once below a time


I know.

Every blogger in America is working on something to say as we near the anniversary of September 11, 2001. I remember that crystal blue Tuesday morning as Ginger and I drove up the Southeast Expressway from Marshfield heading into Boston for a day of appointments. I remember the gradual awareness that the sky was more empty than clear, that cars were beginning to pull over and stop along the freeway, that WBUR was bearing awful, even unbelievable news of what was happening in New York, and then D. C., and then in a field in Pennsylvania. I remember parking the car so she could go and visit a parishioner who was dying in the hospital and I could go for my doctor’s appointment, which meant we had to leave each other and then find each other again without much help from our cell phones. I remember sitting in the Chili’s in Hingham unable to eat as CNN played the loop of the planes hitting the Towers endlessly. And I remember going with Ginger that night to open up the sanctuary at North Community Church – our church in Marshfield – so people could come and sit or pray or simply be together.

The story of that day began eight days before: September 3 – Labor Day, which was the day I went into the free fall that I learned to name as Depression. The storm clouds had been gathering for some time, but I had not given them much heed. For the previous decade, Labor Day had marked my last day of summer before I returned to teaching high school English. That September I had planned to step out of the classroom, since we had moved too far away for me to continue to drive back to Winchester High School, and I was going to write as if it were my job. Instead of walking into a new chapter of my life, I crashed and found myself more broken than I knew. In the days that followed September 11, I remember seeing an image of a man falling from one of the Towers. I knew how he felt. I had never felt the kind of despair and shame and worthlessness that swallowed me that day, though I am sure I was not the first one in the world to feel it.

In his memoir, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days, Frederick Buechner began by speaking of his childhood before his father’s suicide as “once below a time,” using a phrase he borrowed from Dylan Thomas.

“Once below a time,: he says in his poem “Fern Hill,” meaning, I assume, that, for a child, time in the sense of something to measure and keep track of, time as the great circus parade of past, present, and future, cause and effect, has scarcely started yet and means little because for a child all time is by and large now time and apparently endless. (9)

I find meaning in the phrase by taking it quite out of the context of both men because it has little to do with my childhood or coming of age, but more to do with coming to terms with the covered up wounds and wrongs that had festered and darkened until they pulled me down below a time where I struggled to breathe and remember who I was. It was almost eight years before I began to feel as though I was upon a time once more. I did not find my way back as much as I was found by God’s love and grace incarnated mostly through Ginger who clung to me with sacred tenacity even though my depression cost her perhaps more deeply than it did me.

As we were getting ready for church on September 9, Ginger said, “If you can, I think you should ask for prayer this morning.” When the time came to share our joys and concerns, as we like to say, I raised my hand and did my best to say I needed prayer because I was depressed in ways I had never been. After the service, one person came up and said, “I know how you feel. I feel that way, too. I just didn’t know we could talk about it out loud.” What I learned that day I have relearned many days since: my pain, however deep and profound to me, is not unique. There is a reservoir of grief, despair, and loneliness that connects us all. When I think it is about me, all I can see is the endless darkness that falls below time. When I understand I am a part of a spectrum of pain and joy, both unspeakable, I have the chance to stumble into grace.

In the days that followed September 11, we all hung our flags on our fences and porches and found solidarity for a few weeks that has eluded since, for the most part. Much of the world offered resonating words. One French newspaper carried the headline, “Nous Sommes Américains” – we are all Americans. Yet, our solidarity soon focused our fears in a way that made us quick to tell the rest of the world they were not us, nor were we interested in being them. Our grief and pain were not things they could understand. To those in Rwanda and Uganda and Congo, to those who had survived Hitler’s death camps, to those whose cities had been bombed in Germany and Vietnam, to those who had lived through despicable regimes in Chile and Cambodia, we have not sought resonance but too often have made it seem as though we feel our pain has somehow superseded them all.

Ten years on, we have let our fear get the best of us and it has torn us to pieces.

In 1994, when the Towers still stood, David Wilcox wrote a song called “Show the Way” that I wish were our national anthem (and, yes, I know I have quoted them before):

you say you see no hope
you say you see no reason we should dream
that the world would ever change
you’re saying love is foolish to believe
’cause there’ll always be some crazy
with an army or a knife
to wake you from your day dream
put the fear back in your life

look, if someone wrote a play 
just to glorify what’s stronger than hate
would they not arrange the stage
to look as if the hero came too late
he’s almost in defeat –
it’s looking like the evil side will win
so on the edge of every seat
from the moment that the whole thing begins

it’s love who mixed the mortar
and it’s love who stacked these stones
and it’s love who made the stage here
although it looks like we’re alone
in this scene set in shadows
like the night is here to stay
there is evil cast around us
but it’s love that wrote the play
for in this darkness love can show the way

so now the stage is set
don’t you feel you own heart beating in your chest
this life’s not over yet
so we get up on our feet and do our best
we play against the fear
we play against the reasons not to try
we’re playing for the tears
burning in the happy angel’s eyes

it is love who makes the mortar
and it’s love who stacked these stones
and it’s love who made the stage here
although it looks like we’re alone
in this scene set in shadows
as if night is here to stay
there is evil cast around us
but it’s love that wrote the play
for in this lifetime love can show the way

He’s right. It’s not over yet. After all, it’s only been ten years.



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