10 Years Ago Today

I wasn’t even in the United States. I was on vacation, with my then-boyfriend-now-husband, and his parents, in Costa Rica. We were hiking, oblivious, as the events of 9/11 unfolded. Someone who worked at Lapa Rios, the ecolodge where we were staying, told us what happened upon our return. There were no TVs at Lapa Rios, but someone, somewhere, found a small black-and-white one and hooked it up. We watched the images as someone translated for us. I remember hearing the words “casa blanca” over and over. It was so strange to be surrounded by the luxuriousness of the lodge and the beauty of the Osa Peninsula while such tragedy unfolded back home (I lived in Alexandria, Va. at the time).

And yet, even on the most beautiful of days, some tragedy, for someone, is unfolding somewhere.

I’ve always had a difficult time feeling connected to 9/11, in part, because my experience of it was so different from everyone in the United States. Eventually the little black-and-white TV was unplugged. There was a lot of silent staring over balconies. A lot of somber talks over dinner. A lot of trips into town to call home. But the fact of the matter was, we were on vacation. Eventually, we and everyone else, got back into the pool, back to our scheduled horseback rides, back to listening to the howler monkeys and watching the scarlet macaws bicker with their mates. And there was excitement (I was in Costa Rica!). And guilt (what right do I have to enjoy this with such tragedy taking place?). And sadness (the loss was unfathomable to me). And yet, there was beauty. Beauty in our surroundings, beauty in the living, beauty in the lives lived.

I can only share where I was 10 years ago today. The story of 9/11 belongs to others. Like Salvatore Siano, a retired New Jersey bus driver. (Read his story, by Ian Frazier in the September 12, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, here.) Or Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney, whose bravery is astonishing and admirable. (Read her story, by Steve Hendrix in the September 8, 2011 issue of The Washington Post, here.) Or Lauren Charette, whose letter to her father who died that day, 10 years ago today, left me sobbing in bed tonight. (Read her letter, here.) I’ve been careful about the images on TV this week, careful because Sophie is beginning to see things, hear things and understand things that surprise me, daily. She’ll know, someday. But not yet. And I can’t help but think of all the children who didn’t have that choice—who had to be exposed to such hate, sadness and tragedy—in order to explain the absence of someone they love.

To be surrounded by such beauty when 9/11 happened was a gift. But what seems beautiful (a jungle, for example) always has hidden ugliness (jungle animals eat other jungle animals). There was a guest book at Lapa Rios, which we all signed. I wrote about having always wanted to visit a rain forest and how that dream had finally come true. My father-in-law was much more poignant. I don’t remember exactly what he wrote (I wish I did) but I remember it being about the beasts of the jungle and how we humans aren’t much different.

Although I often feel (unreasonable) guilt for being where I was on 9/11, it has also taught me this: beauty and ugliness, even the deepest and darkest ugliness, can and does coexist. I think of the raw, natural beauty of the jungle on that day. I think of all the babies born that day. I think of Frank DeMartini and Pablo Ortiz, who walked up instead of down that day, giving their own lives to save more than 75 people from the North Tower. I think of the hundreds of thousands of small acts of kindness that happened that day. And yet, I struggle with the why. Why was I allowed such beauty that day, while so many others were not? Why am I allowed such beauty every day, while so many others are not?

“The beauty of the world has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” —Virginia Woolf

Beauty Found While Mashing Avocado


This past Christmas my parents gave my sister, brother and I each a handmade mortar and pestle, which they found at a little store called L’autedu during a recent visit to Cinque Terre, Italy. Andy and I spent a couple days in Cinque Terre on our honeymoon. Five villages hug a terraced coastline along northern Italy’s Riviera and it’s, by far, one of my most favorite places in the world.

It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I truly started to appreciate the handmade. Working as an editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine cemented my belief that a beautifully handmade item bought once in a lifetime, although more expensive, is, in the long run, worth much more than a similar item that’s mass-produced and of lesser quality. Yes, mass-produced is cheaper. But if you have to buy four dressers in your lifetime because the first three eventually wear out, is it, truly, cheaper?

Of course, I, unfortunately, don’t have the financial means to fill my house with patiently handcrafted pretty things. But, I try. I save up to buy things (the Target dressers Andy and I have in our bedroom are falling apart yet I’d much rather have two antique or handmade pieces 10 years from now versus replacement particleboard ones now). I opt for antique instead of new (we found Sophie a beautiful, dovetailed antique dresser for the same cost as a fiberboard one from Ikea). I’m constantly on Craigslist (our crib, changing table, dining room wool rug and living room couch are all items I could never, ever afford in the stores they came from but through luck and time I found them slightly used and greatly reduced in price on this great site). And, like the mortar and pestle shown here, I have been blessed with many gifts. Some are from stores. Others, including quilts and blankets and hand-turned salad bowls and necklaces and earrings and dresses and artwork and bibs and burp cloths and jewelry boxes and tool chests, have been made by people I respect and love.

I strive to not put much emphasis on things in my life. But at the same time, I love how a small thing of beauty can make the mundane act of mashing avocado for the boys’ dinner so much more enjoyable. I love how an object can take my mind from the kitchen to a place I think of often. I long to go back to Cinque Terre someday. And so moments like this, when my memory fills with the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the Five Lands, help satisfy those longings, even if for just a few seconds.

I could go on and on about this topic. The environmental and financial soundness of buying less by buying better quality. The importance of surrounding one’s self with beauty. The importance of supporting craft. And yet, I’m also embarrassed by this topic as I’m not a craftsman. I’ve tried sewing (I got a “B” on a stuffed bunny in 7th grade Home Economics because somehow I lost my needle inside of it). I’ve tried woodworking (with great, great help I’ve built an Arts & Crafts bookshelf, a Windsor chair and a Shaker end table but I never felt fully comfortable with the tools and I never felt like it was something I wanted to do on my days off). I’ve tried card making (my sister puts me to shame). I’m in awe of people like my mom who grows her own lavender, finds gorgeous antique linen and can put together a beautiful scented satchel in an afternoon. Or my mother-in-law who can take a handful of gorgeous beads and string them together into a small work of art you can wear around your neck. I suppose writing is a craft. But it’s not a tangible one. You can’t mash avocados with it. But I guess you can be taken back to a cobblestone street lined with colorful doors and laundry hanging from every window, the smell of homemade pesto, lingering, in the act of it. But still, you can’t hold it.

Maybe someday, when the kids are all in school and the February days seem long, I’ll find a craft I love and can excel at. Until then, I’ll simply appreciate those who have already found their calling while tossing salad in our hand-turned bowl, watching a movie while cuddled under a hand-knit blanket or mashing avocado in a handmade mortar and pestle bought in one of my most favorite places in the world.

“There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.” –John Ruskin