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.

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