Here. 9/11 happens to me right here.
In this apartment in this room where I sat, half dressed for interviews I would never go to, in a city that I barely knew wondering to myself, is this how I die? Is this how the world ends?
There is a vast difference between learning about history and living it. September 11th taught me that. I read somewhere recently that for the first time incoming high school freshman will learn about this day having been born after it occurred. They will study it, they will learn through the lenses and gifts of time and perspective about what we did, what we should have done, how it looks from a distance. But for those of us who lived it no matter how much time passes it will never be historical. We will always be there in that moment.
Even now, today, fifteen years later I am there and all I have are questions and no answers. And no one else has answers. Not even people on television and those people are always at least supposed to pretend like they have answers. Everyone everywhere seems to look and act as scared as I feel sitting on this windowsill. Where does it stop? What does it mean? How does it end?
9/11 means questions and fear and vulnerability. Safety is a privilege, not a right. It is the first time I ever see a ticker at the bottom of the screen on my television because at that moment it is quite literally a medium where they are trying to communicate information on how to keep us safe, not just a place to watch Friends. 9/11 means the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stand on end for weeks. It means phones don’t work. It means you should never leave unsaid the things you mean to say to the people you love. Because you never know when you won’t able to finish the conversation.
It means that buildings can literally melt and evaporate into dust. It means nothing and no one is infallible.
It means that heroes are made, not born. That courage means both running toward danger and merely continuing to exist in the face of it.
It means that even if every face in that city is a stranger, when you walk down the stairs and on to the streets of a place you came up on only 3 days earlier, every single person will show up for you. You will feel connected with them. You will study the faces of the missing together in the subway. You will listen to the mayor whenever and wherever he speaks. When the bagpipes play again, you will rise. Everyone lines the streets for every funeral. Obviously. It matters not at all that you do not know whoever you are standing for. He died for me and for you. So obviously we will stand.
It means that all of us who live through history, who live in spite of it, survive and rise.
9/11 teaches me what it means to be American.
I do not know what the banner headline is in that textbook for those incoming freshman. But I hope they feel through this abstract, historical view even some tiny modicum of the biggest lessons of that day. That no one guarantees us anything during our stint here, and that our job is to move forward even when everything seems unknown, and to care for each other deeply along the way.