Sunday, September 11, 2011

Taking things hard

I wasn't going to write anything about September 11 or even post my usual Facebook status honoring my friend Angie Houtz who was killed in the Pentagon... but this morning at Church of the Common Table a few brave souls decided to lead us in a service where we both remembered our own experiences and talked through how 9/11 has changed us... for good and for bad.

I decided to tell my story about Angie (pictured at left), because it's been 10 years, and although I'd been really ambivalent about this service, I found myself agreeing with the folks who'd planned it that this was an important thing for us to do.  Ten years is an obvious milestone... it seems important to look back, and to take stock, and to ask yourself about your life.

When I told my story, I was surprised to find myself shaking and crying.  I had not expected that.  Not at ALL.  I hadn't cried when telling this story since right after it happened.  I have continued to feel over the past 10 years as I did when I was first interviewed about her death... that it would probably be more honorable to keep my mouth shut since it seems like I'm trying to draw attention to myself by mentioning her death... but I always ultimately decide to share it because even though I end up talking about myself a lot in this story, it *isn't* about me.  It's about remembering *her*, and saying "I knew an amazing woman for a very short time who inspired me to be better, and who should still be alive today and isn't".

And then I realized that talking about Angie's death put me in the emotional space I'm at over my friend Charisse, who died on July 25 of this year, and whom I posted about a couple of posts back.  I'll come back to her in a minute.

My Angie story, in a nutshell, goes something like this:  I moved to the DC area on September 9, 2000, trying to rebuild my life after being dumped 3 weeks before my wedding in January of 1999.  There were a lot of reasons why recovering from that was hard, but part of it is that Phil abandoned me in a foreign country and with a foreign form of Christianity.  I had chosen England and Catholicism not *only* because I loved him, but in leaving me, he failed to account for how hard I'd had to fight for the decisions I made in the context of loving him.  I was excommunicated by the PCA. My relationship with my family was strained.  I'd become a subject of controversy and embarrassment to some at the PCA college I attended when I returned from England as a Catholic.  People took it upon themselves to attempt to convert me back.  Coming back to the U.S. as a rejected 23 year old with no plans, my tail between my legs and a lot of bridges burned was bad enough without the confusion and heartbreak.

So after licking my wounds for a while in Roanoke, I was hoping for a fresh start in DC.  However, moving to DC was extraordinarily hard... harder than I'd thought.  It was an act of obedience... I had prayed for another door to open, had promised God I "would never kick in another door".  I thought I was being punished in some way for how little I'd cared about how my decisions had hurt others.  DC was honestly one of the last places on earth I'd ever want to live, but when the opportunity came to move, I took it, because it was the only door that had opened.  But I was wretchedly, wretchedly lonely... and broke, and without direction, and still so confused about who I was and what I was supposed to be doing.  Everyone I met in the DC area seemed like they'd walked straight out of Stepford:  perfect, rational, making only good choices.  I couldn't connect with anyone.

I started having panic attacks in July of 2001... the same day I pawned my engagement ring and found out that it was a cheap knock-off.  These attacks were 2-3 hour affairs, and they were nightmarish.  The feeling you get when you almost hit someone with your car?  Or when you have a reallllly bumpy plane ride?  That feeling. Without letup. For HOURS.  I had fears of being buried alive... I couldn't shake the thoughts about that.  I couldn't let go of the thought that the brain might live on even though the body was dead.  I was afraid that I wasn't actually going to go to heaven, that God had abandoned me.  Looking back on it, everything had kind of come apart, and I had been brave, but I couldn't take the pressure or the loneliness anymore.  I found myself believing that God was willfully cruel.  *I* was finally coming apart.

I met Angie in August of 2001, at the charismatic Episcopal church where I'd fled from the Catholic church in search of some sense of spiritual rooting and comfort.  She was so full of warmth, and listened so intently and with so much compassion as I found myself telling her about everything that had happened after it came out that we'd both studied abroad in England.  I was a little intimidated by her... she had everything together:  a career, involvement in so many good causes and so loved and connected within her spiritual community. But I felt compassion from her, and I felt like she and I connected... like she respected me despite my poor clothing choices, bad hair, crappy administrative assistant job and just general chaos... like she looked past that and saw what I wanted SOMEBODY to see... that I *wanted* more.  That I *wanted* to give and not be locked in my depression and confusion, but I didn't know how to get out.

We hung out twice, and I was really looking forward to getting to know her better.  I felt kind of like she was my way in... to meeting more positive people, to figuring out my new life, and how to be alive in spite of loss... like she was carrying a light I'd lost, and I could follow that light.

When the plane hit the Pentagon on September 11, Angie was in a meeting room precisely where the plane hit, and was killed instantly.

As things happen, I ended up speaking at her memorial service, and then being interviewed by Voice of America about her, and then was asked to do another interview, at which point I said "enough".  People were drawn to my story of her effect on me... they were drawn towards my conclusion... that I was tired of living a shadow life in my head, the life I wanted to live in England.  I wanted to be as alive as she was, where she was, fully present.  I wanted to give, like she did.  I think people were drawn to the idea of this outgoing, beautiful woman reaching out to this quiet, depressed girl and giving her a vision of a better life.  Like in some sense Angie would "live on" through me... which, of course, she wouldn't.  I was uncomfortable with being asked to share this over and over... it seemed attention grabbing, and weird and unnatural.  Not to mention that for the longest time if you Googled my name, one of the first links to come up was to the VOA story, with the words "Amy Moffitt was struggling with depression after moving to Washington, DC..."  Yikes.

I do feel like Angie's death... of being in the position of having to really process Angie's death and make meaning out of it... *did* play a part in pushing me forward.  I still didn't know what I was doing with my life, but figuring that out became more of a pressing matter.  I started teaching ESL just a couple of months later, and joined the Episcopal Church when the bishop came around to do his bishop thing.  I started to fight harder for my own life.  Teaching ESL lead to working with international students at GMU. Now, 10 years later, I have my own apartment, a masters degree, 7.5 years of experience in international education and 2.5 years of experience with the Government agency created in response to 9/11 to more effectively monitor international students and exchange visitors.  I have an amazing church, inspiring and generous friends, a small network of fellow poets and writers that I create with, and a neighborhood whose streets I know like the back of my hand.

But, to be honest, I'm back to wrestling with a certain measure of darkness. Charisse's death on July 25th has yet to leave me.  No reporters will be interviewing me about Charisse, but I'll be honest and say that her death has hit me harder than Angie's. I am haunted by the thought that she might be forgotten... that *I* might forget her.  She was in no way lesser of a light than Angie.  I'd known her longer, and more deeply.  She was generous to me, as Angie was, but I wasn't as needy.  I've written quite about this in my post about her a couple of posts back, so I won't go into more detail about our friendship...

But on this 10th anniversary of 9/11, I find myself longing for someone to write an article about Charisse in the paper.  I want a reporter on TV in a deep, solemn voice to say, every July 25th, "today, we remember what we have lost."  I want people to stop and take a moment of silence.  I want Voice of America to call me up and ask me about Charisse.  I want to be able to say "she was full of light", and have that translated into foreign languages and have it broadcast all over the world.  I want to be turning down requests from reporters.

This is the nature of loss.  It's mundane, most of the time.  People click their tongues and move on, because if we each felt the aggregate loss that occurs in any given day, we'd collapse from the weight.  Rib cages would crack.  We would disintegrate into dust.  I understand that.  But it doesn't change how I feel about it, or the sense of obligation I have to continue feeling that way, to let it run its course.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "I've made my whole career out of taking things hard."  I read that in my senior year of high school, in a library in Salem, VA, in a slightly rickety yet comfortable chair with my back to the window, and my whole body relaxed.  So there was a place for this in the world.  People might not only tolerate this, but celebrate it.  Thank God.

So today, I honor who Angie was, and I honor the changes that she helped catalyze in my life.  I tell my own 9/11 story as an act of solidarity.  And I pause and reflect on all who lost so much 10 years ago today.  Yes, tons more people die in other countries all over the world every day from disease and war and famine, and the innocent civilians killed in the War on Terror far exceed the number of those killed on 9/11.  But that's not what we remember today.  Today we remember our own dead, our own losses, our own mass trauma and grief.

And in this vein, I also cry bitterly for the loss of Charisse, and I continue to fear that she will not be honored enough for who she was.  I take this loss --a loss for me, and a loss for her many different communities, and a loss for the world-- hard.