I took this photo on a cool spring day twenty years ago, on the day I fell in love for the first time that would last.
I’d been to New York City a number of times before then, but at fifteen years old I took this photo on my first trip to the city without my parents. Surrounded by my high school friends, we saw a Broadway show, took the ferry to Liberty Island (whence this photo), and went to the top of the World Trade Center for my very first time. I didn’t even really know the geography of New York harbor back then, so I had little appreciation of what I was looking at, but the view stayed vivid enough in my mind that I remembered it instantly the next, and final, time that I went to the top of the World Trade Center in August of 2001.
I can’t honestly say that it was because of that trip to one particular skyscraper, but the entirety of that visit to New York City had kicked off a lifelong love affair; I knew by the end of that day that, at least for a little while, I’d end up living in New York City. There was a lesson that day about finding your place, and pursuing a dream, even in a world of impermanence.
What I would never have imagined back in high school, or especially in the days after the attacks here ten years ago, was that I’d not just choose to live here, but that I’d stay here. That I’d get married in New York City. That I’d raise a family here. And perhaps more importantly, that I’d eventually learn enough from the pain and sorrow of that day to grow in to a man who may even be worthy of the opportunity to do so.
Sure, we all promised in the days after the attacks that we’d be more thoughtful, more understanding, more patient. I did a pretty lousy job of it at first; Even a year later I was getting in stupid political arguments on the Internet. But gradually, I have learned to be more empathetic towards people I disagree with, and I have fought (not always successfully) to be respectful towards people who have different beliefs than me. More important than the political beliefs, though, are the cultural ones — I finally let go of so much of the bitterness and resentment I’d had over being made to feel inferior simply for being different than most people in American culture.
Some of this might have been due to the simple fact that I grew up. The attacks happened a few days after I turned 26 years old, and I was so alone that my wish for someone to hold on to is one of the most consistent refrains from my blog posts at the time. By contrast today, I’m a happily married man who will celebrate his sixth anniversary in a few weeks with our little boy by our side. I had the chance to leave New York City and then return. I’ve lived a lot in this decade, and been fortunate to do so.
Even with all of those changes, though, I do know that the fundamental turning point for choosing to live a more meaningful, thoughtful and empathetic life was being here in New York City on September 11, 2001. That’s not to diminish the loss and pain that so many others suffered — my sister was living in Washington, DC on that day, and my mother was in my childhood home in central Pennsylvania. And I by no means dismiss the profound, and painful mistakes that our country and culture have made in many of our responses to that day. I will say that, despite the conventional refrain that “everything changed” on that day, I find it’s less true that the big profound things have changed than that a million small things were transformed.
After a decade of people insistently using that day and the attacks as a cultural milestone, I don’t have any profound insights or political commentary to offer that others haven’t already articulated first and better. All that I have is my experience of knowing what it mean to be in New York City then. And from that experience, the biggest lesson I have taken is that I have the obligation to be a kinder man, a more thoughtful man, and someone who lives with as much passion and sincerity as possible. Those are the lessons that I’ll tell my son some day in the distant future, and they’re the ones I want to remember now.
Each year, I’ve taken time to look back and remember, ever since the day of the attacks in 2001. I’m not sure there’s a pattern or progression to the various pieces that I’ve written, but I do see that there’s been an evolution, and I hope it’s one that does justice to the memory of that day.
Last year in 2010, Nine is New New York:
[T]his is, in many ways, a golden era in the entire history of New York City.
Over the four hundred years it’s taken for this city to evolve into its current form, there’s never been a better time to walk down the street. Crime is low, without us having sacrificed our personality or passion to get there. We’ve invested in making our sidewalks more walkable, our streets more accommodating of the bikes and buses and taxis that convey us around our town. There’s never been a more vibrant scene in the arts, music or fashion here. And in less than half a decade, the public park where I got married went from a place where I often felt uncomfortable at noontime to one that I wanted to bring together my closest friends and family on the best day of my life. We still struggle with radical inequality, but more people interact with people from broadly different social classes and cultures every day in New York than any other place in America, and possibly than in any other city in the world.
And all of this happened, by choice, in the years since the attacks.
In 2009, Eight Is Starting Over:
[T]his year, I am much more at peace. It may be that, finally, we’ve been called on by our leadership to mark this day by being of service to our communities, our country, and our fellow humans. I’ve been trying of late to do exactly that. And I’ve had a bit of a realization about how my own life was changed by that day.
Speaking to my mother last week, I offhandedly mentioned how almost all of my friends and acquaintances, my entire career and my accomplishments, my ambitions and hopes have all been born since September 11, 2001. If you’ll pardon the geeky reference, it’s as if my life was rebooted that day and in the short period afterwards. While I have a handful of lifelong friends with whom I’ve stayed in touch, most of the people I’m closest to are those who were with me on the day of the attacks or shortly thereafter, and the goals I have for myself are those which I formed in the next days and weeks. i don’t think it’s coincidence that I was introduced to my wife while the wreckage at the site of the towers was still smoldering, or that I resolved to have my life’s work amount to something meaningful while my beloved city was still papered with signs mourning the missing.
In 2008, Seven Is Angry:
Finally getting angry myself, I realize that nobody has more right to claim authority over the legacy of the attacks than the people of New York. And yet, I don’t see survivors of the attacks downtown claiming the exclusive right to represent the noble ambition of Never Forgetting. I’m not saying that people never mention the attacks here in New York, but there’s a genuine awareness that, if you use the attacks as justification for your position, the person you’re addressing may well have lost more than you that day. As I write this, I know that parked out front is the car of a woman who works in my neighborhood. Her car has a simple but striking memorial on it, listing her mother’s name, date of birth, and the date 9/11/2001.
In 2007, Six Is Letting Go:
On the afternoon of September 11th, 2001, and especially on September 12th, I wasn’t only sad. I was also hopeful. I wanted to believe that we wouldn’t just Never Forget that we would also Always Remember. People were already insisting that we’d put aside our differences and come together, and maybe the part that I’m most bittersweet and wistful about was that I really believed it. I’d turned 26 years old just a few days before the attacks, and I realize in retrospect that maybe that moment, as I eased from my mid-twenties to my late twenties, was the last time I’d be unabashedly optimistic about something, even amidst all the sorrow.
In 2006, After Five Years, Failure:
[O]ne of the strongest feelings I came away with on the day of the attacks was a feeling of some kind of hope. Being in New York that day really showed me the best that people can be. As much as it’s become cliché now, there’s simply no other way to describe a display that profound. It was truly a case of people showing their very best nature.
We seem to have let the hope of that day go, though.
In 2005, Four Years:
I saw people who hated New York City, or at least didn’t care very much about it, trying to act as if they were extremely invested in recovering from the attacks, or opining about the causes or effects of the attacks. And to me, my memory of the attacks and, especially, the days afterward had nothing to do with the geopolitics of the situation. They were about a real human tragedy, and about the people who were there and affected, and about everything but placing blame and pointing fingers. It felt thoughtless for everyone to offer their response in a framework that didn’t honor the people who were actually going through the event.
In 2004, Thinking Of You:
I don’t know if it’s distance, or just the passing of time, but I notice how muted the sorrow is. There’s a passivity, a lack of passion to the observances. I knew it would come, in the same way that a friend told me quite presciently that day back in 2001 that “this is all going to be political debates someday” and, well, someday’s already here.
In 2003, Two Years:
I spent a lot of time, too much time, resenting people who were visiting our city, and especially the site of the attacks, these past two years. I’ve been so protective, I didn’t want them to come and get their picture taken like it was Cinderella’s Castle or something. I’m trying really hard not to be so angry about that these days. I found that being angry kept me from doing the productive and important things that really mattered, and kept me from living a life that I know I’m lucky to have.
In 2002, I wrote On Being An American:
[I]n those first weeks, I thought a lot about what it is to be American. That a lot of people outside of New York City might not even recognize their own country if they came to visit. The America that was attacked a year ago was an America where people are as likely to have been born outside the borders of the U.S. as not. Where most of the residents speak another language in addition to English. Where the soundtrack is, yes, jazz and blues and rock and roll, but also hip hop and salsa and merengue. New York has always been where the first fine threads of new cultures work their way into the fabric of America, and the city the bore the brunt of those attacks last September reflected that ideal to its fullest.
In 2001, Thank You:
I am physically fine, as are all my family members and immediate friends. I’ve been watching the footage all morning, I can’t believe I watched the World Trade Center collapse…
I’ve been sitting here this whole morning, choking back tears… this is just too much, too big. I can see the smoke and ash from the street here. I have friends of friends who work there, I was just there myself the day before yesterday. I can’t process this all. I don’t want to.