Tag Archives: September 11th 2001

Imagining

Today’s date asks for a moment of reflection.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

It happens that I’m absorbed in an old book, controversial in its day, one which doesn’t need a review from me. Instead, I’ll take my time mulling over Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem because there’s much here that deserves thought and careful attention. The book is subtitled A Report on the Banality of Evil, and it documents Arendt’s coverage for The New Yorker of the trial of the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann in 1961. The tension between her stately prose and the horror it depicts speaks for itself. The writer steps back, steps out of the story and gives it plenty of room to breathe.

The narrative dissects a foul act of imagination, one of history’s worst.

Writers of fiction know that whatever we imagine — good or ill — we’re capable of doing. Hopefully, our lives are guided by conscience; we park our bad stuff in the psyche’s underground garage and nurture our creations into their fullness of life. This process applies to everyone, not just writers. We conjure up images of happy things, and with a little planning, the imagined house gets bought, the imagined disagreement is resolved, the imagined vacation happens. Then there’s moral imagination, which is compassion — entering into the sufferings of others, reaching out to comfort and assist them.

One might have said that a bureaucrat like Adolf Eichmann had no imagination, obsessed as he was with paperwork, train schedules, and, most of all, following orders. I disagree. The catastrophe that befell European Jewry took planning. The machinery of death had to be pictured in the mind, regardless of whatever euphemisms were used to describe it. In 1942, the Nazis held a conference of all government ministries and civil service heads to plan out the “final solution.” Afterwards, drinks and lunch were served. It was reported that everyone was in a good mood. A “creative” outburst, however perverse and sociopathic, can do that, I suppose.

Somewhere in cyberspace, there’s a series of technical charts and graphs worked out by specialists at MIT. It was their effort to reproduce the engineering plans of those who, on this day twelve years ago, flew two planes into the World Trade Center. I came across this ephemera while google-searching something else, but my idle curiosity was smacked down by my ignorance of engineering.  Baffled as I was by numbers and diagrams, my instincts as a writer told me what was going on. The technical specs were the outgrowth of a sick vision. The attackers first had to picture what was going to happen, to refine that picture as they went along. Like those Nazi officials, they had to anticipate the results with some satisfaction, to feel enthralled by their act of poisoned “creativity.”

Even Hannah Arendt’s rigourous inquiry can’t approach this terrible place in the human heart.  This is the unfathomable problem of evil which so outraged Job and which continues to haunt the world.

11 September 2001

11 September 2001

On this day that grieves the imagination, I hope to spend some time contemplating those things that bring it to life. Everyone recalls the lovely blue skies of September 11th, 2001. That afternoon, I took a picture of my garden, so that I could remember what, in spite of everything, was born there, innocent and blessed. Maybe I’ll do the same today. This evening, I’ll be attending a book launch, a celebration of a writer’s imagined world.

It’s a summer day; it’s still summer. In spite of everything, there’s warmth, sunshine and rain to enjoy.

I’ve lived long enough to realize that much of life is mystery, that almost all of it is beyond me. This, of course, drives me to write.

If you can, take a moment to imagine something better for this world.

Have yourself a gentle day.

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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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Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 6 of 15)

Shortly before our trip to New York, my brother Phil, homeward bound from the city, collapsed on the train. He never explained what made him ill, and I never found out. We went to visit him at home in suburban White Plains. We asked about the incident, but he brushed it off, insisting he was fine. Brian and I thought that the stress of the attacks a few weeks earlier might have caused it.

Phil talked about colleagues who’d escaped by fleeing lower Manhattan on foot, by walking north to the Bronx, or by walking east on the Brooklyn Bridge, then south across the Verrazano Bridge from Brooklyn to Staten Island. Then, as so many of us did in the wake of that tragedy, he talked about things he cherished, about the goodness of his marriage and his family, about the openhearted spirit of New Yorkers in a time of crisis. Likewise, my brother’s life, already a generous one, felt as if it had somehow grown in kindness.

Phil told me that after September 11th, his kids “felt lost.” They’d lived unruffled lives in suburban Westchester County, a prosperous area known for good schools, country clubs, and, in some of its more posh neighborhoods, an eerie sense of distance from the world’s troubles. Maybe he wondered how they’d survive the long shadow cast by these attacks, or if he, as a parent, had given them enough strength to help them face this challenge. I sensed that he felt lost and fearful. He was a fair and sensitive man, a careful listener and the attacks must have dealt a terrible blow to his sense of justice.

Over the years, the wall he’d built to protect himself had become a physical one. My brother was a large man and food was solace. We would have only one more visit left.

…More tomorrow.

Photo © 2004 -2008, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Memory Suite: 2001-2002 (Part 1 of 15)

Dear readers, if you haven’t read the previous post (“In Memory”), have a look. It’ll orient you to what follows.

© Larry Towell, Magnum Photos. Used with Permission.

A man is standing in soot and debris, reading. He’s wearing glasses, a business suit, a shirt open at the collar. The photo shows a desolate scene — paper strewn everywhere, the air itself so gritty with dust that only the foreground is visible. This man had been walking eastward on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, but moments before the camera found him, he’d picked up a sheet of paper, its edges singed. In the picture, he’s gazing at it, oblivious to empty space, to the few people left on the street.

A decade after the events of September 11th, 2001, the strangeness of this image continues to speak to me of a difficult year that unfolded in my life. The picture — by Canadian photographer Larry Towell — only hints at catastrophe, at utter dislocation. Yet in his intensity of feeling, this dazed man will never vanish. He offers us a human face, a profound stillness. He augurs a year of long thoughts, of quiet space.

It happened that my brother Phil would die within the year.

Unprepared for either event, I felt like that dazed man — compelled to read, needing to think, desperate to penetrate the fog, to see some truth beyond the eye’s reach. Before me were the poignant facts of time passing and things neglected. How strange it felt, to be a native New Yorker, stranded outside this photo of a familiar street, unable to identify its buildings, images fading through the passage of time, through a life and career in Toronto and the normal run of busy inattention. My past had all but vanished, bits of it snagged on a splinter of memory like a dream you can’t retrieve in the morning. A pyre was burning in downtown New York, and its destructiveness made more acute the small losses that a life accumulates — its missed opportunities, its lack of connection, the inability to offer solace. The effort to come to terms with all of this would ask time and patience of me, and a certain stillness, also.

In this moment of crisis, it seemed that time dissolved, space collapsed, and the dead walked with the living. My husband Brian was with me, but so were my departed parents. Strange things happened. The New York Times reported that a Greek Orthodox church on the southwest corner of the Trade Center site was destroyed in the attack, its small cache of saints’ relics mingling with the ashes of the victims at Ground Zero. Shortly afterwards, a man stood in the soot and dust, picked up a charred piece of paper and began to read.

 …More tomorrow.

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Christina’s Story

Fiction tries to embrace the world. Yet when the power of real-world events overtakes us, we writers of stories pause inside a necessary silence. We now contemplate six innocent dead whose stories were taken away from them in that savage Arizona shooting. The power of this loss is chastening. It asks us as writers to question how we proceed — not in order to paralyze us, but to make us understand what stories can and cannot do.

A nine year-old child by the name of Christina Green was shot dead in the January 8th massacre. Her brief life, by all accounts, was filled with energy and delight. She was her parents’ treasure, a stellar student who loved politics and baseball and animals. Her life also had a tragic narrative arc. Born on September 11th, 2001, she knew herself to be a sign of hope, and then she, too, was attacked by a fanatic.

Were you to write this true and dreadful taking of a life as a work of fiction, it would seem implausible, too tidy, too contrived in its irony and horror. Fiction leaves life room to breathe. This is what stories do. A story that ties up every loose end seems false, somehow, as if the author’s controlling hand had refused to let it live.

An individual with a loaded gun put an end to Christina’s story. Its cruel narrative arc was imposed on her. The horrendous symmetry of her brief life mocks life. It breaks the heart.

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