For seven years I was the resident director of music at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts on the central coast of California — a total-immersion two-year college-certified training program for actors, known for having accepted Kathy Bates and for kicking out Robin Williams (though both long before my time there). It was a great job that afforded me the opportunity to teach and work in professional theatre — work that obviously influences what I do today.
The first day of class was always eventful at PCPA, but one in particular stands out — exactly twelve years ago today. It was an exciting day for those returning to their second year of study, and even more exciting for those who were entering their first. But for everyone — students, faculty, and staff alike — it would be a day horribly tainted.
The students must have been called at 8 AM (PST), which is the only thing that would explain why I was up at 6. I turned on the TV in the living room of the house that I shared with one of the acting teachers, my dear friend Heidi Ewart. I was stunned by what was unfolding three time zones away. Once I processed the severity, I went to wake her up. We sat together on the sofa, holding hands, disbelieving. By the time we got to campus, the day’s agenda had dramatically changed and suddenly we were all playing it by ear. Many of those college students had just spent their first official night away from home. What had they woken up to? What had we all woken up to?
September 11, 2001, was not a run-of-the-mill Tuesday for anyone. For many, there was something wonderful that was supposed to happen that day: the first day of classes, the first day of a new job, the first day of vacation, the day someone was going to propose. But all that changed. A friend of mine was in the North Tower and was lucky enough to get out. Here’s how he remembers it:
I was on the 39th floor. It was about 8:45, and we heard this loud boom. At first we thought it was something on the street, but then we saw debris coming down. We thought at that point that a small plane had hit the building. It wasn’t an every day occurrence, but it did happen sometimes. I thought it would be best if we got out of the building, regardless. As we came down the 39 flights of stairs, no one had any idea that it was an act of terrorism. When we got outside and watched the other building burst into flames, we knew. It was horrible. I saw people jumping for their lives. Two were holding hands.
My experience that day was nothing compared to his. And his was nothing compared to many others. But twelve years later, I marvel at humanity and our ability to bring out the best in ourselves after experiencing the worst on a day like September 11. We’re like nature in the aftermath of a forest fire: we slowly rebuild.
I also find the art that emerges from such events to be among the most inspired. John Adams’ choral masterpiece “On the Transmigration of Souls” is something I will take time to listen to without interruption tonight; and I’ve recently been re-watching Spielberg’s series “Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero” — a fantastic documentary that explores the process of creating and developing the 9/11 Memorial.
When my husband Keith and I went to New York to get married this summer, I insisted that we visit the burgeoning site, scheduled to be completed in the next year or so. The last time I’d been there was the winter of 2003. I will never forget the image of the two perfectly square holes at ground zero. Though the debris had been cleared by that point, the city was still rattled. A decade later, I am moved by the beauty that is developing in that very spot — the carved names around the edges of the pools where the buildings once stood, the brilliant architecture, and the carefully considered details of every aspect of the memorial.
The day after we visited the site, we learned of the passing of one of my chorus members. My mother had passed just a week earlier, and there Keith and I were celebrating our marriage. Surreal only begins to explain the experience. But I’m looking forward to only positive events in the next couple of months (knock on wood). Lately, exhausted and having had no recovery time, I’ve found myself becoming a little cranky about them. But buying a house is a good thing. Helping host a conference is a good thing. Getting things ready for Heidi and lots of other friends to visit is a good thing. Today I’m reminded that we should never complain about what is actually going well.
In other words, let us rise before there’s reason to.