Let the Story Purify
You shall make an altar on which to bring incense up in smoke
— Exodus 30:1
How do survivors remember trauma? How to mourn? What to do with our grief? How not to be victims? How to remove the power of victimizer? How to move toward freedom out of the weight of hurt we carry around? I notice that Bin Laden was killed on Holocaust Memorial Day. This is a subject we might know something about, but we don’t know enough. We never did because it’s just hard, just deep.
In the discussion in the Talmud, Pesachim 117a, the angels may have refrained from singing at the death of our pursuers, but only the angels. Moses and we the people — we sang out: Az yashir Moshe, thus sang Moses. And when the angels refrained from singing, goes the midrash, they did that — once only.
December 11, 2001
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, my government invited me to a think session in New York City. There were delegations from every state. At the end of day two, I felt I had to witness the site. Ground Zero. I called my friend, a long-time New York City photographer who lived downtown. We took the subway to Fulton Street. Almost midnight. They were still cleaning out the subway and fortifying its walls. It was dusty in the subway corridors and overhead I could discern the reinforcements in the ceiling and on the walls.
We walked up out onto Fulton Street and a short distance to the site. Past midnight now, still people lingering in the area. On the site itself, we could see the iron workers finishing up their welding for the night, but the lumbering trucks did not cease moving the mountain of debris that remained of the World Trade Center.
From a distance, I could see the crude natural memorial: the piece left of the above-ground skeleton of the towers that I had heard New Yorkers call “the potato chip.” Perhaps it was a way of domesticating, taming the tragedy somewhat, but it didn’t look anything like a potato chip to me; it was two hundred feet tall and it looked like the ruin of a holy place, stately and dignified, ruined and demeaned, both.
It reached out of the ruins and up towards the sky like a sign of both destruction and in its aftermath inspiration and courage. It embodied both ruin and reach.
I was drawn to get a clearer look at this beautiful-terrible remnant. We walked 360 degrees around the site, and on the west side, facing New Jersey, we stopped in front of one of the spontaneous shrines that appeared all around what once was the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Hundreds of such shrines had appeared spontaneously, decorating the temporary walls that had been built all around the site.
An old man kneeled in front of a particular shrine where we stopped, reading the notes and pictures and stories that made up an altar on a wooden fence. We stood there next to him, all of us reading the stories given in pictures and words, prayers from children to their parents, letters from parents to their children, lovers to lovers, friend to friend, each story an entire world.
It was then, that moment, in front of one of many such altars, that the tragedy of the World Trade Center ceased to be theoretical for me. I felt the weight of three thousand broken worlds times the number of intimates who do not forget, a sad set of multiple thousands sitting in a circle around God.
All of a sudden, next to the altar where we stood, opened a section of the wooden fence, and out rolled one of the trucks laden with debris from the site. The gates remained open and we were granted one of the few clear visions available then into the Ground Zero site. We all stood silent, looking past the altar, the stories, the pictures, the prayers, into the site of the ruins of the World Trade Center, Ground Zero, watching the dump trucks rolling out loaded with debris. We sat in silence watching for ten minutes, then an old man now standing next to me said, “so began the age of fear.”
My friend and I continued to circle the site, walking around it, from every angle entranced by the monument both terrible and wonderful that loomed over us, reflecting the stadium lights that shined after dark, the truest symbol I had seen of the now altered sense of the world, the Age of Fear, a remnant in metal of disaster.
There were still people walking with us. No one was sightseeing. I felt like we were all on a holy pilgrimage, praying with our feet, circling the ruin that rose in the distance, the last remnant of the skeleton, a totem in the massive graveyard that the World Trade Center had become. It stuck in the site like a tombstone, this potato chip, this cathedral of ruins.
It was close to three AM by the time we headed back to the subway. We had spent three hours in walking meditation, the smell that everyone talked about in the air then; what is that smell? Is it acrid, is it sweet, is it something burning, but burning sweetly, a mix of Levitical incense? Is it the kabbalah of ruin and redemption, is that the feeling — descent and ascent, the grotesque and the beautiful bound up, interpenetrated, the unholy and the holy — symbolized by the broken cathedral that had risen out of the ruins where there once was a building? That’s what it looked like: a broken cathedral.
These uncommon feelings, a mix of holy and unholy, pity and fear, awe, I recognized them: a form of mourning, a quality of brokenness, when what is released from the ruins of the heart is something quiet and beautiful, strong and sure, the sense of both impermanence and permanence, to be drawn to the core and know that something good there endures.
On the End of Monuments
Ground Zero, part 2
May 30, 2002
During December, 2001, they began to take down what still stood of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, this remnant that looked like a cathedral ruin that New Yorkers had called “the potato chip.” There was often discussion in the newspapers of the dedication of a defiled place, its reclamation and outfitting for holiness, as the country debated the nature of the memorial that would be built there.
Now that I had been to the World Trade Center site the sense of dedication preoccupied me: how to reclaim something that has been defiled to its core? That would be the task of the monument builders, and years later as I am writing this, it is still debated.
But there was something that had risen around the World Trade Center site, a kind of popular sanctification. The site had been sanctified by stories, poems, pictures, prayers, the personal art that was displayed in the makeshift altars and shrines that decorated the perimeter, on the temporary walls and fences that were built to separate, contain, and conceal. It was all temporary, beautiful but too spontaneous too personal too raw to be permanent.
When I went to the World Trade Center site, I knelt at the altars that had been created all around and read the letters and the poems and the prayers and looked at the pictures and the people came alive for me. I realized that these offerings were given to purify and to dedicate. The site was holy not because people died there but because people lived there. The story told is a purifier, and the tale dedicates. Without the story, the spontaneous story that surrounded the site with pictures, poems, letters, gifts, the event would slip into defilement. This I knew.
On Thursday, May 30, 2002, they took out the 30 foot beam that had withstood the destruction from Ground Zero, the last one, draped in an American flag, and officially ended the recovery search. The ritual began with the ringing of a bell, at 10:29 AM Eastern, the time when the last tower finished collapsing. The rubble was gone, the memories remained, as did the remains of more than half of the over 2,800 people who died there, and the next question became how to honor memory, the horror of it, the dignity of the recovery, the courage of the clean-up, physical and metaphysical, the residual trauma, grief that is the story of 9/11 and its aftermath.
I saw in the New York Times (Tuesday, February 2, 2010, “Like St. Vincent’s Itself, Missing Wall Means Much” by Clyde Haberman) that the Wall of Hope and Remembrance at St. Vincent’s Hospital is now an empty wall and the fliers and such that were once there are now in plastic, in binders, waiting for a museum to house them.
What I saw at the site of the World Trade Center was something just like that, it would soon be another memory: the spontaneous commitment of Ground Zero to holiness with hand written notes and pictures and letters and messages to the dead, from those who loved them. Stories. The shrines and altars on the wooden fences, the handwritten signs asking sight-seers not to take pictures, the creche dedicated to the police and fire fighters who died there, the cathedral that rose from the ruins, they will be replaced by some sort of permanent memorial and it will be beautiful and it will be touching, but it will not equal the spontaneity of the dedicated fence space that once arose around the site, it will not capture our yearning to consecrate something so ruined, the yearning to make something beautiful out of something terrible, something holy out of something defiled.
james stone goodman, united states of america