So here I am looking out across the Bronx and the Hudson under this nearly clear September sky, a day short of the 20th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks.
Tomorrow, the skies are supposed to be as completely clear as they were that day, before smoke and soot and ash and more blocked the sun.
I look up and I see the towers standing, still, and I see the planes approaching. I close my eyes and I see the towers standing, still, and I see the planes approaching and the gray plume rising. I look away, and I see the towers falling. No matter where I look, no matter where my inward or outer gaze may turn, somewhere I always see the moment.
Things changed forever in that moment, all the columnists and pundits and electronic mouths tell me — and they were right. Somehow, though, those pronouncements seem thin. Not their fault, really, since it’s impossible to convey in mere words — at least for mere mortals — the simple depth and complete suddenness of the change.
It’s kind of like knowing something when you see it, but not being able to explain it. Yet everyone understands. Sort of like the awful inverse of the instant you become a parent: You have moved into a different universe. The door has closed behind you and you can never return — not that you’d want to, but that’s a different story.
I often try to illustrate one facet of the change this way. A while back, there was a flawed — but telling — piece of cross-cultural research about the way children in different countries perceived ambiguous scenes. One scene was of a child’s bedroom, looking across it and out a window.
The child is on the floor, perhaps reaching under the bed. An airplane is visible through the window.
Children from different places on Earth were asked to tell a story about the picture. Many children told stories about hiding from the airplane, seeing it as a source of threat. Only in America did not a single child see any danger. Their stories were about taking trips. Finding a toy that had rolled under the bed. Grandparents coming to visit.
That was the America I grew up in, and that was the America I wanted to leave my children and grandchildren — except I wanted it to be an even better place. That America was safe. That America was never attacked. That America was a haven. That America was where people came so that their children and grandchildren wouldn’t be afraid of an airplane.
I’ve lived through moments when things changed, of course. Most especially Nov. 22, 1963, when my childhood ended and other dreams died.
But even though others shared the emotions of that day, it didn’t really change our shared sense of safety.
And, of course, we then believed in America as a force for good in the world, and that the American armed forces were full of souls who went off to war only on principle — not for conquest. People who, in the words of a seldom-sung verse of “America, the Beautiful,” “Country more than selves they loved, and mercy more than life.”
We hadn’t yet lost sight of being the place that sent millions of ordinary fellow-citizens off to save the world.
All of these images are still with me every day. The towers. The assassination. The noble place. The place of aspiration and hope, which called my ancestors, and which calls immigrants still — the American soldier entering Normandy where, still, there are signs commemorating and thanking “nos liberateurs.” Images of what can be seen, and what cannot.
I am an American. This means, among much else, that I believe in things I cannot see with just my open eyes, or touch with just my reaching hand, or kiss with just my searching lips. I believe that we have risen from darkness before, and will again, although I don’t know how or when.
I believe that it matters more that the people of Whitefish, Montana — and decades ago, elsewhere in Montana — rose up to banish anti-Semitism than that a series of darkened souls murdered Jews like me in other places in the country just the day before yesterday, or the day before that.
I believe that the American founding — that astonishing moment when so much brilliance and courage lived in one small, new place, relying so much as it did on what the Hebrew Bible, and Jews, brought to the world — was miraculous. I believe this even when I’m not so sure G-d really exists.
I believe the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and the visions of the U.S. Constitution will see us through.
And I am most assuredly a New Yorker. This means that I took the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks not just as an American, but doubly, personally. How dare those people do that in my hometown? Ah, but it also means that I understand in my bones, DNA and soul that they can’t keep us down.
New York City is always being reborn. It always emerges from darkness into light — OK, and occasionally back to dark again. We survive. We thrive. And, oh, we take care of each other.
One of the things I remember most vividly about that moment two decades ago is how, all of a sudden, people in the rest of the country noticed just how generous, caring and selfless New Yorkers really are. Turns out, we weren’t caricatures after all. Just characters.
Others were surprised. We knew who we were all along. We are not afraid.
I know, I know. Trump. Climate change. Insurrection. Anti-vaxxers. Rich versus poor. Racism. The internet.
I didn’t write that I wasn’t worried, or even scared. And I can’t say that things won’t get even more awful before they get better. I certainly feel guilty that I cannot say that I have left my children and grandchildren that better world for which I wished and for which I worked.
I can’t even guess when we’ll have enough perspective to judge this moment in history clearly — although I do believe it will be seen as another test we have passed, another moment we have passed through.
Today, I feel awful. Today, I remember loss. And tomorrow, I will mourn again.
But just now, I’m looking through clear air across Bronx treetops beyond the Hudson to the Palisades. Of course we’ll be OK.