Bearing Witness

September 11th 2001. I was driving to a morning college class when NPR started reporting that an aircraft of some kind had crashed into the side of the World Trade Center. No one yet understood the scope of what had happened, but within the hour we all knew.  Right after class, the school day basically ended as the horror was revealed and video feeds started coming in. My fellow students and I sat in one of the auditorium classes watching it all unfold on a big screen. We stared in disbelief at what we were seeing and the conversations started, “Who did this? What does it mean to all of us? How will our lives change?  I think many of us still struggle with some of those questions.  

Commemorate / The fallen so easily relinquished / To ash and concrete dust

As a writer, I dealt with some of my own emotions by creating a poem shortly after the 9/11 disaster. I hope you all remember in your own way and keep asking those questions. 

Bearing Witness

Ground Zero.
Stories strewn everywhere–
Imprinted on our world,
Filtered through lenses, written in lines;
Chronicles of heroism and horror
Relayed in broadcasts and recounted,
Until twisted into steel images
Suffused with the survivor’s
Burden of bearing witness.

Stories embedded in memory
Are conveyed in image and artifact:
A wall of smoke, looming;
Two skyscrapers, gone;
A Pennsylvania field, gouged.
A miraculous montage bears witness
To the borrowed stories
Preserved in lost shoes,
A briefcase, a baseball cap,
Airplane fragments,
The facade of the Pentagon,
Its encrusted door, broken distorted,
Akin to the stooped bent shoulders
Of a Rodin Sculpture–
Strong, sorrowful,
Crushed beneath the ruin.

Rescue these disasters,
Neither explain nor analyze–
It is too soon for that.
The fallen so easily relinquished
To ash and concrete dust;
The lives lost and lives spared;
Lives given over–buried
Some briefly
Some forever–

Sitting on the Roadside

Crete Sunset
Sunset from the Old Road on Crete

In the mid to late eighties, I lived on the Greek Island of Crete for six years. I was stationed there at Iraklion Air Station, a half-hour drive from Iraklion, Crete’s largest city. It was literally a dream assignment for me because when I was in the third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Rogers, took a cruise to Crete with her son, who was in the Navy. After her return, she created a slide show from that vacation and showed it to my class. Ever afterward, I deeply ached to live there. I read everything I could find about the island, looked at picture books of Crete, and watched every National Geographic Documentary about the Mediterranean. And when I found out I could be stationed there, I put in for an extended long tour.

Crete is an island in more ways than one. Mainland Greece is not really a first world nation. Parts of it are, but many regions are anachronistic, and Crete is an even further step back. It is an island of antiquity. People still heat their homes with wood, have dirt floors, and many still ride on mules or donkeys to get around. Once you remove yourself from the coastlines where all the tourists flock every summer, you find yourself in another century.

The city of Iraklion, however, is an island in the other direction.  It is an isolated pocket of the “first World.” It has a large urban population, which brought with it urban attitudes. The Greeks of Iraklion moved fast. In particular, they loved to drive fast. The government had recently built what everyone called, The New Road, a four lane highway built for speed. It replaced, I kid you not, the Old Road, a two lane highway that hugged the meandering  and rocky coastline. The two roads were like metaphors for each era. The super fast one for the early digital age and the slow, scenic one that called to mind our agrarian roots. Along the Old Road were turn-outs at most every curve, and in the evening, as men made their way home, they would pull into those turnouts and stop, get out, lean against the hood and watch the setting sun.

This always struck me as a little odd. Why did these people choose the Old Road, when, as I said, they liked going fast. Getting where you were going quicker than anyone else–mattered.  It took me just one time of getting in someone’s way to learn all kinds of rude foreign gestures. For two, machismo is something very important to the average Greek male, and sitting by the roadside to gaze into the sunset seemed counter to that need for manliness. But there they were, every evening, smoking cigarettes and gazing out over the sea.

I remember asking an English-speaking friend of mine, Mike the rug-man, about it. He said, “It’s a good thing to do–to slow down and think on your life. You know, in Greece, philosophy is very important, and we try to honor this.” Okay, that made sense. The way Mike put it, in the light of Greek history, men relishing the end of their day seemed less unusual. These fellows were out there living the examined life of Socrates and Plato. I got that.

For me, taking time to savor the moment was a part of my routine. When I arrived home at the end of the day, I would hop on my mountain bike and tool out to the same cliffs. That’s how I encountered the Greek men’s habits–through my own need for solitude. Now that I knew more about why they did it, I felt like I was part of some ancient tradition, like I belonged to the culture a little more. I even tried waving to them, but that didn’t go over. They only scowled. I guess waving would have eroded their rough exteriors a little too much.

Now, nearly thirty years later, people race faster than ever and it’s killing them. Perhaps, this digital era could learn a valuable lesson from those men who set aside their breakneck bravado for a moment in order to savor the passing minutes of their life. If we don’t do that, what is life about?