It’s a strange thing, to have a memory from 20 years ago, when I was already an adult. I don’t feel old enough. It doesn’t feel so long ago.
Yet I remember seeing the loop of images on TV: the planes crashing, the people running, the towers falling. I remember that awful understanding of people jumping. I remember racing to the windows of my office building and seeing the Pentagon burn.
I’d just returned to DC from an idyllic summer, my first in Northern California, which had been filled with simple joys: homemade ice cream, songs with children, campfires and swimming in the river. Every evening, I’d climbed into my sleeping bag after the long light had finally faded, listening to the natural world, feeling a peace that I hadn’t known existed.
On September 8th, I flew back to the east coast. I went back to work on September 10th. And I was in my office early the next day, still a bit sunburned, likely a bit jet-lagged. I sat at my desk and tried to remember how to fit into the mold that had been given to me with my college degree, with my salaried job, with the expectations of everyday life that the local culture emphasized: stay busy, spend money, drink cocktails.
I knew, already, that I was headed back west.
Just after I finished breakfast, a coworker ran past my office door, yelling something about the World Trade Center. Others followed, and I joined them. We stood in silence, in tears, at the television in the lobby.
A few hours after the first plane hit, I headed home for the day; no one could concentrate. I picked up my friend; we’d driven into work together, and on our return trip, we sat in my small sedan, dumbfounded. Above us, the sunroof was open. The sky, as has so often been remembered, was the clearest blue. The fighter jets that streaked against it were black.
When I was a little girl, I envied my parents’ generation, who could answer questions about where they were when a certain event happened: when JFK was shot, when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. I thought that having that shared, collective memory, sharpened against unforgettable events, meant that their generation was forever connected to one another. Before I had the language to capture this idea, I thought it meant that they were cemented as a community.
When September 11th happened, I knew I was living through one of those moments. I knew I would never forget where I was, and of course I haven’t, and of course I won’t. But I was already an adult. And though I fell temporarily into the patriotism that emerged, I soon came to see that it was problematic. I saw that it was rooted in fear, and that the fear could be used as a weapon to embolden hatred.
20 years is a long time. We’ve had so much tragedy in those decades: school shootings and Hurricane Katrina; a pandemic. I wish that the understanding that came from those things would last. I wish we could feel compassion and care for one another, that we felt more connected permanently. People live through horrible things; people carry unspeakable grief. I wish we remembered that, long after the last tragedy, and long before the next one. It might make us more kind.
9/11 was an incredibly sad, awful day that changed so much. This anniversary is a sorrowful one that deserves to be remembered.
I no longer live in DC. Yet as I write, the sky outside my window is the clearest blue. My hope is for healing, still.