December 11, 2001
I was invited to a conference in New York City to discuss the mental health implications of long term recovery from acts of terrorism. We were called together to discuss how to prepare, how to respond, how to plan for the unthinkable, convened by the Department of Health and Human Services.
I sat for two days listening and discussing a psychological and spiritual response plan for the state I represented. It was not a part of the conference to visit the World Trade Center site, it was only three months out and the site was still restricted, and although I was a subway ride away from Ground Zero I felt as if I could not miss seeing it.
Late on the last night I spent in New York City, I called my friend Todd who lived near the site, asking him if he would take me downtown to see it. It was almost midnight.
We took the subway to Fulton Street. 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. An opaque wooden fence concealed the site from view and approach. Though it was just past midnight, there were quite a few people in the area. On the site itself we could see the iron workers in the distance finishing up their welding for the night. The lumbering trucks did not cease moving the mountain of debris that remained of the World Trade Center and once in a while a gate in the wooden fence opened and out rolled a truck.
From a distance I could see the crude natural memorial of the terrible disaster: the piece left of the above-ground skeleton of the towers that I had heard New Yorkers call “the potato chip.” It didn’t look anything like a potato chip to me; it was two hundred feet tall and looked like the ruin of a holy place, stately and dignified, ruined and demeaned.
It reached out of the ruins and up towards the sky like a sign of both the horrific destruction and the heroic aftermath of 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.
There was an old man kneeling in front of this particular shrine, reading the notes and pictures and stories that made up the altar on the wooden fence. We stood there next to him for a while, 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 spontaneous shrines that decorated the fence, that the tragedy of the World Trade Center ceased to be theoretical for me. I felt the weight of thousands of broken worlds times the number of intimates who do not forget, a circle of multiple thousands sitting in a circle around God.
Suddenly next to the shrine 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 into the Ground Zero site. We were all standing now, looking past the shrine, the stories, the pictures, the prayers, into the site of the ruins of the World Trade Center, Ground Zero, watching the dump trucks lumbering out loaded with debris. We sat in silence watching for ten minutes, then the old man said, “so began the age of fear.”
We continued to circle the site walking around it, from every angle entranced by the monument both heroic and horrific 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 what it felt like in the aftermath of disaster.
There was still a good number of 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, a monument inspiring in me not vengeance, but awe, respect, quietude, determination, endurance, and hope.
It was close to three AM by the time we headed back. We had spent three hours in walking meditation, the smell that everyone talked about in the air. What was that smell? Was it acrid, was it sweet, was it something burning, but burning sweetly, a mix of Levitical incense? Was it the kabbalah of ruin and redemption, descent and ascent, the grotesque and the beautiful bound up, interpenetrated, the unholy and the holy, symbolized by the cathedral that had risen out of the ruins where there once was a building?
Addendum, September 11, 2016
I recall these feelings of mourning fifteen years later. I am familiar with the quality of brokenness when what is released from the ruins of the heart is something quiet and beautiful, strong and sure, the deep knowledge of both impermanence and permanence, to be drawn to the core and know that something good there endures.
James Stone Goodman
United States of America