Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Grief, Dissolved.

Deep within the still center of my being,
May I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the Grove,
May I share peace.
Gently within the greater circle of humankind,
May I radiate peace.

I am not sad today. I woke up early this morning with a searing throat and the sniffles, but I am not sad. Though the morning grows late, the rain is unstoppable and each room in my apartment remains dark, as if in a kind of unlikely and ever-lasting twilight. I make my green tea, and I am not sad.

My friend, Freddy, died a little over a month ago, of heart failure. He was young, healthy, strong--and one night, his heart gave out.

A week before he died, before I left for my family vacation, he gave me a hug, only to pull back and ask, "Why is your heart beating like that?" A combination of caffeine and nerves at the time had it pounding palpably in my chest. I shrugged and replied, "It always does that."

When I came home, he was dead. For a month, each night I went to bed secretly wondering if my heart would just stop beating as I slept. I wasn't as healthy or as strong as he had been, my heart was out of shape, a bit of caffeine and some stress could set it rocking back and forth beneath my flimsy ribs. Each time it began to beat too hard or too quickly, I began to be afraid for it, frightened by it. Each night, I fell asleep casting one last untrusting eye at the little unnatural jostling within my breast. Why does my heart beat like that, and why does my body take the beating, and for how much longer?

Six years ago, the rain did not pour down into the morning. The rooms were all lit through with the steady eastern slant of sunlight, all the glass windows of the high-rises in New York City blinked back like a thousand bright blue eyes. Students were learning French and chemistry in classrooms across the country, some children were being read to, others reciting their multiplication tables. Their parents were in conference rooms and offices, moving about in a million hallways, sipping plastic-tasting water in a million breakrooms. In the east coast cities, the pigeons and morning doves were out, scratching for crumbs, balanced on the telephone wires and the window ledges of old brick buildings. In the suburbs, squirrels wrestled the first few acorns of autumn from one another, while all the houses lay quietly in a row, block after block. Life was beautiful and teeming and gathering itself in for harvest.

Then death reached in, and ever since, we've been a little suspicious.

But today I am not sad. Which is maybe a little strange. Last year at this time, I spent days oscillating between sobs and moments of quiet frustration and depression. Last year, nothing seemed to last. Now, this year, I know nothing does. But I am not so sad. Last night, I fell asleep reading, without a second thought to my untrustworthy heart, and I woke up listening to the rain, nested between pillows, slowly swallowing, and swallowing again.

But I mark the day. There are some things which put on the cloak of duty, and this is one: to remember. One day, everyone who lived through that day in September six years ago will be dead, even those too young to remember it. Freddy lived through that moment of overwhelming, impossible death--and now he has lived through his own. My heart is still beating, as unlikely as it is, and as long as I am alive, I must remember that I am, that I have been alive while others were dying, that others will live through the moment of my death and come out the other side, come through with a million hearts still beating, the morning doves still swinging on the wires, the oaks still loosing their tiny green acorns into the grass.

This morning, I read the thoughts I wrote last year on this day, as I always do. I want to preserve that movement, from year to year, to set aside and make sacred the memory, and the change. This is what I wrote last year, on the fifth anniversary of September 11, 2001.

The Measure of Grief: On Loss, Suffering and Sacred Confusion

What I feel today is not grief. Regret, an ache of sadness and frustration, a kind of depression, perhaps. Though the local paper told me yesterday that "time fits neatly into pre-9/11 and post-9/11 compartments," I cannot help but think this is wrong, or that it is only true insofar as people have some sense now that life could be different--should be different... and yet we know that, fundamentally, things are the same as they ever were. For five years, we have waited for that shift to be resolved, to feel some new order establish itself. For five years, we have searched for the appropriate memorial, the appropriate response to that moment of grief and unimaginable loss. But what we feel today is not grief. It is, if anything, the dwindling madness of a grief unfelt and unrealized.

I remember the day, five years ago this morning, when grief came swift and beautiful under a bright sky. Think back--you felt this too. What is grief, but that sudden sense of an incomprehensible and overwhelming loss? It is not fear or loneliness or regret, though these things may blend and heighten it. But that day, you felt pure and unmixed grief, grief alone. You might have been young, just a girl with no delusions about what you could have done to stop it, with a naive faith in God's plan for you and no fear of death, with a family and friends who called immediately from the safety of their homes to comfort you and reassure you. You might have been safe and loved and untouched by personal threat or fear--and yet, there it was, that grief so strong and pure that it seemed at times to push you utterly out of yourself. And in that purity of grief, you began to understand.

What is grief, but a loss that cannot be withstood? The hard, quick knowledge that something--some part of the real--is gone, that what was here, present to us just a moment ago, is now absent, withdrawn into the dark flux of the Void. Grief is Reality, shot dead. What it leaves in its place is confusion--yet this confusion is sacred, a holy bewilderment, a place where everything that was once certain and well-defined has been pulled suddenly back into the realm of mere potential, of infinite possibility.

Think back--you felt this, too. While the President still hid in a classroom of children, while the newscasters stuttered and stared in horror, while the phonelines were jammed and the firemen and police and doctors were gathering their strength and forgetting themselves in their immediate heroism--there opened up a chasm of wild possibility and, dare you name it, hope. In the days and weeks to follow, people gathered spontaneously, they lit candles and decorated public places with flowers and ribbons and small works of art. Don't call this the American Spirit, as if to bolster some trite nationalism. This was humanity, pure and stripped bare. This was humanity responding openly and creatively to unfathomable loss, humanity discovering that the core of grief is, in fact, nothing else but love--that we suffer loss because we love creation, and that we embrace grief because it teaches us about God in the beginning, without form or void, moving over the face of the waters.

So quickly, our grief and its sacred chaos, which had opened in us a common glimpse of a world shaped by creativity and connection, closed down again. Usurped by those with a story to sell, yoked to the agenda of American Pride, American Faith, American Power in the face of Evil. Grief--our sense of loss--was shallowed and drained. What had been lost? They told us everything had changed, and yet the story they sold was essentially the same, only louder. When once we had been great, we were now unquestionably the Greatest; when once we'd had foreign enemies who protested our political and cultural influences, we now had an Evil with an irrational hatred of Freedom and a strategy of Terror. Everything was capitalized, but the vocabulary was consistent. What we had lost, they seemed to tell us, was only a matter of perspective, a matter of degree. The structure of the world--which had seemed, on that day, so flimsy and in doubt--remained hopelessly solid beneath our wailing and the pounding of our fists.

Five years. For five years, we have carried with us this denial of our loss, this secret knowledge that there is another story we could have told, another world we could have made out of the ashes and fire of that morning. "Post-9/11" is the name we give to our impotence, our failure to change.

One day, this "post-9/11" depression, this story of choked and aborted potential, will unravel itself... We will again know grief, if only as a slowly creeping self-awareness; we will experience, again, that awe-full and unbearable sense of loss, the ripping away of our understanding of reality. On that day, what will we do? How will we respond? Will we turn fearfully and mindlessly to the old, unsatisfying stories of military might and cultural supremacy? Or will we cherish our grief as the shadow cast by creative love, defending it against the sick insistence that nothing should (or could) ever change?

1 comment:

  1. what a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful post - particularly for me, who really does not understand grief so well. a loss that cannot be withstood - like so many people, when my parents lost their first child, they simply shut down one part of their emotional lives - a lesson i took to heart. grief would be acknowledging that loss, and acknowledging is too painful, so let's not go there.

    hm, perhaps it would be interesting for me to meditate on that in connection with my own experience of 9/11.

    thank you for the teaching.