The continuing catastrophe

By Shlomit Auciello | Sep 17, 2020

I spent most of Sept. 11, 2001 at my computer, writing a column on deadline. The radio in the living room was on MPBN and my mom, who was visiting for a long weekend, sat at the dining table with the tiny T.V. with the funky picture, switching from one news channel to another. They were all news channels, that day.

I started writing between the first plane and the second, and much of that column was pure narration.

What strikes me now, as I read those notes 19 years later, is how quickly the news changed, how much happened between 8:46 a.m. (8:46… where have I seen that time signature lately?) when the first plane hit the first tower, and shortly after noon, when I set it aside and walked away from the story to close my eyes and sleep for a time. It felt almost certain, at some point, that everyone in the world was watching the same video, over and over and over.

You've seen the pictures. The second tower going down. A fourth explosion. Voices speaking from inside the towers and at 10:38 a.m. Dan Rather declaring the event, “A Pearl Harbor of terrorism.” All seen and heard from a corner of my living room, between two sunny windows. All on one morning and the sky is as clear as a bell.

Parents wanted to be with their children on that day and wondered how much to tell them, how to share the impact pounding deep in our chests. We wondered when we would feel normal again, when we would return to business as usual. People stopped traveling and plans were suspended. Everyday life and tragedy climbed into each others laps.

On the T.V., talking heads suggested theories, causes and possible reactions. There was so much we did not know. CBS Pentagon contact Bob Orr told us that people “... are not equipped to deal with the depth of this” and said “… this is so huge – the potential human loss.”

Diplomatic offices closed, worldwide. The border between the U.S. and Mexico was closed. Iran was nervous. Canada canceled all flights. Speeches were postponed and condolences given. Looking for anything to write that would make sense in the endless echo of death, I went to Bartlett's and found Marcus Aurelius: “Death, like birth, is a secret of Nature.”

At 1 p.m., I turned off the radio and the television. Mom was asleep on the couch, and I needed to fold up in a quiet place before the kids come home.

A catastrophe, when you're in the middle of it, takes over your life and your thoughts. If it lasts four hours or four years, whether the result of an act of terror of an act of evolution, while things remain unknown it is easy to live in that hollow place and to simultaneously think this is the worst things can get, and we have to get to the bottom of this, and we need to fix it in a hurry. We want to get back to normal.

But we all know, in that same hollow place, that normal has always been an illusion. In September 2001, I wrote, “A piece of sadness will lie in everything we do for quite some time. If we are wise, it will remain with us forever.”

On the Monday after Sept. 11, I spent a few hours helping a friend who was recently widowed pack her belongings. As we boxed books and wrapped small momentos, we talked about grief.

There is no physical pain that aches like grief; it is the feeling of a missing limb, of a smile never to be seen again. Each time the memory of a lost voice is heard in the mind, it carries the knowledge that the voice is fading, that the qualities of that which is gone cannot be consciously retrieved.

In Jewish tradition, those closest to the deceased sit for a period of time, on chairs which are low and humble. They do not rush back to business as usual. They do not shop or drive or watch T.V. They talk and eat. For, while hunger sometimes aids contemplation, it is hard to do good in the world without food in your belly. They take time to process their grief.

But what if the grief is not for a person, but a lifestyle?

As we wrapped newspaper around memories and packed them into carefully labeled boxes, my friend talked about American Buddhist Pema Chodron who says at times like this, we should not wander into desire but rather that we should live with our sadness. We need to sit with our grief.

Enforced contemplation does not sit well with a society that gauges itself by the number of goods sold or houses started. Our sense of self and society has for so long been tied to our consumer confidence and the idea of image as lifestyle that we have trouble being alone with just our thoughts; we are reluctant to live without all those choices.

In 2001, writing about our collective mourning, I wrote,”When we should speak of healing, we instead invoke images of rebuilding. When we are given reason to look inward, we point fingers of blame. When threatened, we strike out at others. We need to take a moment, or two, or ten to sit with our grief and to hear the voice of our loss.”

A few days after that column was published, President George W. Bush asked Americans for our “... continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” He said, “...this country will define our times, not be defined by them.”

Near the end of the speech he said. “Freedom and fear are at war.”

Action protects us from our pain, but it is the pain that teaches us. If we continue to avoid it by inflicting grief on others, we only add to the suffering of this world.

I asked, 19 years ago, how much deeper our pain would be if, along with the almost 3,000 human lives taken by those acts of terror, we also lost our sense of rightness? The sources of today's catastrophes are harder to pinpoint. Wildfires, disease, anger and violence come from so many sources. We, who want to control so much, can't seem to make it all stop, to keep calm and carry on.

All we can do is find the right response, moment by moment, to make lives whole and heal the wounds. Along with our pain, the beauty of creation continues.

"But the fact is grief doesn’t know we invented time. Grief has its own tide and comes and goes in waves." — Niall Williams, "History of the Rain"

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992.

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