Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September 11, The Tower

Nobody sees it happening, but the architecture of our time
Is becoming the architecture of the next time. And the dazzle
Of light upon the waters is as nothing beside the changes
Wrought therein, just as our waywardness means

Nothing against the steady pull of things over the edge.
Nobody can stop the flow, but nobody can start it either.

Time slips by; our sorrows do not turn into poems,
And what is invisible stays that way. Desire has fled,

Leaving only a trace of perfume in its wake,
And so many people we loved have gone,

And no voice comes from outer space, from the folds
Of dust and carpets of wind to tell us that this

Is the way it was meant to happen, that if only we knew
How long the ruins would last we would never complain.

(Mark Strand, “The Next Time”, from Blizzard of One. New York: Knopf, 2000.)
The city wakes up, almost surprised to find itself still there. All night it has felt the deep rumblings of buildings collapsing, has choked on the smoke of their descent.

Or it imagines it has.

We dream of claustrophobia, of hurrying down endless stairways, of secret pockets of escape. We fall endlessly in our dreams, but are caught up in the end in an updraft of our own awakening. We think that the human spirit cannot so easily be crushed, cannot be reduced to a pocketful of dust and ash. We cache the memories of those events in secret crevices of our soul, like the shards of bone and flesh sifted and collected for identification.

We cringe at jet planes.

We imagine ourselves to be pigeons, feet stained red, wings heavy with dust but still lifting us in startled flight. We chortle and mutter and weep in the low shelter of underpasses, and leave curious sigils at the edges of fountains, entrails of grief.

It was not just their city: it was our city, too.

We are frightened of this knowledge. We do not want to think the worst, or if we do, we flee from it like rats.

But there is a hard truth in it, something we cannot afford to turn away from. And like all important truths it is a difficult one, riddled with unbearable alternatives. We hold it in our hands like a dove or a grenade, knowing that carelessness with either will make us killers.

In this city we are enthusiastic about shawarma. We remember to say Shalom to one neighbour and Al salaam a'alaykum to the other. We attend cultural festivals and acknowledge each other's holidays.

But in reducing culture to cooking, sometimes we forget to ask the harder questions about whether and how we can dwell together. We shy away from difference, and deny the hard truths of the things we do not like about each other, failing also to see the things we might appreciate most if only we were prepared to talk about them.

Even an unpleasant truth is better than no truth at all.

The people in this city come from Romania and Israel, from Vietnam, from Kenya, from Argentina and Portugal, from Trinidad and Jamaica, from Persia and Iraq and India and China and England. They come from places that no longer exist, or from places that exist only in the imaginations of their dreamers. Some of them even come from Toronto.

In this city we talk, separately and sometimes together, about the weather, about traffic and the price of oil, about the housing market, about elections here and elsewhere, about our work and families and pets, about whether objects in motion really tend to stay that way.

Much less frequently we also talk about who we are, and explore the parameters of our differences. Sometimes those differences seem too great to bridge; sometimes they are, especially if a hockey team is involved. But if we might learn unpleasant things about each other, at least we would have been open to learning.

Because in the end, sometimes all that remains is a single opening, and at this aperture we might have time to pause for only a moment, to truly recognise each other before we hold hands and leap.

[This commentary originally appeared at Reading Toronto. CN Tower image by rsambrook and used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]

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