My wife and I lived in Manhattan for a total of thirteen years, beginning in 1978, when we were in our early twenties. Many of those dearest to us still live there. We were enticed, exalted, deceived, crushed, inflamed, pressed down, sifted, killed and reborn more than once in the daily grind and infinite prospect that is New York. In the course of it, we uncovered together a few of the mysteries of human life-- love, friendships, calling, parenthood, to name a few. And while the Chrysler Building will always have our hearts, it was the Towers that symbolized for us the essential quality of New York-- that it is what it is and you can never get away from it, never get away from yourself reflected in its mass. We didn't pay much attention to the Towers except when tourists came to town, but we were never blind to them. They were absolutely there, like our pulse or our skin, and whatever we thought of them, ignoring them wasn't an option. So, on September 11th, as we watched the Towers implode on television, a part of our life was taken with them, and since then like millions of others, we have tried to make sense of our present and imagine our future now that everything has changed.
For the first ten days, oddly enough, it wasn't so hard. Our friends were by and large safe, so we were shielded from immediate harm. And then, there was so much filling the void-- the alarm, the national resolve, the heroes, the stories of sacrifice, the resurrection of a Mayor, the discovery of a President. But things are beginning to change. The flags are at full staff, now, and bit by bit, the spontaneous memorials are coming apart. The large posterboard in the park, proclaiming New York: We Are One-- Our Pain Is Unspeakable, is warped by fog and rain, its flowers and ribbons falling and, today, beginning to fade in the sun. Outside the firehouse the dozens of potted azaleas and geraniums are dusty. They slump and tilt toward one another. As I passed this morning a lone woman in tears stood over them praying the rosary. When I returned, she was gone, and another with a baby on her back, her head covered in Muslim fashion, her face stricken with grief, stared at the remains of the shrine from across the street, sadly shook her head, and turned away.
Even our words are beginning to fail us. At first, they did not. On Tuesday and for days afterward, the extremes of language worked well to contain what we had witnessed and endured. It was hard to exaggerate: the nouns-- tragedy, cataclysm, infamy, catastrophe; and the adjectives-- brutal, heinous, unspeakable-- words that in nearly any previous circumstance would have fallen under any sensible editor's red pen, all now were accurate, as though for the first time we understood what the words meant by their being applied to a fitting object. But now we are entering the second phase of our national mourning. It is the time of getting on with life, of seeing what we will become in the abiding shadow of absence and loss. The words that once seemed able, we find are quickly worn out. We can try to string them together again, but they sound hollow, not because they say more than what we have endured, but because they can never again say it as well as they did at first. Like the endless procession of dumptrucks carting away the rubble of the towers in what seems like a teaspoon at a time, it will seem in the coming months that words will never get done what they are supposed to do for us. We will get tired of speaking of it all, and will find we still have to speak, and will be left hungry and thirsty by what we say and by all that we can't seem to find a way of saying. We will need to find something more, another way.
By calling, I am a preacher, and I know this struggle. Every Sunday I stand before my congregation in the remembered presence of a cataclysm. As I preach, behind me hangs a large wooden cross-- relic of another Ground Zero-- a memorial to the ghastly death of an innocent man. It is fittingly described as tragic, brutal, heinous. Yet, all that I know of the love of God is indicated by it, and it points to a grave that has been emptied by Love. However, over the last two thousand years the language used to evoke this event has become so domesticated by repetition that to give any sense of the love it contains one has to fight the very words that are supposed to convey it. Sacrifice, redemption, atonement-- profound and true words about ultimate things-- are syllables guaranteed to glaze the eyes of even interested listeners, because the weight of all that they suggest has been so great for so long that the words cannot carry the burden they point to, and so arrive at their hearers empty. So other words must be found, that convey the same truth, and are simpler, lighter and stronger. And, often, through them, the love breaks through: people are humbled, comforted, enlivened, and made strong. The ancient witness touches them like the hand of a grandmother, and the strangers sitting next to them, and those beyond the doors, become, inexplicably, precious to them.
Perhaps something similar is now happening to America. Perhaps our hope lies in two of the ways that our world, as we keep saying, has been changed forever. First, America the Contemporary, the temple of the cutting-edge, the place where it is enough to be young and obsessed with the present, has been invaded by a yearning for the life-giving voices of our past. Calamity makes us feel desperately alone-- no one else can understand the secret passages, the deep internal darkness that leads so far beneath the surface of our own souls; we are driven into hiding in the secret caverns and huddled there. The candle has gone out, and we do not know where we are, or how we will ever get back to the surface, whether we will ever again see the sun. When the bottom drops out of our hearts, there floods into us the conviction that no-one has ever been this alone; our sorrow is unprecedented. We have the strange sense of being unmoored, cut off from our histories, as though they were of no use to us. But, the fact is, that like the rest of human life, sorrow has a history. The voices of the past are not only voices of prophecy for the future, but of compassion for their children-- for us, who must live in that future. And they are voices of encouragement from those who have themselves walked the hard road of fear and death and have found that, though many of them died on it, what was precious in their life has been carried forward.
A few nights ago, my wife came home with an old book she has kept at her office, a beautiful book about New York, a book of prophecy. Together we read these words: The city, for the first time in it long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumple the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition. All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York, the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm. The year of this writing was 1949, the author E.B. White, the towers in question were the new home of the United Nations, a huge glass cigar-box on its end, then emerging by the East River not far from his home. But White does not end his paean to the city with an image of fear. He chooses instead an unusual instrument-- a tree, an old willow near his house, battered and much climbed, that for him symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds,… and the steady reaching for the sun. He concludes: Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the planes, I think: "This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree." If it were to go, all would go-- this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.
As we read these words, I thought of the man who wrote them, the gentle artist who made Charlotte's Web, as though he were my grandfather. I climbed into the willow and listened, and thought, somehow, even this will be alright. Two nights later at Benaroya Hall we heard Gerhard Swartz lead the Seattle Symphony in Barber's Adagio for Strings in honor of those who died. I wept because, in my mind, I saw them all, but not only them. I saw the crowds grieving Roosevelt, the children on the platforms waving flags as the train passed, saw them grown and with their children mourning Kennedy, saw the orphaned children of the firemen, the police, of Cantor Fitzgerald, saw my own son and, for a moment, feared losing him, and feared the losses he, too, will certainly endure; then I thought, they will grow, they will love, they will marry. This tree will be saved.
There is a further change. America the Solitary, the temple of Rugged Individualism, home to the self-interested, self-actualized hero of the modern world, has become suddenly and crucially aware of our dependence upon one another. People we ignored, or took for granted, or never even knew, are revealed as the thread upon which our life hangs. Firehouses, once invisible, are honored as shrines, but also as portals, as if to lay a rose by the driveway of the station in Lynnwood, Washington, actually did thank and bless the dead of Squad One in Brooklyn New York. Police officers are embraced in public. Perfect strangers stand at street corners, showing one other pictures of their children. Melanie Sovern, a little girl the age of my own son, writes the New York Times, to comfort thousands of children she has never met, but with whom she has now a sudden kinship. I want to say something to the children who lost a parent in the last two atrocious weeks, she declares. My mother died six years ago, when I was 5, and I know you kids can still have a good life. Your parent loved you and knew that you loved him or her, and your parent won't be mad if you go back to your activities when you are ready. This is the hardest time, and the worst pain will pass. You can still feel loved. In the Me-only years of the dot-com mania, such a voice would have been inaudible, implausible, incomprehensible. Now, it brings tears, gratitude, and the sense that there are, after all, others who are bound to us in love, perhaps even those we do not yet know, who will help us get through all that is to come.
Nearly four hundred years ago, another preacher, John Donne, Dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral in London, faced a congregation that had been decimated by plague. Bodies had been burned, in the churches graves hastily dug and re-dug, and the streets and public buildings were smeared with ashes and dust which settled on the people as they walked to church, even as they sat in the pews. Donne was not put off by this; rather, he was moved. He observed that the ground in the church had been consecrated anew by the dust of the dead, and not only the ground, but in fact the lives and bodies of the living had been thrust into a new intimacy with all that was holy. Every puff of wind within these walls, he announced, may blow the father into the son's eyes, or the wife into her husband's, or his into hers, or both into their children's. It was his faith that told him, however, that this dust would live again, and that death, even with all its terror, was never the last word. Perhaps we can be, for one another, such a sermon. For, while the dust of the dead is around us, in our eyes and our hearts, the concussion at Ground Zero has blown us into one another's arms. We never knew how much we loved or needed each other, or what hope and faith could be gained from a past we didn't remember, from people we never knew, from friends we would not have chosen. Now that we know, may it please God that we do not forget.
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