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September 11th


How I Became a Yoga Teacher ORIGIN COLUMNIST Susanna Harwood Rubin


St. Paul’s Church bulletin board after 9-11


No words could capture the feeling, smells, or sight of it. For the first time in my life, words seemed poor. They had failed me. And art. Art had failed me too.


W


e lived with the stench of papers, steel, buildings, and bodies hanging in the air for a little over a month. It coated our skin and hair so thoroughly that every time I


reentered my apartment, I would immediately step out of my clothing, put it all in a plastic bag, and take a shower to scrub off the stench. I would rub my eyes in the mornings after hours of no sleep, and not be able to remember why I felt such a physical heaviness. Sometimes my brain simply slammed that door shut.


I had the craziest insomnia of my life. I simply. Couldn’t. Sleep. I had accumulated hours of well-earned exhaustion staring at my ceiling because my eyes strangely refused to shut. I couldn’t properly function in this state, but still, nothing. Listening to the muffled thuds of my upstairs neighbors, the drone of people’s air conditioners, and street sounds became my nightly activity.


I stared at my ceiling through the teeny, surreal vision stored in my head of flames flickering from what looked like a little toy tower. I had previously only seen such things in cartoons, so my brain had no other way of categorizing it.


I had watched much of it from Washington Square Park with a quiet handful of other equally confused people, and then in my perplexity, went to the corner Duane Reade, bought a disposable camera and took an entire roll of 36 pictures that I never developed. I threw the camera away several years ago. It wasn’t about the pictures, because later they were everywhere—it had been about the need to absorb and accept what was happening. I am a person who records. Images. Words. I process through creating.


When I finished taking the pictures, I walked into the middle of 6th Avenue, which was oddly devoid of traffic, stared some more, and


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then hopped on the B or maybe the D train to go to MoMA, where I was supposed to train a bunch of museum educators that morning and didn’t want to be late. If I hadn’t gone, that would have meant accepting the enormity of what was happening, which I was not ready to do. I thought about how I would explain my lateness to a room full of people—I’m sorry I am late, but there was some explosion and the World Trade Center is visibly on fire. I got on the train. By the time I emerged at Rockefeller Center, the other tower had been hit and everyone was sent home.


All month I thought about going to my studio and work on a drawing, but it seemed so trivial. Making pictures? I believe in the supremely life-affirming act of creating an artwork, a meal, a poem, but at the time, I felt that I had nothing to say, that anything I could create would be absurd in the face of the profundity of the event. I had no idea what to do, so I volunteered to get up at dawn and cook meals for the recovery workers. There was such an endless list of volunteers that I only ended up working a couple of shifts.


I can remember for the first time in my entire life having no words. NO WORDS. I walked up and down Houston Street silently by myself. It was lined with army vehicles and completely blocked off unless you produced a driver’s license or a utility bill showing evidence that you lived there. I thought, “Oh, this is what it is like for people who search for something to say. It feels like this.” No words could provide an equivalent. No words could capture the feeling, smells, or sight of it. For the first time in my life, words seemed poor. They had failed me. And art. Art had failed me too.


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