I thought for a long time about whether or not to write anything today. I suppose it’s human nature to want to mark the passage of time, to commemorate milestones, to see where we’ve been and how far we’ve come. Reggie, who is snoring away as I type, doesn’t concern himself with such things. I wouldn’t mind being more like him.
What I’m not doing is providing my minute by minute experience of that day. You certainly don’t need my perspective or retrospective on where I was on September 11, 2001. There have been hundreds of stories flooding the media for the past week. And, I’m sure, you have your story, too. I have laid my story to rest. I wrote it in a journal shortly thereafter because I didn’t want to forget, but as it turns out, I’ve never had to refer to that entry since. There is no detail, no second that I don’t remember.
Suffice it to say that I know people who died and people who made it out. I know people who shouldn’t have been there but were, and people who should have been there but weren’t. Besides in ten years I have not found the right words. No matter how eloquent, how vivid, how accurate my description, there is no way to make anyone comprehend what it was like to be downtown on that day. I cannot explain, for example, the particularly acrid and distinct odor combination of rotting flesh and charred electrical wires. Frustrating for someone who fancies herself a writer. And I learned that each retelling only serves to fuel self-righteousness. The only people who truly understand are the ones who were here, and we really don’t need to talk about it. We have developed the shorthand of soldiers.
It reminds me of a tour I took of Pearl Harbor in January 2001. I didn’t know then that the old tour guide and I would end up having something in common. He was a veteran of the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, which launched the US into WWII. Gray-haired and wrinkled, he gave talks and answered questions about the surreal experience he had when he was a young man sixty years before. I wondered why he put himself in the position of having to relive the horror of that day every hour on the hour. I approached him after his lecture and asked him just that. He nodded in the direction of Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head and said, “I have been lucky enough to see heaven on earth and I’ve also seen hell. But I know who I am.”
I filed that away in my mind, but didn’t really know what he meant. Now I do. So what I want to say is this:
Your past only defines you if you let it. That is partly why I have put my story away. You don’t need it, and neither do I.
We can be our own worst enemies sometimes. We choose the labels of our past that we want to wear on our lapels like name tags. For example, I knew people who chose the name tag of anger. They used their stories to be angry at the world, and then they were angry at me, too, for not being angry. (Why on earth would I want to fill my heart with hatred? It wouldn’t bring people who died back. It wouldn’t bring the towers back. Hate breeds hate. And hate is borne from fear. Always.) Identifying with that story would keep me from acknowledging my present good fortunes and cause me to live in the fear and anger and sadness of the past. I am not those things, and I have released them.
However you choose to commemorate this day, I wish you peace and happiness.
Happiness is not in another place, but this place, not in another hour, but this hour. ~Walt Whitman