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Observing Silence

September 11, 2001. West Side Highway

Sept 11 photos 2 3 Scan

Fourteen years.  14.  One.Four.  A cloud of smoke and ash blew out the  top of the Twin Towers.  I watched from a mile away on the corner of Greenwich Avenue and West 11th St.  I was on my way to catch the subway to make a 9:30am class at Union Theological Seminary.  A class that would be cancelled a few minutes into its beginning.  My classmates (all new, it was the first day of my first year in a Masters of Divinity program) would later tell me, Dr. James Cone, would only get through the line “Theology comes from conflict and crisis.” when a student would barge in, breathless, lamenting the planes crashing into the World Trade Center.

I did not see this exchange.  I did not have the frame of the study of God (“ology” of “theos”) rising from crisis and crisis blowing the following lecture on Liberation Theology apart.  I did not hear an account of the crash.  I saw it.  I saw the smoke and ash.  I saw the second plane hit.  I stood still with my neighbors staring at a gaping hole in the skyline.  At some point I moved as if in a dream to get my camera from upstairs and took photos.  A callous action I believe but now that I have a better understanding of trauma, I understand the feeling of being an actor in an unreality.  The inability for almost an hour to even comprehend that there were people in the building.  That human lives were lost.  That I was taking photos of mass murders and not some strange technological phenomenon.  Rational sense — expressed in the ability to connect what was happening with past and future–shut down.  Physical sense–the awful sight, the pungent smells, the absence of noisy and motion in a bustling city— took over.  It was as if I was swimming in an underwater reality where all laws like gravity were suspended and new unfamiliar ones were moving me and others through space and time.

It wasn’t till I started walking towards the explosion, down the West Side Highway when I saw throngs of people in business attire and work uniforms walking back covered in white dust that I even realized there were people in the buildings and for as many zombies as were walking toward me there were thousands more left inside.

When I replay that day.  It is in a silent film.  I don’t remember anyone talking,  maybe a line or two.  My cell phone service was out for days.  All of ours were.  I remember the sound of the towers crashing but can’t describe it other than to say the sound of a building imploding.  There are somethings for which we should never find comparisons.  Bombs.  Explosions.  Death. The impact of falling bodies — “louder than wind” one poet wrote.  Do not make something that is final feel temporary and transient by attaching metaphor to them.  Their meanings shouldn’t shift if the final state of things will always be as it is.  Destroyed.

Silence.  Days of it.  Weeks if you count how downtown Manhattan felt while we, the residents, were barricaded inside it.  Showing copies of our license and utility bills to get home at night.

Silence observed was how we remembered September 11, 2001 today.  Strangely enough, it was invoked by my kids’ principal in Atlanta, GA, where I moved five years ago.  I went as a parent to the first all school assembly to see my third grade son and kindergartner daughter sing songs about community and say the pledge of allegiance and dance the stank-y leg.  We stopped the celebrations long enough for a moment of silence.  The principal only said that the kids had practiced silence and that the parents would know what important thing happened 14 years ago because we were the only ones old enough to remember.  And so we had a moment all together.  350 kids and adults.  Only some of us knew why it was important.  Of those only a few were having flashbacks.  Maybe more than a few wondering how we went from being single, alone and afraid of the world ending to being in an elementary school gym watching our 5-year-old who almost died in her own young life, shush her classmates with a finger to her lips, emphasizing the importance of silence in that moment.  A moment she didn’t know the meaning of.

Silence is powerful.  More powerful when you observe it intentionally.  When you let it connect to the depth of your being, to ask questions of what the world offers you and what you offer the world in the life you are living.  Silence is transformative when you practice it with others.  When the inaudible hum of bodies in space connects you to the longing and creative pulse of living things being and working together.  Being silent together communicates at a deep level that you are not alone and yet uniquely wired– thriving inside a great organism of living things.

Although the principal omitted almost all reference to what happened on September 11, 2001, I trust she knew what was developmentally appropriate for my kindergartner and what was the responsibility of me as a parent to follow up with my third grader.  But the experience of observing a moment of silence with a roomful of kids who were largely in the dark as to why we did so, got me thinking.  Do we need to attach meaning to silence for it to be powerful?  Can observing silence transform us by sheer practice without purpose?  

Tonight at dinner, I will ask my son and daughter to talk about what the “moment of silence” means to them.  I have a feeling it meant something and that something is to be built upon throughout their lives, especially, the times tragedy strikes: when a plane crashes, when a tsunami hits, when a school is shot up, when a parent dies, when their water breaks too early, when they struggle to breathe…

Perhaps the study of God, the search for meaning or whatever words you use for your existential path comes from crisis.  But before something can come from crisis, we must be present in it.  Silence teaches us to be present.  And learning to be present (when the towers fall or 14 years later) is a source of power as great as if not greater than making meaning of it all.

How did you remember today? By being silent? present? attending a service or being of service to others?


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