On What 9-11 Taught Me About Home

September 12, 2011

Ten years ago I was, what kids these days might call, a hot mess.

I was living in Washington, DC, at the time. I had moved there because a friend from college had an available room in his apartment. I was working two jobs in order to pay rent and chip away at the credit card debt I’d managed to rack up after buying important housewarming presents for myself – like a dining room table and enough scented candles to decorate a cathedral.

Despite having a great group of friends, I never really felt like I fit in there. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing with their lives, while I still couldn’t figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Or if I even wanted to grow up.

I was perpetually cranky and fifty pounds overweight and prone to spending my Friday nights wallowing in self-pity and pints of Ben & Jerry’s.

In addition to being miserable myself, I was also making my roommate miserable. I would alternate between giving him the silent treatment and yelling at him for leaving the kitchen cabinets open.

After all, misery loves company… even if it is that one-sided crazy kind of love.

One evening, while walking through Union Station on my way home from my second job, I had a panic attack. At the time, I didn’t know what a panic attack was, so I assumed the heart palpitations and my shortness of breath were just signs that I was having a heart attack. At the age of twenty-five. Because that’s normal.

I knew I needed to make a change.

But rather than, say, changing jobs or getting therapy or giving up my pint-of-ice-cream-a-day habit, I decided that what I really needed, like, really, really needed, was to leave the country.

Because, you know, it couldn’t possibly be my fault that I was unhappy.

It had to be America’s fault.

It was America’s fault that I couldn’t pay my rent. It was America’s fault that I had no idea what I was doing with my life. It was America’s fault that I was subsisting on a diet of Chubby Hubby and cheese. It was America’s fault that I had a roommate who didn’t understand that YOU SHOULD SHUT THE KITCHEN CABINET DOORS, ALREADY.

So I decided to move to Brazil.

Because, if music videos had taught me anything, moving to a Latin American country was totally going to fix everything.

(I would like to note here that I am much older and wiser now. I now know that picking up and leaving your country of residence does not magically solve your life’s problems. Mind you, that really hasn’t stopped me from trying. Sure, while moving may not fix my problems, it does make me temporarily forget those problems while I focus on new problems – like where the heck to buy cheese.)

Prior to moving to DC, I had taken a trip to Portugal, where I fell in love with the crumbly cobble-stoned streets, egg cream tarts and the sad, desperately mournful sound of fado music. In between shoving egg cream tarts into my face, I snapped up fado CDs, which I would later listen to over and over again in my DC apartment while bathed in the flickering glow of pumpkin spice scented candles.

These CDs introduced me to the Portuguese notion of saudade. We don’t have a word quite like saudade in English. A potent mix of yearning and nostalgia, saudade is the soul’s version of a toothache that never goes away. It is a feeling so complex that it is not easily talked about; instead, you can only really sing about it or write about it in poems or paint paintings of sad people feeling it. (Of course, its complexity hasn’t really stopped Wikipedia from trying to sum it up in words. The page on saudade describes it as everything from a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist” to a “wishful longing for completeness or wholeness” to the “love that remains” after someone or something is gone.)

This, I was certain of it, was my problem.

Nope, I was not suffering from some garden variety form of depression.

I was not having a quarter-life crisis. (Mind you, this was a good ten years before I’d even hear the word “quarter-life crisis.” Plus, I was twenty-five years old at the time and having, what I thought were, heart attacks, so, if anything, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t live another twenty-five years, let alone seventy-five years.)

What I had was a bad case of the saudades.

I was experiencing a form of sadness so exotic and complex that there wasn’t even a name for it in the English language.

And what better way to get over the saudades than to move to Brazil?

Within six months, I had paid off my credit card bills, gotten every single travel vaccination known to man and found a teaching job in Manaus, the capital city of the Amazonas.

I packed two bags. One was full of loose, flowy clothes – the type of clothes I imagined one would wear while in the tropics, recovering from melancholy, preferably while lounging on a veranda and sipping caipirinhas in the company of half-naked men. The other bag was full of mosquito repellent and haircare products because one cannot tackle one’s saudades while suffering from malaria and frizzy hair.

I was, of course, petrified to move to Brazil. After all, everyone knows Brazil is a dangerous country. It didn’t matter that I had been to Brazil once before to take a two-week Portuguese class in Bahia and had survived the trip unscathed. I was still convinced that I was going to die. If I didn’t end up getting mugged or kidnapped, surely, I’d be swallowed alive by snakes. While I refused to watch the movie Anaconda, I had seen the previews, and I knew what kind of things went down in the Amazon.

After arriving in Manaus in August, I quickly learned that there were worse things than a roommate who chronically left the kitchen cabinet doors open – like, say, a Brazilian host mother who would regularly rifle through my belongings and later inform strangers of the proportions of my underwear. I would learn that I was the only person in that part of the world wearing loose, flowy clothes (everyone else preferred spandex) and that no amount of hair gel can save you from having chronically bad hair in the tropics. I’d also learn, thankfully, that my neighborhood had a higher prevalence of shopping malls than anacondas.

And, then, a month later, I would walk into the lobby of the school where I was teaching, to find a group of staff and students huddled around the television set watching CNN. Two planes had just crashed into the World Trade Center. A plume of smoke was hovering over the Pentagon building. Another plane had gone down in Pennsylvania.

I watched in horror and disbelief.

I didn’t start crying until later that afternoon while in the middle of class. I opened up the textbook and came across a drawing of the famous sights of the United States – The Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, The Golden Gate Bridge, The Twin Towers.

That’s when I lost it.

And I didn’t really stop losing it… at least for a while.

For weeks afterward, I would sit in the library at school, watching the coverage on CNN and crying into a wad of toilet paper that I brought with me wherever I went. I would pore over emails from my family and friends in the States while sniffling into the same wad of toilet paper. I didn’t know any other Americans in Manaus, so I would lurk in the Internet cafes, trying to find American tourists to talk to – someone who would understand what I felt even though I couldn’t understand what I was feeling.

During one of my stints in the Internet café, I met an American couple from Boston. They had been planning on taking a boat cruise down the Amazon, but they decided to cut their trip short and had booked tickets to return to the States. They told me that their family had urged them not to, had told them to stay in Brazil and finish their trip.

“But I don’t want to be here,” the woman confessed. “I want to go home.”

I knew what she meant.

I had spent months longing to be anywhere but America – yearning for an exotic existence that would snap me out of my self-indulgent misery.

And now here I was in Brazil, and I just wanted to be back in America. I wanted to sit on my parent’s couch and cry. I wanted to be with my family and friends and cry. I wanted to go home. And I wanted to cry.

My Brazilian colleagues and students were sympathetic at first. But after weeks of putting up with my mood swings and crying jags, they were mystified. I hadn’t personally known anyone who was hurt or killed in the attacks, so why was I so upset, they’d ask.

I couldn’t explain.

I didn’t have the words to explain it to them.

Or to myself.

I had been homesick before. I had been lonely before. I had certainly been miserable before.

But I had never been this – whatever this was — before.

My host mother was particularly exasperated. She informed me over breakfast one morning, “Everyone knows America is a dangerous country. You should be happy you’re in a safe country like Brazil.”

The irony of this statement, of course, was not lost on me.

It was then that I realized what this feeling was — this was not just homesickness or loneliness or simple garden variety misery.

This was saudade.

It was a wishful longing for the place that once made me feel safe.

It was the love that remained for a country that would no longer be the same.

It was the yearning for an America that does not exist any more… and, maybe, admittedly, never did.

Up until that moment, I had never really thought that much about where home was for me. I had spent almost all of my childhood life in Buffalo, NY, but as an adult I hadn’t lived in any one place longer than two years. I hadn’t felt at home in Washington, DC, but I also didn’t feel at home in Brazil. I figured I’d just keep trying out places until one day I’d arrive in a city or a country, and I would just know. I would step outside of a train or plane and think to myself, “Yep, this is where I’m meant to be. This is home.” I figured it would be a joyous moment. There would probably be angels singing and fireworks and lots of people dancing.

I thought it would feel like falling in love.

But there I was sitting in Brazil, suddenly aware of exactly where my home was and where I wanted to be.

It didn’t feel like falling in love at all.

It felt like my heart was breaking.


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On September 12, 2011 at 9:11 am Amy said:

    Nothing profound to add here – just wanted to say I really enjoyed reading this. And I know exactly what you’re talking about here: “while moving may not fix my problems, it does make me temporarily forget those problems while I focus on new problems – like where the heck to buy cheese,”

    • On September 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm Sally said:

      Oh, how many times have I told myself that picking up & moving doesn’t solve my problems… and then immediately afterwards picked up & moved! I’m glad I’m not alone. That being said, moving to Brazil was the best thing I could have done for myself then. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but it was exactly the thing I needed to shake me out of my hot mess funk. (Really, someone should have slapped me.)

  2. On September 12, 2011 at 9:25 am Torre - Fearful Adventurer said:

    Beautiful. Just beautiful.
    Torre – Fearful Adventurer recently posted..When People Don’t Support Your Dreams

  3. On September 12, 2011 at 9:41 am Dalene said:

    I’ve read many 911 tributes the past few days, but this one stopped me in my tracks. Heartbreaking, and lovely.
    Dalene recently posted..Take a Career Break!

    • On September 12, 2011 at 12:11 pm Sally said:

      Thank you so much, Dalene. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to publish it as I’ve also read & seen a lot of touching tributes this weekend & wasn’t sure if I had anything to add (or even the strength to say it!). But I’m really glad I wrote it & shared it.

  4. On September 12, 2011 at 9:51 am Annie said:

    I so love this post, especially the ending. You have a really special way of writing (not that you need me to tell you that!) and you portray your feelings so well.

    I think that something like that happening close to home really reminds you of how you feel about that place. It’s like being scared to lose it.
    Annie recently posted..9/11: Not Just a Day in American History

    • On September 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm Sally said:

      Thank you so much. I really do think we learn to appreciate home & family more when we are reminded how terribly fragile they are. If only we could remember this all the time!

  5. On September 12, 2011 at 10:10 am Jaime said:

    I have to agree with Dalene. I couldn’t have said it better. Great post. It really was heartbreaking and lovely and of course a bit funny.
    Jaime recently posted..Music Monday – Change

  6. On September 12, 2011 at 10:59 am MaryAnne said:

    Oh I do know me some saudade! I spent most of my 20s and early 30s wallowing in it. Hell, I’m there now! And all that stuff about home? Yep, you said it perfectly. I haven’t found my home away from Canada yet and I’m still trying to figure out how I can make myself at home in Canada (does that make sense?).

    I think we need cocktails. Come over!
    MaryAnne recently posted..And Now For Something Completely Different: Impractical Shanghai Revisited

  7. On September 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm Ciki said:

    i too have stared down, many an empty pot of ben and jerry’s. That and crying are totally underrated. I’ve solved many of life’s mysteries that way! great post!!
    Ciki recently posted..Upper Deck, Tanzini @ GTower

  8. On September 12, 2011 at 2:19 pm Fiona at Life on Nanchang Lu said:

    Between you and the heartfelt ‘Sounds of Silence’ by Paul Simon at the commemoration last night I shed a few tears. Beautifully written.

  9. On September 12, 2011 at 6:30 pm Priya said:

    Hi Sally!

    I enjoyed reading this! It made me think of of where I was ten year ago and what I was feeling. I was in the 8th grade, I believe, and teased a lot by my classmates because I have an Indian background and they made me feel somehow responsible for the loss of over 3,000 people. Not a good feeling, especially for a petite 13-year-old.

    Anyway, great story!

    • On September 16, 2011 at 5:27 am Sally said:

      I’m so sorry to hear about your experience. It was very upsetting after I returned to the States post-9-11 and discovered that a lot of people were using the tragedy to “justify” their racism. While, sure, I know that racism always existed in the States, this was another way in which I felt my home changed forever.

  10. On September 12, 2011 at 7:33 pm Jess said:

    I was 16 when the 9/11 happened. It also happened to be the morning of our senior maths exam. I don’t think it really affected me, being from NZ and being young I didn’t really comprehend what it all meant.
    I know what you mean about the quarter life crisis. I’m having one at the moment! Just when you think life is perfect things change and it throws your whole world out of wack and you don’t quite know what you want anymore.
    Excellent thought provoking blog though, thank you.
    Jess recently posted..Things I’ve learnt

    • On September 16, 2011 at 5:19 am Sally said:

      I honestly never even knew there was such a thing as a quarter life crisis until I started reading blogs. Now I think I’m going through another quarter life crisis, which means I’m living until I’m 140. Awesome.

  11. On September 12, 2011 at 8:14 pm Ken C. said:

    Again, you’ve expressed yourself quite well [beautifully, really] and ended on a very poignant note.

    We were in California on Sept 11, 2001…it took until the next day for us to grasp the enormity of the events, and we were in continuous shock for the next two weeks.

    On this year’s Sept 11th, we reflected and remembered, quietly at home.

    Seriously, “Anaconda,” the original movie, is so bad it’s good…Ice-T [or is it Ice Tea?] scowls throughout, and Jennifer Lopez is just about the world’s worst actress…the star of the film is the computer-generated snake. The movie teaches us many life-lessons on dealing with gigantic, deadly, people-eating snakes, which are as common in Brazil as those weirdly-shaped nuts.

    • On September 16, 2011 at 5:18 am Sally said:

      Thank you. I’m glad you appreciated the post.
      I did actually see Anaconda 2 (or was it 3?) — oddly enough in Nepal. I would like to think this viewing has kept me safe from being devoured alive by computer-generated snakes.

  12. On September 12, 2011 at 11:29 pm Andi of My Beautiful Adventures said:

    This is my favorite post I’ve ever read of yours! I didn’t want it to end!!! I had no idea that you lived in Manaus. I took a solo trip there and it changed my life. Looks like it changed yours too. Wow!
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..My Wedding & Honeymoon: Day 6-10 (Part 4)

    • On September 16, 2011 at 5:16 am Sally said:

      Aww, thank you, Andi. Yes, it was definitely a life-changing year for me. It was the most difficult thing I’d ever done. But, man, I really needed it. I came back a much happier, healthier, more grateful person.

  13. On September 13, 2011 at 12:50 am Kate Allison said:

    Beautiful post. Thanks so much for sharing it.

    I (a Brit) was living near Washington DC at the time of 9/11, and that week I realised what a large part of my spirit had become American. While friends in UK were shocked by what had happened, it was a detached kind of shocked. My feelings ran deeper, as if I’d been personally bereaved, even though, like you, I hadn’t personally known anyone who’d been hurt or killed in the attacks.

    But a bereavement it was nonetheless, and when that happens you need to be with people who also loved the person who’s gone. It’s very difficult to grieve from a distance, as you found.
    Kate Allison recently posted..The John Steinbeck Encyclopedia of Road Trips

    • On September 16, 2011 at 5:15 am Sally said:

      Thank you for sharing your story. The sentiment was very much the same in Brazil as you described it in Britain — shocked but, for obvious reasons, detached. It was definitely hard to watch from afar.

  14. On September 13, 2011 at 8:04 am Erin said:

    Wow, what a beautiful, sad and moving post.
    Erin recently posted..Photo of the Week: Giant Buddha in Nara, Japan

  15. On September 13, 2011 at 8:09 am Michi said:

    It’s only 10am in the morning and I’m already bawling my eyes out. Thank you for sharing this. And thank you for introducing saudade into my vocabulary.

    Here’s to home..
    Michi recently posted..Estofado à la Michi

  16. On September 13, 2011 at 10:26 am Ceri said:

    Wow. This post is so profound … I really don’t know what to say.
    Ceri recently posted..The 9 Steps to Your Pre-Travel Mental Breakdown

  17. On September 14, 2011 at 2:44 am Deedee said:

    Saudade. That’s what it is. That’s the thing I feel for Asia. I know this comment has nothing to do with 9-11, but at least now I know what this gnawing feeling is called. 🙂

  18. On September 14, 2011 at 11:36 pm Miss Britt said:

    This post is perfect from beginning to end.
    Miss Britt recently posted..I Did My Scary Thing to Challenge You

  19. On September 17, 2011 at 4:43 pm Amee said:

    Hi Sally.

    Long-time lurker here.

    Loved this post on saudade. Can so relate to the feeling. I’ve moved around quite a few times too and I’m still trying to figure things out until now.

  20. On September 18, 2011 at 1:29 am Valerie Hamer said:

    Once again your writing moves me. Thanks for sharing this.

  21. On September 18, 2011 at 2:35 pm choi kum fook said:

    Miss Sally,
    After reading the post, I come to know you were an quite emotional girl. As in 9-11, I was so shocked then, watching the twin towels massively attacked by two airplanes, showed in Malayan T,V. news in a hotel in Sibu, Sarawak, East Malaysia, while we were, as consultant for doing infrastructure for big scale padi field nearby. This massive destruction, of course, made U.S. quite depressive and upset. Anyhow, as i had told you before, nation is huge, people is great, the nation always ability to solve all sorts of problems and difficulties! Finally, the only tribute I do have to say for 3000 victims, May God Blesses Them! Amen!

  22. On September 18, 2011 at 8:04 pm Ellen said:

    Beautiful essay.

  23. On September 20, 2011 at 10:30 pm ordinary malaysian said:

    My first reaction was also shock and disbelief. And then anger. Anger at the people who would do this madness, whatever that motivated them. For days afterwards we were glued to the TV, trying to make sense of the madness.
    ordinary malaysian recently posted..Teresa Deng Sang In Malay Too!

    • On September 25, 2011 at 12:58 pm Sally said:

      I don’t think there is making any sense of the madness, is there? Even watching the news now of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan there is not much making sense of it. Or at least I can’t make sense of it. I imagine I’m not alone in that.

  24. On September 23, 2011 at 5:32 pm Erik said:

    Great post as always.

    I was in Yellowstone when it happened and didn’t find out about it at all until well into the evening on the East Coast. The first live views we had of NYC were in the dark. We had a decision to make, come home because that’s what felt right, or disappear back into the wilderness for the rest of the five days because going home (to Chicago, at the time) would serve no purpose other than to obsessively watch the news like everyone else. We stayed, but it obviously wasn’t the same.

    Two weeks later I boarded a flight for a two month adventure in Australia, and everyone there was so supportive, until we started about invading Iraq, then some of the reactions shifted. I didn’t go overseas again until 2010 (other than short trips to Europe) because I was sick of being expected to justify my president’s obsession with Iraq.

    All of that is neither here nor there, just thought I’d share.

    On a side note- I thought of you everytime I saw dumpling in Chinatown while I was in San Francisco last week!
    Erik recently posted..Postcard Friday- Bangkok, Thailand

    • On September 25, 2011 at 1:02 pm Sally said:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Erik. I’ve been questioned a few times about our country’s actions myself, but, usually, people realize that average American doesn’t have much to do with the decisions made by our government… as is the way in pretty much all of the countries of the world.

  25. On September 23, 2011 at 11:30 pm Kyle said:

    What an absolutely powerful memory to have posted about. Beautifully written.

    I wrote about this one time, but I used to get a lot of emails asking me about, in essence, how to make a life in Chile (where I live). To answer, I wrote a post. In it I think I said something like, “If you weren’t happy in the U.S., you’ll probably still not be happy in Chile. Because really, moving abroad doesn’t change anything.”

    I think people forget that even once they’re a million miles away from their hometown, they’ll still be the same person.
    Kyle recently posted..You’ve Got Mail

    • On September 25, 2011 at 1:05 pm Sally said:

      Kyle, thanks so much for your message. I totally agree with you. While living abroad has added so much to my life, it hasn’t instantly made me happy. If anything, it’s just made my life a lot more complicated. (But I still wouldn’t take away any of the experiences I’ve had for the world.)

  26. On September 24, 2011 at 5:04 pm Audrey said:

    So true. Running to the other side of the world only means the worries and questions you already had will follow you along. Except maybe you’ll have a nice setting where to ponder them and a potent glass of caipirinha in hand… 😉
    Audrey recently posted..The Green Gables & My Green Lobster

  27. On September 28, 2011 at 6:45 pm Uncle Ed said:

    I’ll never leave a cabinet door open ever again. Well, I’ll try not to, honest. But I get distracted, how many calories is a bowl of Splenda? the dog is scratching at the door, Soup spoon or regular, long handled or short, what is that dirt on my cup? Marge needs a new bottle of water/soda. the phone is ringing (“This is Peggy, there is currently no problem with your account but blah, blah blah….Pay us more money!”) Is that a deer/chipmunk/rabbit/owl/package in the yard? What was I doing? I have no idea where I was or what I was doing on 9-11. And now you know why. You may also have a clue about the cabinets. Pretty sad. Kennedy, I was sitting in government class. Vietnam was a non issue (I had no draft number or research to be thrown down the drain or ministerial training claiming conscientious objector status. I didn’t have a beautiful lonely wife or an apartment in Eden (Purdue Campus).) That’s a lot of open cabinets 🙂

  28. On October 1, 2011 at 5:49 pm Gerard ~ GQ trippin said:

    It really opens your eyes when someone from another country (esp a country we consider dangerous) talks about how the US is a dangerous country. Always good to get a different perspective about the place we call home.
    By the way, Ben & Jerry’s rocks! I just discovered their mint & chocolate cookie flavor. And it’s hard to put it down after I start. =P
    Gerard ~ GQ trippin recently posted..traveling couples’ {digital} dinner party

    • On October 2, 2011 at 5:02 am Sally said:

      I know! I remember being kind of shocked when she said that. I had heard similar comments from people in Japan, who think America is so dangerous compared to Japan (because… well… it IS). But coming from someone in Brazil, I was pretty surprised.

  29. On March 27, 2013 at 10:38 am Rachel Hindle said:

    As someone from the UK we watched with horror when the towers fell – a spiritualist medium told me that some of the people were helped in the towers by spiritual presences as they neared the end of their lives – at least that’s something 🙁

  30. On October 9, 2013 at 7:05 am BakoymaTravels said:

    Thank you for teaching me the word saudade… I finally have a word for my feelings too.

    BakoymaTravels recently posted..Summary :: Barcelona


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