Back to Normal? 

by Dara Lehon

Within minutes, the surreal image of the WTC crumbling transformed our legendary New York state of mind, exposing the city of lights and our nation to its humanity and mortality. Depression and anger now overrule many of our lives. Even as a "new kind of war" begins, we try hard to adjust, complying with the suggestions of our politicians, psychotherapists, and managers. We've returned to work, ride mass transit, eat in restaurants, and conduct business as usual, striving "to get back to normal."

Days after the 11th when I logged onto my personal email account, "My Yahoo" was still personalized with my silly pink headers. It still exclaimed that I had new mail, still promised that I could lose 20 pounds in three weeks, and, amidst global news updates about the WTC tragedy, informed me that Elton John finds women attractive after all. I had to ask myself, is this really "normal?"

My first taste of what would become the new normal came, of course, at 8:50 a.m. on September 11th, when I rushed to my window and stood in awe. I spent the two weeks after the shut down of the Tribeca office building where I worked being very "un-normal." Like many other Manhattanites, I was turned away from volunteering; I housed friends displaced by the collapse in my uptown apartment.

Left to my own deliberations, I functioned in a vacuum. That "normal" Tuesday morning in September replayed in my head. I recalled sipping coffee and emailing early morning messages, then watching what seemed like the latest action flick from our office windows as the first, then unbelievably second tower was hit, and witnessing my hometown transform into a biblical Egypt as I and thousands of others poured out of Lower Manhattan towards safety.

For a week, I was glued to the television. Not long before, Anne Heche's private life had pervaded the airwaves, while so-called Reality TV had ruled the networks. Single at 26, I'd worried mostly about finding a so-called fulfilling job, keeping fit, and developing a social life. On September 11th, I and many Americans swiftly switched gears: our lives in the pop-star and Starbucks culture were forever changed by Real TV. I stayed awake, numbing myself to the horrific images of planes and smoke and towers. I read and re-read tickers with late-breaking news instead of falling asleep to Dave Letterman. Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect became suddenly gripping.

And then another week passed. After Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, ended and the day came to return to new normal work, I returned to my office with a sick feeling. Once we got past the police tape, security guards checking ID, and an X-ray conveyer belt, I was welcomed into the building by a tremendous American flag decorating the lobby. My company gifted us with meals and grief counseling. The phone service was out, but my email inbox was overloaded with sympathetic messages from colleagues, managers, and friends. Co-workers showed up only if they felt up to it. Those who did come to work hugged each other. A memorial service was arranged for New Yorkers who had died.

My once-awesome view of lower Manhattan's skyline, interrupted by yet including the twin towers, is a new awesome. I now peer over the amazing rescue and recovery search, strangely reminiscent of a carnival with cars and busses, colorful tarps, and large structures reaching up to the sky. I still see smoke billowing from where the towers once stood. And yet the phrase "we are at war" sounds as unbelievable to me as the surreal images pasted into my memory.

I've begun to adjust to the new normal view, the company-wide emails warning us not to be alarmed at the sound of explosions in the area for the clean-up, or increasingly restrictive security measures and air quality checks. I still go to work. I still ride the cramped subways. I am even celebrating my birthday.

Collectively and individually we yearn for days of ignorance and complacency, rushing to work on crowded subways without a bomb scare, smelling roasted peanuts on the street instead of smoke, ignoring rude forwarded emails criticizing public figures instead of supporting them, and spending ridiculous amounts of money on lattes and purses. We want so much to reverse the horrific tragedies of September 11th and to live without fear of opening letters or entering sporting events. We imagine a return to an environment based on celebrity and capitalism, when clothes, money, and gossip seemed important, volunteering was an exception, when "me" came before "we." I'm realizing that maybe this is what got us here in the first place.

Maybe, as people hang flags outside their windows, cry for the safety of strangers, unite as a nation of individuals, and realize their own mortality, real reality will change. Maybe we don't need to return to normal.

Copyright 2001 by Dara Lehon

Born, raised, and living in NYC, Dara Lehon is a freelance writer who pays her bills by working for a major investment firm and pursues writing and theater on the side.

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