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What I’ll do with the anniversary no one wants to celebrate.

A young woman lights a candle at Union Square, 9/13/01. Photo by Tony Gale.

I was working as a receptionist on Wall Street and had been at my desk for just a few minutes when it all started. After a long, horrific, and bizarre day, I walked the Brooklyn Bridge to my friend’s place in Prospect Heights (I wrote the whole story in depth elsewhere). I spent the next few days in shock, like most of us, before going back to work in Lower Manhattan again. People in hazmat suits were cleaning office windows as I made my way from the 2 train in pantyhose and lip gloss. Two years later, I got a job with a foundation that addressed long-term 9/11 recovery, from the effects on immigrant communities and spikes in domestic violence to advocacy for the recovery workers who had started getting sick. I had that job, in an office that overlooked Ground Zero from Cortlandt Street, for five years.

So early September is a strange time for me.

Each time the anniversary rolls around it brings up a cocktail of feelings and memories, some that I will do anything to avoid and others that I’m almost compelled to express and explore. Sometimes I yearn for a memorial service; other times I want to pretend it never happened. Colleagues of mine from the foundation days have expressed similarly contradictory feelings. A pastor friend is relieved that this year he’ll be among strangers who don’t know his history and won’t expect him to sermonize. Culturally, we’re all urged to “never forget,” but some of us wish we could even entertain that as a choice once in a while.

We know now that 9/11 was isolated to those four planes, but as it was happening we couldn’t tell. It started with the Towers but for all I knew the whole city could have been flattened. Faced with mortality on a scale that most of us had never seen, we could not help thinking about our own regardless of how close we’d been to actual danger; whether my neighbors and I could have said so at the time, we’d had a brush with death. It triggered spontaneous, life-affirming acts of generosity and equally spontaneous, numbing acts of compulsion.

I may have been able to talk myself into a fragile sense of safety moment by moment, but then the phone would ring. It’s a strange thing for people to call to make sure you’re alive. Over and over again in those calls, we said, “I love you.” It was an anchor, an affirmation: the first priority was life and safety and the second was affection. Little else mattered. We emailed when we couldn’t call. We found our people and did whatever we could do to feel a sense of community and grounding. We brought candles and flowers to makeshift vigils. We made donations. We let each other know we were there, we were okay, we were shaky but present, we were praying for each other. We did our best — to varying degrees of success — to comfort ourselves and each other in midst of endless questions and shock.

I made apologies to people I felt I’d wronged, however inconsequentially and however long ago. I watched strangers be kind to each other in the massive, difficult, beautiful city and did what I could to join them. I wanted to document everything in those precious and tenuous days as though I could preserve that kindness and keep it close. I could use it to heal myself.

At the time, I was a serious student of Buddhism and had learned about a Tibetan practice of contemplating one’s own death. Practitioners visualize the decay of their own corpses, understanding in this visceral way that their lives are temporary. They know beyond a doubt — because they’ve seen it happen — that they will die.

We will die. This is our only certainty, but we forget. We act like we have all the time in the world, despite our constant busy-ness and media streams and full calendars. When it counts, when we could show up whole-heartedly and make a moment for love, we often hold ourselves in reserve and unconsciously create ways to avoid vulnerability. We don’t take the risk because we forget that life is so very short. We forget that we could die with unspoken affections on our lips and unused service in our hands, so we find something else to say and do and save that generosity for the rainy day we don’t really believe in. Later, we think without thinking.

Years after 9/11, the holistic school I attended offered a unit on death and dying. My teacher was perhaps quoting Gurdjieff when he said that “all fear is fear of death.” We fear mortality abstractly and the hundred smaller deaths of disappointment, change, and humiliation far more acutely. We’re frightened by the demise of habit and ego, the destruction of our carefully maintained self-images, because they remind us of the real Death. My teacher explained that if we can accept the reality of Death we can let go of inhibition, shame, and procrastination because we realize we just don’t have time for them. We live more fully when we know we will die — not abstractly-someday-maybe, but imminently.

I wish I could say I remember this every day but I’m very forgetful. I get caught up in drama and self-importance. I let too much time pass between visits with friends. I mean to volunteer or finish that project but find thirty other things to do. Life gets in the way of living.

But then this anniversary rolls around again and again I wonder what to do with it. How do I mark a day of such personal and collective meaning? After so many years, what’s the right thing? We say that “9/11 changed everything,” so what changed for my 24-year-old self and what does that mean to me now? What do I want to remember when I “never forget?”

I expect I may always need to ask these questions since healing and resilience are processes rather than end points. Healing certainly isn’t linear; it spirals and peels and uncovers other layers of tenderness. This year, at least, I’ve decided to mark the anniversary by reaching out to friends and family. It will be a day to remember that I didn’t die and I have the opportunity to enjoy my life and the people in it. I will remember the reality of death so that I live more fully. Despite all of the distractions and reasons to avoid it, for as long as I can remember I will risk being generous with love and kindness.