The people of Massachusetts will always remember

Thursday mornings are hectic, as I cross off a laundry-list of chores before heading to Framingham State to teach an 8:30 am class. This morning as I neared Natick on my way to campus, I saw a flag at half-mast and the date dawned. Today, thirteen years ago. The tears came as unbidden and right as rain: tears for the grief, confusion, and fear everyone felt that crisp and beautiful autumn day thirteen years ago, and tears for all the lives that have been lost since then. How many flags at half-mast have flown these past thirteen years?

Dearly departed

The spring we put Reggie to sleep, I acquired the habit of weeping during my long drives to and from Keene: 90 uninterrupted minutes each way during which I had nothing to do but steer the car and marshal my own thoughts. My car provided a cocoon of privacy; nobody needed to see or know why I had tears streaming down my face, whether for a person or a pet or for the whole sad and suffering world.

Flowers

This morning I once again wept in my car: not for any individual person, but for the whole suffering world. I didn’t personally know anyone who was killed on September 11, but that day was a collective wound. Watching the news, hearing the stories, and seeing the flyers posted with pictures of the missing: these were enough to unite us in a shared upwelling of sympathy. When innocent lives are lost, you realize how tenuous and random your own survival is. The people who died on 9/11 and the people who have died in subsequent military operations could easily have been you, me, or any of our loved ones. How can any of us feel safe in a world where some of us are targeted?

Wreathed

Thirteen years is a lifetime, long enough for a child to ripen into puberty. Now that the first generation of post-9/11 children is entering young adulthood, what has happened to our grief and remembrance? They say that time heals all wounds, but memory (as Salvador Dali suggested) is persistent. Thirteen years was a lifetime ago–I was an entirely different person then, leading a life that now seems alien and unknowable. But the simple sight of a flag at half-mast is all it takes to melt the intervening years, the passage of time revealed as illusion. Grief knows no timetable, and sorrow has no season.

One wilted rose

We live in an amnesiac culture that ignores the past while chasing the future. In the pursuit of positivity, we are denied the chance to grieve, instead being told to “get over it.” September 11 is one of the few days a year when we are allowed to drop the pretense of optimism and cheer in order to be somber and still. I wish it were more acceptable to grieve whenever the occasion calls for it. To be awake these days is to have one’s heart broken on a daily basis. Planes fall out of the sky, black boys are shot in the street, and journalists are slaughtered overseas. How can we get over the grief of 9/11 when that day was merely the first in a thirteen-year-long litany of loss? At every turn, there is suffering, death, and mayhem; humanity, it turns out, is infinitely inventive when it comes to hurting one another. But with each instance of hurting also comes an instantaneous outpouring of help.

Memorial

September 11, 2001 was an impossibly beautiful fall day here in New England, an irony that has always struck me as cruel. But perhaps this juxtaposition of tragedy and beauty is merely reflective of the world we live in. In the face of heartbreak, there are hands to help. In the aftermath of suffering comes the strength and resilience to carry on.

I’ve previously blogged these photos of the Garden of Remembrance in Boston’s Public Garden, which I’d shot in May, 2011. In the years since then, this stone memorial is already starting to wear away.

Birdseye view of Keene in 1877

These days I’ve been doing something unusual during my weekday dog-walks in Keene: I’ve been walking without a purse or camera. Now that Reggie is old and needs to go out frequently, we walk three times a day: once around 6:00 am, once around noon, and again around 6:00 pm. In the height of winter, all but the midday walk are cold and dark, with the two of us venturing around the block but not much farther: just far enough for Reggie to relieve himself and sniff the snow, both of us moving carefully down frozen sidewalks. There’s not much new to see on these dark, around-the-block walks, so I’ve been leaving my camera at home, freeing my eyes to view the neighborhood directly.

Landscape scroll (detail)

I’m so accustomed to walking with a pocket-sized digital camera, it felt strange at first to leave both camera and purse behind on these frigid predawn and after-sunset walks. But quickly enough, in the inevitable way that the body itself becomes inured to cold, I’ve fallen into the rhythm of purely pedestrian days, carrying nothing but my keys, a handful of doggy clean-up bags, and a flashlight in the pockets of my heavy down coat. When you walk with a digicam, you notice the details of the world around you; when you walk without a digicam, you give your mind the freedom to wander the imaginary streets of memory: not this town now but that town then. Without the tether of a viewfinder to keep you rooted in the here and now, your sleepy self is free to meander across time and space, remembering the landscape as it used to be.

I’ve lived in Keene long enough that I can’t help but see it as a ghost town: a place filled with memories of what used to be. I’ve blogged before my own litany of the lost: the once-abandoned, now demolished factory that now has public housing sprouting from its frozen soil; the string of businesses that have come and gone downtown. Walking Reggie toward town this morning, we passed the shiny new hotel that used to be a lovely stretch of bike path, and our passing triggered the lobby’s motion-sensitive doors, which glided open as if to welcome us. “Leave it,” I said, tightening Reggie’s leash as he turned to go through the opened doors as if he belonged there. We might no longer be full-time residents in Keene, but neither are we hotel-dwelling visitors; instead, we’re the lurkers on the fringe, walking down predawn sidewalks while most of our neighbors are still asleep.

Landscape scroll (detail)

Walking has always been the way I’ve known any place I’ve lived or visited, and walking has become the way I keep my own personal sense of time, the rhythmic tread of footsteps being as meditative as my own breath. Within the first few pages of Teju Cole’s peripatetic novel, Open City, I’ve already settled into its familiar-seeming stride, the prose of a restless walker’s thoughts sounding as steady to me as any poet’s iambs. Julius, the protagonist of Open City, pulses with the Zugunruhe of migrating birds, his meandering walks filled with the stories of outsiders, immigrants, and others: all sorts of walkers along the fringe. It’s a path I’ve walked down before, whether tracing the footsteps of Mrs. Dalloway, Leopold Bloom, or my own sleepy, shivering self.

New York is a city where Julius seems in search of both self and place, walking with a pair of coupled conundrums: “who am I” on his left foot, “where do I belong” on his right. Or perhaps I read too much of myself in the novel, which I’ve only begun. Keene, after all, is a question I’ve not yet solved, and I’m long accustomed to walking here, my regular paths carved into the topography of memory. When I first moved to Keene, I was curious to discover who I was and where I belonged; these days, recalling the changes both the town and I have undergone, I find myself wondering who I was then and why I thought I’d ever belong anywhere. The places we visit leave an impress, the places we live mold us to their shape, and the places we remember hold us forever in their spell: not just this place, this time, but that place, eternally.

I wrote much of today’s post in my head while I walked the dog this morning, and I illustrated it with photos snapped in my Keene apartment, where remembered landscapes both real and imaginary decorate my walls.

Rowers and ripples

It’s been two weeks since I submitted grades for my spring semester classes at Keene State, and today I’m finally starting summer break in earnest after spending too many days waking up early to drive back and forth to Keene, attend faculty workshops, and otherwise fill my so-called free time with work-related obligations. This break feels like a long time coming.

Weeks Bridge

Leslee has already blogged our Thursday night meet-up in Harvard Square: the first we’d seen one another since January. Leslee described what we ate, as food is something she’s energized by. For me, place is just as energizing as food; as much as I enjoyed my fish and chips at the Grafton Street grill, what really nourished me on Thursday night was a postprandial stroll along the Charles River.

It’s fitting, I think, that Leslee and I celebrated my semester’s end with dinner followed by a walk along the Charles. I’ve lived on both sides of the Charles River, first on the Boston side during my Beacon Hill days, then on the Cambridge side when I lived at the Zen Center. Given how many times, with how many different walking companions, and in how many different contexts I’ve walked, biked, and driven alongside the Charles, it’s no wonder it feels like a literal landmark–a littoral watermark?–in my personal history.

Jogger, cyclist, and four rowers

This past semester, I spent a lot of time thinking about rivers as I taught a section of Environmental Literature titled “Rivers and Literary Imagination.” The basic premise of the class was that rivers are an inevitable metaphor for time’s passage, so we often measure our lives against the rivers we encounter. Initially, many of my students were skeptical when I asked them to write what I called a “Watershed Moment” essay, claiming they didn’t have a personal connection with any particular river. But after we’d spent a semester reading, discussing, and brainstorming about rivers, every one of my students was able to point to at least one time when a river or larger watershed served as a backdrop for a moment that, in retrospect, was life-defining, whether that be childhood fishing outings with a grandparent, a high school canoe trip with friends, or four years studying at a college campus with a river running through it.

Two rowers

They say you can’t step into the same river twice, but I’m not sure I completely agree. I suspect that as Leslee enjoyed her Niçoise salad, she wasn’t recalling every other time she ate the same dish, but for me rivers are different. As I walked along Thursday night’s Charles with the setting sun glinting off passing rowers and runners, I couldn’t help but think of all the other times I’ve walked along the Charles, in spring and other seasons, with friends or alone. The taste of food brings us back to the moment, but the sight of flowing water sweeps us into the flow of recollection and remembrance, this moment flowing into every other like it.

Rows of rowers

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Late-night laundry

In my mind, the above is a misty scene. I remember taking this photo on a warmish winter night several years ago; a quick check of my blog and photo archives tells me I snapped the shot on February 3, 2006 and blogged it the day after. I don’t remember it being February, only foggy, and the above picture doesn’t capture any of the mist my mind so clearly remembers. Instead, there’s only damp pavement, a lone car, and the supernal glow of my local laundromat still open on a midwinter’s night.

This is the picture that captures the misty mystery of that February fog almost exactly two years ago:

Crossing Main Street

This second picture captures the atmosphere of that two-years-ago February night more truly: it was the kind of night where you could see snow ghosts swirling above the streets, their presence blurring the normally piercing beams of traffic- and street-lights. But it’s that first picture of some lone soul doing Friday night laundry that resonated most deeply with me, perhaps because on most Friday nights two years ago I would have been sitting at home, a pile of papers being my version of a lonely late-night chore.

Marquee reflections

It’s strange how our memories are ultimately more misty than even the warmest mid-winter night. Now that I have photo and blog archives to refer to, I can nail down dates, times, and places in a way I previously couldn’t; if put on the witness stand with my laptop and an Internet connection, in most cases I could tell you where I was, what I photographed, and what I thought about on any given day. Without the record of my blog’s literary and photographic hatch-marks, however, everything would ultimately be subsumed in the mists of forgetfulness: was it two years ago or three that I went to that art opening, and was it in February or December? Left to my own devices, I’ll forget it all. With a blog and photo archives, at least, there’s some sort of definitive chronicle: oh, yes, of course. It was then, and I was there!

After dark funeral home

I’m not convinced that bolstering one’s own memory is the best reason to keep a blog, but it certainly is a convenient side-effect. This weekend, Leslee considered her not-very-Groundhog’s-Day-like existence, concluding that this year, unlike previous ones, “Everything is different now.” I don’t know if for me everything is different now compared to two foggy Februaries ago–I still teach the same classes at the same colleges, I still live down the street from the same laundromat, and I still spend too many weekend hours grading papers. But still, I no longer spend Friday nights alone in Keene, and these days I’m attending more sports events than art openings. Over time, given enough Februaries and the words and pictures that chronicle them, some things do change, and if we don’t record it all day-by-day, most of it will be lost to the fog of time, our memories being the most misty mystery of them all.

This is my belated contribution to this past week’s Photo Friday theme, Misty.