The Ship and the Blossom
I hadn’t planned to write anything. But as the anniversary of 9/11 has loomed closer, there’s been a series of amazing first-hand accounts playing on TV and the radio, and, not surprisingly, it’s stirred things up. Last week I watched a two-part show on two employees at the Pentagon who were severely burned and what their physical therapy involved, in terms of will and endurance. Last night, Nightline’s Up Close program featured Joel Meyerowitz and the photos he took at Ground Zero. Nova just showed a chilling investigation into why the towers collapsed. I’m now watching ABC’s “Report from Ground Zero,” respectfully understated and moving. For whatever reason, two passages sprang to mind today.
The first comes from A World of Ideas II, featuring edited transcripts of a series of interviews Bill Moyers performed several year back. One interview from 1990 features philosopher Jacob Needleman. The two get to talking about the core goodness and generosity inherent, but unfortunately often hidden or buried, in human beings:
NEEDLEMAN: Can I tell you a story? I was invited by Time magazine to be a participant observer at the launch of Apollo 17. At that time, there were a lot of cynical people complaining about the space program, that it was taking money away from the poor and all that. But I went down. It was a night launch, and there were hundreds and hundreds of reporters all over the lawn, drinking beer and waiting for this tall, thirty-five-story-high white rocket lit by these powerful lamps. We were all sitting around joking and wisecracking and listening to the voice of Walter Kronkite like the voice of God coming over the loudspeaker telling us what was going on.
Then the countdown came, and then the launch. The first thing you see is this extraordinary orange light, which is just at the limit that you can bear to look at. It’s not too bright. You don’t have to turn away. It’s beautiful, everything’s illuminated with this light. Then comes this slow thing rising up in total silence, because it takes a few seconds for the sound to come across. Then you hear a “WHOOOOOH! HHHHMMMM!” It enters right into you. This extraordinary thing is lifting up. Suddenly, among all these cynical people and the wisecracking people, myself included, you could practically hear their jaws dropping. The sense of wonder fills everyone in the whole place, as this thing goes up, and up and up and up. The first stage ignites this beautiful blue flame. It becomes like a star, but you realize there are human beings on it. And then there’s total silence.
Then people just get up quietly, helping each other up. They’re kind. They open doors. They look at each other, speaking quietly and interestedly. These were suddenly moral people because wonder, the sense of wonder, the experience of wonder, had made them moral.
By the time we got to the hotel, it was gone. But my point is, in the state of wonder, no one can commit a crime. When you’re in touch with something inner, you are just naturally sharing and caring to other people. So to me, the pursuit of understanding ethics without trying to understand this inner self won’t go past a certain point. It won’t take us where we need to go.
MOYERS: You used the word “moral,” not ethical,” for the moment of knowing and sharing. Why?
NEEDLEMAN: Ethics refers to outer actions, what you do. But inwardly, you are moral. That is, you are in touch with something that’s truer, more your right nature, your real nature. As a result of being moral, you act in a way that could be judged ethical.
MOYERS: But when you got back to the hotel room it was gone?
NEEDLEMAN: It left a trace for a little while. But on the whole, it disappeared under the usual social conventions, and by the time we were ready for bed, we were our usual egoistic selves. But it shows that even in everyday life we sometimes experience a change of what you might call “state.” A state of consciousness, as it were. In that state we are closer to being loving people, caring people.
Needleman speaks of this sense of wonder, this willingness to be open, to see, to connect and to center, as eros.
The second, much shorter passage is from an interview with one of my all-time favourite writers, the British Dennis Potter. In 1992, he was diagnosed with cancer, and the prognosis was bleak. He chose to spend his remaining time writing two last (linked) mini-series of four hours apiece! By the spring of 1993, he had very little time left, and was well aware of it. Melvyn Bragg conducted one last interview. In it, Potter remarked,
Below my window in Ross, when I’m working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now... it’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’... last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you, you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance... not that I’m interested in reassuring people, bugger that. The fact is, if you can see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.
Potter died a few weeks later. The interview was named, “Seeing the Blossom.”
There’s always been a link between those two accounts for me. I’ve snuck both of them into classes before, I suppose because I love the idea of suddenly becoming aware of something beautiful, or arriving at that state of wonder. It hit me today that one could say that one “sight” is man-made, the other wholly natural... One is awesome (literally) and commands attention, while the other is subtle, in fact invisible, to those who are not open to seeing it.
There are some experiences that are so powerful or striking they cut through any and all veneer or decorum or BS. Certainly 9/11 is such an event. Today, I’m especially reminded of Needleman’s feeling of camaraderie and connection, but also how they can fade and be forgotten. It’s almost impossible to hold onto that sort of feeling... But then, in some cases, remembering an event fully, unceasingly, would certainly be unbearable.
A teacher of mine, Tolya Smeliansky, would tell our class astounding tales of the history of Russian Theater. The tales about Stalin’s era were particularly dark and heart-breaking. Without ever saying it aloud explicitly, Tolya (like a Victor Frankl, Charlotte Delbo, or Elie Wiesel) spoke to the idea that memory can be an act of conscience. I don’t think until tonight it struck me how the word “memorialize” relates to “memory.” All the 9/11 memorial events occurring (what an astounding idea, to perform Mozart’s Requiem all over the country!) certainly stir up, and help me sort through, my memory. I’m definitely reminded of what I felt a year ago, and also wonder, as if with a New Year’s resolution, how much of Needleman’s “sense of wonder” and connection and eros I’ve really held onto throughout the year.
Last year, it was lovely that whatever way people chose to grieve or laugh or fret or move on was deemed “all right.” So I hope that this week, most folks feel comfortable feeling whatever they happen to feel, and remembering whatever they happen or care to remember. Thankfully, some of the political agendas of the past few months have receded to make room for the personal again. I’ve been concerned, recently, that some folks think unity as a country means everyone must share the same political and religious views versus, perhaps, a unity of compassion. A dictated group-think, group-feel — bugger that. For me, the most meaningful moments of the past week have come from the sincerity and honesty of the first-hand accounts I’ve heard, or of which I’ve been reminded. I’m also reminded that some of my feelings of “connection” with others faded as the year progressed, but I don’t feel horribly guilty about that either. I do find I still can’t fully comprehend, I suppose on a spiritual level, what happened last year. But watching, hearing all these tales on TV, on radio, from folks I meet — it humbles me, makes me feel grateful, gives me pause.
I afraid I really don’t have anything profound to say; I like those passages and felt like sharing them. Alas, I need a memorial or two to jar me back, re-center me. Perhaps those connections that did occur last year, are occurring again, and will occur in the future — around events tragic or sublime, large or trivial — come from building a dialogue, from sharing memories and perspectives — and being open enough to see the blossom.