I was asleep when the first plane hit. An oddly early call from Carol got me out of bed, though, and it was with her, my dear friend, on the phone, that I watched the second plane fly into the World Trade Center 20 years ago today.

What stays with me? The slow-moving crawl of hushed people making their way up Flatbush Avenue, walkers where cars should be, heads down, covered in ash. The way each subway car would go silent, for weeks after, as it passed through Wall Street Station, a ghost town, without stopping. Times Square, for days, without traffic, without hustle or bustle or sound. And most of all, the immense kindness that overtook the city like a sweet pandemic—eyes seeking eyes, tentative smiles meeting tentative smiles, a seat offered, an encouraging word extended, a thread of connection felt in the spaces between us.

It’s not the horror that stays with me, but the tenderness that remained long after. That kind yet demanding teacher: brokenness. She takes so much, asks so much, hurts so much, and yet somehow gives so much.

It’s that I cling to now. The threads of sweetness that occasionally bind us together in this, a time of another brokenness. This one seems to have shattered and scattered us, keeping us largely apart and afraid. So often I can’t feel my way to the connected places. Yet I remember making the journey before. I remember a city, a nation, a globe, hopeless and lost, finding our way back.

Each brokenness is different, I give you that. We’re so far apart now. We’re angry. We’re cynical. We’re right. We’re justified. But beneath that, we’re broken.

Let’s not be afraid of our own brokenness. Or another’s. Let’s not mistake ire for ease or vileness for victory. Those are distractions, illusions, fabrications.

Brokenness. Her means may be harsh, but ultimately, she is a kind teacher. If we’re willing to be her students.

Photo by Jane Feldman