Beyond Memory

A whole generation has grown up with no direct memory of Sept. 11.

It’s odd that that sounds odd. After all, that’s what happens.  Time moves on. If I pointed out the huge mass of Americans with no memory of the moon landing, or the Kennedy assassination, or World War II, no one would be shocked.

But when it comes to that early fall day of clear skies and screaming headlines 20 years ago, we stumble.

Never forget, we ritually cry. Remember, remember, like some Guy Fawkes rhyme re-cast for a new time and place.

But we can’t hold on to “never.” Brains don’t work that way. And a growing number of us have nothing to remember except the lessons and examples that the rest of us choose to pass on.

What will those be?

This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in this place. Seven years ago, on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, I observed how the day was becoming more ordinary. How some of us actually had to be reminded instead of having the date leap to mind automatically. And how we weren’t horrible human beings because of that.

From that past column:

No one’s passing is ever truly “gotten over” or should be, all the less so when the passing is the violent end of a few thousand people.

But it’s OK for the pain to dull, too.

It’s OK to not feel every anniversary as though it were the first one.

It’s OK to be able to look at those memories from a distance and maybe, in a way, see them for the first time with clear eyes.

Most of us have experienced the passing of someone close to us. Some of us have had the ill fortune to have it come out of nowhere, a total surprise that rocks the world. Too sudden or too young or too … well, too many “too’s” to count.

For the longest time afterward, it seems like life can never be about anything else. The pain is fresh and the disjointment real. The wound gapes and resists every effort to stitch it.

But something happens.

It never really gets better. But it gets farther.

And with that time and distance come different memories. The ones that comfort. That remind. That lift the day for a moment instead of crushing it down.

The pain is still there. But it’s no longer alone.

Twenty years since a single day in New York and Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, will the memories we pass on still be of fire and chaos? Or will there be something more?

Will there be the memory of those who reached out to help and comfort from across the country, moved by the needs of people they had never met?

Will there be lessons drawn from the actions we took in its aftermath, good, bad and ugly? The choices that brought us together and the ones that had us squinting in suspicion?

Every crisis shapes us. Some remake the world, like the current pandemic. Some are much more local, like the St. Vrain flood that’s now eight years in the past. Each time, we find ourselves making choices.  What do we carry forward? What do we leave behind?

Memory is important. But memory fades and changes. Its grip loosens a bit with each new heir that it’s passed to.

Build something with it, and memory becomes experience. Build something worthy with it, and it won’t matter that future generations weren’t there. They’ll be here, with a foundation to stand on, an example to learn from, maybe even a goal that they can be part of shaping.

Long after memories of the day have passed, that’s where we’ll find our re-generation.

No Room

When the planes struck, the call came. Some of our finest responded.
It’s been 10 years. This time, the call isn’t coming.
And that is a shame beyond words.
I’m sure you’ve heard the news by now. You’d almost have to have been a mile beneath Ground Zero to have missed it. On Sept. 11, New York City is holding a ceremony to remember THE Sept. 11. Political leaders will be there. The family of those killed will be there.
The firefighters and other first responders who came to the Towers won’t be. Not enough room.
At the moment, my indignation is mixed with a reluctant nod toward the logistics of the situation. On the day the Towers fell and in the days that followed, for example, there were 91,000 emergency workers on the site from across the country. Never mind the others who could reasonably claim a right to be there, such as the family of those who survived 9/11 – who also haven’t been invited, by the way; they’re on standby in case someone cancels.
If everyone who had been touched by 9/11 came to the ceremony, New York State wouldn’t be big enough to hold them all. Never mind New York City.
But at the same time, it is a shame.
If ever there was a moment when this nation came together, it was Sept. 11, 2011. It was when firefighters and police became national heroes, when politicians could briefly join hands instead of put up fists, when you could look at your neighbor across the street and say the mantra usually reserved for Thanksgiving: “Maybe we don’t agree on everything, but we’re still family.”
To reduce all that to a squabble over who can or can’t be in the crowd on the day seems silly. Even embarrassing.
A compromise, perhaps, could have worked. I think in our hearts, everyone knows everyone can’t go. The space in our hearts for that day is endless; the space on the ground is starkly limited.
But on a day of symbols, why not a few more?
Why not, say, 100 New York first responders from that day? Why not choose two each from every other state across the country, representing all those who lent a hand in a dark hour? Why not do the same with the families of the survivors, and all the others you can think of – a symbolic number to represent the many, many behind them, united with those who had lost so much?
The actual names could have been chosen by lot. There’d still be some grumbling, sure – we didn’t stop being human on 9/11 – but it wouldn’t be the deep resentment of a just honor denied.
Too late now, I know. Maybe something to consider for the 15th or the 20th.
For now, maybe it’s just enough to try to get some of that old spirit back. To recall that wherever we were, the attacks touched us, that wherever we are, we can remember.
Remember those who fell.
Remember those who lived.
Remember that out of many, we are still one.
I hope, in the end, we can all find room for that.