This is definitely Pre. (AP Photo/Disney-DreamWorks II, David James) This is definitely Pre. (AP Photo/Disney-DreamWorks II, David James)

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a character asks, “Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. Must have been shattering, stamped into one’s memory. And yet, I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the word for it. Before we know that there are words. Out we come, bloodied and squalling, with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there’s only one direction, and time is its only measure.”

Here we are at the hole in the calendar, again. September 11, that horrible day that became a benchmark and a symbol and a scar and anything but just a warm Tuesday.

After today, the majority of my life will be spent on the After side of the line.

Every year this day comes around and we remember. Where were you? It steps out of the line of days and makes you take notice. Any story you tell this many times starts to take on a life of its own as a story rather than a memory.

Even the “Too Soon” jokes have been with us for a while. Gilbert Gottfried, then later Sarah Silverman joking, “9/11 was devastating, especially for me, because it happened to be the same exact day that I found out that the soy chai latte was, like, 900 calories. I had been drinking them every day.”  And now, every year, you hear several variants on the theme. (For instance, Dave Weigel, on Twitter, “12 years later, Americans are still standing strong and recovering from that horrible special episode of “The West Wing.”) Even this is becoming a ritual.

There are even tacky, ill-advised marketing campaigns based around the act of memory. Consider this, from AT&T. 

Even writing about it is a ritual, with variable degrees of self-seriousness and sincerity. It’s become a day for taking stock. We piece together the elephant bit by bit. On Facebook, Twitter, the thousands of thousands of pinpricks of individual recollection form a larger shape — pinpoint that day, those hours, twelve years ago, shifting ever farther across the fabric of time and space. We remember that day. It is one of those extinguished stars whose light still reaches us.

For me, childhood was coterminous with the Time Before. All my memories of the time before are colored by the fact that I was a kid. The two are hard to pick apart. “I miss the innocence of the time before 9/11,” my generation says, “when we had big books of Lisa Frank stickers and all the juice boxes and lunchables we could drink and eat respectively.” “That’s not a pre-9/11 thing,” everyone else says. “That’s a before-9/11-you-were-twelve thing.” But that’s the nature of these defining moments. It’s not just where you were. It’s when you were. It’s who you were.

Time travels with you. After decades of being subjected to Everything The Boomers Remember Vividly, from Christmas Carols to Gosh Wasn’t Woodstock So Special And Remarkable, we have our own moments to carry. As we age, they’ll age, until they’re just days on the calendar with veils over them — November 22. December 7.

The kids who don’t remember Before are at least 12 now. And gradually they will come to outnumber us.

Today was the halfway point for me. All the years after this one will throw the weight on the other side of the line. I can tell you in minute detail, like everyone else, just where I was on September 11, what I did, what I feared, what the sky looked like. But September 10? That would be a guess. I wish I remembered better how things were before they were different, before I knew that time like that did not come in an unlimited supply.


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Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".