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Sunday, September 11, 2011

What a difference a decade makes

Ten years ago today a tragedy of almost unimaginable scale occurred. The event, of course, is the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Now, I'm not doing this blog entry because I want to discuss the events of that day or the devastation of what occurred afterwards in Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed throughout the whole Middle East. Whatever you believe happened on that day, one thing is clear: everyone's life changed.

For me, this anniversary will also the mark the day I moved from the U.S. At the time, I believed I would return in a year, after my year of travelling around the world.  I never made it around the world, not till last year. And I never moved back to the U.S.

I remember the day clearly, arriving at the airport in Christchurch, being interviewed by Radio N.Z. Whilst watching the first scenes of the planes hitting the towers, in shock. I had just left the U.S. a mere 12 hours before and my home was under attack. I wanted to hop right back on the plane and go back. But I couldn't.  All the planes were grounded for two weeks. I was stuck in a country where I knew no one, the future uncertain.  Scared, alone.

I found my feet in the wonderful country I would later call home for the better part of ten years.  As for going home, I actually wouldn't return for another year. I stayed in N.Z. for lots of reason but when I returned to my home, everything was different. People were less welcoming, American flags waved on lawns everywhere. It was like walking into the Twilight Zone ...everyone was either afraid, angry or both. People still talked in somewhat hushed tones and it seemed to me that everyone was still very much in a grieving period.

I felt totally out of place; people had gone through something I couldn't understand. I felt like a foreigner in my home. In N.Z. I had been cushioned from the reality of the grief, the pain my country was processing. The stark reality of my choice was there, all around me, and it was intense.

Somehow, a decade passed. When I visit home, things have moved on but the effects can still be felt in the economy and in conversations. It is something so deep that I think no matter how much time passes, the pain dulls but remains in the background like a radio you forgot to turn off.

Grief does funny things to people.  Heart break can turn loving people into enemies.  I know from my own experience that it can turn best of friends to strangers overnight. 
So after some reflection about life and its strange, epic confusing and grief filled turns, I honoured the day, this sad anniversary, by doing what I call my Honiara epic day: five km run, a dive and a yoga session.(Here beginneth the lighter part of this blog entry).

I did a five kms run in the morning. The run was a part of the Solomon Marathon. All of us eager beavers started near the Heritage Hotel, bright and early at 8 a.m. On a Sunday morning. Little pikininis (children) barefoot and excited crowded the start of the starting line. And suddenly we were off, running down the main street on Honiara. I did well for the first 500 metres and then my lungs began to burn.

One thing stung: I was being outpaced by a little four year old with bare feet wearing a red shirt and matching red bandana. The little one screamed his battle cry as he left me embarrassingly in the dust. Its like when you are skiing and you see the little ones just zoom down the slopes past you while you are laying a pile of poles and planks having biffed it on the ice.

The race was typical of all of fun runs I've done: those competitive types go to the front and run their hearts out and then begin to walk, breathless and red. Now me, I'm the definition of a pack horse, slowly but surely running at a steady if slow pace. Yeah, its two kms down and the little rock star pikinini has still outpaced me.

Finally, I meet up with Viola who has decided to walk. I convince her to run to the half way mark with me; I'm proud to say I haven't started walking yet. We drink up, take a quick rest and then off. We run through the shade and then walk through the light. Our bodies are covered in sweat and sunscreen gets into my eyes, causing them to sting strongly. I used to love running but I gave it up here but its difficult to do (although I do show up at Hash occasionally but definitely not often enough).

We make it to last bit and rock out; finally I pass the little four year old, ashamed that I'm actually glad I beat him to the finish line. I am a sad, sad woman.

It feels great; the finish line is filled with people cheering us through to the finish line. The liveliness and happiness is like nothing I've seen before at a fun run and the atmosphere is down right festive.

I take a wee break but meet up with Stan, my fearless neighbour again after he finishes his 10 kms run. We hop into his Hilux and head back home. In the car, we both agree that its a beautiful day for a dive and why not? So despite my aching right knee and the voice in my head saying “oi! Don't push it”, we head off to Tulagi Dive to grab some tanks and weights.

Now, this is my third dive of the weekend, having done Bonege 1 and 2 the day before. But no matter, the ocean is calling both me and Stan. I'm on my tenth dive and now the gear is getting easier to put together. The water is calm to get into and the clarity has improved greatly on the day before. We sink down easily into the depths, right on to the wreck. After motoring around, we go deep. I'm not going to confess how deep because it was slightly unwise to go that deep with only 10 dives under my belt. However, one must follow their dive buddy and Stan is an advanced diver, taking me through the darkened rooms of the wreck.

I should feel nervous being this deep but I'm not. I feel perfectly calm because one thing I've learned in life: panic can kill you. Over the last ten years, I've learned that nothing is worth losing your calm over. Nothing. We make our way up and have a quick decompression stop. There are literally millions of fish, big and small, hanging around the wreck. Stan and I pick a spot and sit in the sand, watching the sea underworld go by.

I make it up first and even though the waves have picked up, my legs hold out underneath me and I make it out of the water without a struggle. We pack up and go home.

Lunch is bowl of soba noddles with slippery cabbage and bok choy. I sit, savoring it on my balcony, looking out at my peaceful tropical valley that ends with a beautiful view of the sea. The Galas, a series of islands, seem to float out miles away.

Then its on to yoga for some more zen time. I glide through the poses on my balcony, occasionally stopping to look out on to the sea.

So why am I telling you this? What does my “Honiara epic” have anything to do with the largest tragedy my country has ever known?

Because my way of commemorating this day is to live, to do the things I love. I feel like I am honoring the day by enjoying this moment. I am doing things I didn't know I loved to do two years ago or even one year ago. I think of NYC, Washington...even Christchurch and what sudden change like disaster has to teach us. In the end, all we have is this moment. All the plans in the world can be disrupted and changed.

I guess if this decade has taught me anything, its that you can always rebuild from the devastation of natural or personal disaster. As my thoughts go out to the families that lost their loved ones, through the attack or through what occured afterwards, I hope they have found peace with their loss and are rebuilding and recovering.

As rough as it is to pick yourself up after a devastating loss of a loved one or a home, you can always heal and start again. You can have a new life, a new hobby, a new relationship, a new career. A new home. A new view. I think I'm on my fifth new life chapter since that fateful day.  Each new chapter, each new beginning has taught me something very valuable and though these changes have sometimes been brought about by great loss and pain, I value those important moments of transition.

This beginning, this Solomon Island time, I've learned to slow down, to savour, to enjoy. Sure the past is there in the background enriching who I am and still teaching me things. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I honour what has come before, those who I have left behind. I am learning to be gentle with the past, including how I view my own and other's actions.  

Because life begins again.

And isn't that the beautiful thing about life?