On September 11 this year, we all looked at our phones (probably before we got out of bed, if we’re being honest) and the newsfeed was predictable, right? Everyone sharing where they were; their feelings of despair and shock; some sugary but earnest patriotism. <flag emoji> I do the same thing, every year. It almost seems if we don’t commemorate or say anything, then it’s like it didn’t happen at all. It seems wrong and sad to let our history slip into the past, forgotten even though we said #neverforget.

september 11
I take a picture of the sky every year on September 11, because that is what I remember most on this day in 2001. Sitting in the courtyard at lunch; my senior year of high school and remarking on not just the beauty of the kinda blue the sky only is in September, but the emptiness. Living in central New Jersey, there is never not a plane in the sky. Except that day. There are so many other things I remember. Friends crying in the hallways, waiting to hear from their parents who worked in NYC. Laying on the industrial carpet in AP History remarking (in true teen angst fashion) how my innocence died that day. How all the channels on the tv were off, but we still sat on the couch with dinner and watched the silence anyway. But the sky always comes back to me clearly.

These posts actually don’t bother me, and they’re not the point. A lot of them might be cliche and repetitive, but they are heartfelt. 9/11 was certainly a traumatic experience for me and I remember a lot of moments clearly. It’s healthy to talk about trauma and to make note of shifts in our country’s history.

What did bother me, especially this year, were the posts pining away for a country that once was: united we stand, one nation under God, and all of that. Especially at a time when our country seems more divided than ever (at least in memory…Civil War, anyone?), it seemed collectively everyone was wishing for a simpler time when we all got along. Those are really, really nice sentiments, buuuuuut…was that real?

Here’s where I have to take a step back and reevaluate my own memories of 9/11. Because I do recall that feeling of togetherness. Of course I did. I grew up 45 minutes from the World Trade Center and we were devastated. I was a teenager and I saw teachers and students alike weeping in the hallways at school. I went to countless memorials and made posters and sang songs and did all of that. And if you knew me then (or know me now) this won’t surprise you: I made a hell of a racket about not going to war, and treating Muslims with respect.

Ah, there it is.

The high school me likely didn’t have enough awareness of the big picture to make the connection that the unity I felt after 9/11 was not universal. Adult me does, however, and let me tell you this one smacks. No way were we united after 9/11. Don’t you remember all the brown people getting stopped at the grocery store and gas station and airports? Aren’t your ears still ringing from arguments about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq?

I came of age (yes, millennials are adults now) through this turmoil and it has absolutely shaped who I am, my beliefs, and my priorities as a citizen and as a parent. I have felt this division in my family, in my church, and in my town. There was no safe haven to escape from this reality, and it keeps coming back to me again and again, in so many different forms. I meant it when I said that I lost my childhood innocence on that day; that we were all safe and happy in our unified bubble. This pained reminiscing of the unity we once had is only felt by us, and even then it’s shaded by the rosy hue of nostalgia. Let’s face it, there are large swaths of Americans who have never felt united, and have always been marginalized, questioned, excluded, and worse.

Let’s bring it full circle. We are the United States in name only. Our democratic experiment does a good job of creating division and tension, particularly of the racial variety. The people in power are hell-bent on staying there, and they (we?) will use every tactic available to ensure that happens, including pitting us all against each other under the guise of patriotism.

The values we were founded upon are always under scrutiny and up for debate. That is indeed the point of a democracy, and since we can think and speak freely, I am challenging us to do so. We can solemnly reflect, while recognizing all Americans don’t remember it the same way. We can speak out against war, while supporting our military and their families. We can go back and revisit our memories, connect new dots, and arrive at a different conclusion. So, next 9/11 and 9/12 and all the days, I will lower my flag, listen to your stories, be proud of those who serve us all, and yell (maybe in all caps) about the American values I believe in: inclusion, equity, and unity. But for real this time.