Thirteen is Understanding
They say the best way to see if you really understand something is to try to explain it to another person. I’ll never really understand what happened to my beloved city thirteen years ago today, of course, but I’ve had in mind that my young son is now old enough that I’ll soon have to answer some question about 9/11. Already, he’s been downtown and we’ve looked at the new World Trade Center tower and admired the sleek new skyscraper. It won’t be too many more visits until he asks why they built this new skyscraper, or what was here before, or what those big reflecting pools are for.
There’s no part of that day that one should ever have to explain to a child, but I realized for the first time this year that, when the time comes, I’ll be ready. Enough time has passed that I could recite the facts, without simply dissolving into a puddle of my own unresolved questions. I look back at past years, at my own observances of this anniversary, and see how I veered from crushingly sad to fiercely angry to tentatively optimistic, and in each of those moments I was living in one part of what I felt. Maybe I’m ready to see this thing in a bigger picture, or at least from a perspective outside of just myself.
At a darker level, there’s also the understanding that horrible things will happen again. I’ve accepted that the events of 9/11 did not catalyze enough change to meaningfully alter our path as a culture. We can promise to Never Forget all that we want, but that won’t stop people from being in pain, from suffering, from attacking or being attacked. We can bemoan surveillance culture and compromises in our civil liberties, but even these wrongs have not substantially changed who we are. It does not diminish the memory of that day to remind ourselves that this kind of horror is not unique. And truly taking that belief to heart is, to me, the first sign that I’ve contextualized the events of 9/11 into my own life with perhaps some of the perspective that others have been able to arrive at more quickly.
And with that little bit of perspective comes a renewed sense of obligation. Even though I may understand a bit more about the world than I did 13 years ago, I still share every bit of the resolve that I found on that day, a conviction that I have a fundamental, unyielding duty to be more kind, more forgiving, more neighborly in serving my city, more thoughtful to my family and friends, and more courageous in speaking up about injustice. I have so much work to do to even approach any of those goals, but I find a great deal of comfort in realizing that understanding more has brought me to the same conclusions about what matters.
In Past Years
Each year I’ve written about this anniversary, in hopes of recording for myself where I am and what I’ve felt. These are personal observations, not speaking to any of the larger issues raised by 9/11, but I hope others find something of value in the observances.
Last year I wrote Twelve is Trying:
I thought in 2001 that some beautiful things could come out of that worst of days, and sure enough, that optimism has often been rewarded. There are boundless examples of kindness and generosity in the worst of circumstances that justify the hope I had for people’s basic decency back then, even if initially my hope was based only on faith and not fact.
But there is also fatigue. The inevitable fading of outrage and emotional devastation into an overworked rhetorical reference point leaves me exhausted. The decay of a brief, profound moment of unity and reflection into a cheap device to be used to prop up arguments about the ordinary, the everyday and the mundane makes me weary. I’m tired from the effort to protect the fragile memory of something horrific and hopeful that taught me about people at their very best and at their very, very worst.
In 2012, Eleven is What We Make:
These are the gifts our children, or all children, give us every day in a million different ways. But they’re also the gifts we give ourselves when we make something meaningful and beautiful. The new World Trade Center buildings are beautiful, in a way that the old ones never were, and in a way that’ll make our fretting over their exorbitant cost seem short-sighted in the decades to come. More importantly, they exist. We made them, together. We raised them in the past eleven years just as surely as we’ve raised our children, with squabbles and mistakes and false starts and slow, inexorable progress toward something beautiful.
In 2011 for the 10th anniversary, Ten is Love and Everything After:
I don’t have any profound insights or political commentary to offer that others haven’t already articulated first and better. All that I have is my experience of knowing what it mean to be in New York City then. And from that experience, the biggest lesson I have taken is that I have the obligation to be a kinder man, a more thoughtful man, and someone who lives with as much passion and sincerity as possible. Those are the lessons that I’ll tell my son some day in the distant future, and they’re the ones I want to remember now.
In 2010, Nine is New New York:
[T]his is, in many ways, a golden era in the entire history of New York City.
Over the four hundred years it’s taken for this city to evolve into its current form, there’s never been a better time to walk down the street. Crime is low, without us having sacrificed our personality or passion to get there. We’ve invested in making our sidewalks more walkable, our streets more accommodating of the bikes and buses and taxis that convey us around our town. There’s never been a more vibrant scene in the arts, music or fashion here. And in less than half a decade, the public park where I got married went from a place where I often felt uncomfortable at noontime to one that I wanted to bring together my closest friends and family on the best day of my life. We still struggle with radical inequality, but more people interact with people from broadly different social classes and cultures every day in New York than any other place in America, and possibly than in any other city in the world.
And all of this happened, by choice, in the years since the attacks.
In 2009, Eight Is Starting Over:
[T]his 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.
In 2008, Seven Is Angry:
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.
In 2007, 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.
In 2006, After Five Years, Failure:
[O]ne 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 cliché 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 2005, Four Years:
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 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 2003, Two Years:
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 2002, I wrote On Being An American:
[I]n those first weeks, I thought a lot about what it is to be American. That a lot of people outside of New York City might not even recognize their own country if they came to visit. The America that was attacked a year ago was an America where people are as likely to have been born outside the borders of the U.S. as not. Where most of the residents speak another language in addition to English. Where the soundtrack is, yes, jazz and blues and rock and roll, but also hip hop and salsa and merengue. New York has always been where the first fine threads of new cultures work their way into the fabric of America, and the city the bore the brunt of those attacks last September reflected that ideal to its fullest.
In 2001, Thank You:
I am physically fine, as are all my family members and immediate friends. I’ve been watching the footage all morning, I can’t believe I watched the World Trade Center collapse…
I’ve been sitting here this whole morning, choking back tears… this is just too much, too big. I can see the smoke and ash from the street here. I have friends of friends who work there, I was just there myself the day before yesterday. I can’t process this all. I don’t want to.