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Friday, September 09, 2011

9/11 Cheeseburgers of Hope

I saw an announcement recently for a Taize Service at an Episcopal Church. It promised, "No towers. No testimonies. Just candles, chanting, prayers and silence."

Sounds good to me.

It's been pretty overwhelming to watch the media race to have the first, the most profound, the most visually graphic images of 9/11.

I've seen several really good videos produced by various organizations, some of which are reflections by people who were there. Others are about the 9/11 Memorial which opens this Sunday and the Museum which is scheduled to open next year.

And, I've read some powerful essays about the presence of Evil and how some have learned to confront it as well as reflections on what we have or haven't or still need to learn, 10 years later.

I think I'm done.

Don't get me wrong. I think it's important to mark events in time such as these. It's important to reflect and learn from history. It's very important to move on to hope and change which is hard to do unless you mark and reflect and learn.

I get that.

It's just that I have a few images of my own about those events and that place which is alternately called "The Pit" or "Ground Zero".

Things I saw with my own two eyes.

Things I heard with my own two ears.

Moments I experienced which are so profound they continue to pull at the corners of my heart all these many years later.

It's the dust that gets to me. It always is.

I remember the moment when one of the Fire Chiefs came into the Seamen's Church Institute where I had gone to volunteer after discovering that there were no bodies to tend to at St. Vincent's Hospital where I had originally gone.

He came into the front door asking where the boots were. It was the fourth pair he had changed that day. I looked down at his boots and saw that most of the rubber had melted right on his feet. One can only wonder how hot the ground was at "The Pit".

"C'mon in," I said, "We'll get you fixed right up. Have you had anything to eat? There's a 70 pound meatloaf upstairs and some killer mashed potatoes. Hungry?"

"Oh, hi, sister," he said, obviously thinking that I was a nun. A gentleman, he took off his helmut as a sign of respect. The nuns of his Irish Roman Catholic youth had taught him well.

When he moved his helmet, ashes flew everywhere. He looked at himself and started to slap the arms and legs of his fireman's suit, muttering apologetically, "There are ashes everywhere . . ."

And then, it hit him. He stopped mid-slap and sucked in his breath. "Ashes....," he said. "Everywhere....." He looked at me, his eyes filling with tears and said, "Ashes. . . .".

It took me a few seconds for my brain to register what he was saying, but I saw it in his tears.


Not just pulverized concrete and cinder and metal. These were also the ashes of people - perhaps some of the very people he was searching to find.

I put my arm around him, getting ashes all over me and said, "C'mon. Let's get you some new boots and something to eat."

We walked silently in the two downstairs rooms, one which had socks piled according to size and then, into the next room which had the same arrangement for boots and sorted through them, finding the right pair for him.

Silence accompanied us up the stairs to what had been the Recreation Room where pool tables were now covered with pieces of plywood and turned into buffet tables. The "centerpiece" of the buffet offering was that 70 pound meatloaf, now joined by freshly grilled hotdogs and hamburgers which had been cooked out on the patio on four charcoal grills and a few hibachis brought in by neighbors.

Ms. Conroy stood behind a great mound of hamburgers, ready to serve. "Make mine a cheeseburger," he said to her.

"I'm sorry," she said, "but all I have are hamburgers."

"No cheeseburgers?" he said, his shoulders slumping in disappointment.

"I know, right?" said Ms. Conroy lightly, trying to make the best of the situation. "What were they thinking? But, there's plenty of ketchup, mustard, relish and mayo right over there," she said, pointing to the end of the table.

"Aw," he said, "I really wanted a cheeseburger." Here was this grown 40-something year old man, sounding as brokenhearted as a six year old who had just had his bike stolen.

Ms. Conroy took a hamburger from the pile and held it in both her hands. She then closed her eyes and seemed to pray over it. She opened her eyes, looked at him and said, "One cheeseburger, coming right up, sir."

The fire chief looked at her, smiled broadly, took the burger from her hands and said, "I'll bet I never had a cheeseburger without cheese that tasted so good."

Sometimes, miracles are where you find them.

He took some potato chips and a pickle while I fixed him a hot cuppa joe and joined him at the table. I was delighted with our small talk which he also seemed to enjoy. Then, he told me about his family, how they had worked for the fire or police department "for generations".

He said, "That's why we're out there, crawling through the rubble and ashes, looking for our brothers and cousins and uncles and.... fathers. All we find, though, are body parts. We treat them like they were holy relics, bringing them over to the EMTs so they can be identified. Hoping that we'll find the rest of the body but . . . ." and then, he stared at the ashes on the arm of his jacket.

When he returned his gaze to me I said, "I keep hearing the men repeating a phrase. I wonder if you can help me understand." He nodded his head.

"They keep saying 'No absolution'. What do they mean? No absolution for the terrorists? No absolution . . . .?. . . . for whom?..... for what?"

He dabbed the napkin across his mouth and said, "One of the first things you learn as a firefighter is that before you go into a burning building, you've got to secure the perimeter. Make sure the building isn't going to collapse before you go into it. Most of those guys didn't do that. They just rushed in. They broke the rule. And, thousands of people died because of that.  It was suicide."

He took a deep breath. "So, they broke the rule. People died. No absolution."

"Do you really believe that?" I asked.

"That's what the church says," he responded flatly.

I sighed and shook my head.

"Me neither, sister, " he said. I was so glad to hear that I didn't bother to disabuse him of his idea that I was a nun.

"Have you seen 'The Pit'?" he asked.

"No, no I haven't. I've delivered some sandwiches there, and made a coffee run, but I haven't gotten close enough to see it yet."

"So, walk back with me. Okay?"

"Sure," I said, suddenly not sure at all that I wanted to see it. I just really wanted to be with him, although I felt utterly useless. I mean, what could I say to this man that might possibly be comforting? That might bring some solace to his aching heart and soul that might be enough to help him find the strength and courage to continue his work?

I listened to him as we walked but my mind was racing. Should I offer to say the rosary with him? If he asked me to pray, what would I say? I didn't have my BCP with me. What words could I use? Would I make things worse for him?

And then, suddenly, it was there. The Pit. And, it was. A great, yawning open hole in the ground which belched smoke and fire. It was as if a corner of Hell had opened up and we were staring into the abyss.

"The mayor says that crying only makes you stronger," he said as we tried to avert our eyes from the glaring lights that illumined the darkness so the men could continue their work.

"Do you believe that?" he asked.

"Well," I said, "I suppose the mayor is probably right. Why do you ask?"

He moved his eyes from The Pit and stared into my eyes to a place deep in my soul and said, "Well, if crying makes you stronger, then I must be a fuckin' 3,000 pound gorilla by now - 'scuse my French, sister."

And then, I started to laugh. Which made him laugh. Which made me laugh even harder. Pretty soon, we were both standing there, in front of The Pit at Ground Zero, laughing our selves silly.

And then, his laughter suddenly turned into tears and then great sobs shook his body.

And then I held him as he cried and sobbed and wailed in my arms and his grief shook my body and his as the ashes flew all around us.

And then, he took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes and blew his nose and said, "Thanks, sister. I guess I really needed that more than the non-cheese burger"

And then he kissed my hand and said, "Take care. God Bless," and returned to his work.

I don't know what we, as a nation, have learned in the past 10 years. Sometimes I think things are worse. We've spent trillions of dollars on Homeland Security and two wars and - honestly? - I don't know if we're any safer or more secure.

Meanwhile two immoral wars continue and 'GitMo' remains open.

Meanwhile, the economy is still fragile, and unemployment soars.

Meanwhile, our politicians can barely be civil with one another, our freedom and some of our civil rights have been compromised by The Patriot Act, air travel can hardly be described as enjoyable, and racial profiling is now expanded to include anyone with dark skin who might look like a Muslim.

I've seen the draft copies of some wonderful Interfaith Services of Remembrance / Hope / Reconciliation which marks, for the first time in many communities, that Priests, Ministers, Rabbis, and Imams have prayed publicly together.

That's a good start. Has it really taken 10 years for us to come to this place of new beginning in interfaith public worship? Really?

I think I'm going to have to sit in some silence on Sunday. I'm going to think about some of the things I learned that night in lower Manhattan ten years ago.

I'm going to think about those moments of revelation and miracles and epiphanies that happened in the midst of ashes and melted boots and piles of shoes and socks, and cheeseburgers without cheese and wondering about atonement and absolution and feeling completely incompetent and being present anyway and laughter and tears as the purest and perhaps only form of prayer in front of a burning, smoking pit and how God was in the midst of it all, even if we didn't know it at the time.

I don't need images of burning towers to help me remember. I don't need smartly worded essays or beautifully done videos.

I think what I need more than anything is some quiet and some candles and some music I don't need a hymnal for and a community of folks who just want to pray.

I'll go to the Interfaith Service at 4 PM on Sunday afternoon at the grandstand in front of the ocean at Rehoboth Beach.

But you know, now, more than ever - even more than on 9/11 - I just need some time with Jesus.

I'm not even 100% certain what I mean when I say that or how to explain it to you.

I just know that there's something about the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and reconciliation of Jesus that brings me inexplicable solace and hope.

I think it may have something to do with no-cheese cheeseburgers.

Because sometimes, miracles are where you find them.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

We are doing a Taizé service on Sept. 11, with the theme being "peace and reconciliation," with the reading being Isaiah 1 (God saying, "I've had enough burnt offerings and blood offerings, thank you very much",) Psalm 46, and the Beatitudes of Reconciliation by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, KS. We decided to let the date speak for itself and not push anyone's thoughts in any direction except, "What does peace and reconciliation mean for you tonight?"

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

If I were in Kirksville, Doc, I'd be there with you.

RENZ said...

Thank you. I've been afraid of what the media might do to this weekend. Today my place of employment encouraged folks to wear red, white, and blue attire as Patriot Day was on Sunday. I wore black.

I thought I might just have to avoid the whole thing, but, thanks to your wonderful reflection, I've just honored the memory in a simple and heartfelt manner, complete with a few tears.

That is enough for me. Peace and hugs.

Unknown said...

The Episcopal Church of the Atonement (Anglican), Fair Lawn, NJ, is the place offering the "No towers. No testimonies. Just candles, chanting, prayers and silence," Taizé prayer service to which Elizabeth referred, on the eve of 9/11, starting at 7pm. For more information please see http://www.Atonement-FairLawn.Org

Kirkepiscatoid, where is your service?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Renz - Thanks. This won't work for everyone but it works for me. Glad it works for you, too.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Kev - Thanks so much for posting about your church's observance of 9/11. Y'all should know that Fairlawn, NJ is one of the "bedroom" communities outside of NYC. And, Kev is a volunteer chaplain with the Fire/Police Dept in that town. He is an excellent pastor and clearly knows what his people need. Others will go elsewhere. I'm betting he's going to have a full house.

BTW, Kev, Doc's church is in Kirksville, MO.

J. Michael Povey said...

oh my dear sister.

I am with you. I need silence. That's why I have not blogged all week. That's why I will skip the Eucharist this Sunday - a sacramental fast so to speak.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Michael. I need Eucharist and will go Sunday morning - to the 8 AM quiet service - no music. Short sermon. At this point, I'm planning to go to the Interfaith service at 4 PM but it really all depends on what happens on Sunday morning. We shall see. Bottom line: I'm just so relieved that others share my experience. I really thought I was alone in this.

susankay said...

I have been avoiding 9/11 stories
(difficult to do when one has a husband addicted to "news"). NPR story about Mychal Judge and your post here reduced me to tears and I am glad that I heard/read them.

Anonymous said...

Wishing you peace this weekend.

If auntie Mary was still alive and living in Rehoboth, we'd likely go to the bandstand too.

A private reflection with one simple white candle is all I plan to do.

susankay said...

And I have a new attitude toward Ash Wednesday.

Theodora May said...

My church's choir is doing the last movement of a requiem during the offertory at our main service this Sunday. And I will pray for all countries that we will be free from terrorist. Thank you for this post.

captmair said...

Thank you sweet sister, for sharing this with us and for helping me to know what I should do and where I should be on the 11th. I too will be at the quiet service in the early morning because what I really need is silence and a time to cry in solitude. We have lost so much, and so many. May the peace of the Lord be with us.

Anonymous said...

I worked from home today or should I say I tried to work from home. I lived half a block away from the Pentagon 10 years ago. I saw our troops wounded and being carried into my apartment building. Horror stories were being told of fire balls coming down the corridors from the plane. Marines with 20 years of service were crying. Papers were flying every where, smoke was all around, an eire silence permeated the place. I remember worrying about the content of the smoke. Could the terrorist have put some chemical in the plane that would be carried in the air and kill more people? How was I going to get home from my DC office without the metro?

Ten years later, I have two children. I don't know what to tell them about this incident. I don't dare tell them I worked from home today because of the increased terrorist alert and I was afraid I might not be able to get them from school if an event occurred. The church youth group is going on a retreat. My daughter is set to go tomorrow. I am worried that I will not see her again. How many saw their loved ones on 9/11 in the moring and never saw them again? At this moment I really resent the church youth advisor for being so insensitive and taking my child away when I need family. However, I do not dare say a word to my daughter for fear of looking afraid and then she might be afraid. I have asked for a plan from the youth group director if something should happen. I was told they will call me and return to the church. Sounds simple right? It was not simple on 9/11. Roads were cut off, phones did not work, DC was closed off from anyone from the outside. Those in DC at 6 p.m. were stuck in DC. There was no getting out. I pray my child will be ok this weekend. I remind myself that God will be with her. I feel selfish for not wanting her to leave. Please pray for a safe return.
No name this time sorry.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, SusanKay.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Tracie - I think simple is the way to go, especially with the barrage of information about 9/11.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susankay - It's never been the same for me, either.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Theodora May - It sounds lovely. I hope many find peace at your service.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

captmair - I'm glad you'll be able to find some solace on that day.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Anonymous - I wasn't in DC but I think I understand. The memories are so vivid. Still so painful. I hope you are able to find peace.

Matthew said...

I am actually dreading church this Sunday and almost want to stay home. I am fearful the liturgy will be manipulative like it has been in the past. Or a substitute funeral dirge. But alas there is a potluck so I am committed. I am glad I am not the only one craving silence.

Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth,
Thank you so much for sharing this hopeful story with us. I really appreciate your writing and reflections.
I am leading an ecumenical Taize service on Sunday evening, (I'm in the U.K), please may I have your permission to share your cheeseburger story as part of the service?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - "craving silence". I love that term. It so captures what is in my heart. Was it Teresa of Avila who said that silence is the absence of world in which we can hear the fullness of God?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Zbeth - I would be deeply honored. Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

We were "told" to wear red, white and/or blue on Friday to school for Patriot Day. I wore a red shirt with my blue jeans and avoided talking about any of it with my K children (except they wanted to talk about the flag, which we did).

I'm leaving the t.v. off the news channels this weekend as much as possible. I heard and saw more than enough this week, but nothing touched me as much as your story.

Brian said...

Elizabeth, what I remember is the beautiful weather of that morning, then the smoke, the smell, the terrified children and colleagues at my school that we cared for into the late evening, some of whom lost loved ones that horrific day.

I still see the flyers hung everywhere in the Village by desperate families, every one of which I read because I felt it my duty to acknowledge and witness the lives of the lost. And the dust and ashes. Everywhere. On every thing.

My grandfather died on 9/10 and I drove out of NYC on 9/12 to attend his funeral in another state because the plane I was scheduled to fly on 9/12 was a smoking ruin in a field in Pennsylvania.

I will never forget the smoke that I could see far into my drive through NJ, the long, long lines of ambulances and emergency vehicles I passed, coming from every neighboring town, city, and state, and bursting into tears because I knew in my heart that they would find no living being to rush to empty hospitals.

Like you, I crave silence and solitude. I can't watch the TV programs, listen to the radio tributes and commentaries. It is still too fresh, painful, and very real to me, even after I left NYC for the deep South almost 10 years ago because I couldn't live with the memories and the pain.

Bless you for this poignant and quiet reflection. Just what I did need and want.

June Butler said...

Thank you for a beautiful post, Elizabeth. Candles and quiet sound perfect to me.

John said...

Having read your words, I feel like tearing up my sermon for tomorrow and starting over.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Gumbiecat - Told to wear RW&B. Oh, my. And, GWB told us to go out and buy stuff. Sigh. Glad my words helped.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It WAS a beautiful morning, wasn't it? I almost forgot that. It made the whole thing seem surreal. Well, even more surreal than it really was.

Thanks for your kind words.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mimi - Quiet is what my heart and spirit crave. My head is already too full of the memory of the sounds of that day.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

John, Oh, please don't do that. Jesus has an awful lot to say about forgiveness. I'm sure you'll preach a mighty word of truth.

Kirsten said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. I have been finding myself overwhelmed and resentful of the news coverage of the anniversary, and yet needing to sit with my own memory from being in DC a decade ago. I love my church, but I'm avoiding it tomorrow in favor of attending the Mozart Requiem being performed in Duke Chapel. Sacred space and music, but for gosh sake, no more words.

the cajun said...

Aside from you, everyone I know is planning some morbid tableau or watching endless tape loops on TV. I am glad I don't have TV service.

Like you, I want to begin the day in silence and after work, end it with a single candle and quiet prayer. I want no part of communion with a large group.

I am going to link to this post, if you don't mind. I know so many people who will appreciate your words and story.

Hugs to you and Ms. Conroy.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Zippy - I think everyone needs to do whatever their soul is crying out for. Mine is to turn off the TV and sit in silence.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Cajun - I was thinking of going to the bandstand at RB at 4 PM tomorrow and thinking I could hold your hand. Maybe I'll stop by DL at 3:30 and we'll have a drink before I venture down the boardwalk.

It's all about taking care of your spirit. said...

Thank you so much for sharing your memories and reflections—they were very poignant for me. I'm a native New Yorker and I was far from home on 9/11, which cut me like a knife. But, to this day, knowing that people like you were there to help and comfort still feels so wonderful and hopeful to me.

Tomorrow morning I plan to pay my respects by walking in the silent, timeless woods with my dog. I will meditate on my wishes and hopes for our country and our world, and for all those who suffered so unimaginably on that shattering day.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dear b - Sounds like a good plan. And please know that I really had no choice but to be there that night. That's another story for another time. Maybe next year.

JimB said...

Thanks for the post -- it is a true gift.

It is "our" week as sacristans so Sue-z and I will set up the 8:00 Eucharist, clean up after, set up the 10:00 Baptism and Eucharist and then, thankfully, slide away. Then, finally, I hope for some quality time with
Traverlor and M'lady my dulcimers, and then probably my rosary. Enough of cheap patriotism and cheaper bravado.


Hymncat said...

Thank you for your post, Elizabeth.
As a singer, I'm obliged to be at both my own service and an interfaith remembrance tomorrow, for support to my community if nothing else. However, I too have been avoiding the majority of the 9/11 writeups (which are copious here in the Washington area). I'll gladly hug and listen to anyone who needs it, but I'm very wary of communal remembrance here.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. We were lucky enough not to be among an immediate circle of mourners, but living in MD near D.C. 9/11/01 will be engraved in our lives. I think I will find a quite corner and think, or go to the seawall at USNA. And expression of that thoughts why I had your link, as my sister sent it to me a few moments ago.

Linda Ryan said...

rI keep rereading your post and finding so much that speaks to my heart. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jim - "Cheap patriotism" is like "cheap grace" isn't it. I think both make God's nostrils burn.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hymncat - If I can't be in silence then I prefer to be surrounded by beautiful music.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for your visit, Anonymous. Next time, please leave your name.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Linda - thanks for your visits. Come by anytime.

gerry said...

This is the first time I've been on line since last Wednesday, when the flooding began. We're fine, high and dry, but a third of the city was evacuated before the rivers came over the flood walls and levees.

We had a television on mute to read bulletins (( we wanted to avoid the hype in the lead up to Sunday )).

We have a new Rector and didn't know what to expect. His sermon was on reconciliation and he lead a litany of reconciliation between the prayers of the people and the confession.

After the Peace he commissioned the Sunday School Teachers.

The choir sang Ralph Vaughan Williams' "God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again" after the Thanksgiving and we recessed to Hymn 390.

A good day...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Glad to know you are safe and dry and well and that church was meaningful for you. After the "natural disaster" you just went through, I'm sure having an uplifting service was important and most welcomed. You continue in my prayers.