It’s Friday, September 10, 2021.
Try, now, to remember precisely what you were doing on the evening of September 10, 2001. What were you wearing? What did you have for dinner? How was the weather? What were you planning to do the next morning? Can you remember?
In general, I know that I was sleeping on a fold-out sofa in the second bedroom that had, a few days earlier, become a nursery for my first-born child. I was sleeping in that room because that’s where the baby was, and I had to get up several times in the night to feed him. Also, the sofa bed was lower to the ground than our proper bed, in our bedroom. Since I was healing from a C-section, navigating the lower bed was easier.
I haven’t the faintest idea what we had for dinner or watched on television or talked about.
But I was happy, if tired, on that September evening. I was thinking of all the things ahead, how my life as a mother would take shape.
According to Jim Hopper, who’s done extensive research in this area, my inability to recall details from 9/10/01 is quite normal. Our brains, according to his studies, typically encode only a portion of what happens to us on a normal day. The parts we pay closest attention to are the most likely to be retained, which explains why I remember sleeping on the sofa bed but not what I had for dinner.
But in a high-stress experience, with the accompanying flood of stress hormones, our brains go into hyper-encoding mode. As on normal days, during high-stress moments, the most clearly encoded memories are details that were most important to us at the time of the trauma. On top of that normal processing, though, cortisol and norepinephrine flood our brains during traumatic events, and these stress hormones help the hippocampus go into hyper drive, encoding the intricate details of a terrifying experience.
But the memory doesn’t remain crystal clear. Over time, those memories get distorted, with some details taking on disproportionate significance. Repeated exposure to visual evidence from the event can increase this distortion, blurring the lines between what an individual actually experienced and the aggregate, collective archive of videos, images, and stories.
So I am wondering, tonight, about our memories and time.
Twenty years after that fateful day, the trauma of the event has perhaps become our central, defining narrative in the U.S. As images and videos from 9/11/01 flood our news feeds and televisions this time each year, as we recall (intentionally or not) where we were, what we wore, how we felt that day, it is possible that time, and our faulty memories, might play tricks on us.
And to what end?
Has the 20 year span perhaps enabled us to grow more comfortable wearing a cloak of tragedy than recalling the also-true memories of our ordinary lives from the day before?
When we hear the names and honor the 2,996 people who died on September 11, 2001, what image should time stamp, repeatedly, on the tender parts of our souls: The memory of death on that day, or of life the day before, as we’ve now forgotten it?
This post is 32/56 in a self-directed challenge to write (or at least post) something (SOMETHING) every day – a birthday gift to me from me, because writing gives me a place to put the clutter that lives in my head.