Friday, September 8, 2006

The Colors of Fear, The Sounds of Grief


It’s September 11 again – five years on – and, once again, electoral season. And my fear today is that politics – the politics of fear – will stain our sacred memory, our shared, close-held grief.

One thing I’ve learned - very personally - about grief is that, over time, it changes…but it never goes away. There is every day an unexpected moment when the memory returns, the pain sharpens once again, the tears form behind the eyes. Today, I expect, we will in our millions experience many such moments of freshened, very palpable grief…both personal and shared. We cannot escape it. Nor should we try. We should instead embrace it as an opportunity to reach back and recall the timbre of the stunned silence that embraced us all those first days and weeks, when we related – for an all-too-brief but shining moment – in honesty, humility, and compassion…as family…sharing our grief and our strength. United we did stand. And the world stood with us. It felt good and right and full of promise. In mid-October five years ago I tried to bottle the moment in a short poem:

A month's gone by.
We're not the same
and no different from all others.
We've found a certain comfort
in discovered vulnerability,
a sharing oneness in our grief,
compassion in the face of fear.

The little flags are everywhere.
But, now, they signal something new,
a loss of hubris,
and new found gravitas,
a sense that, after all these years,
we're finally growing up.

Today I grieve not only the dead but also the death of innocence and hope – hope that, in new-found maturity, we would search our souls and react in ways we’d recognize as worthy. But, even before I put my poetry to paper, another writer, a Time essayist had ridiculed any thought of introspection and angrily demanded that we lash out in “purple rage.”

Such rage, of course, is the childish opposite of maturity; it appeals to and draws strength from our basest instincts; and it is, in the end, self destructive. But, by the time I visited Ground Zero and my niece just blocks away in March 2002, that purple rage – and wounded pride - had over-powered reasoned thought. Fear was abroad in the land.

But, standing at that gaping hole one chill night, the grief cut through the fear, and, amidst a collage of lights and sounds, I struggled to make sense of my emotions. Next morning, St. Patrick’s Day, I attended morning Eucharist in Trinity Church, still standing, still an island of calm, “in the shadow of no towers.” The Old Testament reading was from Ezekiel 37 – “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” – the communion hymn a wordless “Danny Boy.” Breathing in, I felt a breath of life and recognition…a shiver…understanding…and incredible peace.

Outside, I walked the labyrinth, then sat on a stone bench among the tourists in the still sooty graveyard. I pulled a notebook from my purse and wrote again:

Two blue beams
amidst the white,
incessant din.
They pierce the black
and merge
with low gray clouds.

And, in those beams
of blue and white,
smaller clouds
of wispy dust
arise from
that awful gaping hole,
from sources yet unseen
and still unknown.

Amidst my wonder
and my pain,
and all the noise
of city life,
yea, death’s dark presence,
a floodlit, rusted cross
brings unexpected peace.

An ancient prophet
makes it clear
among the half-filled pews
a block away.
“I will put breath in you,
and you shall live….
I will open your graves
and bring you up.”

the dust still rises.
The lights?
They are no more.
They’ve faded
in the light of dawn.
But, now, I understand.

The understanding? The fragility of life. The nobility of a life well lived, worthily lived. The ignobilty, futility of fear. The peace that surpasses all understanding, overcomes all fear. The need to face our fears, not hide from them, and, facing them, to react not as frightened, vengeful children but as moral, ethical, and intelligent adults.

Since then, however, we have regressed into some debilitating national childhood, boogey men under every bed, seeking a blanket to hide under, a womb to return to, imploring others to save us, offering in payment our rights, responsibilities, and dignity as adults. We have allowed others to manipulate our grief and allowed that legitimate grief to be transmorgrified into something unworthy - fear and rage.

Purple rage rules the land and, in our childishness, we’ve even assigned colors to our fears – yellow, orange, red, or, someday, ultraviolet – divided into camps of red states and blue states, eyeing each other warily, drowning in a sea of yellow ribbons. How wistful our thoughts of blue, of confidence, normality, optimism. Remember those once-upon-a-time times, when all we had to fear was fear itself?

It’s not too late. Those times need not be gone forever. Can’t we try again – to grasp the opportunity we once had five years ago this morning and can have again…to grieve in peace, to arrive at honest understanding, to seek our hope, to build our future, to live well and worthily?

And to our politicians – all our politicians – shut up! For once and at last, shut up! This is a sacred moment. It is no time for swiftboating the truth, for manipulating our traumatized emotions, for toying with our sacred memory. Please, please, let us sit with our grief in peace. Let the silence speak in the autumn winds.

“Come from the four winds, O breath,
and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”