know is also in shock?  (And this is shock, not post-traumatic stress disorder – that will come months or years from now.)

I will also be a short ferry ride away from “ground zero.”  I haven’t decided yet whether I will visit or not.  I will be at the same hotel in Jersey City where I spent the summer.  My room looked out over the twin towers, and I always kept the curtains open at night because the lights from the city cast a gentle glow – much like a night light.  The highlight of my day was the ferry ride across the Hudson.  A couple of times, I chose to stay on the ferry for an additional trip, lying on the upper deck and enjoying the richness of the life around me.  In addition to the incredible variety of people, there were boats of every kind – the huge Staten Island ferry, smaller ferries from WTC and Hoboken and Liberty Plaza, towering cruise ships, lanky barges, squat fireboats, coast guard and Navy ships, resolute tugboats, three-masted schooners, 20-30-foot sailboats of all varieties, an occasional cabin cruiser, and even the lonely kayaker that skirted around the Jersey piers at 6:45 – 7:00 every other morning.  In the air were the helicopters, single- and twin-prop planes, the jumbo jets, a rare blimp, the massive cranes that were pummeling pylons into the river making foundations for future condos and office buildings, and even the parasailing fool who got trapped on the Statue of Liberty.  And of course the birds – gulls, ducks, geese, cormorants, and even (I think) one great blue heron cruising close to the water far in the distance.  The mouth of the Hudson – so rich, so varied, so ALIVE – will it ever be the same again?


Week 2:  October 15 – 19, 2001:

Upon arriving at my hotel room in Jersey City, I went immediately to the window to check the New York skyline.  The room faced too far north to see the remains of the World Trade Center, but I had a wonderful view of mid-Manhattan.  On this night, it was an exquisite sight:  layers of cloud meandered through the night sky in such a way that the emerald-green crown of the Empire State Building was hazy and luminous while the lower part was so clear that one could almost count the windows.  It was intensely beautiful, I thought.

After unpacking, I went to get a soda and ice and looked out the rear hallway window to the remains of the WTC.  Even three-quarters away, I was not prepared for what I saw:  despite the darkness of the clear night sky, the smoke bellowing forth from the hole in the ground was plainly visible.  It reminded me of large institutions with underground steam heat.  But whereas, in such institutions, one can see steam rising from well-placed vents of inches, or (at most) four feet wide, here it was rising a hole that was several city blocks in diameter.  It was pale enough to be identifiable as mostly steam, rather than smoke.  Almost a month to the date from the bombing, and no sign that the end was near; it felt like a part of my heart had caved in, much as the ground had.

Upon returning to my room, I looked more carefully at the emerald beacon on the Empire State Building and the source of the cloud that made it shimmer so.  Sadly, it was true: that opalescent haze was not cloud, but smog from ground zero.  I then opened the window to bring in some fresh air for sleeping, but the faintly acrid smell made me close it immediately thereafter.  It was at this point that I had no choice but to cry.

It was good to see my Port Authority friends on Monday.  In particular, I was pleased to be sharing an office with Diane Amici (not her real name), a senior manager for the agency.  Diane is known for her drive and for the long hours she puts in; she seems impelled by a maternal dedication to her staff.  From our standpoint as the consultants, this meant that she demands high-quality documentation and training material and will tolerate nothing less.

By the evening of Wednesday, September 12, the day after the bombing, I had learned that Diane and all of the other folks in the procurement group were safe – most of them having walked down from the 70th and 71st floors.  But “safe” and “okay” are not synonyms.  Thus, I was relieved to see that Diane was pretty normal.  Despite her years (mid-late thirties), she still had her cute way of giggling (rather like a new bride) when she was pleased with someone or something.

But the eyes were different.  They didn’t twinkle anymore.  I also noticed that she used rubber gloves to open mail.  But mostly, she was no longer driven to the extent that she had been; the passion, the energy, the drive – they were dormant.  They will come back, I thought, but probably not with the same intensity as before.  And perhaps that’s good; I don’t know.  But it made me think about Galen (my teenage son) and his friends, and how this has shaken them in ways they have no idea of yet.  Just about to leave the nest and explore the wide wonderful world – when suddenly, that world has changed.  The world is not a safe place anymore.  Suddenly, people are aware of their fragility in the face of evil.

I don’t know what war itself is like, but I do feel have an idea of what it’s like to “go through the wars.”  It is the process by which one is forced to acknowledge one’s vulnerability.  For most of us, war is external; its “over there,” and “back then,” and it involves others.  Now the war is here and now and within.  The reality of ourselves is at war with the preconceptions about ourselves.  Suddenly we are afraid, and we’re not happy with the people that we’ve become.

Certainly part of the reason that Diane has lost some of her intensity is because her commute is now 2 ½ – 3 hours each way, instead of the mere 90 minutes it had been.  Also, the new Port Authority servers are not yet set up for remote access, so she can’t work nights and weekends on the computer, as she did before.  And twice, she was an  hour late because Penn Central had been evacuated for “something” (never explained); this meant that she had to walk 6 blocks to a subway and then a different PATH station.  So she leaves home before 6:00 am and doesn’t make it into the office until 9:00 or 10:00.

…Or perhaps her emotional weariness stems from the fact that the computer system has been fussy ever since so many servers were destroyed.  What once was a simple, two-minute transaction is now a cause for celebration.  For example, it kept going down Monday morning, when Diane was trying to enter a requisition for anthrax test kits.  (This was a requisition she wanted to enter herself, so as to hide its purchase from the rest of her staff.)

As it turned out, she was just a small step ahead of the game on the anthrax business. After secretly showing me the requisition, she left for lunch.  But while she was out of the building, a man in another large bank of offices across the hall returned from lunch to find a white powder covering his desk.  (Suddenly the rubber gloves that Diane used for opening mail weren’t so ludicrous…)  Within seconds, all doors in the building were closed, and the HVAC system was turned off.  We were quarantined to our offices, unable even to go into the hallways to the bathrooms.  About 20 minutes later, an entourage of security experts arrived.  Fortunately, the doors to the hallways were glass, so we could watch – in fascination and terror – as two of the men went through the laborious process of suiting up into “moon suits.”  Shades of Jimmy Carter and Three-Mile Island, I thought, but this time it was only 20 feet down the hall.

The comments in our corridor spoke to the general fear of the country.  Because the building was secure, it was evident that putting anthrax powder on this man’s desk was an inside job, either by a prankster or…a terrorist…here?  There was unanimous agreement that, if it were a prank, then the culprit should be fined and put in jail…  After the 10-minute ordeal of suiting up, they walked into the other bank of offices, and, with nothing left to gawk at, the rest of us went back to work.

Thirty minutes later, one of my colleagues came back chuckling.  The “white powder” was innocent enough – it was particles of ceiling tile and dust, apparently loosened by some construction.  Had this happened 6 weeks ago, the man returning from lunch would have looked up and asked a few questions, and probably figured out the cause without effectively shutting down the offices for two hours.

Toward the end of the week, Tom (catty-corner from my office) had a similar episode, but it was only a small amount of dust.  However, work was disrupted for about an hour while we awaited the security experts (along with a doctor, who took nasal swab samples from Tom and tried to reassure him that, if it is anthrax – which will be confirmed in 3 days time – it is easily treatable with drugs.  (Of course, I wrote this before the sudden deaths of the DC postal workers have given us a whole new respect for the power of bio-terrorism, but Tom, fortunately, was fine.)

I’ve been thinking about All Saints’ Day and the sermon that I need to give in class.  In a wonderful book of daily meditations called All Saints, author Robert Ellsberg defines a saint as “someone whose life doesn’t make sense without God.”   This allows him to honor the awesome humanity of true sainthood by including such godly non-Christians as Chief Seattle of the Snohimish nation, Gandhi, the ancient Hebrew prophets, and numerous others in his list.  Expanding on that idea, I once described saints as those people who can transform the gospel from historical artifact to living truth.  So I’ve been pondering the difference between heroes (all of the people in or anywhere near that building on September 11), and saints.

As Victoria Lockhart walked into our office with a stack of files, I heard her muttering “Jesus Christ” under her breath.  Assuming that she was cursing, I looked up from the computer to see what was wrong.  (I guessed that she had forgotten something or broken a fingernail.)  Instead of a scowl, I saw a warm smile followed by a cheerful “Good morning, sister” from a woman whom I had never before seen in my life.

We soon got talking, and she was happy to share her impressions of that day.   She was sitting at her desk on the 63rd floor when the plane hit.  Rather than run or scream, she dropped to her knees and started praying.  Although no one knew exactly what had happened, everyone realized that this was much, much worse than the bombing of ’93.

Praying on her knees, she had a clear vision of God “sitting on his throne” and looking down on her and saying, “Look at my baby girl calling on me in the midst of this terror.”  Directing some unseen angels, God told them, “Go and see about my daughter.”

She was also reminded of a previous epiphany when God had promised various things that had not yet come to pass.  And, instantly, Numbers 23:19 came to her mind: “God is not a human being that would lie.” Thus, in her heart, she knew that this day was not going to be her end and that she would calmly deal with whatever might befall her.

When the vision of God’s radiance faded, she stood up and went with waiting colleagues to the nearest stairwell.  Walking down, she began singing praise and worship songs, as well as reciting the 23rd psalm.  Others joined in, if they knew the words, and many came up to her later, thanking her for the courage and faith that she radiated in that dark, smoke-filled stairwell.  In an e-mail that she shared with me later, she wrote:  “I love the Lord, he heard my cry and pitied every groan; as long as I live, may trouble rise…I hasten to his throne…. This is my testimony, and I will continue to spread God’s word; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.”

As others wake up shaking at their reliving of the sounds, smells, and sights of that dreadful day, Victoria says that she begins the day with “profuse tears of gratitude at God’s salvation.

Yes, I would define Victoria as “someone whose life doesn’t make sense without God.”


Week 3:  October 22 – 26, 2001:

Sounds are a huge source of trauma for people.  Every alarm, grinding sound, scream from the outdoors, squealing of breaks – they all bring a brief moment of terror before people settle down.  Once they do, someone comes up with a joke and everyone laughs off their anxiety.  (Although there are no jokes about bombs, airplanes, or anthrax, there is an overabundance of other types of humor.)

On Monday and Tuesday, the agency conducted detailed fire drills (3 separate egresses and 2 regrouping points outside of the building).  This was followed, on Wednesday, with the distribution of flashlights, elaborate dust masks, and hard hats.

I’m especially enjoying the gentle, respectful way that they talk about one another regarding that horrible day.  Joe and Kamar were sharing their stories about walking down from the 70th floor.  Things were pretty calm until the 20th floor, since many people had been through the previous bombing and everyone trusted the structural integrity of the towers.  Certainly, they were nonplussed by the burn victims coming down the stairs, along with quite a number that were actively bleeding, but they never feared for their own lives until about the 20th floor, when the smoke became increasingly intense, making it hard to both breathe and see.  An incredible, inexplicable, rolling, deafening roar (which they later learned was the crash of WTC2) made the north tower shake intensely, cutting off the emergency lights and causing people to stumble over each other.  After this, it was an almost super-human effort to maintain calm, and some began to scream.  But still, the group kept talking to each other to stay calm, groping their way down, many of them holding hands, some whimpering, but with little apparent complaining – just cold, stark determination.

In the middle of this horrific retelling of events, Joe blurts out, “And, you know, we were the lucky ones.  We had no idea of what was going on.  When the second tower fell, we knew something horrible had happened, but our stairwell was still fine and our tower still stood…  Actually, it’s the people like Diane that really have it hard.  She was just walking in from the plaza and saw it all.  She froze, absolutely froze – not knowing whether to rush up and help her people or run away as fast as she could.  Fortunately, a policeman coming by ordered her to leave – and it was a good thing because this is when debris – huge debris, enough to kill you if it landed on you – started falling from the sky.”

I was moved by the fact that Joe felt sorrier for Diane than he did for himself.  It was no surprise therefore that, since she was out of the office when the flashlights were distributed, he installed the batteries in her flashlight and made sure it was working properly.

Everywhere and always, when people stop in for a meeting and see someone that they haven’t seen since that day, work abruptly ends and people come out from their cubicles to check out the scene.  It’s rather like the excitement of a woman coming back from being on maternity leave with her new baby in tow – except that it’s very, very quiet – a chastening calm, totally unlike the gushes over the beautiful baby – and the unspoken affection is truly palpable.

I left New York on Wednesday afternoon and spent that evening and Thursday at Wesley.  On Friday, I returned to my office in Columbia, Md., for meetings and paperwork, and, quite late in the afternoon, I found myself, quite suddenly, very depressed.  I realized that I had once been graced to witness the realm of God in action, however strange and strained it might have been, but that powerful vision was quickly vaporizing into a fleeting glance.  For some, their self-sacrifice for the well-being of others was absolute and cost them their lives; for most, it was timid and tenuous – but nonetheless transforming…if only for a time.  And I knew that I too was forever changed, for good as well as ill.  The trivialities of my life gnawed at me: having spent three weeks in the company of saints, heroes, and people who were not ashamed to show that they genuinely cared for one another, ordinary mortals seemed so frivolous and self-absorbed.