Body of Memory

Sep 12 2016 by Allison English

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Body of Memory

I can recall quite clearly that I got up late on Tuesday September 11, 2001. My roommate was still asleep in the loft bed and I quietly grabbed a quick bagel and snuck out the door to get to my 8am lecture. I was exhausted and went to class in my pajamas – the bottoms had stars on them. I rolled into the huge lecture hall at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and took a seat on the left hand aisle all the way at the top. I was always nervous in big lectures – I wanted to make sure if anything happened I had a way out. At the time I was deep in the throws of panic and anxiety attacks, and that morning was particularly bad. I fidgeted all through class.

The lecture was East Asian Languages and Cultures: Hindu Mythology. I studied the philosophical underpinnings of yoga before I became a teacher and this class fascinated me from the first day. The professor spoke almost always in the metaphors of the myths we were studying and September 11 was no different. That day she was lecturing about the Yuga Cycles in Hinduism – the idea that there are four ages in the cycle of humanity. She spoke about the current cycle – Kali Yuga – and about its qualities of death and destruction, ignorance and hatred. She gave examples of the escalating violence around the world and humankind’s dissolution into the most base states of being – attacking one another as different and breaking harmony at any chance. As we got towards the 9am end point of the lecture she said, “And today is just another example: myth made real. It was no accident that plane crashed into that building in New York City.”

When I left my room at 7:30am CST, it was 8:30am EST. When I reached the lecture hall at 8am CST, it was 9am EST and the first plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. My professor knew about the first plane – I did not. I had rushed to class without looking at anything – no email, no television, no internet.

When I got home the house I lived in with nearly 100 other people was in shambles. Every television was on blaring. Everyone sat staring into the television screens with tears in their eyes. My panic felt real. My heart went out to all the people dying in New York. Despite what the news anchors were saying to reassure that this was a freak accident, I knew that many people were dying senselessly as the towers fell. Later we all found out just how many.

I had never heard of Al-Qaeda. I honestly knew little about what was going on in the world. I lived in a bubble. That day I purposefully popped the bubble I was living in and took a real look at the world around me and what I could do to live in it better. It was because of these events that I took a liking to forensic anthropology – my professor was an identifier at Ground Zero and her service was a tremendous inspiration to the power of what I was learning to bring closure to grieving families. It was because of this event that I moved to Italy for a summer semester despite having no money and having never been outside the country before because I needed to understand how much bigger the world was than my small corner of it. It was because of this event that I studied harder, became kinder and worked to know my world and its inhabitants more fully in all their messy glory.

I remember calling everyone I loved and making sure they were ok that day. A high school contact was working for the Pentagon at the time and he was the hardest to track down. Everyone was safe and sound. But on that day even though everyone I knew was safe, nothing was safe. I will never forget the details of that day. I’ve probably written about them many times and not just this year. The details flood back to me every year and I feel the fidgety Allison that sat in that lecture hall over again.

Our memory – it is one of the greatest strengths of being human. Our lives are written in memories upon our body. The food we ate becomes a memory of molecules in our tissue. Our workout becomes a memory in our muscles. Our sadness becomes a memory of our heart. The very fiber of our being is seemingly made up of the memories of life. And long after our mind may forget, our body does not.

So today, to honor those who passed, those we knew and those we did not, to honor those who searched and risked their lives and health to find survivors, to honor those who helped all over New York City, the United States and the world – for all of them and for all of us – we remembered today. On the mat, in my classes we set a simple intent to feel how memory lives through us. Feel all the thoughts, emotions, energies and sensations brought through the body as we breathed and moved. And in this daring act of feeling, we remember – each in our own way – and hold sacred to a belief that in our vulnerability to be humans who feel we are so strong. We can, we will and we must move forward to help create a better world, but we do so because we remember deep within our bones the tragedy of this day and too many others like it.