It’s hard to believe it has been fourteen years since the events of 9/11. The college freshmen I was teaching that semester are now in their early thirties, and one can only wonder if that event was formative for them. Certainly for the kids from New York and New Jersey, I imagine they were. I remember one student describing looking out her window at home, over the river to see Manhattan’s high rises, and then going home for Columbus Day weekend and her crucial landmarks were just gone.
It is unnerving when our landscape just disappears. It robs us of our anchors, the margins of our world that tell us which way is up and down and left and right. Perhaps that is one reason the Budweiser tribute to the victims of 9/11 from five years ago is so affecting.
An even more powerful example of this is the Japanese tsunami four years ago, when the sea rose up and ate whole towns and villages, leaving over 15,000 people dead, 340,000 people displaced and 24-25 million tons of rubble and debris. I cannot imagine returning home to see only barren broken land, shorn of natural and built environment, stranded in rubble and mud.
The flip side of all this loss are the barely visible landmarks by which we make our way through our familiar environments. I remember coming home to New England after spending more than two years in Japan and being amazed at all the church steeples everywhere I looked (or so it seemed). Although I started out Roman Catholic, the ubiquitous white wooden Congregational church steeples were like architectural punctuation telling me that this geography is a sentence I understand how to read.
And now, working at Massachusetts Institute of Technology after my time in Japan many years ago, I cannot pass under an apparently nameless concrete gate next to the Wiesner Building without thinking of all the torii gates I saw in Japan, particularly the most famous on out on the water near Miyajima. You can leave a place, but it doesn’t always leave you.