Boxing a Compass | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 12, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:13 PM, May 13, 2020

Boxing a Compass

When the second plane hit the World Trade Center Towers, we knew the first strike was not some sort of accident. Sirens bursting and blaring, fighter planes soaring overhead, black billowing smoke scaling higher and higher as our iconic towers fell to earth. Swirling clusters of neighbours and familiar faces gathering — almost unknowingly — on the streets of our Upper Eastside environs. Our sons eager to walk home from their schools, a gaping hole in Lower Manhattan’s skyscape.

While a catastrophe of international proportion, the immediacy of crisis for us was local and personal. Fighting back a racing apocalyptic terror, no one knew what to do, many in fear for the lives of loved ones and friends who worked in Lower Manhattan. The smoke's acrid stench and grey-and-yellowed haze sprawled northward, blanketing Manhattan's streets. We could not reach our oldest son in New Haven, where he was in college, but we knew he was safe. Only, he lacked certainty for our well-being, with all lines of communication to and from the city eviscerated.

In the next many weeks, folk clambered to leave the city, packing up their homes and families — all but certain another attack was imminent. The army and national guard laid siege to our neighbourhoods; guns everywhere, laced black boots and green fatigues; tanks and other armoured vehicles parked along our tree lined streets and avenues; and the endless drone of helicopters overhead, encircling Manhattan 24 hours a day — never to forget.

Among the 2600 who had lost their lives that day at the World Trade Center were 400 emergency workers who had responded to the call. The majority of those were firefighters who had rushed into the inferno to help others escape it.  For months following the incident, photographs were found pasted throughout the city to the red and wooden street fronts of local fire stations, serving tribute to those who gave their lives.

The following day, Wednesday, we walked our sons back to their schools and returned to work with the stream of others. It was as if a new and unspoken consciousness had emerged for many of us: "We need to start again, to reclaim this island, Manhattan, as our home."

Fear, as our agent in dispatch, proved an unworthy guide in the days, weeks and months ahead. None of us had any answers, only each other. From the tendrils and sinew of connection, many stepped forward in large and small ways. Unexpected pillars of hope emerged amidst the chaos. And, at times, it was the sheer confidence in the community around us in which each of us found ballast and course. 

With the Covid-19 pandemic surrounding virtually everyone I know, and every place I have travelled or imagined, at times, my fears have gotten the best of me. They lead me beyond the best thinking of the fine and trained minds devoted to so many of the facets to crisis and international pandemics. My fears lead me beyond reason. I move, instead, to a remoteness and isolation that perpetuates itself. And while I am often ready to help others, I shun the support of those who love me, not wanting to be a burden to them.  And in the process, I have forgotten to be simply human in my vulnerabilities, in my anxieties, in my compassion for others, and with the undergirding character to my endless capacity for hope.

If there is a divine spirit in the world, then I believe that it dwells amongst us in our communities, and within us. The divine spirit is found in serving others, in love for our families and friends, in love for ourselves. Its presence need not be so profound as for those NYC firefighters who entered the burning towers to secure the lives of people they did not know. Caring for each other and for members of the communities around us is to reaffirm the goodness within, to enable us to help one another in whatever ways needed. 

In the years ahead, I will think back upon this time of crisis with Covid-19. The tragedy and personal losses will be with us forever; much else may become diminished in proportion. I will recall the richness and texture to the presence of friends available to talk, to loved ones sequestered but safe, to my friend living under trying circumstances, to a video from a friend I have not seen in years, to a family gathering on Zoom, to a rushed brunch with a new friend before Dhaka shutdown, to the good spirits of faculty of my school and our distance learning enterprise, to members of my choir and their incessant will for online gathering to sing,  to sharing binge ideas for Netflix with a good friend, to Rick Larios's daily quotes,  and to the many people who come into my life — in large proportion and small — who round out my days. I draw upon all of them, all of you, to find bearings on my compass, to reaffirm my purpose. I will remember the love I have observed among us, and between us, during this trying time.

I will remember.


The writer is the director of International School Dhaka.


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