Twenty Years Ago & Today

I placed September 11 on a shelf twenty years ago, and I have tried very hard to keep it there over the past two decades. The news media, though, have other ideas to force me to take it out and relive it. Because this is a major anniversary, they have uncovered new angles, new footage, and new ways of delivering this nightmare — and I understand why. We’re not supposed to forget.

Twenty years ago, while working as a school social worker on Long Island, the district kept track of which students had lost a loved one in the terrorist attacks. Each year, we kept ourselves aware as a reminder that the date may be difficult for students, no matter if they entered kindergarten or were finishing their senior year. At some point, though, it hit me that we may reach a time when 9/11 is ancient history.

Is twenty years that moment — and if it is, why am I still crying each time I talk about 9/11 or catch a piece of news coverage before I can change the channel. I had a long overdue conversation with a blogging friend, Debra of breathelighter, and she recalled some of the previous 9/11 pieces I had written. She asked if it was difficult, twenty years later, for me to discuss 9/11 — and as I answered, I could feel my voice catching and my eyes watering.

I guess the answer to that question is, “Yes. It’s still difficult.” My twenty years feel like yesterday.


I’m reminded of the final minutes of the final episode of HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” It’s a remarkable depiction of time flying. In the scene, Claire drives off and with each mile, viewers are given a glimpse of the lives and deaths of the other characters — and it all ultimately ends with Claire as an old woman in her bed. It took minutes.

That’s how my twenty years feel. Just yesterday, I was a 38-year-old school social worker releasing students to their worried parents and catching a glimpse of a mother who came to the school just to hug her son. As I did my job, a New York firefighter, Kevin Donnelly, who had hired me to mow lawns with him when I was in 8th grade, was doing his job at Ground Zero. He died there.

At the elementary schools in my district, at the end of the school day, classroom teachers rode on the school busses with their young students, while secondary teachers went to the elementary schools to supervise students who had not yet been dismissed.

Later that afternoon, as I drove home eastbound on the Long Island Expressway, I stared at westbound traffic heading toward Manhattan — a steady stream of fire trucks and rescue vehicles from Long Island’s volunteer companies.

Blackberry iris.

While all of this was happening, a flotilla of private boats crossed from New Jersey to lower Manhattan to rescue those trying to evacuate, friends of mine escaped from Manhattan by walking across bridges and through tunnels to get to Brooklyn and Queens, and a small airport in Canada became a landing hub for international flights because the US had closed its airspace. Residents in the small town opened their homes to passengers and flight crews.

There was an immediate outpouring of condolences and support from around the globe. It seemed that within the span of a few hours, communities across the country had organized to collect supplies, such as socks, meals, and gloves, for the first responders working endlessly on the mountain of debris. Then, of course, came the monetary donations for the families of victims, survivors, and first responders. It was as if we couldn’t do enough for one another.

I think it’s the closest this world has come to, in the words of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” living as one. I think it’s the closest this nation has come, in my lifetime, to being united. I think that’s why I’m especially sad this 9/11 . . . here we are, twenty years later, and we are fighting another terrorist attack — and this is the moment where I take my first step onto that proverbial slippery slope.

Molting anole.

Where are we twenty years later? I, for one, am still sad, but I’m going to add anger and disgust into my emotional baggage, because we are so far away from those hours and days of compassion and concern. Before I’m accused of attacking the previous administration, let me be clear. This has nothing to do with him, although he was clearly at the forefront of politicizing a public health crisis — which, to use AIDS as an example, never works. In fact, we all lose.

This post has to do with us.

I realize a lot can happen in twenty years to test a nation’s fortitude, to change hearts and minds — and, Lord knows, that has certainly happened here. No matter what any politician or news outlet says to stir us up, at the end of the day, we each have the ability to do what’s right, to do what’s kind. This is why there is no excuse for our collective response to COVID, our failure to work toward the common good.

Although I’m not a doctor or a general or a politician, I’ve always felt that when COVID arrived here, it was an invasion of a microscopic enemy. Just like hijackers aiming passenger jets at buildings, the virus is non-discriminatory, with little regard for race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, income and ability. In order for it to live, it must infect host bodies. Once firmly entrenched, it can reproduce and escape to spread to more and more bodies. The more host bodies it has, the more opportunities it has to mutate. This is biology. It makes sense to me — so I wear a mask, I’m vaccinated, and I keep my distance for my health and the health of others.

Red powderpuff tree.

What I can’t understand are people fighting the most basic health protocol — wearing a mask in order to interrupt or slow down the above process. Masks work at preventing the vast majority of droplets, but anti-maskers seem more concerned with the discomfort of masks — and they’re correct. With the straps digging into the skin around my ears and the material trapping my breath so it feels like I’m inhaling a swamp, masks are uncomfortable.

On the other hand, I’m incredibly relieved that on the occasions I’ve had to have surgery, the medical team was able to muddle through their discomfort for my health and safety. Besides, getting intubated is far more uncomfortable than a mask.

I would love to hang up my mask. I long for that day — breathing easier is one thing, but I want to see smiles! Yet, the longer people fight the scientifically proven sensibility of masks, the longer we’ll have to wear them.

Perhaps the greatest offender these days is the governor of my state, Florida. He has worked tirelessly to overrule any attempt at mask mandates in businesses and in schools, while fully opening the state before we even came close to a safe percentage of vaccinations. The result of his political game — this is a political game for him and, as I said earlier, politicizing a public health issue hurts everyone — is that August was Florida’s deadliest month since the pandemic began, and the vast majority of those were unvaccinated.

Rain lily.

I’m not even sure I want to address the topic of vaccines. I understand peoples’ reluctance to get vaccinated — except the reason that it’s a means for the government to insert a microchip. I really don’t understand that one, especially when the actual tracking devices are our cell phones.

In my own circle of friends, some have said they don’t trust the government, and that the vaccine was rushed. These same friends, though, have little knowledge of the side effects of or ingredients in any over-the-counter, illegal, or prescription drug they take — or even in the tattoo ink, which is not regulated by the FDA, that’s injected just under the surface of their skin.

When it comes to the vaccines, I’ve given up arguing and trying to change minds. I’ve fallen back on a line the kids say: You do you; I’ll do me.  I’ll wear a mask and maintain my distance from anyone unvaccinated, and I hope they will do the right thing and mask up when around others. That being said, though, COVID — and this is one more thing that saddens me — has taught me to trust no one to do the right thing.


Perhaps the most troubling thing of all is the battle line. One would think a nation at war would have a battle line between the homeland and the invader. We did that immediately twenty years ago.

Because COVID was politicized, though, the battle line was drawn between us — and we’ve all witnessed what happens when the two sides meet. It’s a melee of viral-worthy behavior: screaming, name-calling, spitting, incivility, and coughing. Is this really who we are? 

With each passing day (and let’s throw in the January 2021 attack on the US Capitol), I am convinced that this is who we are. While there have been small moments of hope and good news stories, I am deeply, deeply saddened — and let’s not forget angry and disgusted — that I no longer recognize my country. I no longer recognize my fellow Americans, the same ones who rallied around one another twenty years ago.

Gulf fritillary butterfly on blue porterweed.

Some may say the 9/11 of twenty years ago was different. We were a grieving nation . . . but what are we today? As of this writing there have been nearly 660,000 COVID-related deaths in this country. That’s approximately 220 consecutive 9/11s. That’s a 9/11 terrorist attack each day for more than seven months. That mind-numbing number should also be grieved.

It also demands some serious soul searching — because this didn’t have to happen. Where is our compassion from twenty years ago? Never mind that . . . where is our compassion from a year ago? Last year, we hailed frontline healthcare workers as heroes, banging pots and pans to honor them and thank them.

Today, the sick — especially the unvaccinated and unmasked — are filling ICUs, overwhelming the hospital system, and breaking the spirit of people who have taken an oath to save lives. At the same time, there are factions doubting what medical professionals are saying is happening in their own hospitals, and who are also begging people to get vaccinated and to wear masks. It’s a remarkable, tragic, infuriating display of an American selfishness that was unheard of twenty years ago, one that confuses rights with entitlement. Hooray for me. Too bad for you. Clearly, it’s time to trade in our pots and pans for masks.

Blackberry iris when the flower is done.

What happened to us over the past twenty years? When did we stop listening to our hearts? When did doing the right thing become the wrong thing to do? In our fervor to never forget the attacks of September 11, did we forget the compassion and care and concern we had for one another?

These are the questions that crowd my brain on this 9/11. I don’t have answers, but I’ll find some peace and comfort in the one place that always delivers: my garden. (That’s why I‘ve added flowers to this post. Flowers make my world brighter.) I’ll tell Joe that I’m going out to Kevin’s world, where I’ll listen to my iPod and tackle some projects that I’ve been saving to do for this occasion.

It’s usually happy in Kevin’s World, but today I’ll be reflecting on a whole bunch of stuff. I’ll think of that mother hugging her son (now in his early 30s!) in the school hallway, and I’ll think of Kevin Donnelly as I mow my own lawn.

I’m sorry this post is so long, but there was a lot of stuff swimming around in my head that I needed to get out. I know those of us who have vivid memories of 9/11 will quietly relive that day today. Like you, I never will forget, because I can’t forget.

I also think we have to share so others don’t forget — and so my wish is that when we talk about the events of 9/11, we must also talk about the compassion of that time . . . because . . . I, for one, do not want compassion to become ancient history.

Not-So-Wordless Wednesday: Holding On

This is a baby staghorn fern. I came across it recently while doing some therapeutic weeding — therapeutic for me, not so much for the weeds. I was actually surprised to see it because the closest mature staghorn is in the across-the-street neighbor’s backyard.

Plus, it was clinging to stone. In the wild, these tropical epiphyte ferns use their roots to grab tightly onto the bark of a tree while its fronds take in the needed moisture and nutrients. This little guy, though, was holding onto the rough, hard surface of a paver used as a retaining wall for a raised bed.

The more I considered its journey from a spore drifting on wind currents to its determination to hold onto something — anything — solid, the more I realized that this was the best way to illustrate my absence for the past few months.

Without going into detail, the bulk of 2020 saw Joe, myself, and his family protecting ourselves from COVID while also caring for the health of his father. Dad was diagnosed in May with malignant melanoma.

In a normal world, life is a rollercoaster. COVID, though, seemed to stifle and slow many of the ups while adding speed and dangerous curves to the downs. By the end of 2020 and into 2021, Dad needed round-the-clock care. On February 3, he passed away as a result of his weakened state, which itself was the result of two surgeries and general anesthesia that seemed to exacerbate his Alzheimer’s.

Since then, Joe and I have worked at catching up on chores long neglected: AC maintenance, plumbing issues, tree removal and shrub pruning, and that therapeutic weeding.

Through it all, though, we’ve reflected on Dad. He was many things to so many people.  He was a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, uncle and friend, and coach, referee, umpire, and mentor. To me, he was my father-in-law, a kind, decent, honest, and gentle man who lived life to its fullest. He’s also the man who instilled these same values in Joe, my husband and partner.

I admit that while some days have felt almost normal, other days have been, well, a daze. It was on one such day that I looked up and spotted an orchid blooming way up high on the trunk of a sabal palm, one that I had tied to the tree before I knew anything about how to do that.

At the time, I was told to wait for the flower spike to finish and to just tie it. Climbing a ladder, I slapped the clump of roots — no additional sphagnum moss, no coco-fiber lining to keep things together, no nothing — and sloppily wrapped green floral tape around the orchid and palm trunk, hoping for the best.

It has never bloomed, not once,  since I tied it up there. Some years, it looked as if it was barely alive.

This year, though . . . this year it’s flowering, its roots firmly attached to the trunk. It gave me a reason to get the ladder and climb up to get a closer photo of this miracle on a tree trunk, a reminder that we’re all holding on and we’re all going to be okay.

Bloomin’ Update 64: Harvest Days, SoFlo Style

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget it’s autumn. That has become my annual thought the longer I live and garden in South Florida. I know many plants, even down here, have a season, but it’s not until I see the national weather forecast for the Dakotas, my friend’s pictures of her New England view of painted leaves, and other garden blogs filled with photos of gardens in seasonal transition that I truly realize that the times, they are a-changin’.

It’s at this moment, in a land where most feel there are only two seasons — hot and hotter — that I become more aware of the later sunrises and earlier sunsets, and of the shimmering, golden hue of the sunlight in the late, late afternoon. We were even given a small tease as a weak “cold” front made its down the Florida peninsula for a day, delivering — at the very least — a drop in humidity. Other than that, though, autumn here is pretty much summer.

On the other hand, the combination of these subtle changes and a pandemic that’s kept me firmly planted at home has given me a reason to not only harvest bananas (above), but to also collect seeds and start new plants.

Pride of Barbados

This small flowering tree or tall flowering shrub began as a gift from friends. As hard as I prune it to keep it short, it seems happiest when it’s allowed to fully grow upward. Then, at the top of its stems, clusters of orchid-like flowers bloom. In turn, these are followed by dangling seed pods, which I quickly collect before they pop open so I don’t have a forest of Pride.

One pod I let dry on my potting bench. When I cut it open, I was surprised to find the seeds in an alternating pattern. I’m not sure if this is typical or a quirk of this particular pod. Either way, I was still impressed that nature could produce something so perfect and symmetrical.

I planted some of the seeds. Within days, they sprouted and now I have a pot of seedlings that need to be potted up. I’m still not sure if I’ll plant these when they’re a little older or if I’ll give them away.

Mexican Cotton Plant

One of my favorite plants that I’ve grown is Mexican Cotton Plant. I have mine in a pot, and I’ve always been able to keep it pruned to encourage branching and stronger growth. This year, though, something happened. After flowering, it produced the buds that would eventually open to reveal cotton. That’s when I noticed the leaves dying. My hope was for the plant to live long enough for these buds to mature, but that wasn’t the case.

I harvested the buds and let them dry. In a matter of days, they popped open, revealing the cotton balls. I pulled out the cotton, each piece of fluff covering a seed. These are now planted and I’m waiting for them to sprout.

White African Iris

Last year, a friend gave me some seed pods from his White African Iris. I dried the pod, removed the seeds, and planted them. They are now flowering for the first time.

Crinum Lily

One of my favorite plants is the Crinum Lily. Large and tropical, the plant is related to amaryllis rather than lilies — and it can easily fill a bed with its sword-like leaves. The treat is when they send up a flower spike (above). Within a day, the flower cluster opens even more (below).

They also spread. One way is for the mother bulb to produce pups. These can be separated and then planted. I tend to do this on a regular basis to keep the mother plants looking clean and neat.

The other method is fascinating. When a flower is pollinated, a bulblet forms on the flower spike. As it matures, its weight will either help bend the flower stalk to the ground or it will simply fall off. Recently, while cleaning the Crinums, separating pups, and weeding, I found a bulblet that had fallen to the ground, where it had germinated. At first glance, I thought the withered bulblet was a stone.

King Palm

Normally, when  palm trees produce their inflorescence, Joe cuts them off to prevent becoming overrun with sprouting palm trees everywhere — except this time. I was interested in harvesting seeds from the King Palm, so we let the hull-like structure (peduncular bract) that contains the small flowers remain attached to the tree. The photo above is of another peduncular bract that we cut in half to see how tightly packed the inflorescence is.

After a few weeks, the bract popped open, revealing its multi-branched inflorescence.

In time, the inflorescence branches spread and bees are drawn to the hundreds of small beige flowers.

Back To The Bananas

I realize bananas may not be everyone’s idea of a fall fruit. That title usually belongs to apples and pears and pumpkins. This year, though, the banana plant happened to produce just in time for a fall harvest — and there were lots of bananas. I added them to cereal, shared them with neighbors, froze some for future use, and tried my hand at banana bread for the first time.

My neighbor’s recipe called for loaf pans, but all I had was a Bundt pan — so that’s what it had to be. Not as tasty as my neighbor’s — but all in all, a delicious way to celebrate the season in a SoFlo way.

Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon Giveaway

I wanted to take a few moments to thank everyone who participated in the recent giveaway of Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon, by Linda Jane Holden, and to congratulate Carol H. for being the lucky winner!

Tying One On — And Then Some

This is the dilemma that’s been staring at me for some time, now. I have two orchids — one in a terra cotta pot and one in a plastic pot — and they have each made themselves very comfortable in their respective homes. In fact, they’re almost too comfortable, with their roots bursting out and over the pots.

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