Pairing those two numbers together pulls forth a wave of disjointed emotions and memories. They are no longer innocuous numbers; everyone knows what they mean. It was the day that changed everything. It's been so long that it's hard to remember what the world was like Before.
It was one of those historic moments where everyone has that snapshot in their mind of where they were. I never really understood why that mattered, but I guess that's one of those things, remembering where you were when you heard the news. The Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion, Nine Eleven. Every generation has something.
I was in high school. It was my junior year, I was a perfectly naive sixteen year old (almost seventeen), sitting in my morning Spanish III class. I don't remember what we were doing, if anything. I do remember our teacher emerging from the adjoining classroom (a math class) with a strange look on her face. As soon as she opened her mouth, "strange" immediately became apparent as "shocked" or possibly even "terrified."
"A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is burning."
With that sentence, suddenly the world shifted on its axis.
A cold fear shivered up my spine. The sky was falling. I held my breath as she hurried over and turned on the TV that was mounted in the upper corner of the classroom. I don't remember if we saw the second plane hit or if that was later, in the replay - I do remember that we watched the north tower fall. It sunk to the ground and we all stared in complete horrified silence. We had math next and our teacher wouldn't let us turn on the TV. Then it was lunch, where there was a low buzz and an eery silence that settled over our normally rambunctious small-town Iowa school. It was the birthday of a friend-of-a-friend, a boy I "dated" briefly and had gone to Prom with the previous year. We had a volleyball game that night, we wondered if it would be cancelled (it wasn't), the gas station that sat kitty-corner across the street from the high school had a long line of cars that snaked around the block. Everyone was filling up, just in case... just in case of what, I don't know. Rockwell-Swaledale. That was the other school that we played that night. I don't remember if we won or lost. It doesn't matter. It's not really part of the memory.
We all know what happened next. Security. Color-coded terror levels. The Patriot Act. The slow stripping of some of our freedoms in the name of safety. Wiretapping. A prejudice against anyone of a Middle-Eastern descent. "Muslim" becoming a dirty word. A society governed by fear.
I don't really want to spend the day remembering. I know that sounds horrible, but hear me out - it's because I can't possibly ever forget. Little things trigger the memory and it's not something that fades from your mind. I am reminded of it all the time. I remember every day. When I catch the clock at 9:11, I remember. When I am in an airport, I remember. When I grumble about not being able to take a full-size bottle of shampoo on my carry-on, I remember. When I think about New York City, I remember. It's part of the collective consciousness of my generation, and we remember. It's not something we're going to forget. It's part of us. Part of our very being. The burden of our generation to bear. Unforgettably etched in our memories, the visuals seared into our brains, an unshakable emotion that will haunt us the rest of our lives. To tell us to remember is to be a bit patronizing. Of course we remember. How could we not?
The ones that came after us... I'm not sure what they know, what they think, what they feel, what they remember. I was talking to one of my softball moms who was planning a birthday party for her daughter. Her daughter's birthday is today. I asked her how old she was going to be. "Ten," she replied.
She's ten years old today.
She was born on that day. The day that changed everything.
I wonder if she knows the significance. Her mother does, I'm sure. I don't doubt she remembers being in the hospital, being in labor, giving birth to a baby girl while the east coast burned. While people found a religion they didn't know they had, and prayed. While people cried and screamed and lit candles and frantically called everyone they knew. While strangers embraced on the street. While the world stopped and mourned.
She's a symbol, in a way. She's proof that even in the midst of tragedy, life moves on. The miracle of a new baby being born, after so many lives were lost that day. She is part of the next generation, the one that will continue into this strange new world after us.
I remember a lot of people were going to "change" their birthday, those that were born on a 9/11. They didn't want to share that day. I wonder how many of them did. I wonder how many of them changed it back. Maybe it's not something you want to associate with your day, a national tragedy and all, but if it were me, I would have kept it. I would have celebrated my day, celebrated life and the freedom to live it. When the terrorists hold that much power over you, they win. Throw it back in their face. Blow out your candles. Claim it, own it. Take back your day. It's not theirs to keep.
I may never understand how anyone can hold that much evil. I may never understand what motivates people to take other lives in the name of a cause. How hate can prevail so heavily. I may never understand the thoughts of angry masses, of ignorance and misplaced blame.
What I do understand, though, is the capacity to love. To love even in the face of evil. That's the strongest kind. Hate will only destroy us. Love is the only thing that can keep us moving, keep us winning. Hate begets more hate. We've seen that, over the last ten years. Like fighting fire with fire, fighting hate with hate only causes the world to burn.
I saw someone's post on Twitter about visiting their friend in NYC two weeks After. The memorials and the missing person flyers. The ash that still clung to everything. I remember seeing the pictures, the heartbroken, the grieving. I remember how a lot more people remembered to say "I love you" after that. Because you never know. And a lot of us learned that the hard way. We were jarred out of our callous consciousness into a painful, raw sense of loss. We're all still healing, in different ways. But it was the good that came out of people that I want to remember. Not the towers falling or the fire or the smoke. The willingess of people to help. To open their arms. To cry together, to mourn together. To run into those burning buildings, to save who they could. The unity that came after, before it dissolved back into name-calling and blame-gaming. That glimpse of the goodness of the American people.
Yesterday's football game seems like it was a hundred years ago. The trash talk that still floats around on the social media sites. Bitter losers, smug victors. It was just a football game. A good one, at that. I don't understand how hateful people are being over that, either. It's just a game, and compared to what today signifies, it doesn't even matter. Congratulate the other team on a game well-played, win or lose. Then remember that we're all in this together and move on. The team that lost, they are a good team, they will go on to win several of the rest of their games and this will just be a small blip on their record. The team that won, it was a morale boost for us that we needed after several years of struggling. We outplayed you, now let it go. Focus. Focus on what's important.
We're all in this together. On the small scale: we're all Iowans. On the large scale: we're all Americans. We share common enemies. Nebraska. The rest of the world. Sure, we're arrogant assholes (talking about America now) but we're a giant dysfunctional family and we don't take kindly to people coming to our house and messing with our kin. Have whatever feelings you have on the war; it was probably going to happen anyway, and we took down a couple known terror leaders in the process. It's not for nothing, and it will end when it ends, and we'll have achieved something. We had to do something.
I don't want to get political. It's not about politics, though lord knows that landscape has changed too. Everything has changed. From now until the end of time, we'll be living in a "post-9/11 world." We can't go backwards, we can only go forwards.
Do I think we've handled everything well? No. I do not. But we're human. We're fallible. We're emotional beings at our best and we're scared and reactive at our worst. We're flawed and we make mistakes. It's what we do.
For ten years, though, we've been fighting the same fight, silently, every day, consciously or not. It's been a long road and I can see us healing. We're getting back up on our feet. I will kick my shoes off in the security line in the airport without complaining. It's a minor inconvenience. I will still smile when I see the American flag, I will still feel a pang of sadness when I hear about the sacrifices of our soldiers. I will still roll my eyes at the petty arguments of our government, the endless bickering between parties, and I will still disagree with a lot of the politics. I don't want to idealize anything; I know this country is a huge mess. I know what the world thinks of us and I know how often I complain about people I interact with on a daily basis. I stand by my statement that we're a country full of assholes. I'm probably one of them. You probably are too. It's just the way we've been shaped by this culture, in both the Before and the After. There's no use in wondering what things would be like if 9/11 hadn't happened; because it did, and there's no changing that, and there's no going back. This is what we are.
But here's the thing: at the end of the day, I'm still pretty damn grateful to have what I have, to be where I am, and to be a part of this crazy stupid wonderful place that I get to call home.
America. Fuck yeah.