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Arundel Mansions Hotel, New Westminster, Canada

Day 28: 9/11—Inside the Drop of Ink

The day the towers fell

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” 
Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches

But then, says the cynic, look what happened to Martin Luther King Jr.

But then, says the optimist, look how his words have survived and inspired.

Today is one of the most painful memorial dates in recent history, for most North Americans at least: the anniversary of 9–11.

Most North Americans (yes, we Canadians included) can remember exactly where we were when we first heard the news, if not the blast itself, of New York’s twin towers, and the exact look and feel of our surroundings, when we heard it.

Shapes became sharper in the widened lens of present reality. Sounds (or the lack thereof) became clearer.

A single moment was defined and blown up into epic proportions across time zones, by a communal, creeping horror in the realization that the future may not be so bright, after all; that the far-spreading matrix of combined illusion could dissolve in a flash. The future, once colourful and vivid, filled with sunshine, blurred and receded into uncertainty. Meanwhile the dot on the clock of the present moment enlarged, as in a shining, expanding blot of ink at the end of a pen. A sorcerer’s crystal ball, that would draw eyes forever looking backward to this one point in time, from far into the future, as in the first paragraph of George Eliot’s Adam Bede:

“With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the…sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, dear reader. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you…”

How many stories will be written, describing real, living beings and their surroundings, as they existed alone together, inside this one moment in time? And how much time, before the mirrored drop of ink again congeals and diminishes—just another scratch on the clock or in the pages—becoming insignificant, indistinguishable from myth or fable?

Many writers, or avid readers, finding themselves aware in that plane of time, remember a quote from a book, or a universe from within a book, which becomes a framework within which to place the chaos of the moment.

What did it mean? Who was really at fault? What were the true powers at work?

For me, the story that sprang to mind in the aftermath of 9–11 was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. That dystopic vision, too, started with a terrorist act. That plot device, too, gave reasonable cause for increased security, decreased fluidity between nations, mindless giving-over of identity and personal power.

On September 11, 2001, my husband and I were recently married, living in a beautiful old apartment building in New Westminster. (We’d been attracted by the poetry of the advert in the rental classifieds: birdcage elevator, clawfoot tub, “borrow-sugar” inner-courtyard. This kind of thing is rare gold, on the west coast.) The one downside to the place was that it was in a central hub zone of several nightclubs, just near the skytrain station, with a train track running immediately (literally within a metre) beside it.

Every three-to-ten minutes, night or day, we’d hear the skytrain’s screaming whine, and feel its accompanying high-speed vibration rumble the depths of the building (it passed just in front of the second floor windows). And if that didn’t bother us, every cheap-drinks night at 2 a.m., we’d hear the more irregular drunken brawl of revellers. They’d exit the closing bars and pour into the streets, smashing beer bottles. Luckily, though, we weren’t too close to all the action. We were on the fourth floor up, south side. The “green” apartment, peek-a-boo river view. And the daytimes were fine.

“Look at this,” my husband said. We’d both been getting ready for work, but now he was sitting on the coffee table. The news on TV, as displayed from inside our entertainment unit.

“What is it?”

“War.”

“What the—

…oh… my… god…”

I was standing there, my forehead creased down as though from heavy pressure, my eyes wide in horrified shock, as we saw the buildings destroyed. My hands clapped over my mouth at thought of the pain, the terrible pain and suffering of those people, those individual people and their loved ones…

“This can’t be happening…”

“It’s happening.”

Beyond the vivid lily-flowered walls, with their glossy wood-trimmed windows, I mostly remember the strangely banal beauty of the day outside — pale blue sky, sunshine, the general cheerful honk and clank of traffic and trucks in the city.

But it was the skyline, that fascinated me, or rather, the lack thereof.

We were surrounded by buildings; a small-scale, oily city sprawl. “The arsehole of greater Vancouver,” we sometimes affectionately called this town; smack in the middle of everything, and a place most hoped to leave, the moment they encountered it, back then at least. (I think it’s shined up a fair bit since that time.)

There was a snippet of green—a wavering tree, planted here and there, and between the mouldering towers, looking down, I could see a small stretch of dappled grey, crowded with boats. The river.

There was always the river, which runs through everything.

It’s the small details that matter, honed in on from a distance, at times like these, when a moment is expanded.

I remember there were the green jungled drip of hanging plants, in our windows. There were the wide, spreading leaves of the umbrella plant, in its pot. And there was the sky, the constantly changing but everlasting sky, particularly blue and balmy, this September day. Much like it is here in France, on this same date, 17 years later. There were the trees, which constantly renewed themselves, and there was the river, which led to the sea.

For some stupid reason that’s all I could focus on, as I stood there with my face in my hands, unconsciously mimicking Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The river, which led to the sea.

One man was trapped beneath building 1 of the twin towers, as I stood there, in an apartment 3000 miles away, looking at the strangely balmy sky. His face — nostrils, mouth, eyes, ears—filled with debris. His moment was expanded by a horror that I could only barely begin to imagine. All he could think of, after the fact that he would die a slow and terrible death, was that he would not see his wife and son again. It was then he decided that he must try to survive.

The man clung to that final thought, as he spat and vomited the debris from his mouth, and later clung “like a sticky burr on a bear’s ass,” to the next nearest survivor. It turned out to be a burly firefighter, this man he’d managed to blindly crawl towards.

He’d seen a pinprick of light, through the 147 fibreglass splinters the explosion had jammed into his eyes. He followed the pinprick of light to the bear’s ass. And he followed that bear’s ass out of the burning building.

Sometimes, all it takes, in a dark blot of ink, is a pinprick of light, reflected from the past.

— -

Notes/refs/credits:

  • Inspired by these two stories here on Medium: Towers by Gavin Paul, and I Now Know What It’s Like to Have A 110-Story Building Come Down on My Head by Michael Wright, via journalist Cal Fussman. The inspiration about book quotes came from the former article, which talks about “Shakespeare as secular scripture” in times like these; the bear’s ass quote comes from the latter. My second son is currently reading Adam Bede, which is why I had the George Eliot quote in my mind.
  • Process notes: This is Day 28 of a self-imposed 31-day “Write AND hit Publish” challenge, mostly using Jeff Goins’ “My 500 Words” prompts. Today’s prompt was “Write your eulogy.” I did write a strange kind of eulogy this morning. But when I went to hit “publish,” all I could think about was the memory of 9–11. I started reading 9–11 stories on Medium and then this came out; most of it during an hour-long afternoon writing session, and the last part in the evening, after I’d read the Michael Wright story, and the kids were in bed. Please excuse/notify me of/ any errors.