Today is the ten-year anniversary of September 11, 2001. This morning, I heard this incredibly moving interview with a New York firefighter's widow on NPR.
I wasn't anywhere special on 9/11. I don't have any personal claim to the pain of it, the way the family members of those who died do, but one of the things we do to remember this day is to tell the story of where we were and how we remember what happened. So, this is what I remember.
I woke up to a phone call. I was less than a month into my first semester at college, and living away from home for the first time ever in a brick highrise dormitory. I didn't have any classes until the late morning, so I had slept in.
My dad was on the phone. "Alexa, turn on the TV."
"What is it?" I blinked and looked over at my roommate, fast asleep under her covers. "What's wrong?"
"Just turn on the TV, okay? Everything's going to be okay. Just turn on the TV." And then he hung up.
I climbed out of bed and raced barefoot down the hall to the student lounge, where we had a small TV mounted on the wall. Two other people were already awake, staring O-mouthed at the screen. I had just enough time to register an avalanche of black smoke pouring up into the sky, and then the second tower fell.
I know now that we all felt this sudden panic to do something, to somehow try to make the awful, irrevocable thing right. At the time, I hadn't ever felt that way before, though. All I knew was that my chest felt like bursting, and I couldn't think of anything else to do but go knock on the doors of all the other students on my hall and tell them to turn on the TV, so that's what I did.
The school had nearly emptied out by that afternoon. Most of the students went home, and I felt like a ghost wandering the hallways of the dorms and academic buildings, looking for that nebulous thing I could do to make things better. That night, I drank half a bottle of contraband wine at my desk and read the New York Times online. My friend, who was also knocking around the near-empty campus, told me he had spent all day trying to buy as many newspapers as he could, simply because that seemed like something concrete he could do.
The next day, we figured out we could give blood, so that was something. And then George Bush came on TV and told us to go spend money and stimulate the economy, which was worse than being told there wasn't anything you could do at all.
My boyfriend at the time, now my husband, told me he was seriously considering enlisting in the army. I cried until there wasn't anything left in me, because I could tell even then that there was going to be a war as a result of this, and that it was going to be ugly.
The first sign of ugliness showed up a week later. One of my classmates, a stunningly beautiful girl from Venezula with a mane of jet-black hair down to her lower back, returned from lunch at a fast food restaurant one afternoon and told all of us gathered around the bus stop about how some rednecks had thrown salt and pepper shakers at her and her friend, and yelled at them to get out of the country.
"I'm from Venezuela." She threw her hands up in the air as she told the story. "Idiots."
I had fallen in love with photography, and had been planning to follow a group of classmates on a trip to an IMF protest in Washington, D.C. in late September, with the idea that I could document the experience for the college newspaper. I dropped my plans. I was scared. Who knew if another attack was coming? The world was different, if not falling apart altogether. We hadn't started to hear reports about the Muslim men detained after 9-11, but I was fairly sure attending an IMF protest a mere two weeks after a terrorist attack was asking to be arrested.
Then came Afghanistan, and Iraq. I went to protests with my camera and shot pictures of scruffy 20-somethings with trombones and banners, old women with black flags, and police with bunches of plastic riot cuffs attached to their belts. At one protest, someone in plain clothes stepped out of an unmarked black car and systematically took pictures of every person's face as we stood on a downtown sidewalk. My friends and I put together petitions asking for our senator not to back the bill supporting the war in Iraq, and stood outside the cafeteria pleading for signatures. Everyone was still afraid and uncertain about the right thing to do, and hardly anyone signed. We got a form letter from our senator in return. The war went ahead.
I heard someone argue on the radio today that, unless you had a loved one who died on 9/11 or entered military service as a consequence of it, the attack that day didn't truly affect you. I don't think that's true. September 11th shook me. It made me evaluate my politics more deeply and taught me the awful, unavoidable confusion of living in a world where black and white swirl together, where victims can become perpetrators, where conviction is suddenly a landmine. It turned my peers into soldiers, and then into veterans. I think it changed most of us so deeply that we can't even recognize it.
The only hope is that we - people - can still change that. Like Pandora and her box, people have loosed all the evil in the world. We can't put it back in the box, but after it has flown, we can still find hope glowing at the bottom. Every day the calendar rolls over, and we have another chance to stop hurt like this from spreading. We can still make art and give aid to our fellow creatures. We can staunch the flow of hate. Here's hoping we're up to the challenge.