Chaplains’ Corner

Valerie Bailey

I was trying to talk myself out of doing anything for 9/11
and found myself still in a strange space
still can’t mention her name
still anchored to a subculture and a narrative
beneath the rubble of crumbling institutions.
I can’t get up,
it’s an attack on powers that be,
powers that aren’t me.

Go ahead, ring the bells,
Remember that there was a moment
Before all came crashing down,
a time when the illusions reigned
and frustration was an ever-present thought,
only to be replaced by anxiety 
that crept in as someone tried to explain.
Clear blue skies still bother me.
This year, thank God, the skies are overcast.
The sun peeping through
waiting for its cue.

Rev. Valerie

Before anyone reads too much into this poem, assigning definitions that I had never intended and posting things on social media, let me explain. I am loathed to explain poetry; poetry is written so that the reader connects to the words in a personal way and makes the poem their own. Please, read this poem in whatever way you would like. But allow me to share something about the context of these thoughts.

This poem is a reflection on being in New York on September 11, 2001 where I was a student at a seminary. However, since I grew up in a subculture that discouraged women from attending seminary, I neglected to tell my family that I was no longer in Boston. So, in the days after 9/11, my mother would call me to say how relieved she was that I was not in New York. I had to explain to her that not only was I in New York, but I was helping people hang missing person posters and monitoring reports of the city being shut down and oh yes, by the way, I was attending seminary. 

It’s amazing how frustrations over life expectations can change in a moment’s notice into the anxiety of the new unknowns. In the days after the attacks, my friends and I went from young urban professionals chasing plans for a future of stable employment and vocation into living in a chaotic city that was essentially temporarily closed for business. And the site of a horrible attack, the place of many wounded and dead.

Many of us found ourselves looking for friends who we would never see again, people with whom we could no longer complain about work, relationships or money. No longer would we be able to dream together about future plans. As we hung missing posters, we found that we were just hoping for one more opportunity to say hello. Some of us found each other, and others were lost forever. But looking back on that day, I question, how could I really complain? People lived the 9/11 nightmare every day. The events of 9/11 were a wake-up call. Before 9/11, the only thing that mattered was our wants and needs. Despite our personal tragedies, 9/11 was a time to pay attention to the concerns of our neighbors around the world.

In response to the attacks, my seminary created a course for the January term after 9/11. The new course was a survey in world religions with the intent to prepare people to participate in interfaith dialogue. The visiting lecturers said they wanted seminarians to develop a better understanding of world religions because the world now needed people who could work across different faith communities. Their strategy worked, at least on my class. The funerals and the rubble that was the aftermath of 9/11 were our recent memories. The class enthusiastically participated in the readings and the site visits to different faith communities. For me, this course was the beginning of working in a post-9/11 world. So, now 18 years later, I am working as an Episcopal priest in an interfaith chaplains’ office. How did I get here? I was trying to escape one subculture by going to seminary and found myself on the world stage, a place in chaos, but also a place of potential peace. Although it’s been 18 years, the need for understanding is greater than ever before. Perhaps this is why I am not quite done with 9/11. The chaos in the world keeps growing, but I am committed to being a learner about the world and people’s stories. Perhaps together, as we work on understanding, we will find in our chaotic world that listening and learning from each other is a form of collective peacemaking. 

Rev. Valerie Bailey Fischer is Chaplain to the College and Protestant Chaplain.