Moments of beauty amid unspeakable horror
Special to The Times
I didn't wonder, while I was singing, what was the inspiration for the prayer, wasn't particularly introspective on the matter. My soul was heavy, perhaps, but no heavier than it has been for years. Nothing particularly sad had happened Monday that hadn't also happened on Sunday and Saturday and Friday. But still I sang.
And then Tuesday, I woke up.
Tuesday was the day of the election primaries here, and my assignment from the journalism school was to go cover them. My neighborhood beat is based in the South Bronx. And so, at 8:30, I took the subway over there, intent on searching out non-voters who would tell me why they were not voting.
I did not accomplish the task.
Because beginning at slightly after nine o'clock Tuesday morning, people throughout the Bronx began pulling over cars and vans to stare in disbelief at the plumes of smoke and dust that enveloped the distant Manhattan skyline. Drivers double-parked, threw open their doors and blasted the news on their radios, as strangers huddled closer to listen to the words that grimly fleshed out a spectacle that seemed, from a distance, to be little more than one, and then two, and then again one, innocuous cloud.
Every time a new person would approach one of these groups of witnesses, the others would cluster around him or her, repeating over and over what the radio announcer had just said. As if, somehow, repeating it enough would make it real. As if, somehow, in the telling of the story, we would find its justification.
I felt nothing. No, not true. I felt a morbid fascination, an inability to tear my eyes away from the spectacle being played out, miles away, on our shared horizon. And I felt cold, goosebumps all over my body. And an ache — not an ache in the pit in my stomach that has come with heartbreak in the past, but an all-over-the-body deadweight numbness.
Over the years, my idealized notions of humankind have dissipated slowly into the sands of time. There is so much heartbreak, so much betrayal, so much devastation wrought by so many hands. And yet.
My belief in my country's core democratic values has died a much quicker, more absolute death. So much death in the name of life, slavery in the name of freedom, injustice in the name of mercy, mercilessness in the name of justice. And yet.
As I stood there, my face sunburning and my body cold, I remembered that there is always another level of the soul, a level that one has not yet fully explored, a level of which one is not yet fully aware.
There is always another test. Does pain freeze into disenchantment, freeze into callousness? I have thought so, and for a few moments, I was certain so.
But as we stood together — these random groupings of students and construction workers and poets and police officers, of such varied ages and genders and ethnicities and languages — we trusted each other wordlessly with an intimacy and comfort we would normally reserve for those we have known forever. Perhaps even the meaning of "forever" changes in certain moments.
We trusted each other and we tried to redefine the world together in a way that made sense.
And when one man whispered quietly, as he stared off into the horizon, "God bless those people," some of the hard coldness melted off of me, out of me.
And later, when random strangers in the Bronx and then in Harlem and then in the Upper West Side would bravely smile at each other, at me, as I walked the hour-long walk back to Columbia University (the subways and buses were down) some more of that coldness melted out of me. So that by the time I got into my room, and called my mother, I could feel the tears all over my body unfreeze themselves, heat and melt and flow from my eyes.
And when I went back out to the Bronx yesterday afternoon, to write my story about shock and anger and fear, that wasn't all I had to write about. I knew I could find hope again in little girls at the Catholic church who were scared but thought things could get better if we lit enough candles to God.
Don't get me wrong. I have not lived this thing, have not truly suffered this thing. I know there is always another level. But even as my nerves are deadened by so much horror played out on so many stages the world over, and with so many actors who've memorized their lines, even amidst this, I have rediscovered these moments of beauty.
And while hell plays out on the grand scale, there are these small scraps of love and kindness that we can patch together to even things out a bit. We form quilts of these moments for one another, warm each other up, help each other to cry.
In the days to come, as national tragedy seeks to convert itself into international war, we might do well to be aware of them. To fight for them and treasure and guard them. Even if it means, perhaps, praying ourselves to sleep.
Jocelyn Weiner was an intern this summer for Consilio for the Spanish Speaking in Seattle. She is a recent graduate of Stanford University and Fulbright Scholar, and is currently a journalism student at Columbia University in New York.