in memory

It was two days before my birthday, and we were at the same place we'd been going for years, my favourite birthday present: room 23 at the Hotel Hurricane, on the Andalucian coast, just west of Tarifa. The grounds - irrigated in an arid landscape - are lush, subtropical. It feels like one is in a Gauguin painting, or Rousseau landscape. You can almost imagine tigers' eyes peeking out from the blackness of the greenery.

It was a beautiful day, and my husband had had enough sun, but I stayed on the beach.

My mother taught us, as girls, to make what we called 'dribble castles' out of fine sand: you kind of drop the wet sand and they make the most amazing, organic castles. For years, I was photographing them with my dad's old Pentax, then collaging them, scaling them with self portrait images. That day, I didn't have my camera at the beach, and for some reason, instead of making one, I made two identical structures. Side by side.

It was the most perfect day. As I lay alone on a towel on the sand, watching the water, without camera or pen and paper to record my thoughts, I remember exactly what I was thinking. My father was alive, and though he had been living with cancer for many years, each day, each year was a gift. I remembered thinking: this is it. It doesn't get any better than this. I am happily married, our life is going well, my parents and siblings and friends are all alive and well. Life might not always be like this, but for now, this is the happily ever after moment. This is the part where the white words appear on the screen.

I didn't know what time it was, and realised I hadn't had lunch, but the hotel cafe that overlooked the beach would stop serving its wonderful food around 3:30, 4:00, and switch to just amazing cakes. But I didn't want to leave the beach. So I stood - and though there weren't any waves that day, I noticed that my two castles had vanished. I had been watching them, silhouetted against the water, from my vantage point on the beach. But somehow, while I lay thinking how grateful I was, they had simply disappeared.

When I wandered up to the hotel cafe overlooking the beach, my first thought was that it must be after 4:00, because there were just cakes. It was pretty full and guys were standing, watching the one little TV, shown here in the upper right corner, but that was typical: there was often a sports game on, and they'd be shouting in Spanish, so I didn't even look at the TV until a cute wind surfing instructor - standing there, barefoot, in his black wet suit - turned to me and asked 'Are you American?' Then he pointed to the TV. There was some kind of film on: smoke billing around NYC. One of those action films.

'They've attacked America,' he said, wild eyed. 'New York: it is gone. Washington, GONE.'

I stood there for a while - I don't know how long. My parents were at the summer home - about 1.5 hrs drive from NYC. I was wondering how far a nuclear bomb spread - and how the fallout worked. If they were to leave -where would they go? I thought all of this in slow motion, and I guess I wandered through the grounds, past the lower pool (above), then past the upper pool (below), to our room.

My husband was inside, showering. I could see the steam coming through the open door. I tried the hotel phone - our cells didn't work - and tried calling my parents. I got a recording in Spanish, then English. The country you are trying to reach is unavailable.

I told him what had happened - that NY and Washington had been blown up in a nuclear attack. He told me to go down to the lobby, which was a kind of lovely hanging out place with couches, pool table - there was a TV by the pool table. He said to see if we could get CNN, and he'd be down in 20 minutes. TWENTY MINUTES? 'Well I've got to shave, get dressed.. I'm sure it's not as bad as all that.'

It wasn't, of course. New York City, and Washington D.C. are still standing. But in the time that I was on the beach, and my husband was showering, as we all now know, over 3000 souls simply disappeared. Not just in New York, but in Washington. And the heroes and heroines of United 93, who died in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

And I didn't go and sit in front of the small television by the pool table, as I would in the hours, the days, to come. Instead, I went back down to the pool, to swim. I didn't know at the time if my family, my dearest friends, were alive - I didn't even know, at the time, that it wasn't a nuclear bomb. I just knew that whatever was happening, I needed to be in water. It was the only way I knew, to be spiritually connected.

The following days were some of the most beautiful displays of humanity, of all that is beautiful in the world, in my experience. Everyone at that hotel was so incredibly kind to me. They seemed to need to do this: to comfort me, the only American there. I have had no personal experience with suffering of any kind. Although I am a New Yorker, born and bred and in heart and in my soul, I can't claim any of this loss as mine. But for that week - because, of course, no one could leave, or arrive, so the guests on 9.11 - 30 rooms in all - became a community, that shared the one or two papers we could find in town. We were made up of every nationality, European mostly - Spanish and French and German and English. In the days that followed, my husband, via the little computer room, reached my dad, and his message came back. Simple words, calm and reassuring. It is a terrible tragedy. We are safe.

We weren't to know at the time, but eventually we would find out that everyone we knew directly was safe. There were small, unrecorded acts of courage and kindness: like my friend Sherri (who didn't tell me - it's not her style, her husband, Marc, told me later) who without hesitation went right to the kids' school and, along with other teachers, got on the phone to each parent, to make sure they were accounted for, before sending the children home.

But we were cut off from New York, in this beautiful place. I'd drift around, wander past people at the pools, or at the beach, and hear, in various languages, something something Bin Laden, something something Taliban. Al Queda. We were educating ourselves, holding vigil around that one TV. Dining together by the pool. We knew each other so well, we had become family. Apart from taking turns going into town to buy the paper, we never left the hotel grounds. We were in our own world: safe, in paradise.

I was the only American at the hotel. The staff would ask my husband if I was okay, and then they'd smile at me, with tears in their eyes. I felt that I had to be okay. I was representing my country, and so I had to behave with dignity. And I knew, above all, that this was not about me.

There was a special tent, that year, near the lower pool. A yurt. A cute French guy was doing what everyone said were the most 'amazing massages - with gongs and things'. I had never had a professional massage before, but my husband had booked one on my birthday, the 13th.

It was a really good massage. At the end, he left me alone, with the gongs playing. I think there might have been hot rocks on my back. And then it happened.

I can't describe it, but it felt like I was hallucinating, like I was in the middle of a three dimensional, Hieronymus Bosch painting, but it was all in red. To this day, I don't know if it was my imagination, but the experience was incredibly powerful and real. All these souls, and everything was red, and we were rising.

My memories of the 11th of September, 2001, are of water: pool and sea and coolness and sun. Nothing of fire, death, or destruction. When I was young, I dreamt an epic dream. I was on the subway, in NY, travelling downtown. Later, in my twenties, as an art director on Wall Street, I would take this long trip each day, by subway, from East 68th Street, to the World Trade Center.

In my dream, it was like New Year's Eve: the tension, the expectation, of waiting for the ball to drop. We were riding the subway, but it was going down, down, like an elevator, going back in time. At the bottom, it was old, dark, dirt, wood. Like a mine shaft. Along the way, I saw people I knew, my aunt and uncle, friends, on the platform. And then my dream switched to a motel in the desert: rooms that opened to the air, the way the Hurricane Hotel does, and I was with a boyfriend - I didn't know who - and the world had ended: an atomic war. I remember, in the dream, we were the ones who weren't on one side, or the other, of the war. We were the third side. We were the survivors. And together, we would build a new, Utopian world.

All photos, shot by me at the Hurricane Hotel, probably from September 2001. Top photo, also by me, on the beach in Hastings, while I sat, alone, steeped in memory.


Fashion Limbo said...

Ten years ago the entire world changed, forever. I wish I could be with my loved ones today, I hope whoever can be, is :) xxx

the trainee mum said...

I don't know what to add to this post. Perfect. xx

Lauren said...

Thank you for a wonderful post.

The Styleseer

Style At Every Age said...

As I read this I am watching the memorial service on sky, live from ground zero and as usual, I am crying. Even people like me who didn't lose anybody, cry at the thought of it. I was watching Crossroads on lunchtime TV, feeding my Little Man who was then 11 months old. The programme was interrupted by a news flash showing that the first tower had just been hit. I couldn't stop watching and saw the 2nd impact live on TV, in my little house with my three girls at school, my husband at work in London and my beautiful little man on my lap. It is so strange that Little Man is completely obsessed by these events, knows so many facts and figures and records every single programme there ever is on TV. The thing that breaks my heart is the "Jumpers". We watched the Channel 4 Firemans Story this morning, both of us crying as it showed lots of these on this particular documentary. It breaks my heart xxx

Style At Every Age said...

Sorry got carried away and forgot to say, your post is beautiful xx

Leah B said...

I too had dreams while living in NY. In the first I was working in the Trade Center, it was a beautiful morning and people were just filing in for the day. Suddenly there was a scream and I looked up to see a plane flying towards us. A few weeks later I had another dream in which I was on the plane and we were flying into one of the towers. These dreams were so vivid, so horrible, so frightening, that I told my mother and several friends about them.

Two years later I awoke and turned on the television and witnessed my nightmares coming true right before my very eyes. How does this happen, that nightmares become reality? I believe in God with all my heart and all my soul, but I feel as though on that day God looked away, or left his guard, and evil was able to step in and run the program. The evil was palpable. It came down from the skies and seeped into the city and choked New York as beautiful people prayed for help and reached for strangers as they plummeted to their deaths.

I have reflected a lot this past week on both where I am and who I am 10 years later. I am not happy with certain aspects of myself, but at the same time I realize that I have to go easy on the woman I am, the woman who has felt a deep down lingering sense of sadness, loneliness, and fragility since that tragic day. I'm afraid that parts of my spirit were broken on 9/11. On that awful day I learned that fears that lie deep within my mind and manifest themselves within my darkest dreams can cross over into inexplicable realities in my waking life. I am so vulnerable and small. WE are so vulnerable and small.

Today is such a somber and painful day. As I type this I am hearing the names of those lost being read on the television in the other room. God bless those who lost their loved ones on September 11, 2011. God bless my country, our country.

Never forget.

LeahB said...


How interesting Jill that your memories of 9/11 involve pools and water, and now the monuments of the WTC footprints are beautiful reflecting pools with waterfall fountains.

Thank you for sharing your memories and allowing me to share mine. I am feeling a strong need to reach out to people today.

Anonymous said...

hello lovely! have been a while since my last stop on your Blog .. but I promise to visit more often again! and hope to meet up at LFW!

..I still remember New York City..had been on top of the World Trade Center on August 16th, September 2001, so approx. one month before the tragedy.. and made few photos but not as much! who would have known... deeply touched as it marks 10 years now already, and since I've been in this beautiful City of New York!

keep safe lovely and see you soon! xoxo

jill said...

Thank you - each of you. LeahB I don't know how to reply to you - email me if you'd like (Jill@haybooks.com) but I'm feeling the same way.

For once - this is quite amazing - it feels like all the 'superficiality' - of fashion blogs, of twitter - are serving to do an amazing thing: to bring us together, around the world. It's quite a spiritual experience.

Watching, crying, while typing. Paul Simon singing The Sound of Silence - the beautiful solo in the chorus singing Amazing Grace - President Bush humbling reciting Abraham Lincoln's letter to a mother who lost five sons, and that is all he says - Mayor Guiliani reciting the lines of 'to everything there is a season' - James Taylor singing Close your Eyes, but especially, the names, the names, the sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, telling the people they love that they miss them and love them and will be with them always.

As Prince Charles just said, at the US Embassy in Mayfair, London: this has had the reverse effect of what the intent was: it has brought us together.

adrielleroyale said...

This day is one that will live in infamy for sure, I still remember the day pretty clearly - I can tell you where I was, what I was doing and what I did for the rest of that day. Tucked away in the middle of America, it seemed so far away, like a bad dream, somehow unreal. But humanity really is amazing sometimes, how we can come together and forget all the stupid offenses that typically drive us apart. It's like a big smack to the back of the head and suddenly everyone remembers that we only get one shot - one life - and that's it! So for a little while at least, we remember to act decent and unselfish and to give and to love. So today I am going to help my best friend celebrate her birthday while quietly remembering the souls that disappeared that day. And I am going to thank my creator for all the blessings He has given me and for this beautiful thing called life. This is a beautiful tribute, your post.

The Foolish Aesthete said...

Thank you for this beautiful tribute. As you say, the blogs and Facebook are bringing us all together again. My friends and I from opposite ends of the world are discussing where we were and what we were doing at that moment, much like we are doing here on each other's comment pages.

Have you seen the special NY Times pull out for 9/11? It has a picture of the twin towers in the clouds, like yours. (I happen to prefer your Magritte-like image.) I also posted on my personal Facebook page a photo of the twin towers in the sunset, pre-9/11. I am planning, with family, to visit the WTC Memorial at the end of this month. Tickets are free but limited, so I am hoping we can get a special pass as a large group. I would hate to miss it on my quick weekend visit to NYC.

And it is wonderful to "meet" someone with similar thoughts and aesthetics! As you pointed out on your previous post, we are product of nurture -- and I believe our families surrounded us with the same art, literature, music, not to mention our stomping grounds of the Met (yes, to H. Bosch!) and the MoMA, where I also loved those Rousseaus depicting the jungle or the desert.

OK, I am now rambling but just wanted to thank you for sharing so much on your blog and comments. xx

Maralyn said...

Just beautiful--I love your words and photos~

styleeast said...

Not much I can add to this, Jill, other than that I found it so thought provoking and, perhaps strangely, calming. My thoughts were with you and all new yorkers yesterday, I think that although the whole world feels the tragedy to some extent, most of us can't understand how it must have felt to be an American that day xx

jill said...

Thank you, dear Marilyn, and Jennifer East: it was, yes, for me the experience was overwhelmingly calm. Which I've since learned is what is technically called 'shock.' But I was so... carried.

The thing that changed for me was that for the first time in my life, I stopped feeling ashamed or apologetic for being American. I felt proud. Not for anything I did, but for the grace and courage of other Americans. But of course: any nationality would have responded the same. It just gave me a stronger sense of humanity - global humanity - and gratitude to everyone who WASN'T American, because people were just so kind.


mtg said...

Oh wow, after reading your post I read some of the comments. The very night before 9/11 I had a strange dream too! I was driving to work on 65S (as I usually did every morning in real life) and saw a terrifying picutre: the whole opposite side of the interstate for miles and miles, as far as I could see was burnt down, black burnt down cars and trucks, ashes every where. In the morning (which was the morning of 9/11) I proceeded to work, my dream still vivid in my head.. It was in the office that I've learned of 9/11.

Also, Jill I can totally understand what you mean being scared for your parents... In 2001 my parents still lived in Georgia. All that morning and even days after, I kept thinking this is it. This is World War III. America will drop a nuclear bomb on Afganistan, and that is too close to Georgian, where my family and loved ones were. It may seem silly now, but I seriously thought that was the way it might happen. I thought, this was it. I may never see my parents again.. It really felt like the end of the world was near.
Eternally grateful to those rescue workers and flight passengers who died for us. I still can't watch 9/11 footage, especially of people jumping from windows... I was barely able to post some 9/11 post this year... Nothing can really express our gratitude and sadness over those events.
Thanks for posting this.

Leah B said...

Oh Soccer Mom, I just got the chills reading about your dream.

I recently watched an episode of "Through the Wormhole" with Morgan Freeman which discusses the Sixth Sense and how many people felt a bad sense of premonition prior to that day. If you have time to watch it you may find it interesting.


Also, I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one who thought the end was near and surely nukes were going to be launched. I was out of my mind with fear.

mtg said...

Jill, I just read your comment which is posted right before my last comment and again your words touched me. I hope you continue to be proud to be an American. I am very grateful and thankful I am an American. Though not by birth, but through naturalization, even so, even MORE SO, I am grateful and proud. Sometimes I feel like Europe carries on with bunch of b.s. about blaming America for everything... when America is the one that is pulling their share and more in the world progress and development. Though I miss Georgia, I would sacrifice for the United States of America if required. I know it all sounds like loud and empty words but that's the way I feel about the freedom I have as an American. I wish more people that are born here realized how lucky they are to be citizens of this great country. And I am not even a bit ashamed to say these things.
hugs and kisses dear friend, and have a wonderful bday tomorrow. I've been thinking about you!

mtg said...

soooo sorry, it's me again! just read Leah's last comment! Leah, do you have a blog? I will definitely check out the link. Thank you so much!

LeahB said...

Hi Maya!

Funny, I was just emailing Jill about how I have yet to take the plunge and start a blog, but I think I'm going to finally go for it. I will let you know when I do. Thank you! And I'll be reading yours this afternoon... I spy vintage family photos... I LOVE vintage family photos!!

Leah :)

style odyssey said...

This post is like a dream. A bittersweet dream- part happy, part...dark. Just. Wow.
I love that your memory is that day is steeped in "pool and sea and coolness and sun".
Thank you for sharing your memories of that day.