I sit on a big rock, soaking in the sun as I gaze out onto the Pacific Ocean.
The blue sky — perhaps a shade lighter than it was on that day — is littered with a scattering of clouds. My weather app tells me it’s in the mid–70s. The light breeze is warm; not the stiff fall chill of a New York September morning.
Every year for the past 18 years, I find myself comparing the weather to what it was on that morning of the day the world changed.
I watch a mom play with her two young boys. They are dressed in matching outfits with matching sun hats. They hunt for shells at the edge of the shore, in a small inlet between the rocks.
Further down the beach, a gaggle of visitors walk along the rocks, curiously investigating the tide pools.
I wonder if any of them realizes what today is. I look at the kids and wonder if they know. Do they read about this in history books in school, as “something that happened” in the past, the way I learned about the Vietnam war?
It’s hard to think of this as history. Even after 18 years, it feels current. Present. Here. In many ways it is. Recovery workers are still dying.
* * * * *
When I came to California in mid-March, I expected to be here for 2 weeks. I left myself open to the possibility of extending by a few weeks. In all scenarios that I imagined, I would be back in New York by mid-April.
Staying for the summer wasn’t on my radar. Still being here in September never occurred to me.
Life has a way of dictating our plans.
As I looked at flights last week, I found myself avoiding flights on this day, and even the whole week. I noticed my myopia-induced surprise at the fact that airlines schedule flights on 9/11. Who would fly today?
Many people, obviously. Because life goes on.
So here I am. On the beach in La Jolla. For the first time in 18 years, I am away from New York on 9/11.
* * * * *
For me, 9/11 has always been about more than a date on the calendar.
It’s in the weather: a clear blue sky with a warm sun and crisp northeast bite in the air that invites a sweater.
It’s in every plane that flies overhead, too close for comfort. Every helicopter. Every siren. Every blackout, every subway ride, every building fire, explosion, or terrorist threat.
And, at this time of year, it’s in two beams of blue light that would capture my attention wherever I’d be downtown: from my “backyard” in Union Square Park to the path to Trapeze School New York along Hudson River Park.
Those blue lights seem to carry a power in New York that few other things do: they cause us to pause. As New Yorkers rush from one thing to the next, the blue lights invite rememberance of what we lost on that September summer day.
* * * * *
We all lost something that day, beyond loved ones and buildings.
Our sense of innocence. The belief that it could never happen here.
An anchor. Even for New Yorkers, the non-grid layout of lower Manhattan can be confusing. The Twin Towers were a compass point in lower Manhattan, a way to get my bearings when I got out of the subway there. They were a fixture of our skyline. An anchoring point. For years after 9/11, every time I emerged from the subway I felt disoriented without their presence.
* * * * *
Once I knew I’d be here, I began to wonder if it would feel different here. If I would feel different here.
Away from the context of New York, away from the blue lights, would 9/11 still carry the energy of 9/11? Or would it just be another day?
As I walked to the beach, I noticed a plane flying overhead.
It’s been 18 years, and my heart still skips a beat as I take note of every plane I see in the sky, pausing to wonder if it’s headed toward a nearby building. Even when there’s no building nearby.
I’m fairly certain that’s not normal, certainly not in Southern California, where the biggest threat that might emerge from a cloudless blue sky is a seagull that attacks you for your lunch on the beach.
I wonder if a plane in the sky will ever be just a plane in the sky, the way it was before that day.
* * * * *
Sitting at the edge of the ocean, with the vast horizon stretched out in front of me, the distance to that day and place seems greater than 18 years and 3,000 miles.
And, yet, when I close my eyes, the moments of that day play out in my memory in vivid detail.
I open my eyes to return to this moment. Focusing on the ocean, I watch the waves. As the waves barrel over, they crash into big piles of white foam. Today, in every cascade of white foam, I see the dust and ashes of the towers as they collapsed into rubble.
This is 9/11 away from New York. It’s here in the planes flying overhead and in the crashing of waves. It is here in my body, because that’s where memory lives.