Saturday night, YouTube recommended a two-hour video for me to watch. It starts with a Good Morning America segment with Matt Lauer interviewing a Howard Hughes biographer that no one will remember when the feed switches to the WNBC local affiliate in three minutes.
That’s when we get our first reports of an explosion at the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
The newscasters are generally composed but also shocked at the spectacle, and this visual document instantly transports me back to the moment of feeling my legs taken from underneath me with the sudden and violent sea change of history that swallowed us all.
I feel it in my gut. My heart races, twenty-two years later, in spite of (or because of) knowing what comes next. I realize how much of this intense emotional and physical reaction has become softened, muted, dulled over the years. Which of course it should; that’s how we deal with death, isn’t it?
Tim O’Brien writes in his Vietnam War short story, “The Things They Carried,” that people understand the world in two ways: the “story truth“ and the “happening truth.“
The happening truth is much simpler of the two. It’s the in vivo experience of what is presently happening, our literal in-the-moment thoughts, feelings, reflexes.
The story truth is the one that we tell ourselves after the fact, after something massive has happened, after we try to piece together some semblance of sense of an experience. Sometimes, as it tends to do, even innocently, the brain confabulates details. It fills in the gaps that seem to so easily fall out of our remembered happening truths.
Sometimes, the happening truth of an experience can be radioactive. So we put on a. hazmat suit, the story truth we start to build, in order to better handle it: if it’s the death of someone we are grieving, a failed relationship, or a decision from years ago for which we still hold regret, we try to make those intense and often confusing feelings easier to handle, hold, and to better understand. So we start filling in and smoothing over those lacunas.
Does that mean that the story truths we tell ourselves are less true? I don’t think so. Because like Anaïs Nin once said, we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. And who we are is a forever changing lens that gets sharpened, fuzzied, and altered over time.
Because we are forever changing.
I think my story truth of this moment in history is still true and accurate. But it’s also one that’s been so smudged over time.
So when I watch that YouTube video, it makes me witness it through eyes and ears that knew nothing of yellowcake uranium, Abu Ghraib, a Patriot Act, Alan Jackson, Pat Tillman, taking shoes off for airport security, the cynicism of jokes about My Pet Goat, or jet fuel melting steel beams.
These layers of history can so easily bury intense core feelings tied to memories. Like stacking weighted blanket on top of weighted blanket as the form of the object underneath becomes shapeless until it disappears.
The video teleported me right back to a real-time unfolding of the happening truth of that day. There’s so much we didn’t know that’s now secondhand or casual knowledge, so much to which we’ve been desensitized.
Remember trying to get our heads around that an airplane — the same kind that took us on business trips and to Disney World — could be used in a suicide attack? And what about all those other people on the plane? And then those buildings? The ones above the smoking, burning parts? People were trapped? And did you also fall asleep on the couch with the news on? Thinking something else terrible was going to happen if we looked away?
The newscasters from that morning remind me of my happening truth as I listen to them struggle to get their heads around it, whispering “my god,” when they hesitantly give voice to hearing reports of people diving out of the buildings. These ghastly details have melded into a kind of lore that can feel cold and sterile just because we’ve lived with them for so long.
This day has been used to prop up too many personal agendas, election campaigns, and subsequent warfares that killed even more people. And no matter where you land on any of those issues, 22 years sure does feel like it’s very, very easy to forget the feelings from that day.
And that makes it sadder, somehow. Sadder for all the people we lost that day. And I don’t mean it as a sorrow that needs an immediate counter note to seek out retribution. No, I just mean sitting with all of that abrupt and horrifying death, all of that loss, all those photos of missing people stapled to makeshift plywood boards, images of people who would never come home again.
Facebook makes it impossible to forget 9/11, especially on 9/11. But I also think it can make it so hard to remember the people. How much we really hurt that day, the days, weeks, months after. It’s a hurt that marked us like a broken ankle that was never set properly. And it’s affected our gait ever since.
So when I started watching that YouTube video, all two hours of it, I cringed at myself — did I really want to do something so ghoulish? But as it went on, I realize that a part of me needed to be reminded of the mourning of it all. Of feeling bereft, at a loss, and just overcome with the empathy from how much hurting came from that day.
It felt less like poring over the grisly details of a crime scene and because I let the feelings pass through me. My own way of honoring the many, many people who died.
I won’t do this every September 11. Because my happening truth tells me that would be gratuitous.
For today, though, my story truth is that I will sit with these images and feelings so that I won’t forget. Yet forgetting is inevitable.
Because remembering still hurts so much.
Because that is the nature of memory and the stories we tell ourselves.
Because these are the things that we carry still.