I like marking anniversaries. I’m the kind of person who likes to hear what happened fifty years ago today, or five, or ten. I’m always the one in the family who says, “Ten years ago today we were…..” when I remember a day in which we had a notable event as a family, or maybe just a great hike I recall. So I wouldn’t have needed all the hype to remember the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. While I haven’t wallowed in the news coverage, I did take a moment to remember the time, recall the uncertainty and my concern for family members living in New York and for how this might affect my young sons. But it was an abstract reflection today. It was an event I witnessed, like most people, through television and, as such, it still has that slightly detached sense of two-dimensionality for me. I have experienced my share of grief, but my noting of the day was more reflective than visceral.
Then I read Richard Miller’s post today “The Great Wall: A Remembrance.” Richard, in the kind of elegant and insightful writing he can master and I cannot, captures many of my thoughts about seeing and grief and time. He was writing both about 9/11, and about a trip to a literacy conference in China that we were both a part of. He was a keynote speaker and I, well I did what I do. But it was a trip that was fascinating and fun. One friend said it felt like “summer camp for academics.” It was also transformative, intellectually and emotionally. Richard captures this more fully in his post. In his post Richard writes about his hike on the Great Wall with Jennifer Wilson, one of the others on the trip. I remember Jen. She was not long out of grad school in 2007 and she was already a force. She was incisive, sharp, and confident. We had several great conversations over meals or a beer during the trip and, after we got back to the States we kept in touch of and on for a couple of years in the way academics do. And then, we stopped keeping in touch off and on, in the way that academics do.
I hadn’t thought about Jen in quite a while when I started reading about her today. And, as I was reading about her and thinking I should drop her a line I came across this line in Richard’s essay: ” And then six years later, last week, the news that Jen had died. Violently. In her own home. At the hands of another.”
When grief comes, the timeline can be so varied. Sometimes, after death ends a long illness, the grief has accumulated over time and comes in slowly like a tide. Yet, on this day, the news caught me unaware. Like on 9/11, people who no one expected to be gone had died. Jen was murdered a few weeks ago, but somehow I had missed the news. And today the news left me shaken. She was so forceful and optimistic that it was again news that seemed inconceivable. I won’t pretend that Jen and I were close friends or associates. We were slightly more than “conference friends”; acquaintances who meet every so often, hug, and ask about each others’ children and writing projects. I knew her slightly more than I knew any of the people who died on September 11. Still, there was the clear pain of loss, of sorrow, that cannot be willed or denied.
It’s often common at such moments – when loss comes close, but not too close – to say that we will use such moments as reminders to stay in better contact with people, to be better friends, better humans. (When loss hits us directly we have no need, and no time, for such reminders.) But we rarely keep such promises for all the obvious reasons. I’m in no mood for such pretending at such reminders today. I will think about Jennifer Wilson and feel sorrow for her friends and family, as I think about families that have had deep and immediate losses in the past ten years and feel sorrow as well. Yet that leaves me with another question at the end of this sunny, warm day. What do we do with sorrow, with remembrances of grief? How do we best raise ourselves off the ground, shoulder the load of life again, and keep moving? Rather than risk trying to answer such questions with my own writing, I leave Richard’s words to close out these thoughts.
Time does not heal all wounds; it simply outlives them and then doesn’t even take note when the wounds are gone. When did we stop feeling the raw pain of December 7th? When did those who survived the bombings on August 6th and August 9th let go the memories of those days? When will those targeted by drones, those driving the wrong mountain road, those attending the wrong wedding, those shopping in the wrong crowded bazaar, the nameless ones congregating at places without names: when will they forget being present at the very moment the business of the everyday turned to tallying the day’s casualties?
The first step down the path towards peace comes by way of trying to see the world through the eyes of another. Ten years ago, the nation’s leaders, democrat and republican, liberal and hawk, united in committing us to a future of fear, with the blind and unrealizable goal of exacting revenge on the unnamed, unformless forces arrayed against modernity.
Can we step off this path and start anew?
I’d like to think so.