It has been a strange few weeks in the news. An assortment of headlines we may or may not know what to do with, but we tuck them away in our collective unconscious like bookmarks. There is the potential for microwave popcorn --buttered--to cause lung cancer; Britney Spears' dismal comeback concert at the VH1 awards and the ensuing discussions (blogged and otherwise) on what was she doing wearing "that" outfit; David Letterman reconciling with Oprah Winfrey; the deaths of Pavarotti, Wyman, Roddick; the cutting back (or not) of troops in Iraq.
And the 6th anniversary of September 11. How do we categorize that one? Despite the endless articles on how much remembering is too much, the fact is that we will never forget what we were doing that day, who we were with, what we talked about and what was said, what aired on the news, and how that night, all across America and beyond, we would not sleep right, nor would we ever really sleep right again. Six years ago, I was living in Hudson County, NJ, and working in Manhattan. That morning on the way to work, I saw the smoke rise up above the Twin Towers from across the Hudson River in Weehawken. But before I saw it, I heard it. A man above me on the staircase that descends to the water, screamed "fire, fire!" as he looked out at the pillars of the World Trade Center, and I heard him, and that's why I looked. I remember thinking, there must have been an accident, but it will be OK. I remember taking the ferry to work (the last one that would run that day), and all the passengers talking about a small plane hitting the World Trade Center. A passenger plane, like a single engine. And the rest of that horrendous day unfolding, and learning that the small plane was actually a jet, and that there was another jet that had crashed, and that suddenly there was a connection between what was happening in the sky and your life; that in the space of a few moments, you couldn't call anyone, couldn't get anywhere except by walking; couldn't verify the real news versus what people said in the street. You wondered: was something else bad going to happen. You wondered: how could a plane crash into the side of a building? Was there someone you knew who had been in that building on that morning? And if you didn't know it already, you would come to find out that not very far away in downtown Manhattan, people were jumping out of the World Trade Center buildings and running for their lives to escape the smoke and fire and ash. You would learn in the coming weeks, in posters strewn about the city and on the news and in The New York Times, about a thousand different lives lost, a thousand fallen stars. Some of them you knew. Some of them you were married to, or gave birth to, or were a brother or sister to. Some of them reminded you of friends you'd known. The color of their hair, the expression on their faces. The way they smiled.
Six years ago, I lived in a different state. I was not yet married. I had a different job. My uncle was still alive, and the country was not yet at war, and there were a hundred books I had not yet read and dozens of trips I had not yet taken. Six years from now, or ten, or twenty, who knows if I will be able to look up at the sky on a crystal clear day and watch the path of a plane as it skims the arc of the horizon and not fear convergence. Impact. Something wrong. Even right now, there is a terrible knot in my stomach.
Life goes on. We read the headlines, eat, sleep, go to the movies, exercise, work, celebrate births and mourn deaths, laugh and cry, complain, love, hate. But deep in our hearts, we know what event has defined our generation, whether we say it out loud or not. It's tucked away in our collective unconscious, like a bookmark for a novel we can hardly bear to read.