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Posts Tagged ‘9/11’

October 17, 2011 seemed like a fine day to head downtown and see the memorial I’d avoided up to and just after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was another stunning autumn morning, with another cerulean sky visible through towers, half built with aspirations to touch the clouds that floated by. Hundreds of people going about their business were amplified by thousands more whose presence makes this, if not a world trade center, than the world’s visiting center.

I also planned to stop by another, much smaller site I remembered well: a 3300 square foot slip of green my husband would eat in on pleasant days when he wished to escape the long shadows of the World Trade Center. Then, it was called Liberty Plaza Park; now it is Zuccotti Park, renamed after the chairman of the reality company that provided for its restoration after the September 11th attacks devastated it. For several years, Zuccotti Park hosted the annual 9/11 anniversary commemorations. Currently, it’s hosting Occupy Wall Street.

Symbolism is important in making a statement, whether it involves words, notes, or physical space. So is context. The 16 acres known as ground zero was and is sacred ground to some; to others, a historically significant site. For me, ground zero is about the lives that were lost but also the resilience that was found, however temporarily, to go on, to make something better, to be better. Although I was part of a group that lobbied (unsuccessfully) for the addition of a cultural/educational component at the site–living monuments to a possible future and to the important freedoms the attacks didn’t take away—we lost. It helps to have a Visitors’ Center to supply some context, more of which the museum will also provide. Unfortunately, right now it’s possible to bypass the Center and most people do.

As a family member, I was directed around the absurdly long lines to enter the space, which consists of two massive waterfalls conforming to the footprints of the original towers and ringed with low granite walls bearing the names of the nearly 3,000 people.

MemorialName

Using the guide I’d been handed, I made my way to the far side of the north pool and located my  husband’s name. I touched the engraved stone and whispered “Well, here you are.” And waited. But the rush of emotions I anticipated– grief perhaps; but also reverence, awe, inspiration, a telescoping of past, present and future—never came. It was all very lovely but somehow…static.

As I walked over to Zuccotti Park, I was struck by the number of tourists; it seemed as if there were more of them than there were protesters. The park initially gave the appearance of being a mess but it really wasn’t; bedding was neatly stacked, except when someone was still sleeping. An older gent did a pretty good rendition of “God Bless America” on the bagpipes. I made my way tentatively into the trees, where people were talking or texting or reading. I saw several meetings taking place, conducted in relatively quiet tones, since neither megaphones nor sound equipment is allowed.

Zuccotti2I couldn’t hear what was being said; I’ve read elsewhere that a dedicated corps of occupiers is meeting to try and devise a set of demands. Sure there are some goof-offs, but the few protesters I encountered in my all-too-brief sojourn both wanted a change to a skewed system and felt frustrated that they were characterized as slackers or whiners, or insufficiently prepared to take on the entire system by which banks and businesses that don’t create jobs and CEOs who don’t produce dividends are nevertheless rewarded.

On the way home, I thought about how alive that little slip of green had felt and how…not so much dead as not alive the memorial had felt to me. Of course, that’s not the function of memorials; they are erected to remember the past and to honor the dead. The best of them, it must be said, can also deliver the message: never again.

As for the park formerly known as Liberty, it is teeming with good intentions and honest efforts and a target that its location should not obscure: not so much Wall Street as an economic system that accrues wealth for a disproportionate few; yet fights to keep at arms’ length any regulation that accrues to the common good. It’s the job of the protestors in a free democracy to draw attention to the system’s failings; it’s not their job to fix it. If we and our representatives allow the novelty of a group of people camping out overnight to distract from agreeing on and implementing solutions, then we will have robbed OWS of its important symbolic message: no more.

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We like to commemorate in the United States. Coming up, what I refer to as The-Anniversary-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named recalls a horrible event ten years ago when four planes, two towers, and several thousand lives were destroyed in an attack on U.S. soil. In the days that followed, we came together, focused not on hate and destruction (at least to my grief-stricken, New York-centric eyes) but on resilience and purpose.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it? Not that my husband or so many others were killed but that, ten years later, we’re farther apart than ever. Everyone has an opinion as to why that’s happened (everyone has an opinion on everything, freely spoken and easily distributed through the unfiltered megaphone that is the Internet). For me, the decade is captured (albeit in a simplified manner) in a letter I had published in the New York Times the other day in response to an article by Tom Friedman:

After my husband died on 9/11, I hoped the American public, which had come together in a spirit of resilience rather than one of anger, would resist the temptation to blame, to justify, to point fingers or to follow an “us versus them” scenario. Instead we’ve devolved into a selfish group of squabblers, ready to throw strangers under the bus and kick friends off the ladder. A small group sacrifices abroad while we dither about the endgame; here at home, we expect our neighbors to fend for themselves and our government to do its job without revenue. The list of enemies foreign and domestic grows longer; we trust no one. While I’m mindful that my husband may be more fairly called a victim than a hero, I am still saddened that his legacy and that of so many others might be tied to a period of profound civic retrenchment.

On my worst days, I’m tempted to blame everyone, including me for sitting at home and indulging in blame. I want to slap the collective citizenry across the face and yell, “Grow up! Stop fighting! Behave yourselves. No one is always right and no one is always perfect. We have to work together to get anything done. Get off your high horse and get to work!”

Honestly, I hate feeling angry as much as I hated feeling grief-stricken. That’s not who my husband was and it’s not who I am. And so I leave my friends, acquaintances and various readers with this rather hopeful thought, played out visually by a lovely dance troupe of children from Denver, CO who have channeled what we used to think of as the American spirit to produce a stunning montage. Sure, it’s sappy but deep down inside, I’m a sap.

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Yesterday, as one of a group of selected 9/11 family members, I had an opportunity to meet with President Obama. Although the number of invitees swelled at the last minute and the format changed from a sit-down to a stand-up affair, I had my moments with the man. Problem is, I got kind of tongue-tied and forgot some of what I’d hoped to say:


  1. You look AMAZING.
  2. Would you consider closing Gitmo and turning it into a salsa club? I think you’d win points not only on your moral gesture but also for a project that could aid Cuba’s economy, thus marking the first step towards normalizing relations. Even the conservative Miami Cuban-American population would appreciate your cultural sensitivities and their support could be key in winning Florida in 2012.
  3. Michelle has you working with weights, doesn’t she?
  4. Some people are concerned that Pakistan, stung by being out of the loop when it came to the bin Laden mission, will become more dangerous, harboring terrorists and perhaps even sharing its nuclear power. But if you made a movie of the operation, you could cut Pakistan in on international distribution and related ancillary rights as well as job-creating monies generated by filming on location. To play well in certain parts of the world, the filmmakers might create an interactive version in which viewers get to choose alternate endings. This could be a book to another growing cottage industry—the conspiracy theorists. Win-win.
  5. You’re getting grey, Mr. President—but I guess you know that.
  6. You totally rocked at the White House Correspondents’ dinner—and considering it was the night before the big take-down,  you deserve an Oscar.
  7. Say, maybe instead of the usual photo ops, we might take a minute, just you and I, to do some serious talking about domestic and world issues. I have a lot of good ideas and I think it would be very moving to have you sitting with an ordinary 9/11 family member sharing a moment to talk about the personal and the political while you’re holding a copy of my book upright and facing the camera.
  8. Can I sneak a peek at your long-form birth certificate? Please?
  9. Did I mention that you look AMAZING?
  10. It’s an honor to meet you sir. I don’t have anything to ask of you; I just want to thank you for being here today and for doing what you’re doing. I’m a big fan of yours—have been for some time—and oh, by the way, my sister loves you, too.

 (actually, I did say that last bit, which might account for his big grin)  

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Go

He stalks me at night 

Haunts my restless dreams  

Taunting me until I plead:   

Please don’t go

He hides in my mind

Filling in the voids

Thrilling to my desperate need:

Please don’t go

He was not like this

Never so unmoved

Never one to make me beg

To bargain for his heart

Well then, what is this?

Punishment for love?

A puzzle to be solved

So that we can’t be kept apart?

No.

He leaves me at dawn

Tearful and alone

Fearful once but angry now:

Please, just go

 (image: open source)

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In the autumn and winter months following my husband’s death on 9/11, my strength came from the architects and designers with whom I’d been associated for several years. I was at the time public relations director of a large architecture and interior design firm in New York. I loved the job. Working with architects and designers taught me to visualize; I, in turn, helped them express the intent and the context of their projects through words. It was a good match.

So when I had the opportunity to work with architects, designers, planners and a variety of civic activists, I jumped at the chance. I’d seen the devastation first-hand; stood by the crumbling steps that were all that remained of the World Financial Center; gazed upon the sculptured ruins of my husband’s building glowing gold and grey in the filtered sunlight. I’d seen the hell that had crushed my open-minded, optimistic mate and sent his ashes to the four winds. Now I wanted to be a part of a new and better vision, one that would embrace memory, yes, but also vision. Where before there were ungainly monuments to finance, there might be a university or an educational facility, perhaps some sort of journalistic enterprise,  a cultural center, even a museum of tolerance and understanding—because to understand was not to accept terrorism but to seek its opposite. All of this might be encased in a beautifully landscaped environment with buildings of inspired architecture. The signage—I was a big fan of signage—would be how we would tell people that they were entering “sacred” ground; made so not by the deaths at the site but by the lives that would be remembered.

Throughout the fall of 2001, even as I worked as a families’ representative in my home state of New Jersey, I stayed part-time in the city to facilitate a series of public meetings where devastated New Yorkers talked about their dreams of an inspiring skyline. In December I huddled in unheated raw space at the South Street Seaport adjacent to ground zero with members of the Regional Plan Association to come up with ideas that would be complimentary to those suggested by Mayor Bloomberg. No, I didn’t live in New York City (although I worked there), but I felt passionately that the best possible direction for us to move forward, to prove we as Americans were not about to give in to the hatred that perpetrated the act, nor the grief it sought to instill, was to make the place where my husband died something truly special.

Nine years later, I’m not simply disappointed, but wounded. Some of it is thoroughly selfish, I admit. The hopes and dreams of organizations like “Renew New York” and projects like “Imagine New York” were mine too. To look now at the blandly functional commercial buildings finally rising at the site is to feel a pang for the days when so many of the deeply wounded, not just family members, thought to create a living, visual and visible symbol of resilience.

But what is worse is the pitiful symbolism ground zero evokes—death over life, prejudice over tolerance, grief over hope, and a backwards, stuck-in-place mentality that tramples the visions of a better future some of us once had. The air of controversy surrounding ground zero is as toxic as anything I ever breathed that long-ago September.

I am laid low about this time, every year since 2001; it’s hard to shake memories of the shock and confusion played out in such a public setting. But I had been feeling better, truly. At heart, I am a forward-looking person, or at least someone learning to live in the moment.

It’s going to be much harder this year. I hate what 9/11 represents, not just the loss of my husband but the loss of our better selves. This is not how I want my husband remembered. And this is not my ground zero.

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December 15 is the anniversary of the marriage that no longer exists. The marriage no longer exists because the husband no longer exists, having died eight years ago, which begs the question: does the anniversary still exist? Or perhaps the question is, how do I acknowledge its existence? 

In a parallel universe, one of those infinite dimensions that split off at each major event and form the “what-ifs” of our lives, I might be planning a dinner or a getaway for the two of us. My mind turns that way from time to time. Such magical thinking, as Joan Dideon has named it, is inevitable. It’s a coping mechanism, one that changes form and purpose over time.

Last month my father-in-law Pete turned ninety. From a legal standpoint,  he is no longer my father-in-law, but such definitions often prove to be utterly inept when it comes to describing the ties that bind us. He is an amazing man: tall, trim, and upright; still exercising, making minor repairs, or running food over to shut-ins during the holidays. Writing to thank me  for a gift,  he closed:  “When people ask me how I’ve managed to reach ninety, I tell them it’s all smoke and mirrors — and it is!”

JimPete94 Pete and Jim, 1995

 Smoke and mirrors and the “what-ifs” are represented by those parallel universes we can’t see and can’t know, notwithstanding quantum physics and fervent believers in alternate realities. In another universe, I would be celebrating with my tall, strapping husband, he from such long-lived and healthy stock. Or perhaps not. If one thing changes, so does another; change has consequences. Events set off other events: illness or injury, trauma or death, disappointment, division, good fortune or incidents that affect those closest to us. The road keeps on dividing and subdividing. 

In an alternate reality…ah, but I don’t live there. Nor do I any longer live in the past I can’t change or the future I can’t know. In the here and now, I am, if not deliriously happy, at least profoundly grateful for the opportunity to have married and loved. So I’m going out to dinner with my sister, who was extremely close to my husband. After all, he was and will always be her favorite brother-in-law.

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 This July 4th,  my sister and I have been invited to help organizers of a large-scale program at the Statue of Liberty to mark the reopening of the crown for the first time in eight years.
LibertyAssorted dignitaries and invited guests are expected; some will make speeches, a marching band will play, and various veterans’ representatives will be recognized. The ceremonies will also include a group of immigrants to be sworn in. 
 I am unaccountably excited this year.  I’ve always loved parades and fireworks and hometown celebrations; I plan to catch as many as I can in and around my small community, whose fireworks over the lake are pretty terrific.  Macy’s just shifted their display over to the west side, which gives those of us from New Jersey a shot at some terrific views. 
fireworks     parade1  
July 4th by its very nature reminds me of our origins  –  of our Founding Fathers, of liberty and law, of the ideals we hold so dear and in all sincerity, of spaciousness and graciousnessEllis Island passengers on ship3a13598uw and American exceptionalism, by which I mean the remarkable confluence of history, resources, and governance and most of all, the faces of the new arrivals to this country (like my grandparents) when they first glimpsed the face of the woman with the torch. Like the faces of the new citizens will look when they are sworn in on Saturday.
The festivities this year feel hard-earned, well-deserved, and special. I honestly believe we’ve made some enormous steps in the right direction as a nation. Yes, we’re in the middle of some hard times and we’re not coming together on common ground as much as one might have hoped; there’s still far too much rancor and fear.
Then again, where but in America are you going to have an O’Reilly and an Oberman? Where else would people stay relatively patient and calm over eight excruciating months in order to find out who their representative would be, as did the good people of Minnesota? new citizensWhere else are you going to see so many people representing so much diversity waving flags and singing the national anthem and wearing red, white and blue with such pride?
 
There’s one other thing: The crown is opening for the first time since September 11, 2001. That has special resonance for me. After 9/11, our country’s leaders projected at various times, belligerence, defiance, or cluelessness. It seemed like such an awful way to remember those who died that day, including my husband, or to show the world what America could do, could be. But we survived and thrived and these days I feel strongly that we’re putting forth a truer vision of America than ever before, a vision of hope, opportunity, and resilience.
The philosophy behind the attacks had much to do with conformity, a single-minded belief system, a raft of fixed and preconceived notions about how the world is or should be. What Lady Liberty says, from her head to her toes, is just the opposite. She symbolizes tolerance, freedom, and the willingness to adapt, adopt, and change. That’s the America a groups of immigrants will join Saturday morning.  I can’t wait to see them become citizens under the watchful gaze of our most famous Statue.  

 

Liberty

 

On July 4th, 2009, a morning of festivities at the Statue of Liberty will be capped (so to speak) by the reopening of the statue’s crown. On hand will be various dignitaries, assorted participants, from veterans to at least one marching band, and a group of new immigrants ready to become citizens under the benevolent gaze of Lady Liberty. 

July 4th feels different this year.  I’ve always loved parades and hometown celebrations; I plan to catch as many as I can in and around my small community.  paradeMacy’s just shifted their display over to the west side, which gives those of us from New Jersey a shot at some terrific views. fireworks

 

July 4th by its very nature reminds me of our origins  –  of our Founding Fathers, of liberty and law, of the ideals we hold so dear and in all sincerity, of spaciousness and graciousness and American exceptionalism, by which I mean the remarkable confluence of history, resources, and governance and most of all, the faces of the new arrivals to this country (like my grandparents) when they first glimpsed the face of the woman with the torch. Like the faces of the new citizens will look when they are sworn in on Saturday. Ellis Island passengers on ship3a13598uw

The festivities this year feel hard-earned, well-deserved, and special. I honestly believe we’ve made some enormous steps in the right direction as a nation. Yes, we’re in the middle of some hard times and we’re not coming together on common ground as much as one might have hoped; there’s still far too much rancor and fear.

Then again, where but in America are you going to have an O’Reilly and an Olbermann? Where else would people stay relatively patient and calm over eight excruciating months in order to find out who their representative would be, as did the good people of Minnesota? Where else are you going to see so many people representing so much diversity waving flags and singing the national anthem and wearing red, white and blue with such pride? new citizens

There’s one other thing: The crown is opening for the first time since September 11, 2001. That has special resonance for me. After 9/11, our country’s leaders projected at various times, belligerence, defiance, or cluelessness. It seemed like such an awful way to remember those who died that day, including my husband, or to show the world what America could do, could be. But we survived and thrived and these days I feel strongly that we’re putting forth a truer vision of America than ever before, a vision of hope, opportunity, and resilience.

The philosophy behind the attacks had much to do with conformity, a single-minded belief system, a raft of fixed and preconceived notions about how the world is or should be. What Lady Liberty says, from her head to her toes, is just the opposite. She symbolizes tolerance, freedom, and the willingness to adapt, adopt, and change. That’s the America a groups of immigrants will join Saturday morning.  

Statue - iconic

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