Every year, the anniversary of September 11th washes an array of emotions over me. As a native New Yorker, it's hard not to feel intertwined with such a historic and relevant day. Fast-forward 12 years -- I am 17 now, and each year I cope with the losses of this city. But somewhere in the folds of time remains my 5-year-old self, a girl who was absorbing the colors, smells and feelings of the world; a girl who on her first day of kindergarten was aware as smoke billowed thickly through skyscrapers that punctured a baby blue sky.
It is surreal to have a glimpse at this cruel history through a cloud of childhood innocence. However, such innocence could not be compromised by the tragedy and grief. My emotions were not developed enough to feel the weight of the steel crashing down on the heart of our city. How could they be? My understanding of good and evil was derived from The Lion King and Cinderella -- stories that simply cannot encompass the complexities of politics, or the disorganized web that holds together terrorism and corrupted love. I could not have dealt with the pain that accompanies simplification, as thousands of lives were turned into statistics. Casualties, arranged and sorted into stacks of numbers -- only to be funneled into books and television -- only to be embedded into history. There is so much that lies behind those numbers; passion, heartache and memories of three-dimensional human beings that I will never get the chance to know.
Moreover, I could not have understood the political impact that 9/11 would have on the future. How could a child know that the idea of "patriotism" would become so perverted? That the beautiful emblem of unity and allegiance would become a justification for greed, as the government hustled for oil and revenge? No, at five I would not have predicted the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, nor the $1 trillion dollars added to our deficit for bloodshed. I could not foreseen the snowball effect of hostility that would compile more people into statistics, continuing fatalities on a disillusioned battlefield and stealing lives in the name of Uncle Sam.
These realizations have come gradually with time. Year by year I learn, and year by year another piece of that 5-year-old's innocence is lost into an atypical coming-of-age story. I have grown up watching as my community, my city and my country attempts to adapt to a world where such violence is possible. Yet the facts and the emotions tend to tangle. I refuse to live in fear of enemies unknown, yet when Osama bin Laden was killed I sighed in relief. I have a profound respect for those who have risked their lives to protect me, yet I struggle with understanding what they truly are protecting. America is more than a country, it is an idea: an autocratic collection of ambition and power that I both fear and idolize.
This is my present and my future. However, context has begun to taint my past. Sometimes I imagine the feelings that 5-year-old girl might have had as she watched her classmates abruptly picked up from school, wondering why were they leaving. Sometimes I see my mother, standing solemnly at a candlelight vigil in Strawberry Fields, holding me possessively in her arms. I hear the sporadic whispers between the choking silences. I picture my own confusion. Images of fire and crumbling debris continue to disturb my sleep. I wonder if they have always been there... or if I have the capacity to erase them from consciousness.
I don't know how many of those thoughts are my own. Between the media coverage and the personal stories that continue circulate, it's obvious the lines have been blurred. The truth is, no memory can remain perfectly intact. The mind's supple texture allows for an expanding library of our ever-changing ideas. Moving forward is impossible when you're revisiting the past. We walk in circles. Back, forth, side to side... leaving fresh tracks in the yesteryear.
But there is one thing I cannot change: the drawing in my mother's file cabinet. There, pressed between the report cards and the passports remains an artifact that has lasted through the years, going to show that New York City is not in ruins. We grow and we rebuild. Bit by bit, the Freedom Tower has climbed its way into the clouds. Now it stands, succeeding images of the two buildings I barely remember, replacing the skyline I will never know. Though I may have been young, I have seen a city of 8.3 million stand together, regardless of differences, to emerge from the rubble intact.
The Freedom Tower and I are one. With a glass complexion, we reflect the vitality of our present. With a steel spine, we are strong enough to confront the future. We have grown up together. We are powerful. We stand tall in face of our past.
But the past is something we cannot forget. These drawings preserve the innocent interpretation of an event more elaborate than I could fathom. And as far into the distance as she may be, the drawings preserve the little girl that I used to be. She will sit forever in 2001, markers in hand, narrating a seemingly simple day to her teacher. Words to bleed into parchment. Parchment that will eventually fade. This is her story. Not mine.
Photos courtesy of Riley Griffin.