I will post it again this time around. This anniversary is hitting me hard. I am struck by our vulnerability - as in all of us - our fragility as human beings, and the lack of control we have over so much of our lives in reality.
I will be reading this as part of a remembrance ritual we will be doing on Governor's Island. The piece I have written that will be performed in the house next week - and we are rehearsing this week - is 'Merde!' that I wrote in response to the anxiety I could not shake after the terrorist attack in Brussels earlier this year. You can read my interview about it here.
In my experience these events shake us to our core, without our permission.
I hope to share one of these days with you as we explore that territory further...in the best way I know how, together in a room that we inhabit and bear witness to one another...
But for now, here is what I wrote 15 years ago. I cannot believe it has been that long. But it has.
Julia Lee Barclay
(written for reading at The Present Company on September 18, 2001)
T.S. Eliot’s words in Four Quartets:
“Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feelings,
undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot
To emulate - but there is no competition -
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
Someone else’s words. That’s what I thought the flyer for this event said. If you want to read someone else’s words. And I was relieved, and thought, of course, someone else’s words. Not mine. Who has words for this? I don’t. I flipped through T.S. Eliot, some of it held, but not all. Flipped frantically through Yeats, and most of that didn’t hold either. I looked through my library last night of poems and plays and fiction and remarkably, none of it held. I thought, that’s it, it’s all done. We have to start from scratch. I’ve never felt that way about any other event. The words don’t hold up. Ancient words even. Not a dent. I so wanted to find someone else’s words, to comfort, soothe, explain, reconcile, anything. I don’t want to be left here typing electronic dots on a screen. There is only one phrase from Yeats that keeps racing through my mind “the best lacked all conviction and the worst were filled with passionate intensity”. And then I don’t know where I stand in that dialectic either. I confront my own self-righteous indignation at other people’s self-righteous indignation. My friends and I make cookies for firemen. Singing in the Rain seems like the best film ever made. Then I talk Middle-Eastern politics and think I’m enlightening people. Then I see a wall of hand made fliers with pictures and names of the missing, thousands of them, on the walls of Bellevue from the M15 and cry, having just given a plate of cookies to a rescue worker who’s been at ground zero for four days and is hungry. He is talking to the bus driver about being called up to serve as an army reservist. His eyes are moist with exhaustion. He is absurdly grateful for cookies. I am absurdly grateful he took them. I look away and have no words to say to him but “thank you.” I fear he will die.
All the stories, endless stories - I saw it on television, I saw the gray cloud coming towards me, I saw it on a roof, from the train, from the bridge, from the Promenade, from the Avenue, heard it on the phone, felt it in my building, was covered in ash, surrounded by midnight, pushed down the stairs by the blast, knew someone, know someone who knows someone who.....
Then the theories, endless theories - this means global capitalism will prevail, this means we will be nuked, this means “they” must pay, this means we are finally paying, this means we will be better people, worse people, more scared, more strong, more something - always different from what we were on September 10. We now supposedly love more, hate more, are in shock, are grieving, need counseling, don’t need counseling, should not watch TV, should watch TV, should talk to people, don’t have to talk to people....
Then the first reactions - need to see people, wish we were in love or are glad to be so, cling to the familiar, attack Muslims for no reason, protect Muslims from those who attack them, yell at our credit card companies, go to work, stare at useless letters typed onto useless computer screens, understand people in Beirut who stayed in their bombed out city and cling to New York City as home, flee the City and wonder why anyone stays, try to get back to the City from out of town, cry, panic, feel comforted, pray, meditate, do yoga, go to church, go to AA meetings, drink ourselves silly, scroll through email, talk on the phone, wonder when to breathe, tell jokes, cry, hug people for dear life, listen to stories, tell stories, look into people’s eyes, stranger’s eyes, for the first time...
“Slouching towards Bethlehem, waiting to be born.” (Yeats)
“And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.” (Eliot)
At least there are clues left in the books, a burnt and charred map, some of it obsolete but not all. I hope to scratch through this maze with all of you here now, make tunnels, chart through the tunnel, rebuild the next world, not throwing away all of the old but letting go of what no longer fits. We aren’t alone. We never have been, and I am not alone and never have been, because where I am is where I am not. And where we are is where we are not.