I wrote this essay a few years ago for a contest at Powell's
. I offer it today in memoriam.
Lynn walked into our morning meeting in tears, and announced that a plane from Boston had flown into the World Trade Center. My stomach flipped as I thought of my friends who were moving out of Massachusetts that week. I didn’t know their plans. I didn’t know where they were. All I could do was run to my office in panic and try to find out. Today, even recalling the memory makes me ill.
(It wasn’t a rational fear; Michael and Ann share a fear of flying which borders on the pathological, and they were in Western Massachusetts anyway. In a psychic bond, their first thoughts were for my father, who at least does get on airplanes regularly without chemical sedation.)
Everyone has a September Eleventh story, and I suppose mine is similar to most. For most of us, our fear of loss was actually greater than our loss. That is, after all, why they call it a “terror attack.”
Our stories don’t often extend to the next few days, as America walked in our haze of grief and fear and senselessness. The media virtually suspended itself. My 160 cable channels seemed all to be set to CNN. After about two days, I’d had all the news I could stand, and I had to turn away from the box.
I couldn’t begin to think about reading nonfiction, and fiction seemed to be either too heavy or too light to handle. But poetry… maybe poetry would have something to say.
And that’s how I came to read T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding in September 2001. I opened that big Norton Anthology of English Literature which every once and future English major owns, and turned its onionskin paper, and looked for solace.
Eliot wrote Little Gidding in 1942, while he watched the Nazis bombing the cities and civilians of Britain. It grabbed me like a branch grabs a drowning swimmer. This expatriate Missourian knew what I felt, had seen what I’d seen and more, and needed to tell me something. And I desperately needed to hear it. Years of teachers talking about “timeless literature” came into shining focus like never before.
I needed two tries to read the second section, depicting the aftermath of a bombing raid, “ash on an old man’s sleeve” and a ghost in the twilight. Eliot’s burnt roses could have fallen from Windows on the World. And yet, if I could not be distracted, at least I knew we were not alone.
Eliot did have solace for me. Little Gidding says that life somehow must triumph. I thought of Eliot, reading Julian of Norwich, and passing that thousand-year-old crutch to me:
“Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.”
No one in America had said “all shall be well” in days. But if Julian could believe it, and Eliot could believe it, perhaps I could as well.
And in September of 2001, that voice coming through the page was enough. It was more real, and more comforting, than any voice coming from the box, even than any of the voices around me. Personal sadness has brought me back to Little Gidding many times in the following years, and every time, I feel that branch brush me in the rushing waters, and I grab hold.