Visiting the AIDS Memorial Quilt

The squares are bigger than you could even imagine. They command the room, the space. What a powerful source of memory, of honoring those who we have lost to AIDS.

As I have written about a few times already , I have been exploring the many squares on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and have been remembering especially two men who were important to my Mom, to our community, and to my perception and experience with the death tolls from AIDS. Almost as soon as I learned, via their website, that the Quilt is stored and the foundation headquartered here in Atlanta, I called, left a message, and asked to visit--especially to see the two squares I had been pouring over, Craig's and Parnell's.

Richie, a veteran of the NAMES Project Foundation, called me back after the MLK holiday weekend, and I planned a visit for today. This morning I spent some time crying, touching the quilt, reading the many lovely words, poems, thoughts contributed to each of their squares, and learned more about these two men via the wonderful memorial that this Quilt provides. It provides a way to remember, in a very communal and large-scale way, yet allowing for quite private and personal time with those who are being remembered. Richie pulled up the information on these two squares, 2744 (Parnell's) and 5508 (Craig's), so I could see where they had traveled, where they had been requested, and where and when they were each on display.

I learned that the demographic who has been contributing the most new squares--they receive on average about 400 new squares each year--are nieces. Girls my age, who have memories, however clear or unclear, of their uncles who died while we were young, and who have now reached the age in which remembering them properly has been an important part of grieving, or becoming an adult, of understanding how this illness has devastated families. I am exactly that generation, that demographic, though I have to consider myself an honorary niece only.

I made a donation in honor of my parents, who have been caring, compassionate examples for my brothers and me, and in honor of Craig and Parnell, obviously, and for each of their families. The wonderful (small) staff gave me a book of some quilt squares, and a calendar I have already poured over several times. I felt so welcomed, and depending on how much longer I am in Atlanta, I want to help quilt squares together as they need me. Seeing a modest and hard-working organization and staff like that also reminds me that I am in the right field; non-profits, working to educate and engage the public, and ensuring that life has been well-spent by taking care of the issues that matter most.

Take a moment to drink in how enormous each panel of this quilt is. Each square is intentionally 3 feet by 6 feet, about the size of a human grave. I was not prepared for the commanding presence, and for how much more meaningful seeing each component up-close truly is.

Ten years later.

We'll call this the requisite commentary-on-the-anniversary blog. Probably every American is reflecting on that Tuesday, September 11 ten years ago, in their own way, to many different degrees of emotion and disconnection, both and neither at once. It has been a decade, and what made it perhaps most poignant was a story posted on Public Radio International's website, on the difficulty of teaching 9/11 in high schools now that so many kids who are in high school recall the event only in vague and foggy ways--if at all.

The story tells of the teachers interviewed for the piece and their experience year by year: how in the years just afterwards, classroom discussions "were much more visceral." The 4- to 7- year olds mentioned in the story, who are in high school today, remember reactions of their parents and other very responses very near to them, but not the same way many who are older (adults, now, like me) remember the images on TV clearly--even if, as in my case, I didn't see them until I got home from school. (At the middle school where I was attending eighth grade at the time, someone higher up made the decision not to tell any of the students what was going on. By lunchtime, teachers around us were in tears and we all detected something was not right. I went home on the bus that day knowing only that "someone had bombed the Pentagon." For real)

Looks like it's history, now, really and truly. I remember in the wake of the tragedy, people saying this would be the moment for my generation that would long be recounted as a universal American experience. The endless and epic tale we each, we all, have. Where You Were When It Happened, much like President Kennedy's assassination in 1963. But really, here it is, a whole decade later, and it has become a part of history, and event that marks a clear delineation in this nation's history: a Before and an After. Strange to be at a stage, in adulthood, where things I experienced are "history." Guess this is what growing up feels like, right?

There was another truly interesting--and also disturbing and crazy and wholly logical given the world we live in today--report on the ten-year-later mark in this world: on the technology of facial recognition, and its birth in the government funding that allowed its remarkable development in the post-9/11 scared, reactionary, and technology and internet-savvy environment. NPR's Marketplace had a segment on the stunning course it has taken, as two enormous events dovetailed in history:

Fred Cate is a law professor and privacy guru at Indiana University. He says after 9/11, two independent trends dovetailed and reinforced each other. The federal government was investing hundreds of millions in surveillance technology and research to try and keep us safer. And companies like Google and Facebook were remaking the digital landscape. There was a data-collecting revolution.

FRED CATE: 9/11 and the sort of huge growth in social networking and in profiling and collecting Internet traffic -- those events are really parallel with each other.

And Cate says:

FRED CATE: We have gotten more used to more surveillance. And it's not clear that that's just attributable to the events of 9/11. But particularly when you think of the types of security we all go through now -- would have been pretty close to unthinkable a decade ago.

What we have created, as the story reports, is technology that fairly easily recognizes your face and identifies you based on photos it draws from the internet, and several other features both amazing and scary at once. The creepiest part: new technology can actually take a stab at what your social security number is, if it can determine from internet sources where you were born. Rest easy, though, because this stuff isn't on the market, and there are no intentions by its creators to put it there. As it stands, as I understood anyway, is that this is for governmental purposes. (You can decide if that makes you feel better about this.)

How interesting to think our post-9/11 perspective has provided the incubator for things like this, and our Facebook pages have fueled the flames, made it all the more possible. We are willing participants, at some degree, of the worlds we create. Ten years later, look at us now. To be honest, I have little memory of what adult life was like, even in a purely observational point of view as mine was, prior to 2001. And now it's a part of our past. Huh.