I’m interrupting my World Vision Guatemala trip to bring you this One Good Phrase from my friend Rachel Marie Stone. Who better to share a reflection on September 11th, than a writer who grew up in New York. I’m grateful to have her here today.
I was born in the city of New York, attended New York City public schools, and tended toward that solipsistic New Yorker’s view of the world–as New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg had it, we’re only dimly aware of the world outside. As it happened, on that day, I was living a mere hour and a half away from the city.
All I’d heard was that there’d been a plane crash in New York. Well, I thought, there’s always something going on in New York. So I continued composing an email in the computer lab. (Remember the ‘computer lab’?)
I’d met him in late 1999, this lean, blue-eyed guy who talked slowly and softly and had that quality that is too rare in young men and women–confidence without arrogance.
“Where are you from?” I had asked.
“Montana,” he said.
“Really? Who’s from Montana? I’m not even sure where that is!” I gurgled, laughing, my East Coast-centric bravado a sorry cover-up for my pervasive sense of my own awkwardness and inferiority. (Arrogance without confidence, perhaps.) This guy could probably herd cattle and harvest wheat, for goodness’ sake, whereas I could still barely decipher a subway map or ask for the nearest bathroom without losing my nerve.
Despite that inelegant beginning and our apparent differences, the guy from Montana and I turned out to be kindred spirits. (He’d even read all the Anne of Green Gables books, despite the jeering of some of his friends, and knew the term ‘kindred spirits.’) It took a long time to discover this, because I became so terrified of saying something stupid in front of him that I said very little at all, and then he moved away.
Later, somehow, we began to exchange emails. Mine were tentative and highly edited, as were his, most of the time, every couple of days for several months. Until one email he sent had just the merest hint of flirtation, and I replied in kind.
A flirtatious email that I sent on September 11th. That September 11th.
When I realized what I’d done, there was no end to my agony and self-flagellation. What kind of person will he think I am? The kind of person who sends flirtatious emails when the city of her birth–the city that is still home to many of her most dearly loved ones–is under attack?
I considered sending a follow-up email to clarify that while I had indeed sent him an email that morning, it was cheery and made no mention of the attacks only because I wasn’t yet aware of the situation. But that would just make me seem out of touch with all that was important, I reasoned: Nero fiddling while Rome burned, or Marie Antoinette.
I didn’t get a reply. Weeks went by, and the email conversation stopped.
He never received the email. Perhaps, on that day when the phone networks were so overloaded that I couldn’t even call my parents to ask after the well-being of everyone we knew and exchange expressions of shock and sorrow, the email disappeared into some online black hole. He thought I didn’t reply. I thought he didn’t reply.
Then, as did many Americans after September 11, I became depressed for several months. When I emerged from depression, I was newly confident. I was less afraid to talk for fear of saying something stupid. So I emailed that guy from Montana again. He emailed back.
Several months later–during the boiling summer of 2002–we agreed to meet in Manhattan. I’d not only managed to find my way to the spot in midtown where we’d agreed to meet; I’d given him coherent directions as well. On the steps of the public library–the big, beautiful one on 42nd Street (where my great-grandfather had met the woman who would become my great-grandmother) he looked into my eyes and said, “I love you.”
And I knew just what he meant by putting the emphasis on ‘you.’ We had already taken turns telling each other our deepest secrets and sharing what we the most unattractive aspects about ourselves. Going unedited was a wager–maybe one of us would fail to reply, as we each thought the other had done before. Maybe the fragile, dreamy romance we’d been building crumble would simply crumble under the weighty truth of who we really were and what we could be like in our most unattractive.
But it didn’t.
I love you, too, I said.
It has been thirteen years since I sent a flirtatious email possibly at the same moment that the second plane hit. The man who never received that email and I have had ten years of marriage to discover how solipsistic, arrogant, and insensitive we can be; how our timing and tone and intentions can be tragically wrongheaded and just off.
But after ten years, we still (imperfectly) do as, I believe, God does each day with each of us: look at us for who we really are–quirks, faults, and all–and say, truthfully, I love you.
Rachel Marie Stone has contributed to Christianity Today, Relevant, Books and Culture, The Christian Century, Sojourners, catapult/*cino, and other publications, including her local newspaper, The Suffolk Times. Her first book,Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food, will be released by InterVarsity Press in March 2013. In addition to writing, Rachel is a Presbyterian (USA) mission co-worker who is headed, with her husband and two sons, to Malawi, Africa, in November 2012. You can find her blogging on food, family, faith, birth, and justice at rachelmariestone.com, or find her her on Twitter at @Rachel_M_Stone.