To Love What Is Mortal

September 11, 2011

Candle at St. Paul'sI lit a candle in remembrance
on July 18, 2011
St. Paul’s Chapel at Ground Zero, New York City

What I did ten years ago: I had my C&C, as usual. I wrote in my journal: “Autumn is rolling in — maybe “seeping in” is better. There is a stickiness in the air, and the AC came on, but I’m sliding — seeping — segueing? — into an autumn frame of mind. At the Giant the peaches and nectarines have been moved to the second bin — the prices are up and the quality is down. Now the front bins have five varieties of apple — Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Braeburn, Gala. Say the names. Put them in a story.”

The rest of what I did that day is outlined here. I wrote and posted that the first day I wrote in my paper journal again. I wrote for three pages, concluding, “I often shy away from using the phrase ‘and then my life changed forever’ — change is always, at some level, forever. Today I write, ‘Things have changed forever.'”

What I did nine years, ten months, and seven days later: I visited the Irish Hunger Memorial and St. Paul’s Chapel at Ground Zero. I’d been to that neighborhood two days before, “making mischief with Shmuel,” the working title for the piece I did write about participating in the Chaos and Joy of an Improv Everywhere event. I returned alone two days later, drawn by what I’d learned online about the two sites I’d passed getting from the subway stop where I’d met my friend and the site of the Improv event.

The Irish Hunger Memorial got me in touch with my own history. It is likely that my great-great-grandparents on my mother’s side left Ireland during the famine period, 1845 to 1852. My grandfather was born in 1864, my grandmother in 1878. I never knew my grandfather, and my grandmother died before I knew how important it is to ask for stories about your own history, and to listen.

As you might guess, that visit was haunting and powerful, reminding me of my oft-expressed concern for world hunger that I leave almost entirely to the display of The Hunger Site button on the sidebar here and the occasional donation of a can of food or a box of cereal to the church collection bin. Stop thinking and start doing, I said to myself, not for the first time, as I walked to St. Paul’s.

I’ve been to a lot of famous churches. The atmosphere inside one that attracts hordes of tourists can sometimes fall short of the reverence and respect one might hope for. St. Paul’s is small. The worship space is ringed by displays that memorialize the role the church filled in the days and weeks and months that followed 9/11. People tend to walk around in silent groups, and the only sound is the shuffling of footsteps.

I shuffled along with the others, past the photos and the banners and the cards and the drawings. In one corner, I stopped at a display of a cot laid with a bedspread and a stuffed animal. The poster behind it said that it was one of the cots used in the space when it served as a shelter for firefighters and medical personnel and others working in the recovery efforts just after the events of 9/11/01. The poster had a picture of such a cot in use during that time.

I looked at that picture, and I touched the hem of the bedspread, and, perhaps for the very first time since 9/11/01, I burst into tears. I wept as if someone I loved lay dead before me. I shook with sorrow. And then I crossed the space and lighted the candle pictured above, a gesture that recalled my upbringing as a Catholic schoolgirl who frequently performed that ritual, one that has appeared several times in my fiction. Reporting this experience a few hours later on the phone to a friend, I wept again. It is not that I didn’t feel any grief before. I couldn’t explain then and I can’t explain now why that moment affected me so deeply, so directly.

What I did today: I went to church. I sang the Loud Boiling Test Tubes! song, inadvertently left off the worship schedule last week and included today because I was not the only one who remarked at its lack. I arranged with my daughter to meet her at a memorial service Wednesday night for a former neighbor, gone at 53. I wrote in my journal. I started reading a book I bought at Bread Loaf to give away, because I am determined to see very soon the person I chose it for. And, unlike Poetry Daily, which thought that not posting something today was an appropriate response to this anniversary, I Tweeted, I Facebooked, and I wrote this piece, in which I invite you to read one of my favorite autumn poems, Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods.”

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.


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