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Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11, 2011: Snapshots from a decade ago

"Twin Towers, Twin Peaks"
Collage by Adrianne Wortzel, 1981

Twenty years ago, a friend of mine gave me a piece of her art called Twin Towers, Twin Peaks, a title that links her city, New York, to my city, San Francisco. Slightly larger than a postcard, the image superimposes the bustling area around the World Trade Center towers over two Egyptian pyramids. I have always treasured this enigmatic gift that time and experience have imbued with a particular significance.

The events surrounding our September 11 story began in the city of Toulouse, a miniature and rosier Paris, in the deep southwest of France towards the Spanish border. We had had a honeymoon-like trip exploring the town’s sites, eating rich French foods like cassoulet and braised kidneys, and looking over the river from our garret terrace in a beautiful old nouveau-ramshackle hotel (the elevator didn’t go all the way to our room). For a day or two, we wandered through the open parks and along the canals, basking in the sunshine and recovering from the jetlag.

Kenny in Toulouse September 2001

We drove a few hours from Toulouse, heading for the small town of Couiza in the Lot Valley, green with leafy trees just about to turn. On the way, we stopped in Limoux, but it was too early in the day for their local champagne, so we bought nougat and wandered aimlessly along the river bank before heading on our way. We were checking into the hotel (formerly a castle) where the wedding of Paul’s cousin James was to take place when the patron of the establishment came rushing in, barking in rapid-fire French that something calamitous was happening in New York. All we could understand was “kamikaze” and “World Trade Center.” On the way up to our room, the matron said there had been a lot of trouble in the Middle East in the past few days. We scurried along behind, expecting some trifling incident at JFK that the owner had misinterpreted.

Kenny and Paul at the entrance to the hotel
in Couiza shortly after arriving

We turned on the television, and from that point on we were, like Americans all over the globe, glued to the screen for hours. In the late afternoon, we walked around the village and realized that we might not return home for a long time. Paul’s aunt and uncle, soon to arrive from England, would have room for us, and we could hitch a ride with them, so we would just go back there if need be. We wouldn’t be homeless or without family, and we could probably stay there as long as necessary.

Before the arrival of any of the other wedding guests, we were strangely isolated in a little French village in the era before ubiquitous instant communication. There was only one thing to talk about, to think about, and only each other to talk to. Over dinner, we found it hard to find anything to say.

We woke on September 12 and drove to the next village, Rennes-le-Château, to find the Internet café above the bookshop. Like everything French, it opens and closes on its own schedule, so we waited out the hour with coffee on a gravel terrace. The Internet point wasn’t exactly a café, but a room with two computers. We wrote to our friends in Manhattan, hoping that they were OK. One of them had witnessed the event and had been part of the rush uptown but was not injured. As we sat in this strange room, dealing with the frustratingly counterintuitive French keyboard in this unfamiliar place, we found out that the man at the other computer, who lived in New Zealand and was also trying to track down his family and friends, owned the house across the street from Paul in San Francisco. We later discovered that Rennes-le-Château is notorious for paranormal events, and that the bookshop we were in stocks exclusively New Age and psychic activity titles.

The view from Rennes-le-Chateau on September 12, 2001

Paul’s relatives wouldn’t be arriving for a few more days, and so rather than spend hours in front of a television, growing more numb, we decided to drive up into the Pyrenees and possibly all the way into Spain. Our first stop was a town called Ax-les-Thermes, where the town square consists of a basin of constantly running warm mineral water, heavy with salt and as rejuvenating as a long nap. We bought a couple of sandwiches, rolled up our pants, and soaked our feet together with the locals. Nature was expressing its love by cleaning our feet.

The town square at ax-les-Thermes

Driving on, we eventually reached the Cavernes de Niaux, marked by a great Corten bull-like sculpture/entrance pavilion designed by Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas. I remembered having seen the design in an architecture journal, and so we drove up to the entrance and stopped. We had no reservation but were able quickly to join in the last tour of the day. We paid the fee, donned our miners’ helmets, and rushed into the dark cool caves, understanding little of what the French tour guide said. In a few words of English, she told us that scholars now believe that the paintings were created as art, not as a symbol for something else. That the bison, deer, and horses were painted between 13,000 and 14,000 years ago, apparently without definition or purpose, was deeply reassuring. In the face of so much pointless and cataclysmic destruction, I felt like we were connecting with a long and reassuring arc of human history.

Entrance to the Cavernes de Niaux

Niaux cave

Niaux cave

Recently, Paul has been talking about Iris Murdoch, one of his favorite writers. Murdoch, a philosophy professor who wrote novels, felt that patient attention to art is a form of prayer and that art is a sacrament. In her book Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Murdoch writes, “A sacrament provides an external visible place for an internal invisible act of the spirit. The apprehension of beauty, in art or nature, often in fact seems to be like a temporarily located spiritual experience which is a source of good energy.” That day in the caves, it was apparent that the arc of that sacrament had stretched over fourteen millennia. This was a good sign.

The wedding that we had come to France for took place on September 15 in the courtyard of the castle where we were staying. It was a simple ceremony illuminated by candles and the slanted afternoon light. The party afterwards included many courses, skits from Pagnol films, music, poetry, and lots of dancing. During dinner, the bridegroom’s father, Paul’s Uncle Graham, offered a toast that mentioned us and what we were experiencing as Americans. In response, I thanked Graham and said that there was no meaning in what happened in America. The only way forward is to take what filled that very room, what this very celebration was about, and share more of it, because love is all we have. I still feel that way.

James and Chloe getting married on September 15, 2001

1 comment:

Ira Weinberg said...

I agree! If we could only have more love in the world everything would be better. What a beautiful way to contemplate such a horrible act.