September 11: On remembering, reading, and not daring to do much else

We’ve probably all said it today, or in the weeks, months, and years leading up to today:  We Will Never Forget.

It’s an anthem in itself by now, a mantra. It’s the right sentiment, of course. We know it has the proper ring of crucial remembrance and memorial to it. We understand that our nation of victims and heroes is owed at least this much, in the ten-year wake of so much else: to Never be Forgotten.

But as we stand in our myriad moments of silence today, bowing heads to blasting, oft-overly-operatic renditions of “God Bless America,” it’s okay, I think, to admit that we might have forgotten, or never known in the first place, what Never Forgetting really consists of.

Am I alone in my slightly embarrassed confusion? Can someone show me an example—a flow chart, a diagram—of how one may participate in the act of Never Forgetting? I have the ultimate respect and admiration for the bravery shown that day. I have the same footage in my head as anyone else may have: the planes, the dust. I know where I was when I found out, how I found out, how very strange it was to see my whole family crowded around the TV like the screen couldn’t be close enough and like our own Illinois lives depended on it. Is this, then, Never Forgetting? Am I passing in a world of 10-year tributes?

Maybe I need some assistance. Maybe it’s not enough to figure out this mantra on my own. With that in mind, it seems fitting to list the September 11, 2001–relevant texts that have made the most genuine impact, and aided me in the sometimes murky task of fierce remembrance. I only hope they can do the same for you.

Third world by Dexter Filkins.

Let’s start with the most “conventional” tribute, as it were. This is what people really want to see: the in-the-moment, direct-from-Tower One primary sources of the utmost human drama. You know what I’m talking about. The faces of the burned, the buried, the lost. Filkins knows what he’s doing. He has placed his entire flash-narrative in the moment that is surest to captivate us with a shock we haven’t felt the same way since. But what Filkins does differently is strip Third World’s few characters of the generic, matte heroism we’re so often guilty of coating them with. It’s usually taboo to suggest that the people who risked their lives that day were anything but pure, sinless angels that walk among us. The cops trying on coats and laughing at the end of this story aren’t any less human (or heroic) for their odd playfulness. Shock is an unpredictable, unattractive display, and I think Filkins is brave to challenge the sacred nature of 9/11 to suggest that that’s true.

Leap by Brian Doyle.

Eerily, this starts out almost like a fable. Immediate, bald, and arresting, what’s equally evident here is the music that Doyle is establishing. This is a poem, surely, and the humility established by lines like, Many people jumped. Perhaps hundreds. No one knows…rid us of any suspicion that Doyle wants to act as an authority on the matter. Indeed, he seems to be writing Leap so that he can stop considering the image of two jumpers holding hands, and because of that the one-page piece reads even more like a prayer than a poem. He’s supplicating, and by the last line, we are, too: to anyone who can assure us with conviction that, in the unforgettable words of Doyle, love is why we are here.

The view from Mrs. Thompson’s by David Foster Wallace.

I saved this for last because it applies to the vast majority of us: those who were nowhere near New York the day the towers fell. Wallace gets at the surrealist quality of watching news coverage on September 11, 2001 (a day he only refers to as The Horror) from a house over 1,000 miles away. He articulates the particular guilt involved in knowing we Midwesterners were, for the most part, safe from what was happening to the people on the TV screen; the church ladies of Bloomington, Illinois, where Wallace was watching, weren’t even sure where the World Trade Center was located. But there’s something genuine that’s conveyed to us in this first-person account, a pitting of cynicism against naiveté and realizing that, in the midst of a crisis, neither comes out on top. And prayer is as much a way to drown out your own cynicism or naiveté as it is a way to feel like you’re doing, from rural Illinois, all that one can do.

So, that’s my list. I’d be interested in hearing what readings have kept you Never Forgetting. And, y’know, I think it’s alright for these tributes to be quick, or geographically displaced, or temporally displaced, or fervent, or angry, or spirited, or all of it. There’s no right way to approach the material, as long as we’re not expected to walk away with any certain, manufactured emotional response. I feel differently every time I finish reading these. Because grief, like shock, changes shape over time. And that’s fine. As long as we continue for ten more years to succeed in our Unforgetfulness.

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