Saturday, September 10, 2011

what was

I remember hearing from adults when I was a kid that they would never forget what they were doing when they heard that JFK had been shot. That was ancient history by the time I was born, so it was hard for young me to understand what that moment felt like for those who lived through it--there simply hadn't been any national tragedies of that statue and media coverage and collective standstill within my lifetime. Tragedies are ongoing, regretfully but seemingly inevitably, but it takes a special sort of awful to freeze an entire country in its tracks and cause such a dramatic rupture between now and ten minutes ago, before and after you heard the news.

Now, of course, we seem to have found my generation's equivalent in the events of September 11, 2001, ten years ago this Sunday. I know where I was, of course: in Tucson, taking a symphony audition and hearing increasingly outlandish and hard-to-believe (but, as it turned out, mostly true) rumors between audition rounds. I didn't find out what had actually happened until that afternoon, when I went to my job at a bagel shop in the student union and finally heard the radio. I remember a nearly hysterical vocal major who I barely knew telling me that the president of my university was probably going to cancel classes (he didn't). "Why?", I asked, wondering why a tragedy thousands of miles away would allow me to not go to orchestra--the extent of what had happened hadn't penetrated yet. We were so far away. I didn't have the vocabulary or the scope of imagination for an honest-to-god national emergency.

In the past ten years I've been with many groups of people who almost obsessively detailed where they had been when they heard, but because of where I come from--not New York--most of the experiences have been like mine, memories of news reports and missing school and general confusion. We watched our televisions and listened to our radios. (I don't remember any of us using the internet, but I remember radios being on in public places for days.) I bought a newspaper, vaguely thinking that this was one of those times when you should buy something printed and save it in mint condition so that your descendants could live the good life because you had a newspaper from September 13th, 2001--such an anachronistic thought, I know. My paper sat on the bottom of my orchestra locker for months, reminding me that New York City had had to ask for 3,000 body bags, until I couldn't stand the rage and sorrow and voyeurism I felt every time I pulled my viola out and I threw it away.

I was at a party recently in an empty apartment--the couple who lived there had moved recently, and threw a chair-less shindig to say goodbye. There were only a few people there, and we sat in a circle on the living room floor drinking celebratory sparkling wine out of plastic cups and talking as the sun went down and the corners filled with shadows. It was nearly dark inside when we started talking about September 11th, although nobody stood to pull the cord to turn on the overhead lamp--I could see silhouettes around me, but the faces were blank. It turned out that several people there had been in New York City when it happened, which (somewhat astonishingly, perhaps) had never been the case when I'd taken part in such circles before. Most of the us had the same types of stories I was used to hearing--classes cancelled, huddling with families and friends around televisions crying, the immediate aftermath--but one woman was nine months pregnant and working in finance in downtown Manhattan. She was whisked up by an ambulance, thank god, and her daughter wasn't born until several weeks after she was supposed to make an appearance, probably because of the drugs they gave her to stopped the shocked labor she entered into in transit.

I had never before considered being nine months pregnant and close to Ground Zero. Even though nobody shared anything too horrific, even though nobody had been injured or lost a loved one, just reconsidering the events from a personal standpoint made my awareness of what had happened become more human. It was not an entirely pleasant experience. I remember ten years ago, even as removed as I was, feeling like something had entered my heart forcefully; I remember crying every time I thought too hard about people jumping from falling buildings, what that implied about faith and hope and fear. I had to distance myself, stop watching television and think about the politics instead of the lost humanity, because otherwise I wasn't sure what to do with what I was feeling. Hearing my friend's experience--delivered with a certain degree of nonchalance because jesus, what else could you do with a story like that?--brought me back to that place, the feeling of being entered against my will by emotions that I wasn't sure I was prepared to have.

The nearness and farness of events shifts whenever I move my head, it seems. Ten years ago today, September 10th, the world was a different place. Tomorrow, back then, it changed. (Although not all of it, it seems.) Ten years ago I was young and scared and not certain of anything, although I tried very hard to act like I was certain of everything; standing here, with my adult life as evidence, I don't try to pretend I know anything anymore. It's taken a decade, but September 11th has become a human event for me again, even if I don't understand what that means exactly. I'm more willing to cry for what happened and is still happening, and it's clear to me that this past decade has turned me into an adult and that September 11th is a part of that. I am both farther away from what happened and closer. Understanding still eludes.