Remembering 9/11

On the End of Monuments, part 2

You shall make an altar on which to bring incense up in smoke
— Exodus 30:1

During December, 2001, workmen began to take down what still stood of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, this last remnant, like a cathedral ruin that New Yorkers called “the potato chip.” In the years since, the debate continues: how shall we as a culture dedicate the site? Remembering it’s a graveyard with almost three thousand graves, what sort of memorial will we build there? Now that it is ten years after, what sort of memorial will we stage?

I had been to the World Trade Center site before it was cleaned up, the sense of dedication preoccupied me too: how could we reclaim something that had been defiled to its core? That would be the task of the monument builders, and the ritual makers.

The monuments are not completed, the rituals uncertain, but the first big movie came to American movie theaters, and the first major docudrama to TV. There was something that had arisen around the World Trade Center site, a kind of popular sanctification that preceded the monuments and the movies, a spontaneous and almost immediate response. The site had been made holy — stories, poems, pictures, and prayers created in the makeshift altars and shrines that decorated the perimeter — the personal art on the temporary walls and fences that were built to separate, contain, and conceal. It was all temporary, beautiful and spontaneous; too personal, too raw, too effective to be permanent. Our monuments and ceremonies and rituals will be committee creations.

When I went to the World Trade Center site, I knelt at the altars that had been created all around. I read the letters and the poems and the prayers and looked at the pictures of the people who died there. 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 unredeemed defilement. This I knew. Know.

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, thus officially ending 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 but 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 their memory. It remains an open question: how to honor the horror of it, the loss, the dignity of the recovery, the courage of the clean-up — physical and metaphysical — the residual trauma and grief that is the story of 9/11 and its aftermath.

So human it is, noble, this need for ritual, how to remember and honor with integrity, sincerity, vision, and verve the most terrible as well as the most joyous events of our lives.

What I saw at the site of the World Trade Center when I visited there three months after the event was something that soon would be another memory: a simple wood fence with hand written notes and pictures and letters and messages to the dead from those who loved them.

The shrines and altars attached to the wooden fence surrounding the site, 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. The memorial makers could not do better than to remember the spontaneous makeshift fence memorial of the first few months after the event. The more permanent memorial will no doubt be beautiful and touching but it will not equal the spontaneity of the dedicated fence space that once arose around the site.

We will make rituals and ceremonies.

Whatever is built, whatever we do as memorial to the events of 9/11 will not capture as well as that fence with its stories poems pictures letters our yearning to consecrate something so ruined, the yearning to make something beautiful out of something terrible, something holy out of something defiled.

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