The Wall of Peace and Tolerance. Can you see one of the town’s five mosques peeking out behind it?
A good picture, I think, for a day so significant. Do you remember where you were when….? I think probably every generation finds the disaster that defines them, which they cannot forget. Or maybe it’s that the disaster finds them. Either way, we sit around and we ask ourselves, do you…?
I was in school. 8th grade. Miss Candee’s Language Arts. She panicked when she heard the news; her husband (or was it a friend? someone close to her) worked in the city. She ran out of the classroom and some hapless hall monitor stood in front of the class, blinking at us in shock. (He was fine, whoever it was.) I wondered about my dad. His work took him to New York sometimes. I wondered what it would feel like if he had been in the towers. I tried to make sense of what was on the television. I couldn’t.
I remember that it felt like it was happening through the thick glass of a fish bowl, all the images in front of me distorted, the sounds warped and distant. It didn’t seem real. The bell rang. The hallways were quiet. Kids stumbling between classes with wide, scared eyes.
I changed classrooms; Mr. Kerr’s Civics and US Government. He pulled down the cracked and faded world map, the one that still identified Eastern Europe as The USSR, and gave us a nitty-gritty 15 minute lesson on the first Iraq War. It was the most energy he showed the entire semester; he was retiring that year to enjoy his bluegrass and whiskey in peace after a long career of trying to teach self-obsessed suburban brats about the democratic process. He’d taught my mother. He’d taught both of my older brothers.
We turned on the TV. We watched the second tower come down. He sat back in his ancient desk chair. He pulled his beloved banjo onto his lap. He started to cry.
Do you remember where you were? Has it really been 15 years?
I thought I wasn’t affected at first. I thought that I felt nothing but a kind of intellectual, removed sadness. Months later I realized that I’d been having trouble falling asleep. We lived in the suburbs across the river from Philadelphia and were under the flight path of the city airport’s traffic. I’d been lying in the dark, straining to hear past the muffled quiet of my small town and catch the roar of the passing planes. Holding my breath, fingers clenched, feet sweating, waiting, waiting, waiting for the next disaster…
I wasn’t really numb at all; just very young. Very unacquainted with life and myself and a lot of things, really.
I have spent this last week confused about what I was doing here. I’ve been feeling doubts about myself and my abilities and my motivations. But this weekend I spent some time thinking, reflecting, regrouping. I remember now. This is not about me. This is about the world that was birthed 15 years ago today, the rising tide of actions taken on all the days that led up to this day and all the ones that spilled out afterwards. This is about a long, unbroken chain of hope and horror and heavy, heavy memories.
Forgetting is easy. Focusing on the now, donning the blinders, fixating on the minor irritations is often more comfortable. It’s so much easier to be annoyed by the endless planes flying over your house late at night; it’s harder to acknowledge that you can’t stop listening because you’re scared of what might happen if you don’t (like you could stop it anyway) because you didn’t know it was coming last time (you didn’t even know what terrorism meant, not really, not yet) and the scary truth is you probably won’t know it’s coming next time either (you won’t). I’d like to say I’m not going to forget this again but that might be a little too optimistic.
Sometimes I forget. Sometimes that’s what’s necessary, what’s easier.
But for now I remember.