The Last Time I Worked from Home (A 9/11 Story)

I tried to write something about my new workspace, but it turned into a rumination on September 11 and our changed national culture. I don't know why this surprises me.

Sep 9, 2011 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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I am no stranger to working from home. I did it for years as a chronic graduate student. Back then, I didn’t have a separate workspace -- indeed, we only had one computer (inconceivable now that we have FOUR running at any given time, not including netbooks) and I sat at a cheap particleboard computer desk from Wal-Mart, chain-smoking nearly two packs of cigarettes a day (seriously kids, don’t smoke, because quitting sucks), and writing. When I wasn’t writing, I would read, usually while sitting on the couch.

The downside to this was that I really never stopped working; I had no boundaries between working-space and living-space. When you love what you do, this doesn’t seem like a problem, except for those occasional times when you really need to walk away from mind-numbing poststructualist theory because you’re going to cry if you have to read that sentence without understanding it for the 20th time.

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So leading up to this new awesome working-from-home job, I made plans to create a dedicated workspace in our guestroom that rarely houses guests, and mostly contains my husband’s toy collection, albeit barely.

We have already settled back into that familiar routine: Working from home still means driving my husband to the train station in the morning, because that it is the least I can do when he is compelled to go to an office and I get to hole up in my cozy new work-corner, with our cats for colleagues.

This particular morning, as I watched him walking away from our car and into the train station, I also felt a familiar pang.

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On September 11, 2001, I was working from home, having just begun my second Master’s degree. I drove my then-boyfriend, now husband, to the train station, as I did every weekday. Our apartment building at the time happened to lie directly under one of the flight paths to Boston’s Logan airport, so the sound of planes overhead was constant enough that I barely heard it anymore.

Strangely, though, as I pulled out of the parking lot that morning I happened to notice a plane taking off, and I watched it ascend in a swooping arc, turning west. It was the last plane I would hear for awhile.

Because I worked from home, that’s where I was when my father called and asked if I was watching the news. I turned it on and confirmed what he was seeing on the muted TV at the bagel shop he frequented in my hometown in South Florida. Was it an accident? We didn’t know.

Because I was working from home, I saw the towers fall, one by one, in real time, and because I was working from home, there was no one there to cry with, so I cried alone.

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I am by nature a solitary person. I don’t work well in chaotic environments; I need quiet and privacy to get things done. Even on that horrible day, I only minded being alone briefly, and even then only because I wanted to be sure the people I loved were well and safe, wanted them around me, even though many of them were spread across the country.

It was my habit to spend my time observing and processing events and ideas from my little intellectual bubble; that was my primary employment as a grad student, after all. When I went to class that evening, I heard absurd arguments from my silly hyperprivileged classmates with their “radical” politics, who dumbly argued that this was nothing less than any of us deserved, and heralded the demise of capitalism and cultural imperialism.

This was before the narrative was set, you understand -- in those first few days, we all got to have our own nuanced, individual grief, our own opinions, our own contexts. September 11th was not yet a fixed national story in which we all knew what to feel and how to talk about it.

At Logan airport two months after the fact, I walked through the familiar terminal in a confused haze; there should be something here, something that says where they had been. Did they stand here? Did they touch this railing?

I half expected to see shadows of their presence burned into the walls, like those left by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

I thought, perhaps, at least, their fingerprints would leave black marks we would sense on a psychic level: This was where he stood, this was where he touched the wall. Do you stop to use the bathroom before you destroy the simple innocence of a nation? Do you put on your favorite cologne, get a coffee, read the paper?

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Even watching the news on the day itself, the deepest loss I felt was the knowledge that this event would change us, change all of us, that we would not overcome it, that we would not rise above it. That this wound cut deepest in the two cities directly affected would soon extend throughout the country, down every back road and into every living room, shearing our tough American skin and reminding us that we are mortal flesh.

That it would not result in reflection and compassion, but in a horrifying rift of racism and anger and hatred that would become a part of our national consciousness -- indeed, a strange new breed of patriotism.

I mean, that’s how terrorism wins, when you get right down to the heart of it.

It is too much to ask that we respond to such hatred -- the irrational hatred necessary for people to be capable of calmly extinguishing the meaningful lives of thousands of strangers -- with pure compassion. I know. We are not that good of a people.

At best, such compassion is something we can strive for even knowing we will probably never achieve it. But it is still worth striving for. Our anger is understandable and valid, but when that is all we allow ourselves to feel, it damages us, and feeding that hatred with our own kills each of us a little bit, every day.

I called my husband from the car, and reached him sitting on the train still motionless at the station. “Do you want a ride to work instead?” I asked, trying to sound calm and even a little put out.

Of course he did. And so I drove him into Boston, thinking, “I won’t do this every day, just today, just because it’s so close to September 11, just so I don’t worry.”

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So I got a little more time with someone I love, and I came home to my work-corner, filled with a three-dimensional collage of art and tchotchkes dating from both before and after that day that changed us all, where I have the luxury of working and telling myself, “I will never take any of this for granted again.”

Whatever your story, your opinions, your context, your background: Hug the people you care about today, and tell them you love them. Let’s all try to have one day where we don’t hate anyone. Just to see what happens.

I’ll be at home, if you need me.