Two years ago today I was listening to an NPR report about the anniversary ceremony that happens every year down at Ground Zero. It was very similar, though more polished, to the first such anniversary memorial which I listened to live on the radio. In 2002 I felt that everything was appropriate. The reading of the names, the ringing of a bell to mark when the planes hit and then when the towers fell, the speeches from various elected and appointed officials, the gathering of the survivors and families of the victims, all of it. It had only been a year, the pain was still shockingly fresh.
But when I listened to the report two years ago I had a very different reaction. Ceremony and ritual intrigue me, and listening to the names and bells and speeches, I was struck by how easily we fell into this ritual with these elements that you can find in ritual and cult in many cultures and many periods in history. Without calling it a ritual, the remembrance of 9/11 became one. What interested me the most was that it also became a particular kind of ritual, one where these survivors and family and friends of those who died were viscerally reliving and recreating that day.
Here is when this moment occurred — mark it, remember it, relive those feelings again. Now here’s where this moment happened — where were you, what were you thinking, what did you feel? Now this moment, and this next one, until we’ve gone over again and again the details and called up the ghosts and recalled the last words, the last touch, the very moment when your life was sliced into Before and After.
This is powerful magic.
In between 2002 and 2007 I didn’t listen to any other 9/11 ceremonies. I avoided most media on those days and have carefully avoided even being down near Ground Zero as the anniversary approaches. Having lived through it once I was in no hurry to relive it again, even through ritual, which I find comforting. When the anniversary came around again in ’07 I thought it was safe for me to listen to the radio, I thought I had successfully dealt with (read: suppressed) what went on with me that day. 5 minutes of news coverage undid all my walls.
In response, I started writing the story that eventually became Until Forgiveness Comes. That was my ritual.
Last year I was able to listen to the news and watch television without having a complete nervous breakdown. This year my response has been a bit different. YouTube and I have gotten to know each other well over the past week. But the more I process and reflect, I still think that, before or since, I’ve not said anything that articulates my feelings about that day better than the story I wrote.