It is not a tidy anniversary this year. Seven years between that awful day and this Sept. 11, the terrorist attacks linger somewhere between the immediate - a conscious part of our days - and the comfortable remove of the distant past. No longer yesterday and not yet history.
What happened seven years ago colors American life today. There are the two wars, of course. But in smaller ways, too: We sing "God Bless America" at the ballpark. We weigh "evil" as a campaign issue. We slip off our shoes at airport security and buy the zip-top bag for liquids and gels.
And yet there is an unmistakable distance now. No one speaks of the "new normal" anymore. All of those things are just normal.
This Thursday - Sept. 11, 2008 - will be nothing like the first anniversary, when people were allowed, even encouraged, to take the day off work to reflect, when airports were eerily empty, when silence settled over cities.
But it will also be nothing like what life in America was on Sept. 10, 2001, the day before.
What does Sept. 11 mean, seven years on? What do we make of it now?
Seven years means we are far enough away that Sen. Joe Biden can joke in a Democratic debate that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani only mentions three things in a sentence, "a noun and a verb and 9/11," and bring down the house.
Yet we are close enough that video of the towers' collapse - the actual smoke, the crumbling - is so painful it almost never airs anymore, and when it is shown, as in a montage at the Republican National Convention, it is utterly halting.
No one will forget. But when is it OK to move on?
For the people who were left behind, left without a spouse or a child or a parent or a friend on that day, it is a very real question, something that often turns over in their minds.
For some, seven years means enough time to pick up, sometimes to pack up and to start anew.
Cathy Faughnan's husband, Christopher, a 37-year-old bond trader, was killed in the trade center. She was 37 then, too, and remembers thinking she was too young to be a widow for the rest of her life.
Now she is 44. Within two years after the attacks, she moved back to her home state of Colorado and has since been remarried, to a widower she met in New York shortly after Sept. 11.
She does not like to watch TV coverage of these anniversaries. Her family remembers Christopher in other ways. September also means the start of college football, and they go to cheer his beloved Colorado Buffaloes once a year.
This year, for the first time, she took the three children she had with Christopher - Siena, Juliet and Liam, who are now 14, 11 and 9 - to ground zero, where steel from the rebuilding now pokes above street level.
At the visitors center across from the pit, they saw the pictures of thousands of people who died when the youngest of them was just 2 years old.
"I think that was the first time it really maybe hit them how many people died," their mother says. "I saw them with their mouths open."
For others, seven years is an instant.
One morning last month, Diane Horning was watching a webcast of the federal government's briefing on the mechanics of the collapse of Building 7 at the trade center complex.
A half-hour later, she saw a television report speculating on the vice presidential prospects for Giuliani and was outraged: "He can't put two words together without talking about my son's death."
Her son was Matthew Horning, 26 years old, killed in the north tower. Tiny bits of his remains were recovered from the site and from the Staten Island landfill where a million tons of debris and human remains were taken.
The years have not lessened her anger. She is appealing the dismissal this summer of a lawsuit that would require the city to move the material at the landfill to a separate burial plot.
"I just can't stop," Horning says. "I need my son to be treated with dignity. He has been treated like garbage, and I can't imagine a mother sitting back and saying, ‘You know, it's OK.'"
Seven years also means some people say to her that she is "obsessed."
Exactly how much the nation has changed since Sept. 11, 2001, is a matter of perspective.
"There were economic changes, psychological effects," says Alfred Goldberg, who retired last year as the Pentagon's chief historian, and who points to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He says he believes the tragedy of Sept. 11 was compounded by the national response, and perhaps by an exaggeration of the threat posed by al-Qaida. "We are in many ways a very changed nation because of those attacks," he says.
And while that is indisputable in a broad sense, it is a point bitterly contested by some of the people most directly affected.
For Sarah Arnold of Orlando, Fla., this Sept. 11 will not be an anniversary she cares much about. It will be one year and 21 days since her only child, a son named Britt, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.
She says she feels a kinship with the Sept. 11 lost because Britt was sent to New York with the Navy to help uncover remains. And when she thinks about how the country has changed, she answers: Not much at all.
"They don't give a damn about the war," she says. "Unless you have someone that is actually defending you, you don't give a damn. You're secure. You're doing your daily thing."
Seven years means Kathy Agarth, who in 2001 lived in a Washington suburb and today teaches second grade at a private school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., must find a way to explain the attacks to children with no memory of it and little understanding.
To these children, Sept. 11 is no different from Memorial Day.
She says her students know the term "9/11," and they pray for the soldiers and may write letters to them this year. She does not teach it as a separate lesson. But they do ask her about it from time to time, and she chooses her words carefully.
"Some men were angry at the United States. They crashed their planes into some buildings. Their actions were evil."
Evil. That the word resonates in American life, and particularly in American politics, is a sign we are not too far removed from that day. It came up as a specific campaign issue just last month.
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California, asked: "Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? Do we contain it? Do we defeat it?"
Sen. John McCain answered simply, "Defeat it." Sen. Barack Obama said it exists in many places, citing Darfur and child abuse, and that it is "God's task" to erase it from the world.
Seven years means Somerset County, Pa., where United Flight 93 went down and where, in a way, the legend of "Let's roll!" was born, is trying to figure out how to get the curious visitors who stream in from all over the country to stay awhile.
County commissioners are busy with feasibility studies, zoning papers and planning committees. A national park is coming. Hundreds of thousands of people will visit. They will need restaurants, hotels, gas stations, shops.
"You're here looking at the memorial. There are other opportunities," says Brian Whipkey, editor of the Somerset Daily American. "You can do white-water rafting, you can do skiing, biking, hiking."
Sept. 11 as a segue to recreation: How far we have come.
Think back to flying after Sept. 11. Right after. Think about the sheer will it took to board an airplane, what felt like to eye the other passengers, to startle at the slightest turbulence.
"People were mortified," recalls Jewel Van Valin, a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines who is based in Los Angeles. "They were all hoping, ‘We're not going down, are we?'"
The months after the attacks were not kind to the airline industry, and about a year later, Delta opted to save a little money by replacing its linens in first class with paper trays. Van Valin decided to pass out crayons.
She did this because she thought the paper trays were tacky. But after 9/11, flight attendants were also there for emotional comfort - Van Valin actually held sobbing fliers in her arms - and the crayons provided a means of release.
Back then they drew firefighters and flags, police officers with tears in their eyes, the skyline of New York. They drew airplanes and they wrote, "In God We Trust."
Now they draw palm trees and hammocks, tropical drinks, Disney characters. They draw destinations. They draw moving on.