9/11 is our day of marking, our day of mourning. At dinner last night, our older son told us about his school’s annual assembly, how affected he was by the grim sequence of images—the smothering dust, the tiny figures plunging to their death. Every year at his school the president of the student council gives a talk; this year they have come to the waning moments where soon none of those young people will have been alive on that day. For them it recedes into memorialized history, not entirely lived and felt history.
And yet. I have always felt that the significance of 9/11 is 9/12 and thereafter, the world we live in now and that our children have inherited. Sasha was just over a year that bright blue sky day, and I will never forget leaving him with his father at home, biking down the West Side with phone chargers in my back pack, looping to the Red Cross where I’d hoped to donate blood. Instead there was a momentary stop at the heliport where Pataki and Clinton were just then disembarking to be greeted by Guliani (yes, that kind of bipartisan resolve did exist) and we all cheered as they were whisked into cars, down to the site. And then there was no need for chargers, no need for blood, just a police barricade, plumes of ashen smoke blotting that perfect sky. That night, our son snuggled in our carry-on, we joined others at the Sailors and Fallen Soldiers Monument and sang and sang, almost wishing we could never leave each other, this fellowship, on such a painful and numbing day.
It is no secret that I did not want to leave the city. It is the place of my birth, my blood connection, my charge and vibe. I’m an urban girl through and through. But somehow one year later we encamped to Maplewood, NJ, waking up stunned in an empty house on a quiet street on a hot August morning in 2002. Our move was not connected to the event—we were not fleeing the city because of the attack. But we did , in some way, need to rebuild, rethink, remold ourselves. And I often think I experienced a rebirth as a writer then, one that was directly connected to 9/12. I was now a writer in the world we have woken up to, the world our children are shaped by: war, terror, counter-terrorism, Islamophobia, fear, immigration panic, security. Soon after a novel tore out of me, about the crackdown on undocumented immigrants—which became Ask Me No Questions. At the end of the novel, the sisters’ fate remains unclear, as they are lofted out into that 9/12 world. In real life, they would probably have become beneficiaries of DACA, which was just so cruelly torn away.
I had thought my story—of an undocumented family in the wake of 9/11—would become a kind of historical document. Instead, in 2017, under this current administration and divisive mood, we are once again in the same crisis being lived afresh. The world of 9/12 is not about linear progression. It is about these same unresolved conflicts erupting again and again. It is about the submerged re-emerging, with a vengeance. That is how trauma works. It is circular, often unresolved, getting worse before–and if–it gets better. I cannot help but think, that with the attempt at the Muslim ban, the elimination of DACA, the events in Charlottesville, we are now in the descending plunge of the spiral. When and how we circle up and out again, toward light and resolution—hard to say. That may be too Pollyanna a vision. 9/12 is here to stay.
But there is one sweeter note to end on, for me, personally, as to what it’s been like to live in 9/12. The community we so impetuously moved to a year after 9/11—Maplewood—has proved to be a nurturing bath for that newly re-formed writer self. It is where I have raised my children; amidst the hub bub of family life, I carved out book after book, some out of the anguish and concern and puzzlement at the times we are living through. Some are just the drive toward curiosity or shadow pockets of history or personal obsession. Living in a house means there are that many more corners to stack up research books and novels. I often think our house is one great heaving ship taking in more book cargo, while chucking out others to create better ballast, so we don’t capsize and drown in print.
And that is why, with great pleasure, I tell of receiving the 2018 Maplewood Literary Award, the brainchild of our remarkable library director, Sarah Lester, who also created the Maplewood Ideas Festival. Fifteen years ago we decamped, we rebuilt, and re-envisioned. Nearly every day I wake up to this street of porched houses, and children scattering toward school, commuters racing for the midtown direct train. From my desk, just beyond the trees, I glimpse the rooftop of novelist Pamela Erens‘ house, the 2017 award recipient. It gives me quiet comfort to know she too is facing the page, so nearby. And solace too for a community that so values art and words and expression, even in the face of our worst darkness. This is my 9/12. This is how we begin.