I biked to Lower Manhattan yesterday morning, on the 20-year anniversary of 9/11. Although the Memorial Fountain was closed off except for family members of the deceased, former Presidents, and the NYPD, still the surrounding vicinity was abuzz. International media outlets filmed news segments, their anchors speaking words of remembrance in various languages. Across the street, onlookers flashed cameras as a chorus of Amish schoolchildren sang a capella, their voices a balm for collective mourning on this warm September day. Volunteers from nearby St. Paul’s Chapel offered white ribbons with the words “Remembrance and Healing” etched in gold for individuals to tie to wrought iron fenceposts.
After filling out an online confirmation that I had no COVID symptoms, I entered St. Paul’s and lit a vigil candle. I viewed a collection of badges left by police and firefighters around the world. A flyer told the following story: “For nearly a year after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, St. Paul’s Chapel served as a relief mission for recovery workers at Ground Zero. Over 14,000 volunteers worked in 12-hours shifts to provide solace, comfort and care for 2,000 workers each day. St. Paul’s Chapel became the spiritual home for Ground Zero” (text credit: https://trinitywallstreet.org). Further illustrating the building’s significance, a tall middle-aged man stood just outside the church exit, sharing his memories with all who would listen. He spoke of helping keep recovery workers’ spirits up on the dark nights following the attack. Listening to him, I pictured untold horror, air clouded with dust, and countless innocent lives vanished. But I also pictured the helpers, sacrificing their safety and comfort to survey the damage and to pick up the broken pieces of fallen steel and pulverized flesh.
I thought about my own life twenty years ago on this day: newly graduated from college, living in Minneapolis and working full-time in a psychology lab at the U of MN. I was only a few weeks into the job–although I had worked there part-time as an undergraduate, this was my first experience officially “adulting.” The university sent everyone home that morning, of course. Confused, scared, and unable to shake the images I had seen of planes crashing on TV, I tried to make sense of this new reality. The strange thing for me, personally, was that I had made my inaugural visit to NYC only a few weeks prior, alongside my friend Katy as a graduation present to myself.
If I could time travel back to that day and visit myself, what would I possibly say to that shocked young woman heading back to her then-boyfriend’s apartment after the university sent everyone home? What could I possibly tell her that would sooth her soul as she–and everyone–tried to heal following the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor? Maybe, “Take a deep breath. Ask yourself ‘Am I safe in this moment?’ If so, try to remain present as much as possible. Take time to find out who you are and what makes you tick. Do your best and try not to numb out. I know that can be really hard. Help others if you’re feeling well enough to serve; you’ll feel much better when you do.”
And what might that traumatized young woman say to me, this 41-year-old living in Brooklyn, only a half-dozen subway stops from the site of what was Ground Zero, whom she would one day become? Maybe, “I can see that you’re kind and that you have tried to embody the best version of yourself possible. I appreciate that.” And Lord knows that as flattering as my younger self’s words to me are, I have many less-than-perfect moments and I probably always will. (It’s about progress, not perfection.)
Standing behind St. Paul’s church and looking up at One World Trade (aka the “Freedom Tower”), the sparkling behemoth constructed on the Northwest corner of the World Trade Center, I was left slightly in awe. This, the tallest building in America, went up rather quickly as a message to the world that the U.S. was resilient. Still, it seems that we are far from being a nation at peace. Much of the struggle these days is internal or civil, which brings to mind Abraham Lincoln’s famous words, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
What will it take to bridge that divide? I have no answers, only the hope that by honoring and remembering the lives lost on 9/11, and by showing gratitude to those who gave their time and energy rebuilding in the aftermath, we can come to some better understanding of this baffling question.