The Permanence of the Sky

This is another transplant from my old blog. Enjoy!

The famous New Yorker cover post 9/11, by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly

The famous New Yorker cover post 9/11, by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly

Memory and commemoration are not the same thing. As I write this (January 5) I could be celebrating or observing the first divorce in the American colonies (1643) or the start of construction work on the Golden Gate Bridge (1933). This is the day that the Prague Spring began (1968) and the day the Yankees bought Babe Ruth’s contract (1920). Though some of these events bubble up to the surface of my consciousness now and then, for the most part they lie dormant, and the day itself is overlooked. For other events, a single day encapsulates the entire story, and becomes a holiday in which happy or tragic memories are exhumed for re-examination. That is what has happened with September 11th; time is turning it into a one-day-a-year remembrance.

For Americans like me, every 9/11 becomes a time for catharsis, a slowly fading outrage, words temperate and intemperate. Some of us are still so close to the events that it colors, albeit mostly unconsciously, some of the other days. But that effect is dwindling, partly through healing, partly through forgetting, and much through the process simply called “moving on.” It bothers me that I give little thought to it those other 365 days, so I sit here to write on what is not the day when everyone else is sitting and writing or talking or reading about 2001.

I find that my memories don’t dwell foremost on the day itself; even at a decade’s remove my emotions are hard to process. Most of the writing about 9/11 is really about 9/12 and after. The shock of events left us unable to understand or contemplate for at least 24 hours. We staggered through that day, absorbing without understanding, piecing together our own perceptions and just staying afloat through a tidal wave of emotion. Once given a buffer, we could think. Thus our memories are of ourselves the day after, remembering – a memory of a memory. One consolation of memory is that it wears away at truth, revealing or exaggerating what we really felt, creating false impressions or cutting down to the true ones, which means that we can never relive 9/11 as it we did at the time. I awoke that Tuesday morning expecting to spend another day recovering from a stomach virus that had left me dehydrated and unable to eat for two days. Instead, I found myself fully recovered and bursting with energy. That’s my 9/11 memory: swinging back and forth from the giddy rush of renewed health to shock at what was happening. It felt like the world no longer made sense, that it had slipped the bonds of reason while I was recuperating.

What I recall most vividly are the next few days, because of the memories they provoked. First came a recurrent sight from my past: drawings on the cover of Sunday church bulletins. My father was an Episcopal priest, so the bulletins followed us home and took up residence in a filing cabinet or on the desk in his study. For a time in the late 1960s or early 70s an artist’s line drawings were regularly featured on the cover of the weekly bulletin. They were Biblical scenes, simply drawn, limned with a careful eye for the folds in a burnoose, the texture of a camel’s coat, and wide sandy desertscapes.

But there was one intentional anachronism: the contrail of a jet in the sky, with perhaps the tiny arrowhead shape of a plane at the end. I think at times there were smaller planes, perhaps biplanes, instead. A plane flew over Moses as he led the Israelites out of Egypt and over the Wise Men as they followed the star. These incongruous aircraft, I was told, were the artist’s way of tying the past with the present. These stories are alive, he was saying, alive even in a world where metal rises heavenward and does not (at that time) fall. I remember the drawings well, though I haven’t seen them in decades and don’t know the artist’s name.

The second memory is not mine, but reaches back before my time or my parents’. In Connecticut, where I was living, the first few days after 9/11 were beautiful, with clear deep skies that announced the coming of autumn. Maxfield Parrish would have been proud of that blue. But the skies were also empty. All flights had been grounded, and I was keenly aware of their absence. With out those straight, unnatural clouds that drew lines across the air, the deep rumbling, and the glint of sunlight off the body of a plane, the sky seemed divested of Time, as though the past, even back to Moses, had been taken away. I looked for patterns in the flights of birds and insects, like some ancient soothsayer, and found nothing. Even the stars, still in their usual places, offered little comfort.

Then I realized that this new world I was looking at wasn’t new at all. The sky had always looked like that, blue and distant and open, until the Montgolfiers and the Wright brothers had dared to redefine Mankind’s relationship with the air. Daedalus, Leonardo da Vinci, all the dreamers of fact or fiction who had soared in their imagination were no more than I, just people sitting on the grass in September, looking up, with a scraggly peach tree and a noble oak nearby. Earthbound. Of course I knew this all along, but understanding is deeper than knowing. I come from a generation which grew up watching men walk on the Moon; distance means different things to us than to any previous generation. The roads we made across the sky could be erased – I thought of fields in Britain that, from the air, still show the grooves of old Roman roads. The world had not been transformed; terrorism always existed, it was just elsewhere until it was suddenly and horribly here. The sky did not change permanently, but only showed the world as it had always been. What reassured me then is what reassures me now: that the world is hard to destroy, and the most a terrible act can do is to bring the past back into sight. That, for a terrorist, is no victory.

Not just the look of the sky remained. Artist Matt Hanner (1971-2011) lived under a frequently used flight path to and from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. In the silence after 9/11, he began to record the unusual quiet. That work, entitled No Jets, captures the sounds of daily life rendered strange by the absence of the expected. Wind chimes can be heard, a basketball, nothing out of the ordinary except that it is all out of the ordinary. Hanner left no notes about the work, one of many audio verite recordings he made. I suspect he sensed a moment and plucked it down, aware that, with luck, he wouldn’t hear it again in real life. We call these things consolations, as though they had some special power, which they do – the power to recall time, to remind us of the permanence of the sky.

For much of mankind’s history, the sky has served as a crystal ball, vouchsafing us glimpses, however vague, into the future. Meteorologists read the weather for days ahead based on the winds and clouds; soothsayers interpret the flight of birds or group the stars into seemingly meaningful configurations. In a thunderstorm or the aurora we sense forces beyond our control at work. Some artists have made studies of clouds and carried the stories they tell up into the sky; others have pulled their stories out of it. There is plentiful variation in cloud and color and sound to free the sky from being mere background. It’s always there, and while we might adulterate and abuse it, something remains that we cannot alter.

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