The algorithm of grief — September 11, 5772

The algorithm of grief — September 11, 5772

This September 11 was unlike any other since – well, really, since forever.

It cannot compare to the September 11s before 2001, because we were innocent then, and September 11 was just a day. It certainly cannot compare to the pure hell that was September 11, 2001, although sometimes when the sky is particularly blue and cloudless and the whisper of a breeze particularly limpid we are reminded of it.

It also cannot compare to the nine September 11s through which we have passed in this last decade. Each one of them drew us farther away from the nightmare, but each one drew us back as well. It’s as if we have been riding on a spiral rail away from the black unholy hole at its core. Each time we pass September 11, its magnetic pull stops us briefly, even though each year we are farther away, and so the pull is slightly less.

It seems as if last year, the 10th anniversary, altered our trajectory somewhat. We now are pulled in even less, although we still feel the tug. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve grown some extra skin.

It is enormously challenging to realize that this tug always happens just around the time that we celebrate our new year, when we turn and turn and turn again. That is entirely coincidental – I think it unlikely that al Qaeda consulted a Jewish calendar before making its plans, although certainly its operatives would be pleased to realize the linkage they have created.

The algorithm of grief always is a delicate and ever-changing thing. As we move inexorably away from the pain, we are able to breathe, at least some of the time. The unbearable salt-and-sandpaper rawness is gone. It must be, because it is not possible to live for long with its sear in your lungs. But all of life is a tradeoff, including this. As you move farther away from disaster, you start to assimilate it. Eventually you come to believe the unbelievable, and you even find yourself saying it. The survivors of the victims of September 11 know that the people they love aren’t coming home. They are free to change their phone numbers, to move out of state. There can be no unexpected knock or call. It’s over.

So here we are again at the holidays, faced as we are every year with its message of return, which is underlaid as it is every year with the certainty of drift. If life were entirely cyclic, nothing would change from year to year; if it were entirely straight, we would never come back to where we have been.

I have always thought of the holiday season as like a car’s windshield. It is raining. The wiper scrapes the window clean, and then moves back. By the time the arm returns, the windshield is drippy again. We know that the cleaning is only temporary, but we do it anyway. It’s better than nothing.

But of course it’s not that simple. Most certainly it’s not that mechanical. We have to remember that the car moves forward through space just as we move forward through time. And of course it can stop raining.

The holidays teach us about returning – about turning and turning and finding everything. We don’t always like the answers. I often detest them. I often think they are wrong. But they are the opposite of the nihilism of al Qaeda.

There are some truths that we cannot escape. There are some calamities that we cannot make better. There are some horrors that we cannot sugarcoat. And then there is also that cerulean blue and those breezes.

I do not know what to make of any of it. But I do know that we have to turn it and turn it and turn it, and eventually we will find something there.