Memory can be so unforgiving. The name of a song, the name of a place, the blank drawn when someone places you in a story and you don’t remember even being there, that sheepish headshake when you find yourself looking in the refrigerator – or online – or in the closet – and you have no earthly idea what you were looking for. It’s a strange sensation to experience just how fleeting the past can be.
Clearly traumatic memories are stored in another part of the brain. I know this because every time I glance at a digital clock and the time is 9:11, I am shaken. Not incapacitated, but taken aback. It’s like having a hidden bruise that gets bumped while you’re doing something, and it’s momentarily shocking that it still hurts 19 years later.
There are two different levels of my 9/11 memories. One level is the experience itself. It’s the pain and the shock of others: the scenes on tv of folks fleeing the crumbling towers, covered in ash and dust and blood. It’s the people who were up close to me, people suffering the unthinkable loss of a son, a child, a husband, a future. It was deep appreciation for Heidi Baker and Rachel Segall who were woven into my life that day as we attempted to swim to the surface of what-needs-to-be-done.
The other level of memory is the experience of my experience. It was my own disequilibrium and fear. It was like an existential vertigo. How did I manage to think straight? How did I process it all? I do know that however I experienced the world changed me.
This is the tricky thing about memory. Neuroscientists say that our memories are not cast in bronze. They change and warp and flex like soap bubbles that sometimes pop. So the memory of what was back then has been filtered and altered by subsequent encounters. I can’t truly know what I knew or felt then, which is its own interesting phenomenological problem. But I surely know how it’s resonating right now.
The predominant feeling of 9/11 that plays when I let it out and reflect on it is utter disorientation. After being with David Retik’s family I arrived home to learn that my next-door neighbor, Danny Lewin, of Akamai, was on the same flight. An omen of catastrophe and loss. What next? Is everything I know about to fall apart?
You may remember that all air traffic was suspended for a few days right after 9/11. Newton Centre is in a very heavily traveled air route: there’s hardly a moment when, if you glance up from the TBA parking lot, you won’t see a plane or contrails. I didn’t know that then as I stared into the beautiful blue firmament. It was so quiet. And so surreal. Because the quiet was not emerging from a meditative space. Rather, it came from shapeless, unanticipated, unnamed fear.
There is something so similar about COVID time and memories of 9/11. It’s the inchoate fear, the looming presence of the unanticipated, the “what’s next” of it all that has been like the terrifying orange glow in the skies of northern California, a harbinger, of what…?
It’s 19 years since that terrible day. And the memories always put me in a contemplative funk. But even as I write these words, I know that’s a common condition these days. Perhaps one of the lessons I’ve learned since 9/11 helps me contextualize COVID time. This life is the only one we’re going to get. What are we going to do with it? The fear is real. The darkness is real. But so, too, is our resolve to keep going, to keep believing that there is something greater out there, something that’s worth the struggle, something that inspires us to reach down deep for courage and resolve.
We who were witnesses to 9/11 continue to live and remember, and in the mysterious glow of the unknown we hold on tighter to what we do know: that love and connection keep us whole and alive. That those who have lost have found. That trauma and the loss do not evaporate in the hot sun, but are incorporated into the waters of time that draw us down the river.
Next Friday night is Rosh Hashanah. Come connect and celebrate our collective resilience and our ability to pick our way out of the fear to love.