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Posts Tagged ‘memory’

9/11, fifteen years later

sept 11 memorial reflection

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

I heard these words of Faulkner’s again on a recent gray morning, as I stood in the doorway of a wood-paneled chapel on Harvard’s campus, a few steps from the Yard.

Speaking at the first Morning Prayers service of the fall semester, President Drew Faust invoked Faulkner to remind us that what we do with the past is our responsibility. It is, she said, “the essential material with which we can build a better future.”

As we marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, Faulkner’s words resonated in a different way.

Sept. 11, 2001, has passed into history, and yet it is still immediate, insistent. It is, after a decade and a half, part of my past and our national memory. But it is far from dead or irrelevant. It continues to affect my life and my world, both in ways I can point to and ways I can’t quite articulate. And it comes home to me again every fall.

sept 11 memorial flowers

I was a high school senior in West Texas on 9/11: happily absorbed in honors classes and marching band, excited about my new role on our school’s student diplomatic team, four days away from turning 18. I was curious and eager, on the brink of young adulthood, and I was completely undone by the news on the TV that morning. I walked around for days in a state of shock: tense, strained, saddened in a way I had never been before. It felt like a jolt into adulthood: a loss of innocence, a grim, sudden knowledge of how the world could be.

I’ve read a few books, in the years since that day, that include 9/11 as an element of the plot or setting. I couldn’t believe how long it took for the attacks and their aftermath to become a part of any fictional narrative instead of the gaping, overwhelming whole. Long after that day, the attacks dominated any discussion they entered. It took us years to absorb that story into the larger narrative of our lives.

Last week, I interviewed a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I work, about the far-reaching effects of 9/11, especially in the field of homeland security (her specialty). I asked her what the U.S. has learned, what we could have done differently, how daily life has changed for most Americans. I tried to reflect, in my questions, an awareness of the passage of time and of both President Faust’s and Faulkner’s words. Not simply Where were you that day? (though I always want to know), or Isn’t it awful that this happened?, but How can we move forward?.

In a sense, that is the question I have been asking for 15 years: how can we acknowledge the grief and fear, the complexity of such an event and its ripples, and carry it forward with wisdom and grace? How can we remember and honor the day itself, and yet move ahead with courage?

I don’t have many answers for this, but as always, I think telling our stories helps.

I’d welcome your stories, in the comments, and I’d also recommend a few of those novels I mentioned: Nichole Bernier’s The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Kathleen Donohoe’s Ashes of Fiery Weather. They treat this event and its aftermath with care and good sentences, which is often all a writer can do. And sometimes, that’s enough.

(Images are from the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, which I visited a few years ago.)

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papaw-grandkids

Last week, my dad sent a group text to my mom, my sister and me, reminding us that it was my grandfather’s birthday. “He loved the three of you very much,” Dad wrote. “I do too.”

I read it and thought about Papaw, a quiet man with kind eyes (pictured above with some of his grandkids in the late ’80s). It seems unbelievable, but he has been gone 16 years now. He died of cancer in the summertime, when I was a high school student, and we drove up to the family farm in southwest Missouri as we did every summer – but this time it was for the funeral.

We gathered with family on a June day at the old farmhouse outside of town where my grandparents raised their three boys. My dad spoke at the funeral and made everyone laugh, telling stories about his childhood and honoring the man who taught his boys to work hard, respect their elders and love one another.

Afterward, we all went back to the farmhouse and I helped my Aunt Carmen, my grandmother’s best friend, clean out the crowded kitchen fridge so we could find room for a dozen deli trays. (I remember us laughing helplessly at outdated jars of mayonnaise and so much sliced cheese, grateful for a moment of lightness amid our grief.)

Even without that text, I would have remembered Papaw this month: he was born on June 2 and later died on June 19, and so this month always reminds me of him.

There are dates that loom large in every life: birthdays, anniversaries, deaths. The births or the funerals of those we love; the days we receive the news that will change our lives, for a moment or forever. As I recently passed the one-year anniversary of my layoff, I’ve been thinking about the smaller anniversaries that also mark us.

I got laid off on the day before my husband’s birthday, which also happens to be the same day he proposed, nine years ago now (we’ve been married for nearly eight). There are other dates I don’t have to mark on a calendar to remember: the August night I got the phone call about my friend Cheryl’s death; the long-ago spring evening I got baptized in the little Baptist church in Coppell. And the night we arrived in Boston, grubby and tired from four days of driving cross-country but still eager to begin a new adventure.

I’ve written before about how my body also seems to remember certain places at certain times of year: the mountains of New Mexico in mid-May, windswept Whitby in February, Oxford at many times and seasons. Time and calendars may be relatively recent human inventions, but I believe our bodies and souls hold these memories, nudge us to remember these anniversaries. It is part of being human, this bittersweet ribbon of memory, the way we are marked by both grief and joy.

I miss Papaw even though he’s been gone a long time: I wish he could have met my husband and my sister’s husband, attended our weddings and our graduations, gotten down on the floor to play with his great-grandsons. He would have loved it, all of it. But I am grateful for him and his memory, and for the quiet reminder in my soul (and, okay, from my dad) every June: a nudge to remember.

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treasures big ben books shelf

A Big Ben tealight holder, a gift from my friend Charity in memory of our times in London together.

A lacy, silvery box that once held dark chocolate, a gift from my husband.

A book of love poetry from a long-ago afternoon in York. A book of Shakespeare quotes handed down from my dad (who received it from a favorite professor). A copy of Gift from the Sea, picked up at a used bookstore somewhere, so full of wise words.

All sitting on a shelf from my favorite antique store in Abilene.

Treasures, indeed.

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The temperatures are slowly rising. The skies are losing the cloud-streaked pallor of winter, giving way on some days to a bold, nearly electric blue. The crocuses are out in full force; the trees are budding; the rhubarb and asparagus are out at the grocery store. On my lunchtime walks, the earthy tang of mulch hangs in the air. I even spotted a rabbit in Harvard Square last week.

And I’m feeling homesick for the mountains of northern New Mexico.

hermits peak blue haven new mexico

Eight years ago, after two semesters fraught with loss, I packed my car with a sleeping bag, pillow, a few books and two weeks’ worth of jeans and T-shirts, and headed west across the Texas plains. I drove past my hometown, crossed the New Mexico border, then wound down a long grey highway bordered with scrub and cacti, then with pine, shadowed in the distance by mesas. I was heading for a camp tucked into a valley under the Sangre de Cristo mountains, where I had signed up for a writing workshop with a former English professor who now ran the camp.

For two weeks, we lived out of cell phone range, hiking and writing and reading each other’s work, sharing meals at a long narrow table in the dining hall. I spent hours walking around the camp alone, inhaling the scent of sun on dried pine needles and the sharp, crisp mountain air. I laughed as Jake, the resident golden retriever, bounded into the river and out again, shaking himself dry, wiggling head to toe with joy. In the late afternoons I stretched out on the wooden porch of the old dining hall, with my journal and a bottle of water, eating M&Ms and writing poetry, soaking up the sunshine and the quiet.

We read Wendell Berry and William Stafford, and I spent a Sunday afternoon sitting in the doorway of the laundry room, reading Kathleen Norris and listening to the rain. Sometimes Scott, the director, would pull out his guitar and share one of the songs he was writing. His words, and the words of these other writers, are bound up with the long hikes and the bowls of hot vegetable stew, and the moments at night when I crossed the short distance from the cabin to the shower house, and paused to look up at the indigo sky pierced with stars.

hermits peak group new mexico hike

I did not solve my problems, nor completely jettison my worry and grief, during those weeks spent so far away from my usual life. But I began to imagine what renewal might look like. I began to believe, after a year of struggle and loss, that I could move forward with peace and steadiness, drawn somehow from the quiet strength of the mountains and hills. I discovered, again, the ability of words to help work through the sorrows we can’t explain, and I knew the deep joy of talking about words with people who also believed in their power.

Every spring, when the air begins to soften and the sky turns toward the vast, jarring blue of early summer, when the life that has lain dormant all winter under the earth begins to quicken, I long to pack up my car again and head for that valley. My soul aches for the deep quiet of those afternoons on the porch and the camaraderie of evenings around the campfire. My ears strain to hear the sound of Scott’s guitar. My whole being remembers, and for a few moments, I am back there in the mountains, where my soul found rest.

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Recently, I had one of those can’t-put-my-finger-on-it moments, the kind where you think of a line of a song or (in this case) a snippet of poetry, and cannot remember where it came from. I was pretty sure this line – “Come forth, and bring with you a heart that watches and receives” – was from Wordsworth, and thanks to the magic of Google, I searched for it and had the whole poem in front of me in short order.

This made me think three things:

  1. Google is so convenient, and in a sense, it eliminates the need for those bulky anthologies I carted around in college.
  2. I don’t think I own any Wordsworth in hard copy (to my shame, because I really do like him).
  3. Why don’t we, as a culture, memorize poetry any more?

I know, I know – after graduating college, it seems a bit arcane to commit lines of poetry, or mathematical formulas, or anything else on flash cards, to memory – unless those things are part of your day job, in which case you probably don’t need said flash cards. We’re so used to having all the info we need (well, a lot more than we’ll ever need, really) at our fingertips. Even before the advent of the Internet, libraries largely replaced the need for people to carry all their knowledge in their brains.

But I rather like the idea of having a store of poetry tucked away in my mind, words to carry with me and pull out when I need them, even if Google is usually just a few clicks away. (This probably has its roots in the many Bible verses I had to memorize as a child – some of which, I’m happy to report, are still imprinted on my heart in adulthood.)

So I printed out the poem (and made plans to buy some Wordsworth in hard copy, stat), and have spent the past week memorizing it. And now (I hope) I’ve added it to the storehouse of words in my memory, to be called up and ruminated over when I need a lift or some encouragement. And I like the idea so much I’m going to try memorizing one poem a month, at least for now. Up next (called to mind by Sarah’s post the other day) is “Desiderata.”

Do you memorize poetry (or anything besides the million passwords required for life these days), or is it just me?

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