I hardly noticed the approach of September 11 this year. It’s not that I wait for the day, but I was a New Yorker at the time, living just a few blocks from where the Twin Towers once stood.
Ever since, when September 11 comes, I brace myself. I have to confess, I don’t quite know what to make of most of what gets written about it. I don’t like to recall what happened, and only really talk about it among the friends who survived it with me. The rare times we share our memories of that day, we don’t mention the horror we felt, the way we walked up Manhattan in shock and fear and spent the night at someone’s uncle’s house, never turning off the TV, sleeping fitfully and waking often to see if any more of the world had fallen apart. We never talk about the awfulness we saw, felt, and heard. Instead, we find ourselves going back to strange or funny things that happened during that walk, things we said, things we observed about each other or even ourselves.
And so, as I said, I brace myself as the news and personal blogs do their September 11 thing. Then, like my friends, I remember more vividly than usual, and the fear and horror comes back to us – and yet, in some ways, it’s always easily accessed. Every time I visit my father’s house, he gives me a small pile of mail that’s still being sent there for me. Most of it is from the World Trade Center Health Program.
My friends and I don’t need reminders…and yet, we’re glad for them, in a way. Every year, without fail, I’m moved by the ceremony for the victims of the attacks. In our busy world, the fact that time is taken to read each name means more than so many other gestures might have. I think a certain amount of reminiscing is right and appropriate, especially if it might help those who lost loved ones that way heal.
This year, when I realized September 11 was here, I waited for commemorative images on websites, an avalanche of articles and first-person accounts and reflections – not just from survivors or the bereaved, but from people who weren’t there and just simply want to speak about it. These last, I have to confess, are probably the accounts I have to brace myself for the most. I know that what happened that day is our collective tragedy. No one can own an event. And yet, the fact that there’s so much written by people who were living so remotely from what happened leaves me wondering: how much of it is genuine grief or shock or wanting to commemorate those who lost or were lost on that day, and how much of it is just wanting to be a part of something? It’s often observed that people become obsessed with celebrities’ personal lives, and that the death of a star often leaves people who never knew them in tears. So in a way, I suppose this annual unfurling of “where was I that day” stories isn’t anything unusual. It’s in our nature as human beings. And yet, I brace myself. Because having been in the thick of it -- and not even having been in the worst of it, I know -- isn’t something I’d wish on anyone. It isn’t something I want to glorify in playing back over and over.
I know, though, that it must be remembered for history. I remember that as we left our building, I turned toward a girl taking pictures of the thick smoke floating above the ruins of the Towers, and I wished that I’d thought to bring a camera, too. Not to sensationalize, but to keep the photos quietly to myself, to take them out one day and show to my grandchildren. To keep history.
This year, I braced myself…and for the first time, not much happened. There was the memorial service at Ground Zero. There were a few articles and reminiscences here and there. My friend Sharon Watts re-released her books Miss You, Pat and Back to my Senses, about the loss she suffered that day, and her healing process. But overall, I felt like so much less was said than before.
When I watched The Daily Show, which had covered the event with such an amazing mix of grief, compassion, and humor back in 2001, and saw that there wasn’t even the remotest reference to it now, I felt surprised, even outraged in a way. Something about it hit me wrong. How could anyone based out of New York not feel something, not say something, even the smallest thing? But it’s part of a growing trend. We’re only twelve years out, and already the intensity has faded.
It makes me sad, and sort of angry. And then I think about history and I scold myself. Twelve years after the Titanic sank, how many people were still discussing it? Twelve years after World War I, how many people were still convinced that war was the worst thing that could happen to human beings? There are so many horrific events that occur, on small and large scales, and often we hang onto them, linger over them, maybe even in an unhealthy way. But finally, we can’t hold them any longer. Time stretches a little too far for us. The world has changed too much.
The website Buzzfeed was among those that gave surprisingly little coverage to the anniversary of September 11, but one thing they did feature was John Stewart’s opening monologue the day The Daily Show resumed filming after the attacks. It’s a great monologue unto itself, and I got choked up a few times while watching it. And yet, even after having lived through those events, I found myself surprised by how tearful Stewart was, a week after what had happened. I found some of the patriotism in his speech even a little cloying. And that made me realize that I’ve also taken distance from these events, in spite of myself. I cried just as much as Stewart- even more – whenever I talked about what had happened, what I’d seen and heard, for weeks, months, even years after. But watching the monologue now, while I still feel that pain and horror, I found myself thinking, did we really cry so freely then? Cynical and unpatriotic as I usually am, I know I felt a sense of union and patriotism after the events, but now I found Stewart’s reference to the Statue of Liberty almost laughably over the top. I realized that I was watching a perfect time capsule of how we felt in those raw days after the attack. A comedian on a snarky news show could go on-air and fight back sobs and shed tears and talk proudly about his country, and this was totally normal. I think Stewart’s monologue might be one of the most historically significant videos of the early 2000’s.
Is it an outrage, an insult that more articles weren’t written about September 11 this year, that more people didn’t talk about it and stop to commemorate it in some way? To a certain extent, yes. But maybe it’s also a sign of healing. Maybe it’s a sign of hope. On this year’s September 11 episode of The Daily Show, another New York-centric story was the highlight: the 2013 race for mayor, and Anthony’s Weiner’s embarrassing defeat in the Democratic primary. Although I wish some words had been said about September 11, I guess ultimately I’d rather we laugh about the stupidity and craziness of human life, than continue to slog in sad horror through what evil we’re also capable of. In any case, whatever I think, whatever any of us thinks, a certain degree of distance seems inevitable for all but perhaps a very few of us. It’s the way of the world. Carl Sandburg put it perfectly:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.