from Kevin Bruyneel
Late Tuesday evening my brother called me and asked if I would write something about the attacks of that day. I said no. I could not imagine putting my thoughts into words. I did not know what my thoughts were. I was numb. Four days later, I am slightly less numb, so I write, for my own therapy more than anything else.
I moved to Boston three weeks ago. I moved from New York City, where I lived for the last ten years. I was born and raised in Vancouver, but other than family and my best friend, my heart, mind and very identity is in New York. It is New York. I lived in Manhattan for eight years, then Brooklyn for the last two. Boston and Vancouver are places in my life. I am a stranger to Boston, getting to know it a little better every day. With every trip to Vancouver, I feel more and more of a stranger, knowing it a little less each time. New York is my center. I expect it always will be. New York is my home. I have never felt so comfortable and, if you can imagine, safe, as I have in New York. Though I moved three weeks ago, I hope to one day return to my home.
My home has been defiled. I feel deep, deep sadness and utter uselessness. I have friends, teachers, acquaintances all over the city. I have taught at CUNY-Hunter College on the Upper East Side, the New School and NYU in the Village. Together, that includes at least 200 students. When I saw the image of the second plane hitting the WTC I was stunned, captured, confused and utterly devoid of response. I did not think 'where are my friends?' I did not think 'who the hell is doing this?' I just sat there, staring at the television screen, in disbelief at what was happening to my home, to the wreckage laid upon the city that made me so much of who I am today.
Then, I heard about the Pentagon crash. For some reason, this jolted me awake to start calling New York. I felt and feel distance from the Washington DC plane attack, and that distance jarred me back to the reality of the New York City attacks. To put it another way, when I saw the Pentagon being hit, I wasn't dazed. I knew it was real. It felt like someone else's home, which made me realize the true devastation in my own home.
At that moment, I started calling New York. Any and every number of those I know. Nothing. "The lines are busy" it said, or just nothing...dead air, and it felt like I was hearing and breathing dead air. I bolted to my computer and sent out a mass email - to almost 50 people - with the subject heading Information Please! and then I waited, checking email every 15, then 10, then 5 minutes, while pointlessly trying to keep the phone line open. And yet, I was still numb, not panicking, not scared, not upset, just dazed, half expecting a newscaster to come on and say, "this is a test, this is only a test, of the emergency...."
Emails slowly started coming in. More and more people getting back to say they were fine. A couple even managed to get through on the phone. But with every email and phone call letting me know that my friends were okay, my sadness deepened, and my feeling of absolute uselessness was even stronger. 'What in the hell am I doing in Boston? I should be in New York, at my home, with my people.' I should be there not to be a hero, not even directly to help (though that of course), but to be there, to be amidst it in all its horror and lay claim to my sadness not from a distance but there, on those streets and subways that I've walked and occupied everyday for a decade with little mind to their fragility.
I don't think it all really hit me until Wednesday night and Thursday morning. The classes on Tuesday and meetings on Wednesday at the college where I now teach were canceled. Thursday, however, I had to teach, on the Meaning of America in the 20th Century believe it or not. By Wednesday evening, I had to start thinking about what I was going to say to the almost 50 students in the two sections I was to teach the next day. What do I say to a bunch of 18 year old business college students? By Thursday morning I knew I had to gather myself. I was the authority figure in the class room after all. But the more I tried to gather myself - to do it intentionally instead of instinctively - the more I let surface those thoughts that I had submerged for two days. Where were the friends who had not emailed back? If they are okay, what about their family and friends? Where were all my old students? If they are okay, what about their family and friends? How many people I care about are suffering right now, if not from an actual human loss then from the terror of being there? And still, the phones were dead, I could not talk to them, could not hear their voices, they could not hear mine. I will never be able to describe how awful, absolutely dreadful that felt, tears emerge as I now think of it.
I started to feel depressed, crying intermittently. On the way to the college I ran a stop sign in Harvard Square in my blurry eyed daze. A cop pulled me over, yelled at me for not having the right registration, looked at my New York plates, saw my watery eyes, and gave me a warning. I shook the rest of the drive to work, and thought: 'What am I going to say to my students?'
Class time came, and I said what I could to 28 impressionable freshmen: "I'm a fucking wreck" were the first words out of my mouth. It was the most honest thing I could say. It was the truth. The assigned readings for the day were set aside and I made them talk about it. As it turned out, though this class started at 1:40PM on Thursday, for most of these students I was the first professor to talk to them publicly about this. We had a collective therapy session - as much for me as for them. There was anger, recrimination, hatred, some talked in a distant analytical language of military strategy and national policy, others talked openly of experiences more like mine but of course unique to each; phone lines with dead air, desperate emails, sadness, impotence, confusion, utter disbelief. I told them to watch out for one another, that they had no control over the nation's response, but they did have over themselves. Anger was understandable, lashing out at others was not acceptable. Crying was fine, isolation from others was not. After the class, three students thanked me. I thanked them. I felt better having shared, talked, commiserated.
The rest of the school day I was fine. Then, on the way home, I saw people on the side of a street gathering to wave flags and chant "USA!" I understood their reaction, and could not be critical of it, but for me it seemed like the easiest response, this national response. I may be wrong, there is no right way to respond to something like this, but it seemed to me so impersonal - flag waving - so distant from the human toll and terror of those from so many backgrounds and citizenships. For me, the people in the city are real, the streets and the buildings are real, not some media image/stereotype of New York, not some symbol of America. This act was perpetrated by people who thought about symbols rather than people, it did not seem right to do the same thing in response. It was about New York and New Yorkers for me, that which the rest of the U.S. and the world so often disparages as rude, mean and uncaring. All these things were proven untrue in the wake of this horror. All these things I knew to be untrue without this horror.
I abhor this vile act against my home, and negotiate in my mind the balance between justice and revenge, trying always to remember that our humanity is edified by the pursuit of the former and diminished by succumbing to the latter. I fear what happens next. I fear war. I fear American nationalism that turns this nation's people into all that they presently revile in the people who did this dreadful thing. I fear for a very close friend who in all likelihood has lost someone very close to her. I fear for friends whose sense of trauma will keep them from sleeping, smiling and looking at one another in the same way again. And yet, in many ways, they are all stronger than me, like us all they breathe without thinking and brush their teeth and make dinner and go for walks because that is what you do, that is just what you do. I hate the fact that at this moment I cannot run out and have dinner with them or walk with them, and just be with them and cry and assess and laugh (I have no desire to brush their teeth with them by the way).
This morning, four full days after the attacks, I finally heard from a close friend who lives in the Village. Rationally, I knew she, her partner and child were fine, and that is what I told others who would ask me about her. In my gut, I knew she was fine. But deep inside, with a dread I did not want to vocalize, my heart beat with the question: 'Why hasn't she emailed back? Everyone else has, why not her? Where is she?' So, just over two hours ago, she emailed and her family is fine, and I breathed because that is what we do, and now I write because that is what I do. My brother may decide to put this on his website, he may not. I care little, because with every word I write I feel a little better, one step at a time, through watery eyes and a shaken sense of being, of belonging, and a deeper sense of attachment to all those who have ever meant anything to me. At my college a large banner has been posted for people to sign and then send to New York. Someone wrote "Peace for America!" Fair enough, I wish the same. On the banner I wrote "Peace for All!" I expect that will be my salutation for a while.
I just found out that a memorial in Central Park is to be held on the 23rd. I plan to be there, to be with my people, to cry, assess and even laugh. And now, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? will walk me through the rest of the morning.
Peace for All.
Kevin Bruyneel and I have a sister: Kellie; safe in Montreal.