Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 15 of 15)

In the days following 9/11, I’d gazed at a photo of a solitary man reading, and so I tried to find understanding in the pages of a book. I began James Agee’s autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, but I couldn’t finish it. The writing was beautiful and tender, yet at that moment, I couldn’t bear to absorb the death of a father and husband, the pain of a family’s crushing loss. It wasn’t the right choice of reading matter, but it turned out that no book was. For several months after the attacks, I felt too raw for the depth of written language. Only music could take me to a deeper place, past the overwhelming grief and panic.

It was appropriate that we concluded that first anniversary with a concert at Trinity Church on Broadway at Wall Street. Along with works by Mozart and Bach, Poulenc and Elgar and Copeland, the concert included a vocal composition by Samuel Barber. A coincidence: Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is the prose-poem that opens James Agee’s novel, the book of death and remembrance that I’d put aside. The sung work was the concert’s finale, a haunting creation, profound and sad, yet attuned to the mystery of what it means to be alive.

Agee describes a summer evening, the front-porch setting in a small southern town, seen from the point of view of a young child who notices every detail, from his father’s mundane coiling of a garden hose to the stars “wide and alive” above him. As he and his parents lie on quilts on the lawn, “they are not talking much and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all.” [1]

In that poignant year, I, too, pondered my origin in a simple family, which, like most, had no spectacular accomplishments or dramatic failings, and which, like each, shares in the mystery of our brief passage through this world. For the most part, our lives are lived far from great events, and with or without calamities, life and death continue. Many people died on September 11th, 2001, but not all of them died in the attacks. Some died of disease or old age. In a random gift of nature, many others were born on that sorrowful day. In James Agee’s words:

 By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away .  [2]

My year of vigil came to an end, but not my writing. Words echo the mystery of why we are here, and how we endure. Words leave me at one with the dazed man who, on the morning of the attacks, stood in the dust to read, to understand, to ask again and again what happened.

*

These reflections are written in memory of all those who perished on 9/11 as well as for my late brother Phil and my departed friend and teacher, Sister Eileen. Thank you for taking the time to read them.

___________

  [1] James Agee, A Death In The Family. New York: Vintage Books, 1967, p.7.
  [2] Ibid.
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