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Posts Tagged ‘September 11’

9/11, fifteen years later

sept 11 memorial reflection

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.

sept 11 memorial flowers

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.)

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I can’t do any better than the thoughtful post on Mike’s blog this morning and the dozens of comments left by his readers. So I won’t try. But I will say that I have spent much of today thinking about where I was five years ago. There are days that mark our lives, individually and nationally, and 9/11/01 was one of them.

We never have the news on at home in the morning, and I had listened to a CD instead of the radio as I drove to school early that morning for a flute lesson. By the time my lesson ended, we were 15 minutes into first-period marching band, and I think the director had already told everyone else what had happened before I made it to the field. The mood on the field was a little subdued, but I didn’t think anything of it as I ran out there and found my place. I didn’t hear of anything unusual until I was on my way to second period and ran into my friend Chance, a known jokester. When he said, “Did you hear? Somebody bombed the World Trade Center,” I thought he was kidding. He assured me he wasn’t, but I didn’t believe him until I made it up the stairs to my Spanish class and saw the news report on TV. Even Aaron Patino, who sat next to me and usually made jokes the entire period, couldn’t find anything funny in the smoke-filled footage they were showing over and over.

For the rest of that day, and the entire week, I walked around in a daze. Four periods a day, in every class but band and physics (where life went on almost as usual), we watched the news. New footage of the attacks, interviews with victims and bystanders, news analysis of any information the media could dig up, a national mourning service that Friday. My eyeballs felt as if they had been stretched from trying to take it all in. My student diplomacy class, a tightly knit group of 15 students shepherded by a wise English teacher, took the news the hardest. We were all aware enough of global issues to know that this was really serious. Closer to home, we were headed to D.C. in November for a national student diplomacy conference, and we were no longer sure we would get to go. (We did, actually – even touring the State Department and the Pentagon less than three months after the attacks.) My best friend Jon and I didn’t say much to one another, but we hurt deeply together, for that whole week and for months afterward.

September 15, 2001, was my 18th birthday, and my friends Julie and Adam also turned 18 that week. We had a hard time feeling like we could celebrate, like we were allowed to enjoy ourselves and our friends. But we cooked burgers at my house and then went to play miniature golf, and for a little while we were able to put aside the tragedy of that week and enjoy each other.

Gradually, it has become apparent that enjoying each other, enjoying life, is the real victory, the way to make sure that terror does not win. If we are brave enough to go on living and loving and fighting for good and for hope, we have defeated anyone who dares crash a plane into our bright September skies. I hope today made you remember how precious our lives are, and remember for a moment those who lost their lives and loved ones in 9/11. I hope you were sad for a moment, and that you maybe even cried a little bit. And then I hope you called someone and told them how much you loved them. And I hope you go on doing that tomorrow. I know I will.

*title from Alan Jackson’s 9/11 tribute song, “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning”

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