The National September 11 Memorial and Museum has launched a project called "Make History," which it describes as a "collective telling of the events of 9/11 through the eyes of those who experienced it, both at the attack sites and around the world." People can contribute photos and stories about their experience of 9/11, and visitors to the website and museum can search by topic or location. It's beautifully done. Though I didn't see it myself today, I understand the museum has a "We Remember" audio booth where folks can record their memories and reflections for the museum's archives. (The museum is under construction, but the former WTC site was open to the families of 9/11 victims today.) I wasn't in New York on 9/11/01, and didn't lose anyone in the attacks, but of course can understand the impulse to testify. Certainly people who lost family and friends want to remember them, speak their names, perhaps join their personal stories to the greater story of 9/11, which has national significance.
I was in New Orleans a few weeks after Katrina. I heard a lot of stories -- people talked because they were proud of riding out the storm, or because it was a consolation in the wake of their loss, or because they wanted others to know about the injustice and the neglect that New Orleans had suffered, or just because they liked to talk, or for any number of other reasons. There was something so tender and generous in people shortly after the storm, which they expressed partly in talking, and in listening to each other. New Yorkers tell me there was a similar spirit in the city after 9/11.
More recently, I was at the centennial commemoration of the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco. Estimates of the death toll from that disaster vary, but it was certainly in the thousands. The spirit of that commemoration is at this point more festive than solemn. The few remaining survivors were infants when the quake and fire ravaged huge portions of the city, and so that event has less personal and more historic, almost mythic resonance. The disaster and the relatively fast rebuilding (the city hosted a major international exposition only 9 years later) has come to signify San Francisco's resilience and spirit. When, in 2006, people gathered early that morning of April 18 to hear survivors' recollections, to sing the city's unofficial anthem, or to help re-paint a famous Mission District fire hydrant (it stopped the fire from spreading further west), it felt a bit like historic reenactment -- we were placing ourselves in history, and in the supposed character of the city. 1906 is long past, and unlike 2001 and 2005 it is historical rather than personal memory; and each of these events has a different significance. And yet I can't help but think that there's something similar in the rituals that we use to mark them, and the reasons we take part in those rituals: to remember, to connect, to heal, and to say, "that's my story, too."