When the planes hit the Towers on 9/11, I was over the Atlantic Ocean, in a plane bound for New York City.

blue skies


9/11/2014 UPDATE: Since it took me years to write this post, I’m re-running it today, on this thirteenth anniversary of 9/11. I still think about this every single day.

I tried to write this post in 2011, and then in 2012, and now in 2013 I’m hitting publish. I’m warning you: it’s a long one. 

When the planes hit the Towers on 9/11, I was over the Atlantic Ocean, in a plane bound for New York City.

Our flight from Prague that morning had been uneventful, but as we neared the halfway point, the pilot made an announcement—in Czech—that sent concerned murmurs through the Europeans on board. When he repeated it in English, we understood why: U. S. airspace was closed, and we were turning around.

What could close U. S. airspace? There were a few obvious answers, none of them good. But the flight attendants wheeled out the beverage carts, and the cabin was soon abuzz with strangers sharing theories.

I wish I knew exactly what time we hit the ground in Prague. 3:00 p.m. New York time? Maybe 4:00? When we debarked from the plane—knowing nothing—each passenger was handed this printout from CNN.com:

Maybe one day, when I’m a better writer, I’ll tell you what it was like to watch our fellow passengers—especially the New Yorkers—gape at that paper in their hand and crumple to the ground.

The next few days are kind of a blur.

That night, the airline shuttled us to a hotel straight out of the twilight zone. We dumped our bags, washed our faces in the rust-colored water, and waited in a long, long line in the hotel lobby to call home. Many of the New Yorkers couldn’t get their calls to go through: the phone service to much of Manhattan had been taken out with the towers.

The next morning, we booked tickets home for Friday, September 14, contingent on American air space reopening. It opened—but only to domestic flights. We couldn’t get tickets out for ten more days.

Since we had time to kill, we decided to head for Germany. It felt like a bonus (and bittersweet) European vacation, except for the anxiety and candlelight vigils and hours of CNN in the evenings.

But then in Nurnberg I got stung by a bee. That’s not usually a big deal, but I’m allergic to bee stings. I’d had a reaction a few years before and carried an epipen for a few years, just in case, but I didn’t have my epipen in Europe. Long story short, I ended up in the Nurnberg ER, trying to tell the staff—in German—that I was having an allergic reaction.

But it wasn’t an allergic reaction. It was a panic attack.

*****     *****     *****

The rest of our trip was uneventful (save the jaw-dropping security for the tense flight home). It was a lot of fun, actually. But when we got back to the States, I started having panic attacks in my sleep. I can’t describe how horrible they were. The first time, I literally thought I was dying.

I went to my doctor after that first one back home. He said my experience was classic: my stress levels were running really high after 9/11, which made me susceptible to a full-blown panic attack with the bee sting. He said we needed to squelch them, and fast, because panic attacks lead to more panic attacks: with each one I was etching grooves in my nervous system that would make it that much easier to have another. So he prescribed anxiety and blood pressure meds and sent me on my way.

(My doctor didn’t suggest counseling, and I didn’t seek it. I never considered it: my circumstances didn’t seem to merit it, compared to the other events of 9/11.)

But my health went downhill, fast. I had always been in great shape, but I was suddenly running a resting heart rate of 96. I looked ashen, and shaky. I didn’t feel safe to drive. I didn’t want to be by myself. I was 23. I was a wreck.

This went on for months. The turning point came when I realized the blood pressure drugs that were supposed to help me were actually making me sick. I cut them out, then I tentatively started driving again, then running. The panic attacks started tapering off, and I started feeling like a normal twenty-something again. Mostly.

*****     *****     *****

More than ten years later, I still have the occasional panic attack, maybe once or twice a year, tops. I dug deep grooves back in 2001, and they’re easy to follow. I will always be more susceptible to them than I was before September 2001.

For a long time, I was embarrassed that I had this scar, of sorts, from 9/11. Nobody likes to talk about anxiety, to start with. But it also seemed unfair to complain about this comparatively small mark, when so many people lost so much that day.

I wish I’d known then that comparing losses doesn’t help, and often hurts, like it did in my case. I didn’t seek help because my loss seemed “comparatively” small, and because of my reluctance, I walked around with undiagnosed PTSD for a long time.

(Even now, I feel silly typing out those four official-sounding letters.)

I wonder how many people there are, like me, who lost something precious on 9/11, but don’t speak of it, because the loss seems so small—in comparison.

I don’t even know what to ask you about this one. Feel free to share thoughts about 9/11, anxiety, or comparing losses in comments.  

Being the boss lady.

Being the boss lady | Modern Mrs Darcy

School started two weeks ago around here. Even though my kids aren’t starting until after Labor Day, we’re in transition mode, thinking through what we want our fall routines to look like.

We have a lot of pieces to put in place. My husband and I both work outside the home (though my hours are minimal at this point). We homeschool our kids, and manage their extracurriculars. My self-employed gig—as a writer and blogger—is begging for more time.

Right now, we’re thinking through what kind of schedule we’ll keep and what kind of help we’ll need. About two years ago, when Will went back to a more-or-less regular 8:00-5:00 job, we started hiring regular help for things like childcare, laundry, and homeschool assistance.

And I’m getting some help with the blog, too. Will has always helped with the back end; now I’m thinking through just how much photo processing and technical stuff I can outsource. Additionally, I’ve got a redesign in the works and bigger projects that could use a helping hand.

It’s become clear to me, as we think about hiring people for this season, that being the boss doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m not even good at being my own boss some days. (Honestly, I’m kind of hard to manage: I fly by the seat of my pants, dread decisions of any sort, and don’t cut myself enough slack.)

I’m not good at asking for what I want from people. I’m not even good at knowing what I want from them.

I suspect this has everything to do with personality: as a recovering people-pleaser and an enneagram 9, I don’t feel cut out to be the boss lady.

I read a book this week (that one of you recommended—thank you!) called Creative You: Using Your Personality Type to Thrive. It’s about bolstering your creativity by learning more about your personality type, but I found its insights helpful as I think through what kind of structure will best suit us in the coming year.

The book is centered around the Myers-Briggs personality types. I’m an INFP: the idealist, the healer, the muser.

I highlighted the heck out of Creative You, because the author nailed my type.

As an Intuitive (N), my strength lies in exploring possibilities and finding relationships between seemingly random things. I’m good at taking the long-range view; not so good at the details.

I’m an excellent starter and a horrible finisher. The authors put it well: NPs are “an endless lightning storm of ideas, but the bolts don’t often strike the ground.”

I can dream up 1000 ways to approach a problem, but am horrible at deciding on The One Way to move forward. And when I do decide, I do it slowly. I need lots of time to mull things over.

I seek harmony, dread controversy, and hate telling people what to do.

In short, I shouldn’t be anybody’s boss.

But I’m in a position where I need to be.

I knew all these things about myself, but seeing them in the book in black and white was so helpful, if more than a little sobering. I was reminded of why I struggle so much with being the boss lady—but why it’s so important that I do so. I need the help, especially from people who aren’t like me.

Reading the book, I was reminded of how much I’ve learned about managing myself, and others—even if I don’t always put it into practice.

As far as managing myself, I’ve learned that:

• I do well with schedules and routines, even though they don’t come easy.

• I need deadlines. I love deadlines, because they help me follow through.

• If I wait until I feel 100% sure before I make a decision, I’ll miss the opportunity to make it.

• All the good intentions in the world don’t get me anywhere unless I have a plan for following through.

• Even though I work for myself, I need grounded, detail-oriented people on my team—friends, employees, colleagues—to talk things through, help me figure out what I need, and keep me accountable.

As far as managing others, I’ve learned that:

• It’s important to ask for what I want from the people I’m managing. I’ve heard smart women leaders say this is often hard for women to do. It’s definitely hard for me.

• In order to ask for what I want, I have to figure out what I want, remembering that I’m not going to feel 100% sure about what that is. (See above.)

• I shouldn’t apologize for asking people to do their job. This is ridiculously hard for me. Like, I-should-talk-about-this-in-therapy hard.

• I need grounded, detail-oriented people on my team—designers, accountants, homework checkers—to notice the details, catch my mistakes, and help execute on the follow-through, whether that’s for a blog post or my daughter’s math homework.

(I’m very curious about what these lists look like for other personality types.)

In thinking through my conflicted feelings about being the boss, I’ve realized how many of us take on that role sometimes, even though we don’t think of ourselves as being such. I’d love to hear about your experiences with being the boss lady (or boss man, of course), and welcome any tips you have for being a better boss. 

P.S. 35 things I’ve learned in 35 years, and self-awareness makes everything better.

“Crazy” Mary Todd, and other historical myths.


I gave you a short review of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln in the August twitterature post, but I’ve been circling back to some of its themes since I read the last page and wanted to dive a little deeper today.

Specifically, I’d like to talk about Mary Todd Lincoln.

Honestly, all I knew about Mary Todd prior to reading this book was that she came from a slave-holding family, was institutionalized at some point, and that historians speculate whether Lincoln’s unhappy home life fueled his ambition. More than one history teacher called her “crazy Mary Todd.”

In Team of Rivals, Ms. Goodwin presents a much richer and more complicated picture of the first lady.

Mary Todd had an unhappy childhood: her mother died at an early age, her relationship with her stepmother was tense, at best. But when she met Abraham Lincoln in Springfield in 1838, she was high-spirited, intelligent, and widely read, with a downright unladylike fascination with politics.

She was undoubtedly high-strung and temperamental, and her propensity to fits of temper was well known. But she wasn’t crazy.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the Lincolns’ second son, three-year-old Eddie, died from pulmonary tuberculosis in 1850 that she even began to resemble the Mary Todd that lives on in popular imagination. Ms. Goodwin writes that Eddie’s death “left an indelible scar on her psyche—deepening her mood swings, magnifying her weaknesses, and increasing her fears.” Having lost her son to illness (after a long line of losing other close family members to the same) she became increasingly paranoid about sickness.

As someone who has struggled with anxiety, my heart goes out to her.

Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Mary was the first “first lady” who was known as such, and the first to figure prominently in the public eye. She was roundly criticized—before she even arrived in the capital—for being “awfully western, loud and unrefined.” The North hated her for being raised in a slave-holding family; the South viewed her as a traitor. The poor woman couldn’t win.

Though Mary Todd relished her role as first lady, its burdens did nothing to assuage her uneasiness. Rumors of an assassination plot against the president elect forced Lincoln—and his family, who was traveling with him—to change his route as he traveled to Washington, D.C. in preparation for his inauguration. I can only imagine how horrifying that must have been for Mary.

Things didn’t get any easier once Lincoln took office on March 4: the opening shots of the Civil War were fired scarcely a month later. Even then, military forces began to gather in the capital. The city became a staging area for the Manassas Campaign; shots could be heard from the White House. Washington soon served as a hospital for the wounded, who spilled into the streets, along with dead bodies awaiting burial.

I can’t imagine living with the horrors of war crowding into my own backyard.

Two of the Lincolns’ sons, Willie and Tad, contracted typhoid fever in 1862, which was likely caused by Washington’s unsanitary wartime conditions. Tad eventually recovered, but Willie’s death was Mary’s undoing. She sunk into a deep depression, overcome by guilt and grief, unable to cope with daily life.

And then, after two more years of war, her husband was shot dead by an assassin. While seated next to her. At the theater, of all places.

Mary Todd Lincoln did not fare well after Lincoln’s death, but the details surprised me. She was institutionalized—that much I knew—but only for several months, and historians debate whether the insanity trial her son initiated was trumped up so he could get control of her finances.

History hasn’t treated Mary Todd Lincoln well. But after reading her story, I have so much empathy for her, which wasn’t the reaction I expected. It’s not hard for me to imagine how easy it would be to follow her path, even today, after enduring that kind of grief, and loss, and soul-crushing stress: losing a child, enduring a presidential election, living backyard of a civil war, losing a son to wartime illness and a husband to an assassin’s bullet.

We tend to see (or are taught outright) historical figures as caricatures. Add the stigma of (possible) mental illness to that propensity, and it’s no wonder it’s hard to see a real person when we look back at Mary Todd Lincoln.

That’s bad history, of course. But we lose much more than historical accuracy when we opt for the cartoon instead of the real woman.

P.S. Talk to your man like Abigail Adams, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s best blogging tips.

Walking in circles.


We were lucky to have houseguests this week—family members who live much too far away, whom we don’t see nearly often enough. On Tuesday, we all piled the kids in the minivan and went exploring.

There’s a labyrinth nearby that I’ve been wanting to explore for ages, and one of our guests is a contemplative type (takes one to know one). He spent a few years living in a cabin he built in the woods; he even contemplated pursuing the monastic life. I thought the labyrinth would be up his alley, but if I was wrong, at least it was near a beautiful park we wanted to visit anyway.

Life in the maze | Modern Mrs Darcy

The labyrinth is on the grounds of a local school. Even though we were staring at the map, it took us a while to actually find it. I was looking for something stately, something striking. I was disappointed at first when I realized it was just a circle of bricks in the grass. I might have missed it entirely were it not for the simple park benches bordering it.


A labyrinth is an old tool for meditation and spiritual growth. The visitor begins outside the circle and simply follows the path as it slowly twists and turns its way to the center. There is no right or wrong way to do it.

The grown-ups gave the kids directions before we got started: Think about something that makes you happy. (Parties! Legos! Babies!) Think about something that makes you feel peaceful. And should you pass someone else as you walk, give them a big high five.

I’d never walked a labyrinth before, not here or anywhere else. But since I’d thought about coming to this place for a long time, I had expectations: it would be contemplative. It would be sacred. It would be quiet.


I got two out of three, because I’d never imagined coming with four kids.

The lush green grass felt good on our feet, prompting some of us to kick our shoes off into the center. And then we marched into the labyrinth single-file.

As we began to wind our way through the labyrinth’s eleven concentric circles, we started to spread out. And as we spread out, our paths started crossing. Well, not crossing, exactly, because everyone walks the same path. But sometimes, when we’d be pass each other on two neighboring circles, we’d high five. Or we’d find ourselves walking in the same direction on neighboring circles, and we’d hold hands for twenty feet. Or we’d be two circles apart—not quite close enough to touch—so we’d blow kisses.

We giggled—a lot. I don’t know if that labyrinth has ever seen so much giggling.

Labyrinths have a way of spurring reflection, even if you do have four crazy kids in tow. My mind filled up with metaphors as I walked, made more poignant because I was walking with family—with my dear family members who now live so terribly far away, with my dear children I share a home with, for now, but who change and evolve and grow more every year.


As we walked—and giggled—those concentric circles carried us far away from each other and then pulled us back together. Sometimes our paths crossed just long enough to high five; sometimes our paths ran together for a stretch; sometimes we literally couldn’t be farther apart.

If you stumbled upon us, not knowing about the form of the labyrinth, you might not have realized that we were all on the same path, headed to the same destination. In our own way, in our own time.

But oh, how we high-fived and fist-bumped and giggled when those paths crossed.

Do you ever feel like you’re walking in circles, maybe in more ways than one?