Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

– Adam Zagajewski

 

There are questions so holy that we spend our lives grappling with the answers, and truths so quiet we almost miss them.

Matt and I were living in Boston on the morning of September 11, 2001, when the world seemed literally to crash down upon us. I was practicing in my studio at the community music school where I taught when the administrator stormed through the door, interrupting my Mozart sonata with something about the Pentagon. Matt was in a seminary class at Boston University when a friend stood up and announced that two planes had just flown into the World Trade Center. Classes at both schools were cancelled for the day, and Matt and I spent the afternoon and evening glued to the television, horrified. As the hours went by, it became clear that Boston was painfully intertwined with the events of the day. With the two planes that hit New York originating in Boston, there was no comforting six degrees of separation. A father of young children who attended my school was on one plane; several of the parents in my studio were the pallbearers at his funeral later that week. Other music school families had friends or acquaintances in the World Trade Center who died. Fearing a similar attack in Boston, in the hours after the twin towers came down authorities evacuated the Hancock Tower in Copley Square; the next weekend the Globe headline read that there was a threat of a terrorist plan aimed at Fenway Park. We lived two blocks away from the Red Sox’s home field. We felt scared and trapped. We had no car to take us to Canada. No escape cottage in the Berkshires. No way to get back home to the Midwest. There was no running away from the terror and the constant, relentless fear. For weeks, my heart pounded fiercely in my chest. The sounds of sirens sent chills down my back. Night after night, I woke up shaken by nightmares about bombs going off in the Prudential Center.

As the days passed, time both stood still and sped by with alarming speed, the pause button forever released, the future rushing towards us. The smallest details took on magnified weight, significance wrung from the most ordinary of moments. Autumn in New England arrived with all its flamboyance, and just like they did every year, the weeping willows in the Public Garden poured their branches of gold onto the lawns. The Japanese maples sported tiny red leaves with gold tips; they looked like hats for Santa’s elves. For a single precious week, yellow star-shaped leaves were scattered across every street and sidewalk of the city, creating a galaxy of constellations to walk across. As Halloween approached, students and I improvised ghost and witch-themed compositions and discussed costume options. I dug out my cashmere sweaters and boots from the back of the closet and put flannel sheets on the bed. Back in my studio at school, I spent hours working on the Mozart sonata I was playing when the world crashed down around me. It was the opposite of post-traumatic stress disorder. It was as though I needed to return over and over again to the highly structured and organized Mozart—the harmonic progression that traced the circle of fifths, the predictable key changes, the four-square phrasing—as a way to assure myself life had order and meaning.

We are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all,” Annie Dillard writes in Holy the Firm. “We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if we ever wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of light uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it’s time to break our necks for home.”

I find myself thinking a lot about those post-9/11 days right now, in this compounded crisis of pandemic and politics. I feel poised for disaster, holding my breath in anticipation of the next installment of pain and disbelief. Two days after we planted our Biden/Harris sign in the yard, it was stolen. Game on, we said to our unknown thieving opponents. We printed off logos from Internet and then wrapped our front tree with the handmade signs and yards of transparent packing tape. During the day, the tape reflects the sunlight, blinding drivers as they make their way down our busy street. Our message is no longer subtle, it is glaringly obvious.

At the same time, fall in New Mexico is responding to our antics and bad behavior with heartbreakingly beautiful weather. Day after day, the sky is the deepest blue imaginable, no cloud in sight. Yesterday, as I was practicing, I glanced out the window to the scene in the courtyard: the pots of pansies waving their happy faces in the sunshine, the pumpkins scattered along walls and tables, the yellow leaves drifting aimlessly in the breeze. It was so beautiful, and so poignant. I wanted to weep.

Try to praise a mutilated world. And in these crazy-making days, that’s our real choice. We can give in to the distractions, the screaming and name-calling, the news that cannot distinguish between truth and lie, and allow them to hijack our hours and our attention. Or we can turn our focus to the “grey feather a thrush lost,” the kid telling me about her Halloween décor of cobwebs and jack-o-lanterns, the full moon rising outside my window during my last lesson of the day, the gigantic orange—or is it yellow?—mum boasting dozens of blooms in my garden. It’s time to “break our necks for home.” Our choice, friends.