One year ago, I wrote a remembrance, as I do every year, of where I’m at compared to where I was on this day in 2001. As a New Yorker, it’s a personal ritual, one that I share publicly but do more for myself than for anyone else.
It was startling to see how angry I was a year ago, because I’m not angry today. Writing then, I said,
Finally getting angry myself, I realize that nobody has more right to claim authority over the legacy of the attacks than the people of New York. And yet, I don’t see survivors of the attacks downtown claiming the exclusive right to represent the noble ambition of Never Forgetting. I’m not saying that people never mention the attacks here in New York, but there’s a genuine awareness that, if you use the attacks as justification for your position, the person you’re addressing may well have lost more than you that day. As I write this, I know that parked out front is the car of a woman who works in my neighborhood. Her car has a simple but striking memorial on it, listing her mother’s name, date of birth, and the date 9/11/2001. Every single day I walk by there and know that blowhards who only ever saw the attacks as a video loop on CNN would never dare pontificate to her about Never Forgetting.
But this year, I am much more at peace. It may be that, finally, we’ve been called on by our leadership to mark this day by being of service to our communities, our country, and our fellow humans. I’ve been trying of late to do exactly that. And I’ve had a bit of a realization about how my own life was changed by that day.
Speaking to my mother last week, I offhandedly mentioned how almost all of my friends and acquaintances, my entire career and my accomplishments, my ambitions and hopes have all been born since September 11, 2001. If you’ll pardon the geeky reference, it’s as if my life was rebooted that day and in the short period afterwards. While I have a handful of lifelong friends with whom I’ve stayed in touch, most of the people I’m closest to are those who were with me on the day of the attacks or shortly thereafter, and the goals I have for myself are those which I formed in the next days and weeks. i don’t think it’s coincidence that I was introduced to my wife while the wreckage at the site of the towers was still smoldering, or that I resolved to have my life’s work amount to something meaningful while my beloved city was still papered with signs mourning the missing.
Certainly, some of this is just the nature of growing up. I’m not the young man I was back then, and some of this is just the maturity of being at a different stage of life now. But I find some consolation in the idea that at least one of my lessons taken away from such a senseless loss of life was that I needed to live my own life with urgency, passion, love and obligation to others. I’m not there yet, but I am trying, and I can at least look back at the last eight years and see a bit of progress, in my own life, in the work of those around me, and in my city and my country as well.
If you’re interested in taking a look back, I posted on the day of the attacks. I can also offer some excerpts from past years.
In 2002, I wrote On Being an American:
Get annoyed, get angry, be incensed as you are with your sister who always votes the opposite of you, as annoyed as you get with your father who never quite got where you were coming from politically. And come back, shaking your head but still smiling, and enjoy the chance to appreciate those Americans that your reflexes tell you to resent. Be thankful for the chance to have neighbors or fellow citizens who raise your ire or offend your sensibilities. Be thankful that we can sit in a quiet small town and roll our eyes at the inanities of a visitor from a big city.
In 2003, Two Years:
There’s other people, who are consumed by their anger, unable to move forward with their lives, and determined to pick the scab and make sure it never heals. They find honor in making sure the pain never subsides, and in trying to make others hurt like they do. We have some of those, and I understand why they have to hold on to their anger. I just hope they see that it’s not the best thing for them, in the long term. I spent a lot of time, too much time, resenting people who were visiting our city, and especially the site of the attacks, these past two years. I’ve been so protective, I didn’t want them to come and get their picture taken like it was Cinderella’s Castle or something. I’m trying really hard not to be so angry about that these days. I found that being angry kept me from doing the productive and important things that really mattered, and kept me from living a life that I know I’m lucky to have.
In 2004, Thinking of You:
I don’t know if it’s distance, or just the passing of time, but I notice how muted the sorrow is. There’s a passivity, a lack of passion to the observances. I knew it would come, in the same way that a friend told me quite presciently that day back in 2001 that “this is all going to be political debates someday” and, well, someday’s already here.
In 2005, Four Years:
I was so defensive because I saw people who hated New York City, or at least didn’t care very much about it, trying to act as if they were extremely invested in recovering from the attacks, or opining about the causes or effects of the attacks. And to me, my memory of the attacks and, especially, the days afterward had nothing to do with the geopolitics of the situation. They were about a real human tragedy, and about the people who were there and affected, and about everything but placing blame and pointing fingers. It felt thoughtless for everyone to offer their response in a framework that didn’t honor the people who were actually going through the event.
In 2006, I wrote After Five Years, Failure. At the time, I was feeling resigned to a more cynical observance of this anniversary:
[A]fter all the grief of the day, one of the strongest feelings I came away with on the day of the attacks was a feeling of some kind of hope. Being in New York that day really showed me the best that people can be. As much as it’s become clich� now, there’s simply no other way to describe a display that profound. It was truly a case of people showing their very best nature.
We seem to have let the hope of that day go, though.
In 2007, I was trying to come to terms with the sense of distance that had developed, with Six Is Letting Go:
On the afternoon of September 11th, 2001, and especially on September 12th, I wasn’t only sad. I was also hopeful. I wanted to believe that we wouldn’t just Never Forget that we would also Always Remember. People were already insisting that we’d put aside our differences and come together, and maybe the part that I’m most bittersweet and wistful about was that I really believed it. I’d turned 26 years old just a few days before the attacks, and I realize in retrospect that maybe that moment, as I eased from my mid-twenties to my late twenties, was the last time I’d be unabashedly optimistic about something, even amidst all the sorrow.
Thank you to those of you who’ve joined me over the years in remembering, and especially those who were there for me eight years ago today. As I said earlier today, eight years later, I am still thankful for the memory of my city showing its best nature on its worst day. I love New York.