Saturday, September 24, 2011

long run

In the long run we are all dead.

-- John Maynard Keynes

Never forgive. Never forget.

-- bumper sticker

Strange that I have not gone to Ground Zero. I work within a few blocks of the place. They say the new tower is half done, but I've never gone to see it. There's something that forbids me to approach. It doesn't belong to me.

First, it belonged to the residents. "This is our home. Tourists not welcome." The ones who lived there hung banners from their windows in those first weeks, as people came from all over, called to the altar of sacrifice with no good idea of what to do, but anxious to view the wreckage six stories high, the smoke that still floated over Brooklyn. At a later stage it belonged to the relatives of the dead. They came every year to read the names. But now it's been ten years. Ten readings of the names. It's time to turn the place over to the rest of us. Time to give us title to their dead. We lost them too.

They can read the names now any time they want. They've opened a memorial, and all the names are incised in concrete. The mourners don't have to wait for anniversaries.

A memorial is dedicated to memory. It tries to make sure we will never forget. But should we always remember?

Should we always remember the fireball? We've all seen that. Should we remember the people flying out of the buildings, smashing on the plaza? Very few if us saw that.

I saw the sacred ground the other day from across the street at fifty stories. One part like a model train layout, still too neat and needing to be distressed, with young trees set in rows in concrete, and two fountains marking the footprints of the vanished towers. Water pouring down the sides into a reflecting pool, and in the midst of the pool the water falls again into an inner depth. The rest of the ground looks like what it is. A construction site. It's a mess. It looked small from fifty stories. I suppose when I go there in person, on the floor of the plaza, it will seem very large.

From fifty stories I could look across the street into the new "No. 1," the replacement for what came down that day -- they used to call it "Freedom Tower." It looked as if I could reach across the space and touch it. I was dizzy. I felt as if I were flying among tall buildings and, yes, it was thrilling and it was appalling. I could see the ground as the flying people had seen it.

How long do those who grieve have to spend a part of each day curating the injury? Tearing off the dressing and picking at the scab? Some hold themselves to a standard: never forget and never forgive. It's as if forgiveness would betray the dead; by prolonging the pain they prolong the lives of the dead. And it works. As long as you hold the lost person before you, that person still hovers there -- not gone yet. We're willing to cherish the grief and the rage in order to postpone the loss. These dead are therefore still falling: they haven't hit ground yet. They are suspended in a gelatin of aggressive memory. The mourners still hope the film will reverse, the flying people soar upward into their towers, the flames go out, the airplanes reintegrate and fly backward to their airports.

For each mourner, the suspension will either last or it won't. For some, the gelatin will suddenly dissolve, and the dead person will strike the pavement of reality, and the long work of loss will begin. Others will succeed in sustaining the suspension for years, decades, their whole lives, keeping the dead before them until they themselves die. But they will have spent their days out of the world, in suspense.

I can't tell anyone to forgive. It's too hard, when no remorse has been expressed. There was, to say the least, no remorse about Ground Zero. And I'm no example: there are people I haven't forgiven. I'm more interested in forgetting.

I'm glad I have not needed to grieve for many people. But I've grieved for dreams, for opportunities, for images of myself. I have felt aggrieved, in ways that would hurt for months or years. But there would come a day when I noticed that, for some days now, a week, a month, I had not thought about that loss, or about the person I held responsible for it. I didn't have time for that hurt any more. I was interested in other things. I had forgotten. I was free of the injury. I didn't want what I had long ago lost.

It takes time to arrive at this forgetting. And it takes time to arrive at the next station. Once I have forgotten, once the injury doesn't hurt any more, I think about how I might have avoided it. If I had done this rather than that, zigged rather than zagged, then the adversary might not have done what she did. And then I begin to take responsibility. I start writing a new story of how I "played into" a situation of malice. If I had behaved with more savvy, I might have managed the situation differently, and the injury might not have happened. So I begin to think of the terrible event as something we worked on together, the enemy and me. Next time I'll know better. Perhaps this is a kind of forgiveness.

But there wasn't any better way at Ground Zero; the people in the towers didn't "play into" their destruction. They didn't know what was coming, or who. So how could I tell them to forgive? "Never forgive. Never forget." It's just that never is a long time, and life is not a long time.

A great economist spoke of the business cycle's supposedly creative destruction, and of the hymns of market fundamentalism, incantations that assure, no matter how severe the crash, that a rebound will follow. Yes, but when? Theoreticians can wait for the long-run fulfillment of perfect curves. But people, families, children and their hopes cannot wait for the long run. There isn't time in the human scale for the market to restore itself. Our youth, our innocence, our life is over before the loss can be made up. The market expresses no remorse to those whom its breathing destroys.

For the last ten years I lived among trees. I got to know individuals through my windows and on my daily strolls. I knew their leaves and branches, and I have seen many storms rip trees apart. When nature rips a limb off, the tree never recovers its loss, never resumes the profile that I knew. But new buds form, and new limbs sprout, and a new profile replaces the old. Never the same, but still alive and even larger.

So here I am, late as usual, three weeks after the tenth memorial of our great loss. I just can't stop chewing things over, so I have to keep processing long after everybody else has moved on to the next topic. Another reason why this is not a blog.

And these words are a dismemorial. For those who lost people ten years ago, I wish a forgetting. I hope they learn how to live a day without recalling the hurt. I hope their lives will outlast the injury. They'll never be the same, but they can still be alive and larger. I won't tell them that they ought to forget. But I can hope.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

sweet prince

Now cracks a noble heart.

-- Hamlet

Alabaster Huston, who rose from humble origins to become a mentor for his peers, an explorer of streams and forests, a protector of homes, a loving friend and a counselor to counselors, died peacefully on Friday, with family gathered round him at his home in New York City, after a long illness. Named "Alabaster" by his adoptive family because of his uniform white coat, he was orphaned and spent formative stages of childhood in a rescue shelter. He won the family's invitation with his fervently expressed wish to adopt them as companions, reaching his paw through the mesh of his cage.

As he grew to maturity, his character was unaffected by the trauma of early childhood. Neither shy nor excessively demonstrative, he was described by many who met him as having "a great attitude." His interests were catholic and inclusive, and he was never willingly left out of an activity, rushing to find vantage points from which to observe household or public events without once being killed by his curiosity. He displayed a remarkable comprehension of the mechanics of door-latches, and it is understood that if he had possessed opposable thumbs he would now rule the world, or at least have led a Fortune 500 company.

He was companionable with a characteristic reserve, declining to sit on the laps even of his intimates, but preferring instead to stretch on the couch beside a friend, exerting light pressure on the thigh with all four feet. He was perfectly capable however of soliciting affection at the appropriate time, reaching up to touch a face or a forearm with a gesture whose meaning was: "It's time for you to pet me now." Many who knew him wish they could be as clear in their communication, or as effective.

Though he never practiced ministry he consorted all his life with pastors, and they often thought that, had he chosen to pursue such a career, he would have done well in it. His ways were quiet and his voice was small, but he chose his utterances carefully and displayed excellent listening skills. Comfortable with silence and clear in his boundaries, he put all at their ease and comforted many during his career with a truly pastoral presence.

Though his heart was firmly anchored in the home, he always enjoyed the outdoors. As a child growing up in the suburbs he investigated the perspectives available from garage roofs and from the upper reaches of grape trellises, conducting research from those locations on avian behavior and the domestic habits of squirrels. He spent most of his adult life however in a home located amidst forests, ridges and miniature streams. This wild and constantly changing terrain called him irresistibly, and he would sometimes take a walk through the woods with a family member, lagging behind or running ahead as his curiosity might prompt him, checking in by voice with his companion just at the moment when he seemed to be lost.

His frequent solo expeditions in nature were sometimes rewarded with zoological discoveries. He would return with an enlistee for home athletic events, carefully preserved from harm and voicing its enthusiasm from the jaws of its recruiter -- a mouse or a mole or, on one memorable occasion, a baby bunny. That these guests were uniformly unharmed when members of his family returned them to the environment is a testament to his innately gentle disposition. Nature was not in his view, at least his part of it, red in tooth and claw.

His habit of peaceful play with the smaller creatures of his world sets one of his last actions in remarkable relief. About a week before he died, although much weakened by his disease, he caught, killed and ate a mouse who had invaded his city home. His younger feline apprentice stood by in amazement, to see his elder display such determination. It is hoped that this vivid example of domestic protectiveness will serve the youth as a model, in the course of an urban future.

Alabaster's remains will be cremated, and his family will devote his ashes at a suitable time to a location that suits his interests and affections. Good night, sweet prince.