The essence of it

The essence of it

Joanne Palmer
(Andrew Sherman)
(Andrew Sherman)

Last Sunday was September 11.

It seems somehow appropriate to write about it after it happened, because September 11 now is our past; it happened well within our living history, but it’s stopped being as visceral as it was a decade ago.

Even last year, on its 20th anniversary, it seemed closer somehow; in part but not entirely because so many people in uniform — the police officers and firefighters from whose ranks the first responders had come, and to which so many of them could not return — came and stood in solemn silence to remember.

But now, it seems, we are past that. I wonder what it felt like on December 7 1962, 21 years after Pearl Harbor. I wonder it’s like now, where it feels remote and close, at the same time.

Because still, I find that when the sky is that perfect cloudless blue, so beautiful that you can cry from the beauty, I can’t tell if I want to cry just for the beauty or also because of the memory of the smoke that smudged it when I looked south that day.

Sometimes I remember the sounds of those shellshocked days that came right after, when the bridges and tunnels reopened but armed men stood by each lane and looked into each car. I remember the sound of helicopters over the river, constant sirens in the street, and the terrible smells at night, when the wind blew northward.

Then as now, the start of the new year, the High Holy Days, followed close after September 11; in 2001, it was not quite a week later. I remember the disconnect we all felt; it made some of us cling more closely to religion, and thrust others of us away.

Now, too, we are living through a dangerous time, although the enemy is different. Now it’s more internal. We’re fighting each other.

But I also am reminded of one of the signs, one among many, that was taped onto the statute at the end of my block. It’s the Fireman’s Memorial, erected in 1913, featuring a bas relief of horses pulling fire engines and sculptures of women — Duty and Sacrifice — cradling dying firefighters.

Now, every year, police officers and firefighters hold a ceremony remembering the 9/11 victims there. It’s deeply moving every year.

But in my mind’s eye I still see the handwritten sign that was posted there.

“Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od,” it said in Hebrew, quoting a popular Hebrew song set to lyrics by Nachman of Breslov. “Veha’ikar lo lifached k’lal.” And it supplied the English translation: All the world is a narrow bridge; the essence is to have no fear. No fear at all.

It’s a hard thing, to move ahead with no fear. Probably not within reach. But this week Askhenazi Selichot starts, and then Rosh Hashanah next week, and then Yom Kippur, and the rest of the holidays, with their complicated rituals and bone-deep memories.

And the thing of it, the essence of it, is to move forward. To live with the fear. To see the blue beyond the smoke.


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