It’s September, a month that once sat in my mind a sparkling jewel of the changing seasons, unblemished by difficult memories. I remember the fine golden halos that gathered around everything green in the woods. Now I see gray edges rimming those halos, some dates on the calendar are stained with shadow fruit. There is now in my picture of fall and primal sense of clinging, of grief in addition to the richness of the zinnias and the late season harvest.
We are all older than when the Towers went down, and I can’t say I thought it was going to go quite like this. Twenty years of realizing the fragility of life, the “wear” and I dare say “tear” on the heart and mind of the news, in our homes. I didn’t know exactly how it would feel to live the age of the great unsettling, the age of de- and re-generation, of glitches. I didn’t know how all these feeling and current events would stack up with climate.
In twenty years I can see time a bit better than before. I can see shocks, on my own body and I can see it in others. I can see it in my timelines, in the many that make up “me” and my interactions. I can see it with friends, with tiny profile pictures passed between me and my schoolmates. I see “us” as we were surviving into as as we are, with personal illness, financial loss, deaths of loved ones. You name it, it is happening, and the weather forecast is more of the same on its way.
Twenty years since 9/11 and for me it is a story of standing on a building, watching the towers crumble. I remembered how many times we drove past them. I could still see my five or six year old feet dancing on the back window, my brother and I lounging after a long day of playing. I could see the lights of NYC at night, as we moved slowly in traffic, and covered them with my finger and toes, cutting shapes against the light.
I couldn’t believe, the Twins were down. So I fell to my knees.
If you had asked me about that vision, that momentary flash that happened on a rooftop in Hoboken, I wouldn’t say it was the only thing I saw. I saw tanks driving by my cousin’s room. I felt the insecure feeling of a war zone. I felt and saw something I never expected on this soil, something that only happened in the old country.
The only thing I could do for the second or two while this initial shock thing happened was stare right into the clouds as they took shape. The clouds were in stunning contrast to the perfect blue skies. The whole first night was like a slow mental taser. Would there be jets? Would there be ships? Who? When?
Let’s go for a drink.
In 9/11 each person went up like tinder, we ignited as if someone had spilt gasoline onto our sweat and toil, onto our loves. We went up like forests made of people, each one infested with smoldering ash.
What became of our triggered selves is not a single story, not one individual’s voice, but a unified sense of grief. Some of us saw it televised, some of us couldn’t turn it off, not for the love of God.
20 years and saplings are established, 20 years there are voices we forgot existed. In 20 years you grew up and gave life, to ideas, to projects, maybe even to other humans. In 20 years you have hustled to learn the new rules, come up with new tricks. In 20 years you have set the bar for yourself even higher because success still means survival before glamour or pride.
20 Years After, Once removed
I am walking down a street in Berlin, wondering if I should apply for a visa in the Spring. I am not fleeing my country. I am not fleeing my grief. I see no escape, no real need to try such a trick.
I like to move and I like stay put. I like to visit, house sit, pet sit, whatever. I like to plant myself in places and immediately become both tourist and next door neighbor. Here I am, feeling like I’m in an extended quarantine, one I made myself. I don’t speak the language at all.
Here I am, a child of a New York tragedy amidst all these Berliners, a people who remember a wall separated their city. Here I am, almost by mistake. Here I am as if by fortune.
20 years after 9/11 and I am sad that I am away from the yellow cabs and the subways, not in reality, but in my nostalgia. The New York I long for changed that day and to think it is coming back would be insanely hopeful and stupid. New York will die and it will resurrect, over and over again because New York is a feeling, a true Babylon at its best as much as its worst.
“New York” like “family” is code for something I want to think of as static, but it is actually an ever-changing thing, where generations come and go, where names change but DNA persists. Family is experience and it is code and New York is also experience and code. NYC will persist in the DNA of what defines “city” just like Rome signifies “empire.” The New York of which I speak lives on in you, in things, in things you pass on consciously and unconsciously.
In a way it was to be expected that New York as well as the nation’s capital would suffer the brunt of an attack. Washington DC was an obvious if dry target but New York City was the thing of dreams, and any attack was meant to be a tear-jerker. From Wall Street to Broadway, New York was the perfect suit, the feisty spirit, the exquisite lady with the sailor’s mouth. We have snapshots of that New York, but that’s all we have of her. She has transitioned from stilettos to swamp boots. She has made survival fashion.
Twenty years later we know that all wounds heal but some do scar. We know that we didn’t win the wars, because nobody wins them, they’re not supposed to stop. Twenty years later the spirit of New York is strong. It doesn’t need me to babysit it. It’s not mad. It’s busy becoming. New York 2.0. So here I am, carrying on with myself, turning scars into portals, being grateful for my own 2.0. From far away I feel her, the city that birthed me as an artist.
“Always be grateful it’s not worse.” a voice blends with my grandmother’s
This is the New York that is always with me somehow, just like family, just like blood. This is new terrain under my feet, maybe in my heart. Life and displacement: the digital nomad, the social self-medication. The balance between technologically enabled vs. addled. Video memorial is and is not the same. It takes biology to provide real presence, but I feel the lights through my phone. They take me back. Together we leap forward.
Twenty years later and nobody has to demand I “remember” the day the world began to shatter. You can’t help but set your watch to it. You can’t help sitting in that space knowing twenty years is both the blink of an eye and easily three or four lifetimes. Twenty years and what did we see rise up from the ashes? Twenty years, what do we do?
…To be Continued