I don’t know why I am writing this. I don’t think I have anything particularly interesting or important to say about it, nor does it seem necessary that I contribute to the overwhelming abundance of (often underwhelming) responses to the 10-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks, but today I woke up, without the aid of my alarm clock, at 8:46 AM, the same time that American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. And as I was laying there in bed, toying with the triviality of such a coincidence, I began to replay my own personal narrative of that morning, that day, and really everything after.
I grew up in Baldwin, NY, a town on the south shore of Long Island, about 25 miles outside Lower Manhattan. I was 15 at the time, just a week away from my 16th birthday, and really had no interest in current events other than those that impacted me directly (the opening of the new Dunkin’ Donuts on Milburn Ave., for instance, or how much garlic knots cost at Bella Luna). From Baldwin, even on a clear day on top of a tall building, one cannot make out even a hint of the NYC skyline. At that time in my life, the city was more of an activity to me than a place; going there was sort of like going to the mall. We went to just walk around, waste time, whatever.
That morning, on the third floor of the eastern most building on my high school campus, I sat in chemistry staring out the window at a tremendous plume of smoke rising up in the distance. No one, at least not the students, knew what was going on. The general consensus seemed to be that “someone” had bombed the Empire State Building. Throughout the day, bits and pieces of information were handed down to us, students were called out of classes, many just left to go home and watch the news, to try to call their parents, family members, loved ones they feared they might have lost. The faculty, for the most part, at least at the beginning of the day, insisted on us attending class, taking notes, eating lunch, like this was any other Tuesday. In hindsight, this seems completely absurd, not because of the enormity of the thing that was happening, but because of how we have come to talk about the events of that day with such conviction.
Today, as I look around on Facebook—something I’m grateful didn’t exist a decade ago—I see over and over again the phrase, “Never forget.” I mean, I see it all the time, on bumper stickers, on t-shirts, spray-painted on overpasses and buildings. And, to be completely honest, I’m sick of it, not because I disagree with the meaning of the phrase or the intentions of those who use it, but because a part of me feels like using a slogan to talk about that day brands it, trivializes it, distracts us from the thing we are actually trying to “never forget.”
September 11th, perhaps more than any other day, changed my life. It woke in me a different kind of consciousness; it forced me, violently, to reevaluate my place in the world, the place where I live, and the people around me. Yet I cringe every time I hear someone mention “nine eleven”—I have been cringing this whole time as I have been writing this—because what follows is almost always something that feels incredibly reductive. We have come to talk about the events of that day as “an event,” but that “event” is really made up of thousands of, millions of micro-events, each of which, for the individuals involved, was devastatingly large.
That day, after school, I sat on a couch in my parents’ basement watching the news. All those haunting images, ones that have become far too familiar, seemed completely impossible. Yet all I could do was watch (and rewatch) in silence and try to convince myself that it was real.
Before either of my parents had gotten home, my friend Mike showed up to see if I wanted to go biking. I remember pointing at the television and saying, “How can you possibly want to go biking while this is happening?”
“I don’t know,” he said. And I guess, in a weird way, he was right.
A decade has passed and I still have no idea how to begin to think about any of this, what to say about it, or how anyone is supposed to respond. I don’t know why I couldn’t go biking and Mike could, why he went on to join the Army and I went to college to write poetry about George W. Bush and the Iraq War. The only thing I can say for sure about 9/11/01 is that it still remains completely incomprehensible to me, and I imagine it will for the decades to follow.
Tomorrow morning I will wake up to the sound of my alarm at 8:30. I will drink my coffee, I will eat my breakfast, and then I will get on a plane to fly to Houston to visit some friends. When I booked my flight I was only thinking about ticket prices and not the date on which I was flying, but, like waking up this morning at 8:46, it has come to feel somewhat significant to me. I will get to the airport two hours early, just in case there are enormous lines to get through security; I will take off my shoes and my belt, pass through a full body scanner; I will not take with me shampoo or toothpaste; and I certainly will not leave my bag unattended. And throughout all of this, at no point will I “forget”—I mean, how could I? How could any of us? But I will never ask anyone else not to. I don’t know what that day was like for anyone but myself, and I certainly don’t know, 10-years later, how they have come to deal with it.
So, I don’t know. I don’t really know what my point is anymore. I suppose a part of me was hoping that a decade later we might have dropped some of the rhetoric of our initial response; that we might have stopped with the “terror” and the “evil” and the “never forget.” But I suppose that for some of us this is a necessary response; we had been left feeling so helpless and uncertain that it became important to hold on to the anger and the fear that followed. At least in these feelings we have some form of clarity and truth, and, more importantly, they are feelings we can have together. Helplessness and uncertainty, on the other hand, are not things we can share, at least not in the same way, and they are certainly not empowering. No one is ever going drive around with a bumper sticker that says, “9/11: I Don’t Know,” but, for me personally, this is the statement that most accurately reflects how I feel.
I guess what I am saying is that we each need to take this day to remember, to forget, to respond in whatever way we need to. But there certainly is no right way, no wrong way, and no way that applies to everyone. For me it has been taking the morning to write this, admitting that I have no idea what to think or to feel or to say. And later, if it stays sunny and warm, perhaps I will ride my bike.