I was there, at the base of the first tower when it fell. That night I wrote a piece for Time magazine to make sense of what happened. And each year on 9/11 I write again. This year I was thinking that I’ve been back to New York City so often with my kids that maybe my 9/11 phase of life has passed…

But then I decided to tell you a story.

After 9/11 my ex-husband volunteered to connect lawyers with immigrants who were illegally detained. One of those immigrants was a Palestinian guy who was in the US raising money to fight the Israelis. His seventeen-year-old son was in New York helping him. So the night the dad went to jail, the son had nowhere to live. The other volunteers decided he should go home with someone since he was too young to be by himself. So he went to our apartment.

You might think it’s weird for a Jew to be helping out a Palestinian who is raising money to fight the Jews. I am left of center on the Palestinian question. I’m not sure how far left. But I’m definitely able to put aside grievances to take care of a kid who is in a new country with nowhere to sleep.

And anyway, the Jewish problem was not the big problem in our apartment.

Before he retired, my Ex’s dad was huge in the defense industry and worried constantly that I would do something insane to make him lose his security clearance. (Did you know that the person who has the clearance is not usually the problem but rather a nut case who is close to him?) So my Ex’s dad told us that if we were going to harbor an illegal Palestinian we should stop using our phones.

We thought he was nuts. People are listening in on our phones? We would make jokes like we were talking to the government when we talked on our phones. But my father-in-law stopped talking to us while the Palestinian was at our house.

(Now I know why. Now I think about all the other things he told us. Like the safest place to sit on a plane is in the middle of the back. Not too close to the exit because the people there get sucked out. And also because the planes often break in half. The front is the least safe. Which makes sense -there’s no way airlines could charge extra money for the safest seats. He also told us that in a nuclear war, the mountains outside of Seattle are the safest, because of how winds on earth move. I should publish a book: Things My Ex Father-in-Law Told Me.)

Tariq. That was the boy’s name. I thought we would just give him a place to sleep, and maybe I’d take him for breakfast in the morning, and then he’d be on his way.

But after breakfast he had nowhere to go. So my Ex went back to rescue prisoners and I spent the day with Tariq. In the apartment. It was a small apartment. It’s New York City, after all.

He read. He talked on the phone. Actually on my phone, because he didn’t have a phone.

The next day he asked me for money.

You don’t have any money?

No.

How did you and your dad live?

Apparently people in the movement supported his dad. He is the head of the movement in the US.

Tariq mentioned the movement a lot and Icould not quite put my finger on what it was, because Tariq really had nowhere to go and nothing to do, so I was having a hard time believing the movement was significantly large.

I gave him money. I asked him how much he needed for the week because I felt bad that he might have to ask every day. I gave him $40.

It was gone the next day. I asked him where it went.

He bought a phone card. And meals.

Meals?

At the diner.

I told him to eat at the apartment.

He said he didn’t know how.

In fact, he had very few life skills. He didn’t have another set of clothes and he didn’t seem to mind. He was in constant survival mode. He was fighting the cause. But the thing is, there was no fight in our apartment. And there was no fight he could do with his dad because his dad’s fight now was that he was being illegally detained.

In Tariq’s mind he was fighting for Palestine but he didn’t actually know how to do it on his own. He didn’t know how to do anything on his own. He didn’t know how to go to bed and wake up on a schedule. He didn’t plan meal times. He didn’t plan anything. He worked best in crisis but there was no crisis.

He sort of focused on the crisis of his dad in jail. But Tariq had no idea how to do anything. His dad had lead the fight his whole life. Tariq did not know how to lead a fight. His maturity level was actually really low because he was so focused on the fight instead of on his own development.

Tariq was traumatized from not being able to focus on himself.

I was going to skip writing about 9/11 this year. I couldn’t figure out why I was still writing. Now I see, though, that after 9/11 I received lots of trauma counseling. The counselors taught me how to relive the fear until I could reframe it and then I understood how to learn from it. All of that time could be summarized as personal development.

I want to tell you that I saved Tariq. But I didn’t. After three weeks, Tariq went to someone else’s house.

But I saved myself. And I think I still write about 9/11 to celebrate that, and to take time each year to be thankful for learning how to grow from bad events in my life rather than avoiding them. I am always thinking of labels I don’t like for this blog. I don’t like “women’s blog” or “mom’s blog” or “personal development blog”. Really I don’t like anything except “rock star blog.”

But the reason I couldn’t stand NOT to write on 9/11 is because this really is a personal development blog. And for me, 9/11 is a celebration of the resilience we find to turn turn setbacks into twists on the path of personal development.

 

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  1. Aya Amurjue
    Aya Amurjue says:

    This was such an unexpected post. Though I am to the far right of center on the Palestine issue, the way you conducted yourself in this situation made me love you more. Also, thank you for illuminating the tragedy of the Palestinian children’s lives. The way they are used for pawns in their parent’s struggles and are prevented from leading their own lives. What a great story.

  2. Lara
    Lara says:

    You are a rock star, that is for sure. Thanks Penelope for keeping it real and allowing us to accept the challenges in our life and grow from them. Thanks and much love to you today.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think from now on I will always use that category for my blog. I wrote it facetiously, but now it’s sticking :)

      Penelope

  3. Mike Hudson
    Mike Hudson says:

    No, I don’t think it is weird for a Jew to be helping out a Palestinian. It was a Jew that told us the story of the good Samaritan in order to teach us all to love our enemy’s.

    I don’t think that 9/11 will ever be a time of mass, joyous celebration i.e. July 4th or January 1st. I think it can be a time for personal celebration like the one you described for yourself. I also hope that in time it can come to be recognized as a time to celebrate celebrate our human capacity for healing and forgiveness.

  4. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    Wasn’t really sure where you were going with this story as I read it, until I reached the end… wow – what a great article (message + story telling).

    “A celebration of the resilience we find to turn setbacks into twists on the path of personal development”…. rings so true for me right now.

  5. Firsttimeannonymous
    Firsttimeannonymous says:

    I have to write hiding my name because I am about to write about a family member and I don’t want to be that person. At least, you know, out loud.

    My mom and I were recently talking about my sister (she just moved out) and how difficult it is to communicate with her. She takes the craziest swings in her decisions. One day she is moving to Chile to marry someone she met through Facebook (Scary!) and the next she’s moving to LA to be closer to family but not to live with her family but to live with this other guy who is supposed to be good friends with the guy from Chile.

    She is 32.

    And she’s my half sister. We barely saw her growing up. But then she came to live with us two years ago seeking to dig herself out of a very difficult financial situation in Mexico (the strenuous process of legalization had finalized al fin!). So reluctantly and embarrassed she took advantage of the situation and in a very awkward fumbled she came to be a part of my our family.

    She hated it.

    She was scared and nervous but my mom persisted with love. And finally they were good friends. But it was hard to watch her be a 13 year (like the movie 13 going on 30 – all crazed in the newfound freedom).

    I told my mom my theory: she has always been in charge of taking care of her family. She bought a house in Mexico and her entire family went to live with her, live off her income, live off her protection. She never had the luxury to focus on growing herself because she was responsible even for her own mother and her nieces and nephews, her sisters and her brother.

    So much so that she was able to claim them in her taxes.

    It’s ridiculous to me. I feel responsible for my family but I am still able to draw boundaries. It’s pretty interdependent even when everyone gets confused and annoyed at each other. We’re not too far apart but we’re not suffocated by the responsibility of each other.

    So anyway, my mom was amazed I was able to draw that conclusion about my sister and she thought I was spot on.

    But I walked away feeling like I was maybe drawing too neat of a conclusion and that maybe I was making excuses for her.

    After reading this I know I wasn’t.

    In fact, this is part of my experience a bit. I was so used to being in crisis mode, in barely-making it mode, that even though I am nearing 30, when people ask me what I want for myself I always respond with what I think I need to protect myself and my family, to survive, and to thrive.

    I don’t know what I want because for the longest time I was so focused on need vs. want. I couldn’t afford a want. I couldn’t afford the grief of wanting and not being able to have it. It would be too much distraction. So I just focused on building with the core and forgot about developing anything even remotely close to “what I want.”

    I bought a new car at the end of last year. It was the weirdest experience. I got to pick the color. It was so odd.
    I chose my car based on what I thought were the best traits for durability, safety, easy to fix in case it breaks down, and gas mileage.

    I didn’t want something show-y because I thought it was gauche since I feel like I can never afford to be luxurious about anything. Poor people always have to worry about surviving and stashing away for “winter time.” So I picked my color.

    And I breathed a sigh of relief when my car got dirty enough for the first time to look like it was brand new.

    I am now a Youth Mentor through the local YMCA program. These are not severely distressed kids but they definitely come from a tough situation.

    If I have anything to pass on I would say to them “seek to develop yourself and what you want separately of your crisis. It’ll save you.”

  6. Celeste
    Celeste says:

    You know, when I sat down at my computer this morning one of my first thoughts was “Oh, it’s 9/11.. I should go check what Penelope wrote this year”. Your changing views and relationship with 9/11 are always interesting to me.

  7. Nur Costa
    Nur Costa says:

    Congrats Penelope. It’s nice to read your personal development with the traumatic experience in 11-s.

    In Catalonia, today we celebrated the resilience of losing our independence back in 1714. You can check more about the story of our surrender on wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Day_of_Catalonia)

    Now Catalans are fighting to be an independent state from Spain. You can check the human parade we made today around Barcelona’s Diagonal avenue on twitter with the hashtag #Unitspel9N
    It’s amazing to see how the same day can affect so many people, for so many causes.
    Take care Penelope,
    Kind regards

  8. Mid-Mod
    Mid-Mod says:

    That was a lovely, poignant post, Penelope. Definitely one of your best, ever. Very thought provoking. I feel like I am reading a series of short stories instead of a personal development blog. You should write more…. of your stories!

  9. Luana
    Luana says:

    One of you finest pieces,humane and deeply warming. With time,everything takes a better perspective and there is not act of kindness that is left unnoticed. God’s always watching. Blessings.

  10. A-ron
    A-ron says:

    Are you a really fast runner or just lucky? At the base of the first tower the moment it collapsed. Hmmm, that’s the more interesting story. Or maybe I’m just an idiot.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      They took a while to collapse all the way to the ground. In the meantime, there was debris flying everywhere.

    • me
      me says:

      A-ron: You should read Penelope’s previous posts about her 9/11 experience. Especially the early posts. About what it felt like to be there when the Tower fell.

      Her descriptions are so vivid that you’ll feel the horror: and see the darkness & feel the ashes in your mouth ….

  11. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Of course this is a personal development blog. But why it works is because it (almost) never says so. It is very good at slyly getting us to work on ourselves.

  12. me
    me says:

    P: Reading your annual 9/11 post has become a part of my remembrance ritual for the past five years.

    Please never stop posting on this day: you always have something new & graceful & comforting to say ….

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s so nice. You encourage me to keep doing it. And I guess it’s my remembrance ritual as well.

      Penelope

    • Dawn
      Dawn says:

      Couldn’t agree more. As a NY’er who witnessed it live – thankfully far enough away- I always think of your vivid post about that day. In fact this morning one of my first thoughts was wondering your reaction now on the 13th anniversary. You have an amazing gift of writing and sharing your experiences. Thank you for years of thought provoking reads.

  13. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I love the Jewish culture/religion because it has so many days to observe and respect. I am not sure if this is done even by the orthodox but I remember reading in the bible when the Hebrew people were supposed to have a time of mourning.

    We don’t know how to mourn.

    We have made ourselves believe that mourning is a luxury we can’t afford because people believe you have to take a break from life to do it. So instead they prefer to buck up and pretend they are good enough to go back to work and get on their road to normal.

    But periods of mourning are normal and healthy. And perhaps we’d be so much better if we observed times of mourning like commonly agreed upon times to get fat (like thanksgiving and christmas holidays) and times to binge drink (like st. patty’s and um….college?) and times to starve and kick it into high gear to shed weight (pre-bikini season).

    Somehow I came to the conclusion that if I allow a margin in my mind for the bad things to happen, when they do happen it’s not so surprising and hard to deal with. It occurred to me that I don’t have a box or “budget” in my life for mourning. So when tragedy happens I don’t even know what to do. So I limp through life until I somehow make a new normal or return to normal or … forget what normal was like.

    I think 9/11 is so significant not just because it signifies resilience. But it could be a great reminder for the nation to honor a period of mourning. To allow ourselves to mourn and stop believing that there’s weakness in doing so.

    We can do both, mourn and celebrate at the same time.

    Like a Mexican funeral. (It’s so hard to tell the difference between a Quinceañera and a funeral from the outside until you’re in and you see either a body or a pouffy dress. Everyone is drinking, singing, and loud music is playing. I guess there’s something to mourn in both but there’s definitely celebration in both.)

  14. Lynne from Design The Life You Want to Live
    Lynne from Design The Life You Want to Live says:

    Gawd, I love how you write. I love how you keep it real. You are a beautiful soul.

    I have been reading your blog for a long time now and always enjoy your stories.. tragic or otherwise nutty in an epic way.

    This post was like reading an excerpt out of a book. A book that I couldn’t put down.

    Thank you for sharing that part of your life. You truly are ahhhhmazing. I mean that in a non-stalkerish-blogger-way. Although, now I just sounded like a stalker. haha.

    Cheers and big love to you,
    Lynne

  15. Dannielle
    Dannielle says:

    Penelope,

    You drop a mention of harboring a Palestinian who supported the overthrow of Israel.

    Then you say you’re sort of sympathetic, but don’t ask me any questions, because this is a blog about something else.

    As a Jew, where do you stand?

    How about as a human being? What do you believe?

    If you don’t know what to believe, couldn’t you at least study a little bit before making any kind of statement at all?

    You would find that Israel (although imperfect in many serious ways) was settled by Jews who bought the land and who were happy to have a fairly tiny bit of it.

    The Arabs in Israel could not tolerate the concept of a Jewish state and so attacked them from the very start.

    Note, it was not the concept of coexistence that was a problem. It was the idea of a State itself.

    Where before there was…nothing.

    What gave birth to Zionism (the belief in a Jewish national state) was NOT racism or even religious conviction. Rather it was the fact that we were routinely RAPED, ROBBED, MURDERED, and EXPELLED from our homes and our countries.

    Zionism is about Jewish empowerment. It is about the will to live as a free people in our own land. Israel is a FREE country where there are 1.7 million Arab citizens and just about every political stripe you can imagine, including Arabs in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament).

    Israel promotes free speech and freedom of assembly and freedom of life choices, including for people who are gay, who don’t believe in G-d, and who would like to see the Jews wiped off the face of the planet, not to mention off of the land.

    The Jews in Israel support the Palestinians, only to have that support turned into supplies for terrorists who literally sit up day and night thinking up ways to murder Jews.

    The terrorists say, “We love death like you love life.”

    Before you were ever born, millions, millions, millions of people died so that you could live freely as a Jew in the United States.

    Not to mention as a Jew in Israel, if that is what you want.

    The Palestinian for whom you are sympathetic – well so am I.

    But unfortunately he is part of a totalitarian system of hatred.

    Anyone, anyone who tries to make peace with Israel is branded a “collaborator.” You can go onto LiveLeak or YouTube and find videos of what happens to them…they get brutalized and dragged through the streets.

    Please, think about what you write, before you write it. Think about the impact. Don’t think that you, or your sons, are exempt from the hatred that swirls all around us.

    Plenty of people want to see Jews dead, just because we’re Jews, and it’s not about holding an “anti-Israel policy point of view.”

    Including Tariq and his father, probably, if they’re leading an anti-Israel movement.

    That’s who you had sleeping in your home, and taking your $40.

    Dannielle

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Well you asked a question of Penelope.

      But it’s not like you’re biased at all!!

      What kind of answer should she give?

  16. Richard Phinneas
    Richard Phinneas says:

    You are the ONLY person I’ve seen post about 9/11 in a more meaningful way that doesn’t just scream “Look at me and how much I still care about the tragedy”. I have to say, it gets so tiring seeing the same type of posts from people that just bring the entire spirit of what came of the tragedy afterward to the ground. People united in ways we rarely see anymore, and it’s so easy to forget that with every tragic act, something amazing occurs. You have reminded me again about having faith in people. Thank you.

  17. Mid-Mod
    Mid-Mod says:

    Dannielle,
    I would celebrate a Palestinian giving bread to a Jew around 9/11/2001 just the same as we here are celebrating Penelope (a Jew) showing her humanity to a child, (who happened to be Palestinian), around that same time. The date is immaterial except for the obvious irony re: the particular situation that day. Sometimes when a horror happens, thank God, there are people who are still able to show basic kindness to another who might otherwise have been an enemy. This humanity is what is really needed these days. It is the only way the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will ever be resolved. It will only happen when more and more of the younger people on both sides begin to see one another as simply another human being, who, by virtue of their existence, is due basic respect and kindness, tolerance, and hopefully, one day, friendship. Continuing to hate and scream and hold oneself apart from another because of history will only result in repeating the history of continued conflict. Gandhi and MLK, Jr. both taught us this simple lesson that making an offer of kindness is far more disarming of your oppressor than violence.

    • Dannielle
      Dannielle says:

      Hi –

      I would venture to say that 99.999% of the human race wants peace and that most of us think just like Penelope. It is the troublesome .001% that ruins it for the rest of us.

      Which was sort of my point. Penelope made a deliberate choice to be ahistorical, acontextual, and apolitical but the topic she is writing about is charged and she is a well-known Jewish person. There is a responsibility here.

      A parallel would be an African-American sheltering the heir apparent to a KKK-type movement. You could understand why they might do it (charity) but if they choose to talk about it, you want to know where they stand. It feels morally wrong to bring up the topic, and then avoid it.

      Thanks for the chance to clarify.

      Dannielle

  18. Liz
    Liz says:

    Wow. This post made me cry. In a good way.

    ” 9/11 is a celebration of the resilience we find to turn setbacks into twists on the path of personal development.”.

    That’s what got me.

  19. tomas
    tomas says:

    saw you on the 10:00 news tonight.

    was spacing out not really paying attention feeding the baby and then they overlaid your name and i was like “holy crap its penelope trunk”

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s fun. Thanks for letting me know.

      The news cameras came here and my sons are so scarred from the reality TV people that were on the farm that my youngest said, “I can only talk to you for a day. I’m not doing more than a day.” And the camera guy was like, “WHAT???”

      Penelope

  20. Heather
    Heather says:

    I’ll go with “rock star blog” for you too. I think how we recover from trauma and issues in our lives is amazing too. The resilience of the human spirit is an amazing thing. I feel so bad for that 17yo boy that didn’t know how to take basic care of himself.

  21. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    Huh. I always had a hunch that Cascadia (Oregon, Washington, B.C.) would be the last bastion after the apocalypse–for cultural and geographical reasons.

  22. Christa
    Christa says:

    I appreciate that you’re still posting every year. When 9/11 does become a celebration for you, we still need to hear about it. Everyone’s a survivor of something, and reaching a point that we’re happy to have survived is worth sharing. And acknowledging 9/11 will always be important. So glad you decided to write this!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You’re so right about everyone being a survivor of something. I think it often takes us a while to see what we have survived. When the whole world is watching, it’s not hard to see yourself as a 9/11 survivor.

      But I have found that most survival stories are not so world-encompassing and it requires a patient, attentive eye to recognize our moments.

      Penelope

  23. sheela
    sheela says:

    I could not think of anyone who would appreciate my 9/11 story more than you would, Penelope.

    I was in NYC, and awake, and didn’t know anything unusual had happened until an hour after both towers had collapsed. How is that possible? I was teaching in a classroom of 30 fifth graders and our principal wanted to pretend it was business as usual. My late-to-the-news experience has always seemed like a perfect example of school’s disconnection with the real world.

  24. jessica
    jessica says:

    This was just fantastic.

    Tariq’s personal challenges, and particularly your description of he being unable to see himself as the person to help, summarizes such a great and complex part of the human condition.

    You put it brilliantly.

  25. Catherine Cavanaugh
    Catherine Cavanaugh says:

    Rockstar blog indeed. You have a way with words. I’m shocked at some of the comments. People will forever be at odds it seems, even in comment boxes, proving yet again what caused 9/11 in the first place. I lost a friend I went to High School with in the first tower… and it’s not something you forget. If it ever becomes a celebration of the lives that were LIVED there, rather than lost, count me in.

  26. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Where did he go after three weeks? Did he leave because he was so helpless? I wanted to hear the rest. Poor guy. There’s obviously more to the story of the Palestinian boy with no life skills who meets the (Jewish) start-up savant with Aspergers. There’s some sort of funny short novella here, titled perhaps, “How to Survive in New York on $40/day.”

    OK, I guess I’ve INTPd at you enough. I always enjoy your 9/11 posts!

  27. Sebastian Aiden Daniels
    Sebastian Aiden Daniels says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It was very heart touching. You did a kind thing by letting that young man stay in your apartment.

    I appreciate the info from your ex’s father. Now I know where I need to move. Just kidding.

    “to take time each year to be thankful for learning how to grow from bad events in my life rather than avoiding them.” Amen to that!

  28. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    I really, really appreciate your 9/11 posts. This one was moving and insightful, and seemed particularly apropos at this point of time in the 21st century. First thing I thought of while reading, was, wonder if she’s been to the 9/11 museum in NY? It wasn’t opened yet when I was there last year.

    Also, thanks for the tip about the airplanes. Now I know where I’ll be reserving my seats in the future! And what a drag about the safest place to be in the event of nuclear wind. The good news is you survived, the bad news is your life is now a combination of a Steven King novel and an Ingmar Bergman movie.

  29. Petra Baumann
    Petra Baumann says:

    Dear Penelope Trunk,

    while reading this post I thought : “You, Penelope Trunk, are a rock star.”. Then I thought “That doesn’t do her justice” and then I read you liked it. :)

    Kind regards and thank you for everything,
    Petra

  30. Laura
    Laura says:

    On a consistent basis I recommend your blog to other people.

    If I suspect someone has Aspergers Ill recommend they read your stuff.

    If someone needs to re-do their resume Ill send them some of your old posts.

    If someone needs some inspiration or straight up career advice I will recommend you.

    If someone just wants something interesting, diverse and different to read I will recommend you.

    I never ever recommend you as a mommy blogger or a blog that is for women or parents.

    You are so much more than a parent or even an entrepreneur and this amazing piece of storytelling above just proves it.

  31. holly
    holly says:

    I was very moved by this post and your generosity of spirit for a fellow human being in a time of need. That’s what it came down to, a person who needed help.

  32. jestjack
    jestjack says:

    For me 9/11 “stole” my innocence. Like when Kennedy was killed, I will never forget where I was when the Towers were hit. The sight of those planes crashing into the buildings is forever etched in my mind. What’s worse I understand the Middle East even less. So the folks that masterminded this were Saudi’s BUT we declared war on Iraq and the Saudi’s are still considered out friends? To my thought this is like Mexico attacking us to the South , so we declare war on Canada to the North. I will never look at an airliner the same…Thanks for provoking some thought with your blog post…

  33. Gerald Milward-Oliver
    Gerald Milward-Oliver says:

    Thanks Penelope … over here in the uk I had been reading your blogs for a while before 9/11/01– I remember what an impact your blog that day had on me – and I sometimes go back to reading it. And how depressing it was to anticipate the reaction of the West – and to be proved right. So thank you for your honesty, your familiarity, your spirit, your courage and your humour. Stay happy, keep writing…

  34. huispak
    huispak says:

    dear penelope,
    i have to admit, this was one of your finest pieces but i don’t agree with you that this will ever be a time of celebration. Eventhough, this article did touch me.

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