[On Sundays, this blog reflects on different types of work in “Sabbath.”]
The Work of Memory
For the past week, we have seen many stories reflecting on the terrorist attacks that took place ten years ago. The event was shocking. It shut down the nation for several days. It also changed our lives. We live in a world more conscious of security and risk. We are engaged in two wars that our leaders have connected to terrorism. The events of 9/11/2001 continue to affect us and will do so for years to come.
Now after 10 years, we have had time to reflect on what happened. Where history once was the story of kings and the elite, now we tell the stories of families and children. Regular people are not only the focus of the story, they now tell their stories through blogs, videos, and Facebook.
I remember walking to work ten years and passing a construction site. The crew was listening to a TV news report about the president speaking. I knew something was happening. At work, I turned on a radio and heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. There were reports of fires on the Mall in Washington D.C. Then the second plane hit, and we learned that the fire in Washington was a plane that hit the Pentagon.
Fear and the unknown. What would be next? Big buildings in downtown Chicago and other large cities were evacuated as the government scrambled to land all of the flights still in the air. One of those flights would be the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania when the passengers fought with the hijackers.
I worked all day on 9/11/2001, and most the clients showed up for their appointments. We talked about the news, but we also went on with our business, which was surreal. I didn’t get home until after 6 p.m. By that time, film editors had compressed the events of the day into something like a macabre music video, hours of horror reduced to seconds, which increased the terror as one nightmare scene rolled into the next, and the loop was repeated again and again.
Even as life returned to normal, many people were in industries that were impacted by the attack. Some of my clients were laid off and had trouble finding new jobs. 9/11 became an obstacle for many people who lived far from the attack sites. It still haunts many lives and has made others chronically fearful and angry.
I understand the anger. In the first days after attack, I was angry. I wrote stupid things in my journal about the need to raise a pillar of fire in Afghanistan. Then I went to the Green Mill to hear one of my favorite singers, Kurt Elling. This was still during the period when most of what was on TV was news, little or no entertainment. Kurt didn’t do his normal set. Instead, he talked a lot about art and healing. He sang that night in a way that took away the hate and fear. He also read many passages from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
I don’t remember what poems Kurt read that night, but I know that they were about angels. When I look in my copy of Rilke, these passages are marked, and they signify how my mind changed:
“For beauty is nothing,
but the beginning of terror, we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.
. . . . . .
In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us;
they are weaned from earth’s sorrows and joy, as gently as children
outgrow the soft breasts of their mothers. But we, who do need
such great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often
the source of our spirit’s growth – : could we exist without them?
(Duino Elegies, The First Elegy)
. . . . . .
Above, beyond us,
the angel plays. If no one else, the dying
must notice how unreal, how full of pretense,
is all that we accomplish here, where nothing
is allowed to be itself. Oh hours of childhood,
when behind each shape more than the past appeared
and what streamed out before us was not the future.
(Duino Elegies, The Fourth Elegy)
. . . . . .
Oh gather it, Angel, that small-flowered herb of healing.
Create a vase and preserve it. Set it among the joys
Not yet open to us; on that lovely urn
Praise it with the ornately flowing inscription:
(Duino Elegies, The Fifth Elegy)
[Subrisio Saltat translates as acrobats’ smile.]
I don’t know if Kurt Elling quoted these exact passages, but they reflect the spirit of that night, a time to heal, to move on, to trade the horror for beauty and life. When I think of what happened 10 years ago, it is impossible to look beyond the horrible images of that day. But we also need to remember the angels and their power to heal, the good things in our lives that let us move forward when our reality and security crumble as the towers did a decade ago.
The work of memory at its finest is fed by imagination that lets us see the better day, the end of anger and sorrow. May this day be another step in our nation’s healing.