The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
I heard these words of Faulkner’s again on a recent gray morning, as I stood in the doorway of a wood-paneled chapel on Harvard’s campus, a few steps from the Yard.
Speaking at the first Morning Prayers service of the fall semester, President Drew Faust invoked Faulkner to remind us that what we do with the past is our responsibility. It is, she said, “the essential material with which we can build a better future.”
As we marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, Faulkner’s words resonated in a different way.
Sept. 11, 2001, has passed into history, and yet it is still immediate, insistent. It is, after a decade and a half, part of my past and our national memory. But it is far from dead or irrelevant. It continues to affect my life and my world, both in ways I can point to and ways I can’t quite articulate. And it comes home to me again every fall.
I was a high school senior in West Texas on 9/11: happily absorbed in honors classes and marching band, excited about my new role on our school’s student diplomatic team, four days away from turning 18. I was curious and eager, on the brink of young adulthood, and I was completely undone by the news on the TV that morning. I walked around for days in a state of shock: tense, strained, saddened in a way I had never been before. It felt like a jolt into adulthood: a loss of innocence, a grim, sudden knowledge of how the world could be.
I’ve read a few books, in the years since that day, that include 9/11 as an element of the plot or setting. I couldn’t believe how long it took for the attacks and their aftermath to become a part of any fictional narrative instead of the gaping, overwhelming whole. Long after that day, the attacks dominated any discussion they entered. It took us years to absorb that story into the larger narrative of our lives.
Last week, I interviewed a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I work, about the far-reaching effects of 9/11, especially in the field of homeland security (her specialty). I asked her what the U.S. has learned, what we could have done differently, how daily life has changed for most Americans. I tried to reflect, in my questions, an awareness of the passage of time and of both President Faust’s and Faulkner’s words. Not simply Where were you that day? (though I always want to know), or Isn’t it awful that this happened?, but How can we move forward?.
In a sense, that is the question I have been asking for 15 years: how can we acknowledge the grief and fear, the complexity of such an event and its ripples, and carry it forward with wisdom and grace? How can we remember and honor the day itself, and yet move ahead with courage?
I don’t have many answers for this, but as always, I think telling our stories helps.
I’d welcome your stories, in the comments, and I’d also recommend a few of those novels I mentioned: Nichole Bernier’s The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Kathleen Donohoe’s Ashes of Fiery Weather. They treat this event and its aftermath with care and good sentences, which is often all a writer can do. And sometimes, that’s enough.
(Images are from the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, which I visited a few years ago.)