We had just begun a good discussion in our small group when we heard the fire alarm. I thought I smelled smoke. Diane went to see what was what, and a staff member appeared to lead us down from the 25th floor.
One thing New Yorkers have learned the hard way is to keep walking down, no matter what anybody tells you. Get down and get out. Most of the staff here were also here five years ago, when the canyons of the financial district filled with smoke and ash and a white snow of paper and dust fell on everything and everyone. It didn't take us long to walk down 25 flights of stairs, and we were jolly about it, joking as we descended. Everything was all right. Out on the sidewalk at last, in the cold, Herb and I crossed the street and went into the church to warm up and wait it out.
The rest of the day was fine: apologies for the confusion and inconvenience, a round of applause for the quick-thinking staff member who located the smoulder and put it out. A rescheduled small group meeting, so that we could have the talk we had cut short.
And a train ride home.
Wow. Were you nervous? Anna asked on the phone last night.
No, I said, after a pause. I wasn't sure how to answer. Because, as I denied my own nervousness, which nobody who was in New York on 9/11 could possibly not have felt in the face of a fire in a skyscraper, I realized that at lunch afterward I had eaten a cookie I ordinarily would have given away, eaten a macaroni salad that is nowhere to be found in food plan, eaten a piece of cake that I did not really want. I think I was very nervous, and refused to say so. I remember now that I thought of the children as we walked, of the many fire drills we conducted in that very building when I worked there years ago, out of our offices and into the nursery school, each picking up a little one and carrying our little one down and out of the building to safety, of that same practiced routine five years ago, each staff member carrying a child as real smoke and real dust filtered into the building, seeming to enter right through its brick walls.
No, I wasn't nervous, I lied. And so my poor body had to give the truthful answer I refused to give, craving the sugar that gives it a quick and fraudulent fix of well-being. Yes, I am nervous. I am frightened. I fear dying here.
Fear is not something of which we should be ashamed. Fear is a natural organic response to a threat. It is certainly not the opposite of courage. Cowardice is the opposite of courage: the refusal to engage my fear and move through it to action. No! Face your fear and respect its authority -- acknowledge the fact that you are walking through fire, and that it is difficult to do. Locate yourself in the larger scheme of time and human activity: you will die someday, and it could be today. Tell the truth about your own fear and your own courage through the front door of your mind, and you will not have to act it out through the back door. You do not have much time in which to show love to the world, and you may this very day be given the opportunity to give the world extraordinary love. Respect that opportunity, and pray for the grace to rise to it.
This morning, the great muscles of my thighs are very sore. Even though I exercise a lot, walking down 25 flights of stairs works the quadraceps hard. We joked yesterday that we should walk back up the 25 flights and work our glutes. We didn't, though. We took the elevator up.
But at least we went.