Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Later

This morning, while my wife swam in the Tall Chief Open Water Challenge, I walked along the shore with my kids. At one point I saw my son juxtaposed against the liquid light of reflected sun, and it was almost hard to tell where he ended and the blazing water began. I snapped a picture of it. It was one of those rare times when he held still long enough for a picture to actually preserve at least some of the moment's resonance.

And as I watched him by the water's edge I was thinking about ten years ago, when this boy hadn't yet existed. This image of life and light became juxtaposed against another set of images, ones that are imprinted in the collective consciousness of a nation, perhaps the world.

It would have happened at about this time, perhaps at the very moment when, on this day ten years later, I stood watching my son by the water. Then, I was sitting in my apartment, watching it all unfold on the television because my fiancee had called from the car on her way to work. I was one of those who saw the second plane as it hit. I was still watching when the towers came down.

We'd been engaged for a little over a week. We'd had our own private betrothal ceremony by a pond, exchanging wedding bands and vows. There'd been light on the water, moonlight and street lamps fragmented by the fountain's ripples.  I remember the days that followed, the sense of promise, of nestling joy. And then, ten days later, I saw the shattering of so many lives, so many hopes and promises, watching on live television as the force of the collapse exploded outward through the streets of Manhattan.

What do you do after that? In a kind of daze I got into my car and drove to the university. I went to my first class--a freshman honors seminar on the ethics of community service. We were used to sitting in a circle, facing one and other. Those who were there had come because they hadn't heard. And so I told them, breaking the news to these kids, bright and hopeful kids who were just starting their college careers, their journeys to adulthood.

And ten years later, after a moment of silence, after the national anthem had been sung by the clustered athletes, after the starter pistol and the surge of brightly colored swim caps spreading out across the sun-glazed water...after standing for a moment trying to discern which yellow head belonged to my wife, trying to decide what had been happening at this moment ten years ago...I became aware again of my children, playing with sticks and flowers, tossing rocks into the water, rummaging through the backpack for some snack more tasty and less healthy than the granola bars and apples that I'd packed.

The moment of silence had been nothing but a fidgety affair, something to get through so they could whistle again without fear of a scolding look. The voices raised in the anthem hadn't carried any special resonance at all, at least none they could hear.

They hadn't existed then. To them, it's just something they'll one day read about in history class.  There'll likely be a picture at the start of the chapter, perhaps of the collapsing skyscrapers, perhaps of the ruins. A static image on a page.

It united a nation for a few weeks, a few weeks of shocked solidarity, before sincerity and purpose and opportunism reinvented politics and history, leaving us arguably more divided than before. It set us on a course of war, of soldiers called to leave their children, their parents, their lovers, their homes, to fight battles in the heat and the dust far away--to make us safer, or less safe, depending on who you ask.

But here, by the water's edge, is the timeless liquid light. Here is a little girl picking flowers--tiny little yellow wildflowers--and forming them into miniature bouquets. Here is a boy stepping out onto a rock on the water, getting his shoes wet, not caring at all.

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