Ten years on

We heard the first boom and didn’t think much of it — perhaps a van or garbage truck or some other anonymous vehicle backfiring outside our Brooklyn apartment. Maybe it rattled our windows, shut against the heat. Maybe the sound was masked by the hum of our old AC. If the second boom was audible, we paid no attention to it. My wife was at home on maternity leave, I was taking some time off, and we were preoccupied with something more immediately important: giving our little six-month-old daughter breakfast and getting her ready for the day. With nothing but a clear blue September sky outside, it was shaping up to be a beautiful one.

A little while later, as I was lifting our girl out of her bath, my wife’s sister called, frantic, asking if we were all right. Of course we were all right, my wife said; why wouldn’t we be?

Do you even know what’s going on? asked her sister. When it was clear we didn’t, she said: turn on the radio.

And then Bob Edwards on NPR was telling us that the World Trade Center was gone.

It was hard to wrap our minds around. Was this some kind of Orson Welles hoax? A Twilight Zone episode? How could the two tallest buildings in New York City simply be gone? We opened a window, stuck our heads out, and stared disbelievingly across the river at the gray cloud hanging ominous and silent over Lower Manhattan.

And as we absorbed the news — those first moments of ignorance and confusion and terror — our infant daughter, still in my arms and naked and freshly clean from her bath, snapped me out of my catatonia and put a new perspective on things. She peed on me.

This pretty much typified our schizophrenic experience of the next few days, weeks, and months. Our city was wounded and gasping. We had an amazing new baby girl. We listened to Mayor Giuliani’s press conferences, scoured the Internet, devoured the newspapers, soaked in the grim headlines. We took our baby out for walks in the neighborhood, and complete strangers cooed and smiled. We stood in front of the makeshift memorials on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, the flowers and candles and handwritten signs. Our girl favored us with her giggles and her first smiles. We walked silently past the pillars in the subway stations plastered with “Missing” posters, every grainy photograph a grief-filled hole in the life of someone we didn’t know. We taught our girl sign language for “more” and “hurts” and “toilet,” so she could communicate with us before learning to speak. There was anthrax in the mail. We lay in bed with our girl fast asleep between us, and admired her every feature: her dark eyelashes, her little pursed mouth, her chest rising and falling with the tide of her dreams.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. In the middle of all this death, we were caught up in the giddiness of new life. Every day was a rollercoaster ride, whiplashing us between sorrow and fear and joy.

And the world changed, as everyone knows. And for the past ten years we’ve never really stopped talking about it.

There are many New Yorkers, of course, who have lost friends and loved ones and for whom the momentous weight of this day is unavoidable. But it’s hard for me to set aside this anniversary as a day apart, when we live constantly with the memory of the event, as well as its consequences: the wars and their aftermath, the effect on the economy, the Islamophobia, and so on. Anniversaries are for remembering something that isn’t otherwise remembered very often; this weekend, the intensified commemoration of something we’ve never stopped commemorating seems — to me personally — a bit much.

You can take your pick of any number of insightful articles that have been written about this day and What It Means. Sam Harris uses the occasion to draw a line in the sand between faith and secular reason. Kenan Malik — taking perhaps the opposite tack — examines how 9/11 both arose from and exacerbated the myth of a “clash of civilizations,” of monolithic “identities” and competing victimhoods. And Andrew Sullivan’s take is wise and thoughtful as always. All are worth reading. Their views will remain relevant and worth thinking about long after this day has passed. But I also think back to my daughter distracting me from those first terrifying news reports, her weight in my arms (and her pee on my chest) reminding me that whatever the world dishes out, there is also wonder and joy right in front of me. I only have to choose to see it.

So on this weekend of remembrance and reflection and endless analysis, what have I done so far? Well, yesterday my family and I went to some street fairs and block parties (there were a lot of them in our neighborhood, for some reason) and ate corn dogs and mozzarepas. We took our daughter to visit some of her old friends. We bought groceries and browsed at a used bookstore. We watched some Phineas and Ferb and read some bedtime stories. And today? Maybe I’ll put on The Rising — still one of the most powerful artistic responses to 9/11, in my opinion — and spend some moments remembering the dead and honoring the first responders. And then we’ll get on with our day. Because from what I can see, New York City is alive and well. And so are we.

How do we answer the nihilism, the religious delusion, the murderous hatred of a handful of men? How do we respond to those who desire our death? To me, it’s no small victory just to live — with as much joy, wonder, love and compassion as we can.

(Photo by Mark Lennihan. Part of this essay has been adapted from a comment I wrote on FlickFilosopher.com.)

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