One morning few years ago I sat by my computer in my nightclothes and was writing an email to an animator in Portland, OR when an airplane crashed into a building 3 blocks away from me. Quickly I put on some street clothes and run outside. What I saw there threw me into claws of panic and hysteria. I knew the buildings were going to go down so I run away as fast as I could. Five days later I was allowed to enter my neighborhood again and was able to return to my apartment. I had to climb through a window and was almost shot by National Guards who mistook me for a looter. Everything I owned was covered in a white, powdery dust. At nights, the souls of the people who died at WTC flew by my windows asking: – Why? Why?
They had gone to work and just like me were sitting by their computers when the Unimaginable happened.
The project I was working on at that time, “Five Fucking Fables”, seemed trivial and frivolous compared to the events that had hit the world. I started to work on something else, in one week making 20 watercolor drawings dedicated to my interpretation of 9/11. Then something broke inside me. I stopped eating, lied down on a bed and watched the particles of WTC dust shimmer in the sun outside my window.
How do you wrap your head around the thought that the world might end tomorrow (there are about 275 ways how it can end, including jay-walking accidents or cars spinning out of control on a busy street corner, meaning, as far as I am concerned, the world starts and ends with me, the moment I stop perceiving it, it vanishes into Nonexistence) and continue to do what you do?
My maternal grandfather was maybe not a well educated man, but he was good looking, with great sense of humor and in love with his beautiful Baltic German wife. When she delivered him babies, he did what any man of his time and his class was expected to do – he took the greatest care to provide for his sweet, handsome family. He worked hard, he saved and soon got enough money to buy a farm house in the country. They got two horses, two cows. Now he and his wife toiled in the fields day and night to afford a good life and good things around them, saving for their children’s future.
Then, one day, out of blue, Soviet Union illegally annexed Latvia. It was an event my grandfather’s family barely but managed to get through unscathed. Then, a year later, Nazi Germany attacked Soviet Union without warning, starting a war. The Soviet authorities advised all the civilians to flee East.
– They’ll take everything from you, and you’ll be lucky if they leave you alive.
Terrified, my grandfather harnessed the two horses and put the family’s most valuable belongings into two carts. He tied the two cows to the carts and they started off towards East, hoping to join the other refugees fleeing the terrors of Nazis.
At night they stopped at a farmhouse near the main road. The host saw that the children needed rest and suggested the family stayed overnight at his house. My grandfather pushed the carts into the host’s barn and tied the horses and cows by the apple trees near vegetable garden.
Around 3 am an air raid started. The German airplanes run low and, it seemed, bombed everything in their sight.
Barely dressed, the host and his guests run into the nearby forest. Even half asleep they calculated that the Germans mostly wanted to bomb roads to hinder the retreat of remains of the Soviet Army, so forest was a safe place.
An hour and half later it was over.
When the dawn established itself the runways returned to the house. The house still stood by the road.
But the barn with the 2 carts full of valuables was gone. The remains of it were still smoldering.
My grandfather sat on a bench by a draw-well. He was in deep thought for an hour, nothing could snap him from the empty stare. Then he got up and told to his family:
– We are going back.
They found the horses and the cows who broke themselves free during the raid and were still shellshocked and full of fear.
The family went back to their own house. They survived the horrors of Nazis and after that – the Sovietization of the rural life.
But my grandfather never returned to the man he was before. Never again he saved more than a few kopecks, never ever again he bought nice and expensive things.
He still loved his wife but he detached himself from her by having several mistresses. He forbid himself from truly loving his children and caring for them. He took on getting high on a drink, but never too drunk to tell stories, to amuse himself and others. Nothing he said was to be taken seriously, it was just a story, a joke.
Why bother? The money you save today will burn in fire tomorrow. The wife you love will die. The children will betray you. The house will rot and fall apart. The horse will strain his leg, get an infection that’ll turn to gangrene and he’ll be dead by dawn.
Why do anything for tomorrow if the only certain thing is today?
THIS is the moment to enjoy, not the abstraction of future.
Three months after 9/11 I was completely broke. The freelance jobs that were lined up didn’t come through. I had lost will to hunt for new jobs and a will to work on my silly “Five Fucking Fables”. I had no will to fight or even preserve. I was heading for slow starvation, eviction and sure death.
Then a friend called, Maryna. She lived in Battery Park City, right by the 9/11 epicenter. She knew things I didn’t bother to know.
– Did you apply for FEMA grant?- she asked.
– No, – I said. – What’s FEMA?
– You live in a disaster area and qualify for a grant. Please, apply.
A week later she called again.
– Did you apply for a grant?
– Why not?
– I don’t know.
A week later she gave another call.
– Did you apply?
– The application deadline is in 3 days.
– What’s wrong with you?
– I am paralyzed.
– If you don’t get off your ass I’ll come and drag you by your ears to the FEMA office.
The image of Maryna dragging me by my ears through Downtown Manhattan shamed me. I got off the bed, combed my hair and feebly walked myself to FEMA headquarters. The application process wasn’t easy. They needed proof of residence, bank statements and other paperwork. But it shifted my focus from inner misery and pain to the outer obstacles that I had to overcome. My mind started to work again and with the mind – my body. I got a small grant and was able to pay rent and finally afford some food.
Then the delayed freelance gig came through, then my new film project got approved and before I know I was working on “Five Fucking Fables” as if it mattered.
One thing I changed in my work routine – I don’t work in my nightclothes till Noon anymore. Anything can happen at any time and I want to be ready.