We are lucky enough to know that we are more than our losses.
Jenna Jacobs, Wife of Ariel Jacobs
who was killed at the WTC
In Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Everything is Illuminated, Foer’s American protagonist, Jonathan, searches for the Ukrainian woman who hid and protected his grandfather from the Nazis during World War II. But it is Alex, Jonathan’s Ukrainian guide, who ultimately understands the meaning behind the search. His narration and letters to Jonathan become our guide. His broken English is hard to understand but if we read carefully we are rewarded with insight and meaning.
During the past year I have felt like I am made up of two similar men. Like Jonathan, one is involved in the mechanics of the search—arranging for my journey, seeking expert guidance, and collecting facts. I have suddenly found myself in a strange land. Simultaneously, the other part of me is looking for meaning and understanding. Despite my inability to fully express myself and put together my words into some cogent form, it makes me feel better just trying. Ultimately, the effort pays off.
Learning that sadness and the excitement of discovery can coexist has made me stop and think a bit. There is something to be learned about listening carefully when we try to decipher Alex’s way of expressing himself. We really have to want to understand what he is saying. Funny how someone with such secondhand knowledge of our culture can understand our very American quest and force us think about who we are.
Now that I think about it, being forced to look at things from a new angle is a lesson I’ve had before (and one I’m likely to have again). Like most life lessons, if given the choice, I probably would have avoided it at all costs. But, of course, I didn’t have that choice. As Foer’s title suggests, this past year has been one where many things have become illuminated.
And so today begins a succession of anniversaries.
• • •
To commemorate this day, some of my friends and I will launch a memorial lantern in a tidal basin next to the Pentagon this morning. The official Pentagon ceremony will take place on the opposite side of the building (the side hit by the airliner) from where we will be.
When I was in Japan 19 years ago, working on a film about American POWs killed by the Hiroshima atomic bomb, I attended such a ceremony for victims of the blast along the banks of the Motoyasu River.
I couldn’t think of a more personal and meaningful way to remember those whose lives where irrevocably altered by the events of that morning, one year ago (thanks, Donna and Susie for your help).
We walked to the edge of an embankment, directly across from the Pentagon, and looked for a place to launch the memorial. It was a problem as we were about 8 feet above the water. In addition, we were concerned about a burning candle so close to nearby boats moored at the marina. We lowered our lantern but it got wet as we tried to set it to sail in the brisk remnant breeze of Tropical Storm Gustav. Despite the wind, it was a beautiful day. Randall had prepared a CD of music with bells and sirens in the background.
We took video and stills of our preparations. Across the water (about 100 meters away) the occupants of a military humvee observed us. Commercial airliners took off directly over our heads from nearby National Airport.
Soon another humvee with two burly military police in full battle dress arrived to question what we were doing. The head of the Park Service for that area soon joined us. We told them about the memorial. While the military encouraged us to continue, they wanted to confiscate our imagery for security reasons. They asked us to put away our cameras. The music continued to play as they left.
We decided to jettison our initial idea for the ceremony and concentrate on sharing our thoughts. Without having to worry about the structure of the ceremony and without mediation from the media or politicians, we simply talked with each other.
As we started to leave, the Park Service officer returned to thank us for being cooperative. “In reality,” he said, “you have every right to photograph here. This is US Park property and I have jurisdiction here.” Tell that to the military.
Related Outtacontext Stories and Projects:
The Remains of the Day (September 11, 2001)
Hunting for Zippers in the Emperor’s New Clothes (September 13, 2001)
Reliving Ground Zero (January 28, 2002)
Dichotomy: It Was a Matter of Time and Place (A 9/11 Storytelling Project)