911: crisis is the catalyst to your career

In honor of addressing the anniversary of September 11, 2001, I’m re-posting this entry I’d written in 2004 (before I made a living through photography and writing), because I think it honors the idea that life is precious, and we shouldn’t squander it doing things that make us miserable or that don’t, quite simply, bring us joy.

Last night I opened The Joy Diet by Martha Beck.  I opened it to a random page, as if I were cutting a deck of cards. Figure Out What Your Career Really Is headed the top of the page.  Just answer this question, and you’ll find your answer: What did you do the evening of September 11, 2001?

It goes like this: it’s a time of crisis and panic, when you’re uncertain and nervous.  So what did you do?  Did you phone friends and family and keep them in arm-distance as you watched the news for days?  Did you flee your office with your unfinished manuscript?  Beyond the phone calls and the are you alrights, what did you do?  Beck suggests in times of uncertainty our deepest values and true career are reflected in our actions.  Your real career is whatever action your heart and soul need to take; it’s not necessarily what you do for a living right now.  Despite how you choose to spend your free time or how you earn your paycheck, the answer to what you did the evening of September 11 is a strong indicator of what you should be doing.  I love this idea.

I tried to donate blood, clicked through news stations, and I may have written in my journal.  I like to think that I did, but I doubt it.  I hadn’t thought to pick up a camera or write about grief; all I could think about was food. 

The most memorable thing I did on the evening of September 11, though, had nothing to do with my camera, writing, or the web: it had everything to do with a turkey baster.  I cooked, my friends; I cooked. 

I assembled an entire Thanksgiving meal for friends and family.  I packed fistfuls of prayers in the cavity of a bird, my thoughts mingling with mushrooms and stemmed thyme.  Stuffing stuck to the roof of my mouth, like I imagine a wafer of Christ does in church.  I chopped celery, and turned out cranberry sauce.  Sweet potatoes were splashed with orange juice and gobbed with butter and brown sugar.  I hosted friends who were new to New York City.  I did anything I could to make the people around me comfortable. 

Two years later, when the 2003 Blackout happened, I ran home to get my camera and drank a bottle of wine. I wrote about the events; okay, and I got drunk, letting Linus run in parks with large NO DOGS ALLOWED signs.  That’s how far I’ve come to living my dreams, my real career.  My divorce enabled me to take my dreams more seriously.  I allowed myself to take Stephanie seriously.  It’s not selfish; it’s crucial.  When I was married, I tried to play that part of comfort and Mom to a boy.  It’s what my mother did for my father; it’s what I knew.  Years later, and a heap of perspective, and I’m so thankful I’ve learned how to bend over backwards… to make me happy.  I’ll always want to cook and surround my loved ones with comfort, but it won’t be at the expense of fulfilling my own mandatories.  Storytelling.  With a camera or a pen and paper, it’s what I do.  It’s not how I make a living, not yet, but it’s what I do.



  1. We broke bread that day, too.

    I was at Bradley Airport in Hartford, boarding a 9:00 am Southwest flight to Washington DC.

    Walking into the airport, the air felt suddenly charged with electricity. I had not yet heard what had happened, but could sense something was up walking down through the terminal past the reservation counters. Travelers clamoring… Cellphones buzzing… tense voices raising… raised voices tensing… harried airline agents' shoulders shrugging…

    At the Soutwest gate, I learned from an elderly couple on their way to Florida that a plane had hit the twin towers. All the TVs were shut off… one idiot was noisily demanding that every passenger be re-screened and their cell phones taken away because "I refuse to get on that plane until you do, because they might not really be cell phones." He needn't have worried. Neither had I, because as I looked over to reassure the elderly couple, the woman was glaring at the loudmouth… she looked over at me, motioned her head his way, and said, "Putz!"

    The Southwest agent came on, telling us that "something serious has apparently happened," and although the airport policy was to keep the TVs off, "we're going to turn them on, because whatever this is… we're going to get through it together." The televison screens snapped on seconds before the second plane hit its mark.

    I called home to tell my wife that I hadn't gotten on the plane. I tried to call my sister in Midtown to no avail, but soon learned that she was making her way to Grand Central. The family was safe… I was adrift and glassy-eyed, placing my old deli-style boarding card on a pile at the gate. (Steph… what a picture that would have made.)

    I didn't go home. I couldn't. I don't know why, and what that says about me, I don't know.

    I found sanctuary with a core of friends in an apartment in West Hartford. Our office building was evacuated, and we found each other… instinctively. Gradually, one, two, then four more close friends came in… today, it reminds me of the way skydivers maneuver into a circle formation… slowly… in the midst of a careening free-fall. That's what we did. And we locked into that formation for the rest of the dive.

    Why our ragtag band of friends sought each other was never discussed. Spouses/fiances were not in that circle, and that remains a sore point for more than one of us.

    It was instinctive. It was secure. We cooked. We ate. We drank. We hunkered down into what became our temporary shelter against the world.

    That was September 11 the day. September 11 the experience stretched on… through worrying about two college classmates, to learning the news, to two remarkably poignant memorial services… one of which ended in a New Orleans jazz funeral procession from the Church of Our Savior to an open-bar, scotch-sodden, no holds barred BASH at the Union League Club.

    Last Friday, I sent this message to the September 11 Supper Club:

    "Three years ago tomorrow, our generation was given its own 'day that you'll always remember where you were.'

    "We didn't ask for such a day…
    How we'd give anything that it weren't so…
    How thankful I am that on that awful day my family was not in danger…
    How thankful I am that I had a friend like you to get through those harrowing hours.

    "So when we remember… and pray… this weekend, amid a torrent of prayers for our country, those lost, those still with us, will my prayer of thanks that at that moment: you were there."

    The blackout?? Coronas in Port Chester. Not even close.

    (This not my blog… I went on too long… but it's my story, and it just poured onto the keyboard from somewhere. If I hit "preview," I'll probably change it, or decide not to send it. Just going to post, and thank you for the outlet.)

  2. On my way to work that morning I witnessed the first plane crash into the WTC. I worked only blocks from the site and walking through the courtyard was a normal everyday commuting activity. Instead of running back to the ferry's to go back home, I instead ran to get in touch with my wife to assure her I was safe. Of course we eventually lost contact when the towers fell and didn't speak for hours until I could get back across to NJ when it was possible to use a cell phone.

    When I got home at 4pm I think all we did the rest of the night was be close to each other and talk. Needed to get those images of planes and people and smoke out of my head so the best way was to turn off the news and just sit there and talk. Doesn't really say much as a career move for me.

  3. And you do damn well if you don't mind me saying so. Keep up the good work. And congrats on knowing how to make yourself happy. Some of us are still searching.

  4. Wafers for communion DO stick to the roof of your mouth if they're the "earthy, bread-like ones" that some churches use. They're big hunks of bread, sort of like if you squished some wheat bread between two heavy objects and then cut it into an almost too big to be bitesized square. Communion wafers, the fancy white round ones that most churches I've seen use sort of melt. They don't really stick. They're a bit like cotton candy in a way.

    In the category of things you didn't really ask but I was qualified to tell you.

    But it's a great simile. :) And I think that the thing about it: the phrase "this is my body, given for you" is spoken just before you take it. And for you, and anyone who cooks, we know that we DO pour our body & soul into cooking for others. It's the main part that is powerful about the Christian ritual– through food, we share a piece of ourselves every single time we share. And finally, it is important in that who do you think cooked that bread Jesus used in his own ritual? Women.

  5. And the point I meant to make but hit "post" too soon, is that it's a powerful way of connecting with people. And so is your art, and your photography, and writing. I like to do all of them. :)

    What I did on 9/11, living NOT in New York, was watch amazed as the news showed coverage over and over. I talked with my college students about what happened. And I, too, cooked. So. I guess I'm a "teacher," "watcher" and "cook." That I buy!

  6. I was teaching a room full of 2nd graders. The superintendent, my father-in-law, told me not to let them know what was going on and that Mark (my husband) was safe in the city – they had just talked. I taught that day. I held it together, for the sake of the children. And when it was safe to do so, after each one of them got on the bus or got picked up, I cried myself tired. My wedding was scheduled 4 days later. We decided to go forth with it, even though my family would not be there b/c the airports were shut down. We realized that the wedding was but a small ceremony compared to the lives we would lead as husband/wife. We decided after much debate, to go forth with it. My family gave us their blessing. They said, "Get married. It's not about the wedding, it's about the two of you." And on my wedding day, friends and family gathered around, and stayed close and hugged. More so than at normal weddings. None of the flowers I ordered (from Holland) arrived, the florist spray painted local hydrangeas and we went with it. Mark and I celebrated our anniversary yesterday. And not a day goes by that I don't know what we have. Yes, 9/11 changed our lives forever. And on 9/15, we made a pact on how we would live our lives moving forward.

  7. I did not find out about 9/11 until it was virtually 9/12. I was incommunicado in the middle of the desert in Namibia's Etosha National Park idly sitting by a watering hole watching elephants, zebra, kudu and the occasional lion do their thing. Eight hours after the attacks, upon hearing rumblings that something terrible had occurred, I was able to confirm the sketchiest of details via a satellite call back to the U.S. That night, I ended up hooking up with one of the other Americans in the campsite, which, frankly, would likely have occurred regardless of the circumstances. But our mutual concern and lack of information thrust us together and expedited the process.

    Three days later I saw my first image of the tragedy: a color still on the front page of a non-English newspaper showing the second plane's impact. I frankly cannot begin to fathom what all of you (those inundated with round-the-clock coverage and replays) went through during that time. Nor, truthfully, do I want to.

  8. I heard about the first plane hitting the tower and thought that it was some idiot in a small plane who had no idea what they were doing. Then I received a call from my ex-girlfriend at the moment the second plane hit. She wanted to make sure that I was ok and that I was not there for a meeting. I happened to be there about a week earlier for an event. Upon hearing the news, I immediately called my parents to let them know that I was alright. After that, I along with a few of my co-workers walked down to the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. Moments after arriving, we saw the first tower fall and a wave of dust making its way towards us. I gathered my co-workers and then headed back to the office. Upon returning to the office, I immediately started calling my friends from grad school and the admin staff of the MBA program to make sure they were all ok. Working with the admins, we reached out to everyone we could to make sure everyone was ok. I sent out numerous e-mails to let people know who I had reached to let them know who was ok. I received word either directly or indirectly from each person except one by 4pm. At that time, I decided to make my way to my parents house on Long Island. Three hours later, I made it there. Two hours after that, my last friend called me to let me know that she was alright. Her office was in the building across the street. Before ending the conversation, I wished her a happy birthday. It caught her off-guard, but it was much needed. Now, I pass the WTC everyday on my way to work and I am reminded of everything that I have to be thankful for.

  9. who are you freaks that write these non-sensical essays on this self-promoting, self absorbed web-site ? a lot of you really need a hobby. its almost comical!

    1. Ned?
      This is the land of the free and home of the brave. Which means you are free to go.
      Please do.
      And don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

    2. Uh, Ned? Writing non-sensical essays and being self-absorbed is my hobby. Sounds like you need an outlet more than anyone else here.

  10. I've been reading your blog for some time now. I have no idea how I landed here, Stephanie, but I'm glad I did.

    I spent the evening of September 11, 2001, with my husband and our boys, who were nine and four years old at the time. We were glued to the television, endlessly flipping between channels, trying to learn something, anything that would help us make sense of it all, but there was nothing but video of the planes hitting the towers and speculating talking heads.

    I had gone to the grocery store directly from work; it couldn't be helped. I had to go even though it was the last place I wanted to be. The normal 5:30 p.m. rush of desperation dinner seekers was subdued and we all seemed to find it difficult to look each other in the eye. On the drive there and then home, I remember noticing that everyone was driving carefully, slowly, courteously. Drivers and occupants staring straight ahead, lost in their own thoughts, intent only on reaching our shared destination: Home.

    Our younger son was pretty much oblivious to what had happened. He knew that planes had hit buildings and that people had died, but he busied himself with his Legos and trucks and tuned out. Our nine-year old had seen some of it on television at school and we recently found out that he had actually seen the second plane hit. He understood too well what had happened and spent the evening sitting on the couch between me and my husband. This is a child who has spoken like a little adult since the age of one, so we made no attempt to shield him from the tragedy.

    At bedtime, with the little one tucked in and already fast asleep, the dam finally broke. I sat on the side of my third-grader's bed and held him while he sobbed his heart out, then stroked his head softly until he finally fell asleep.

    Later, my husband and I clung to each other in bed, not speaking, just breathing, trying to quiet our minds, but sleep was a long time coming that night.

    I live in a small city, hundreds of miles from NYC. My life is so different from yours and I often marvel at the interesting life you lead.

    But on that night three years ago, we surrounded ourselves with those who matter most to us, and wanted nothing more than their presence and their comfort.

    You did exactly what you were supposed to do that night. And that's just fine. You are a storyteller, yes. But you are a nurturer, too, and that's a pretty damned fine combination.

  11. NED: Guess your hobby, then, must be reading all these these 'self absorbed,' nonsensical essays.' You apparently write them, too!

  12. Happy Thanksgiving. I was working late into the night on obtaining asylum in this wonderful country of ours for a foreign torture victim. He got it a few months later, and I was very proud of this country and the immigration judge who decided his case. While helping individuals get asylum is gratifying and extremely important work, identifying and disseminating the social paradigms and mechanisms for controlling humankind's impulse to resort to violence to settle disputes is at least as gratifying and critical. It's not rocket science and even primitive tribes have identified these paradigms and mechanisms.

  13. I did the same.
    My father is retired FDNY; I live on the other side of the country. I made batches of cookies for the Phoenix Fire Department and delivered them, shaking. I made a leg of lamb dinner for my roommate and my boyfriend. Cooking was more than merely a distraction; I think it was the act of creating in the face of such destruction that was so comforting.

  14. Ned,

    As someone who was trapped in a subway station one stop away from the WTC that morning, separated from my family, all alone, it makes me feel so much better to read what others went through. To know that I’m not alone in my memories. It is still so raw. And that people haven’t forgotten.

    Sharing is what helps us get through it all.

    And frankly, even though what I’m about to say defies the spirit of what today is about, and what these comments are about…f*ck it.

    You’re a caveman.

  15. I was in the kitchen in my bathing suit (about to go swimming) around 9 am when my mother came from her bedroom and said that Peter Jennings interrupted WBACH to say that a plane had crashed. We were on the coast of maine, practically the safest place to be that day. I remember what I was eating–goat cheese on toast. Do you east coasters remember how gorgeous the weather was that day?

    There is no tv in cottage, just my parents’ clock radio. Anyway, the entire family plus our dogs huddled and curled up on my parents’ bed and listened. As the details I said to my dad: “We should lower the flags on the pole.” He nodded and I went out with him to lower the flags…

    Then our neighbor came home from his Merrill Lynch job (in Maine), and we joined them in front of the tv and watched the footage.

    That day on his way to Maine, in the Midwest, my husband had rocks thrown at him because of his brown skin. A motel refused him a room despite a vacancy. He bought an American flag and drove straight from the midwest to the coast.

    Ah, america, you are a complicated lady.

  16. No disrespect at all to everyone’s memories and everyone in NYC – I’d just like to remind everyone that NYC is not the only place where planes went down. There was the Pentagon in Arlington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. (Shanksville is where the plane landed while en route to DC, because passengers & crew had tried to fight back.) Firefighters & passengers also died in Shanksville – my family knew a couple of the firefighters there. I feel badly for those in Arlington & Shanksville because NYC has completely overshadowed them and worse – made people forget others that were affected and NOT in NYC. Please remember everyone.

  17. Oh dear. That is somewhat alarming, as on the evening of September 11th, 2001 I had my only one night stand. I hope that doesn’t mean I’ve missed my calling as a hooker. For years I felt guilty about this – that on that horrible day, when I was stuck in a distant city, far from my home, while people suffered, that I went and picked up a stranger and slept with him. That following June I recall hearing that there were a lot of babies born and the reason was that people sought comfort in one another on that night. I realized that’s what I was doing too. I also realized that on that night, I took a piece of paper from his apartment, got out of bed while he slept, sat on his couch and wrote a poem. Now I am a writer. Maybe you were right about this after all.

  18. I want to make a living telling stories. Mine and others and not the words and tales that sell corporate ideas. I don’t know – strike that, reverse it – I’m too afraid to make it happen. To sacrifice for it. I’m too scared to fail at the only real gift (besides always being the girl who could make everyone laugh, feel better) that I believe I have.

    I stayed up all night the evening of Sept. 11th, wide awake and realizing for the first time how quiet the world can be with few cars on the highway near my window and no planes in the air. Alone in bed. Very alone in bed.

    The next night I went out to hear live music and drink dirty vodka martinis and talked with the bartender, a beautiful new friend and rock-a-billy girl named Maddie, who told us a friend of hers worked in the second tower, or was it the first, a waiter at Windows on the World. And she hadn’t heard from him.

    I don’t know if she was telling the truth.

    I still write marketing drivel. For the most part I like it.

    I still hear the traffic out that window.

  19. 9/11 brought out the best of us and then the worst of us, e.g., Kalorama’s post. Today, 8 years later, we could use some of the courtesy, concern and respect that arose from that tragic day. As long as we live, we shall make sure this day is not forgotten, just like Pearl Harbor a generation earlier.

    PS Even though I’m on the West Coast, I could not even think about cooking or doing anything else- I was paralyzed in front of the TV with my hubby in complete shock and disbelief.

  20. I’m not on the coast, so we were shocked but weren’t connected to people we knew in the towers or city.

    I spent the night at an already-planned dinner at my inlaws, trying NOT to strangle my whiny SIL, who locked onto the attack just like she does every bad thing in the world, and whined the hell out of it. Oh, it’s so awful, everything is so awful, the world is so awful. Then she told us how HER boss let everyone cry but she bet I had to work because for people like ME it was just another business day, wasn’t it? Witch.

    STORY OF MY LIFE – I spent the time with relatives, wishing I were alone because relatives make me miserable.

    If it happened today I sure as hell wouldn’t be wasting my time with Miss Whine. Can you divorce your families? I’d like to keep the husband, but both of our extended families would be better off with others.

    So I guess this means my real career is as a hermit? Or misanthrope (got that one down well already)?

  21. 9/11 – I was in premature labor with my first child. 33 weeks pregnant and laying in a hospital bed. My Dr. was standing next to my bed, holding my hand. We watched the second plane hit together. I remember looking at him and saying, “please don’t let me have this baby today, it’s not a day for celebration. Ironically, my husband was supposed to be on a 7:15 am flight from Atlanta to NY for a meeting one block from the WTC. He wasn’t on that plane because I was in premature labor. Had he been on that plane, I don’t know if he would have made it back for the birth of his first daughter. Little did we know, if our daughter was not born prematurely, she would not have been born alive.

  22. 9/11. I am a worker in security so I will only be brief. Even though I am in another country I was shocked by the event. Distance does not mean that you are not close. T.V. electronics allow the sounds to be heard by viewers before those sounds from the event reach the ears of some of those witnessing nearby. From my viewpoint, the tragedy should have been averted as our job over here was done properly. So I was shocked, but more than the public was, I was angry, as I knew then that those others over whom I had no control had not done their own job. Of course no one is perfect; and just knowing that the terrorists were there would not normally have justified an early arrest of them. Even so, the lack of sharpness of the mind means only that the innocent die from predators in the concrete jungle. America cannot afford to remain complacent if it expects to survive. Especially when it had so many months of detailed input. I notice that the conspiracy theorists are spreading their smoke and mirrors and the public, sick to death of an unbelievable attack and the trauma of it, simply wishes to go back to sleep in denial. Sleep was where America was before. Human nature is so predictable, and so, with the determination and capabilities of terrorists on one hand, an amnesiastic public that does not want to fight, and a bureaucracy that is incompetent despite the efforts and wishes of a few, so too the future is predictable. If the professionals do not act as warriors against the enemy before an attack then they must better train their skills to act as nurses after one; they are better at that. As to career, I have always protected America, long before 9/11 and I still choose to do so; maybe because I can dream like the founding fathers of America dreamed. They were warriors, revolutionaries who understood the need to actually fight for freedom instead of just debating it. Maybe they were the first and last Americans, and as a lover of their principles, I miss them. As I miss the many who died in the Towers, and elsewhere. You have not been avenged. — Skytale

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