On September 11, 2006, I did my best to ignore the news broadcasts recreating the events of five years ago. The intention was to avoid reminders of things that I had seen, all too well, that day from my office window. I went about my daily affairs. I took care of things, largely in the order in which I found it appealing to so act. In the evening, after long hours of giving counsel to someone, I met up with a friend, JG, and drove across the Navesink River, up the winding, hilly roads of Locust and Middletown, until JG and I reached the Atlantic Highlands, a high bluff on the coast that looks out across a harbor to the New York City skyline.
On the hill, optimistically referred to at approximately 400 feet as the Mt. Mitchell Overlook, my friend and I took half an hour shooting photographs at the temporary memorial at Ground Zero, visible from New Jersey. Two shafts of light drifted up, seemingly just west, given our perspective, of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, until they dissipated high in the atmosphere. A small group of people had gathered at the same location as JG and I, and they watched us taking photographs with as much interest, it seemed, as they were watching the memorial. They asked us about photography and one, in particular, told stories of how he had worked as a glass and steel cleaner in the World Trade Center. There were tourist's scopes at the location, those large metal binoculars that showed a dramatic vista for a small fee, and the glass and steel worker kept advising people to take a look through them at the memorial.
"Best quarter I ever spent," he repeated.
A shooting star passed, and the fellow became agitated, saying he bet something like that would never happen. "A shooting star," he repeated. "That's once in a lifetime."
I remarked, quietly, that the Perseid Meteor Shower came every year during September and October.
JG and I largely kept our own counsel, not saying much to the others, although JG later growled that he wished the one guy would shut up. I nodded, and did not admit that I largely wished that all the people at the location would shut up.
After wrapping up there, JG and I drove down to the beach just east of the Earle Naval Weapons Station, and set up our equipment again. We calmly went through the method of night photography, setting up our cameras on stable tripods and taking long exposures at different focal lengths of the lights: 10 seconds, 15 seconds, 30 seconds, longer.
Today, I went through the New York Times and looked through its Portraits of Grief website. I looked up the page listing a high school classmate, Swede Chevalier. I looked up a lawyer and businessman I could never be. I looked up a man with a chilling prognostication. I looked up a woman I probably would have chased after. I looked up a man that reminded me of my father. I looked up a man who had a temper and an argumentative streak akin to mine. A man whose humor I wished I possessed. A man with similar, cerebral, perhaps "nerdy" interests.
After a few moments, I went back and read the page about Swede. I paused for a moment, then closed the windows to all of the websites.
They were shooting stars. Once in a lifetime.
The truth is, I don't know if there is any great lesson to be learned, other than those political and military lessons, to be learned from 9-11. The obvious ones - that life can be fleeting, that we can lose our loved ones before we have a chance to tell them what they mean in our lives - can be learned after any tragic event: a fatal car crash on the Parkway, a house fire, death after a long illness. But then, it was that the event surprised us - horrified us - with its depiction of not just one death, but so, so many that we realized just how real death was. It could be a lottery, it could take us in one sweeping grasp. It pushed us. Or, at the least, it pushed me. It made me ask serious questions about my life. Was I sleepwalking my way through my decisions? Was I taking that opportunity in each moment to make it something heroic? Was I doing the right thing?