Like most people, I am thinking about September 11, 2001 today. I am remembering that I was walking through the SUNY Plattsburgh student center right after the first plane hit. I am remembering the lack of hierarchy in the students and faculty and administrative and janitorial staff clustered around the campus television mounted above them, their mouths open yet silent. I am remembering my own insistence that, yes, of course that report about the Cessna was accurate: some poorly-trained pilot accidentally went off course and flew into the towers. And I am remembering how the second plane flew through my comfort zone when it hit the other tower, confirming that, yes, of course this was an act of terrorism.
Most of all, I remember the reactions. The fear. The sadness. The anger. The birth of "Ground Zero" confirming that even the site of death and destruction could somehow lead to the creation of something. A new place with a new name. A landmark that immediately became an historical site. A smoking, smoldering memorial of lives lost and lives spared. A tribute to the countless firefighters and police officers and emergency responders who rushed toward death amid the screaming and the flames thinking only of saving the thousands of bodies trapped inside the terror. I remember watching the footage on every network, sometimes seeking it out, other times seeking anything but the instant replays and the news reports and the climbing death tolls and the lack of answers. Nothing was more jarring than the images of people and papers jumping, falling, floating out of 90th-floor windows and covering New York City in the reality that, in a single breath, America had become a victim. Yes, healing and recovery would happen. Strength and hope would come. But at that moment, there was only loss and confusion. The knowns offered no more comfort than did the unknowns and suddenly nothing, not even our ability to protect and defend ourselves, set us apart from every other country in the world. We became one of the many. And it was terrifying.
Not to avoid the positives here, I do remember the strengh. The unity. The yellow ribbons and the parades and the determination to heal as a country and as individuals. And I think I remember it all because I was told to, and because I proudly agreed to, as I took my vow alongside every other American promising: "We will never forget." I often wondered - and still often do -- whether I had any right to utter this phrase as I experienced the unspeakable through the safety of my television screen. My fears were based on "What if?" rather than "What now?" as I imagined people combing the streets of New York City in search of loved ones. Or pictured the passengers on Flight 11 frantically calling family and friends to say the goodbyes they knew were being thrust upon them. I was, for all intents and purposes, tucked inside my safe little microcosm of geographical distance. Even so, I did utter the words. Because I, too, remember it all - from my own persepective. Like everyone, I have my own 9/11 story, and this is it. Glued to televisions, wondering what was happening at the Towers, wishing I could do something, and pleading with everyone I could think of -- from God to Allah to the Taliban itself -- to make it stop. And eventually, the death tolls seemed to level off. The skies went silent. The streets were bare and the subways were empty. But "it"- the terror and the unchangable, unstoppable reality - did not stop. And for so many, it never will.
Even though the "We will never forget" promise is everywhere today, as it should be, I sometimes feel like, as a nation, we have forgotten something essential. Not about that day or about the horrors and the images and the loss and the fear, but about the thing we have pledged to remember. Because I don't think it is the attack that we want to hold onto - though maybe I am only speaking for mysef, from my own experience. I think, at least when I pledge not to forget, that what I am really remembering is the vulnerability - the human vulnerability - that truly unites us, and the strength we find in places we never imagined as the antidote to that vulnerability. September 11, 2001 was the most devastating example, the most horrific proof, of just how nuch we need and rely on one another and of just how much we can actually depend on the strength of a nation. Yet each day, when I am standing in a coffee shop or at the grocery store or sitting at the hair salon or walking through the dog park, I see so many missed opportunitites to live this slogan, to reach out to somone with a smile or a kind gesture. To fight for the widows and the children and the elderly every day in our own neighborhoods, with the same level of urgency for healthcare coverage and housing so often denied them. To call on our politicians every single day and make sure they remember, not just on September 11, but every day, what our military families truly fought for so we could be safer, and so they never forget what so many of those families lost in the process. To make sure that not another Republican National Convention or Democratic National Convention ever fails - or forgets- to acknowledge our troops and their families as they did last month, even as they thanked one another and credited their spouses and their colleagues with the freedom that makes this country great.
September 11 will always be a day of rememberance. And it should be. But not only to remember the loss and the terror of that single day eleven years ago. Instead, it is my hope that it will remind us to refocus our busy lives and our many responsibilities so that every now and then, we can hug someone not in the midst of tragedy, but just because we appreciate them. Maybe we could buy a soldier in uniform a cup of coffee on a random Tuesday morning, or sit down and chat with an elderly person sitting all alone on a park bench. Or ask a police officer what it is like to do what he/she does every single day. And maybe to even say "thank you." More than anything, this reminder is a blessing because we are here to receive it. It is what we do with the memories we have and the reminders we are given that will truly honor the lives that were lost.
What do you remember about September 11, 2001? And what do you remember now, looking back eleven years? When you think of - or say - the phrase "We will never forget" what is it, precisely, that you want to hold onto as your forever memory of that day?
Peace and love, until next time -