The memory keepers: Remembering September 11th—and World Suicide Prevention Day, September 10th

My thoughts this weekend, along with much of America and many around the world, are on 9/11, remembering, mourning, thinking about what happened ten years ago and what has happened since.  Two wars, much grieving, many shifts, small and large, in our lives and our perceptions, of safety, of America and its role.  The repercussions of the attacks in 2001 and subsequent American policy decisions remain vast.  We live in a changed world.

And yet still, for me, a sense of hope rather than rancor surrounds this date.  Grief, with time, is contemplative more than ire-filled.

Grief can divide, and it can unite.  Grief can isolate us, perhaps it even needs to for a time, and it can bring us together.  As we remember the losses of September 11th ten years ago, we think also of the losses accumulated since: American, Iraqi, Afghani…others who have suffered, some at the hands of war, others at the hands of depression or related mental health issues.  Grief and war highlight fault-lines and frailties in individuals and nations; at the same time, adversity brings out strengths.

World Suicide Prevention Day falls on September 10th.  Each year, approximately a million people around the world die from suicide (that’s a death every 40 seconds), some touched by war, by grief or trauma, some not.  Suicide cannot always be prevented (a complex discussion, one which I take up more fully in “How Madoff the younger became my kin“), but, as The World Health Organization notes, “suicide is a major, preventable cause of premature death.”  “Suicide is complex with psychological, social, biological, cultural and environmental factors involved.”

My father’s birthday was on September 11th, though his suicide was seven years in the past by the time that date gained global attention.  Once you begin looking for strange patterns, coincidences, confluences, they rise up with surprising frequency.  My grief for my father, when it settles onto a date, perches on July 4th, the anniversary of his death.  His birthday holds different associations and memories, many of them quiet, even hopeful, and now, for the last decade, this includes a heightened awareness of grief as a shared suffering, a shared concern.

On September 10th, World Suicide Prevention Day, I will be thinking of so many souls, memories of loss for dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions, memories of who was and who still is.  I know already that the day after will hover, as it has hovered all week.  September 11th is engraved in our minds and our history.  Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, gone.  Each one irreplaceable for someone.

Eleven years ago, on September 10th, a different era really, I quit smoking, a ten year habit.  I had just finished a draft of a memoir about my father and his death.  I must, without saying so (even to myself), have been letting something go.  A particular bitterness of grief, anger and recriminations of suicide, the heft of a life—a life cut short, even while it was being lived—that was too heavy to carry.  Like my father when he finally quit after thirty years of unfiltered Camels, almost ten years before his death, I opted for the cold-turkey approach.  For me, this was a gesture of stubbornness—and a gesture of hope.  I knew I would have to leave the noxious (though intoxicating) habit behind before considering having children, a desire I had long held very strongly (off in some future time), and I was in a new relationship, with the wonderful man who would become my husband.  Though perhaps trite (as obvious truths often become), children—and love too—represent hope, aspiration, a belief in innocence and the future.  (Think of the birth spike nine months after 9/11; think of the baby boom after World War II.)

Children remind us of the past, who we were, who our predecessors were, but pull us forward to the future.  How do we want things to be?

I spend much time, too much, in my familial bubble.  Daily tasks consume me.  The problems of the world are too big, too distant.  But I do hope for my children to be citizens of that world, not just of America and Britain.  I like to think of them traveling, meeting new people; I like to think of them living in far away places, even while I want to keep them close.  Thoughts in conflict with each other.  Disparate desires.  Rather like the concept of peace; or like the eradication of conflict—in the world or in one’s self.  I have given up my youthful idealism.  On a pragmatic level, I don’t believe in peace.  And yet it is the ideal I hold in sight.

Earlier this week, I came across a notice for the exhibit “White Flags” by the artist Aaron Fein, a former classmate.  My internal eye keeps returning to its images: rows of white flags, their insignia bleached out—still there, but muted.  The photo draws the eyes upward.  Some flags are illuminated more than others.  Those hidden are as intriguing as those most immediately seen.  Of course, the white dove is perhaps the most iconic (and benign) of peace images; and a plain white flag signals truce, surrender.  But to take a nation’s emblem of patriotism, to take the patriotic symbol of every nation (of the UN), and not only bring them together (as the UN, ideally, does), but visually mark them with peace (rather than enmity and war), while yet maintaining each one’s distinctiveness, whether stars and stripes, or crescent moon and five-point star, or six-point star—  I find this idea, artistically rendered (symbolically daring), tremendously compelling.  Identity and difference (perhaps even some disagreement) in tact, but calm unity prevailing.

For me, these days, this weekend of commemoration—September 11th, and September 10th—are about contemplation, quiet remembering that allows us to move forward with thoughtful purpose.  One eye turns toward the past, while the other seeks something more from the future.

~  ~  ~

“White Flags” is currently on exhibit at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan.  An opening reception is scheduled for September 9th, and the exhibit can generally be viewed during business hours, before or after Chapel, which takes place daily between 12:00-12:30 p.m.  Other arrangements can also be made through their website~

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A few writings on 9/11 that have caught (and held) my attention (including some contradictions)….

“Today, this is what I see: a nation wracked by recession and 10 years of war-debt, bled dry by profiteers, where the rich enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and the demagogues and con artists we’ve elected squander our commonwealth, our treasury and our lifeblood. And as Sept. 11 approaches, I wonder what we will be commemorating on that grim day.

“Now I think of these kids, who watched people cheering in the streets after an elite assassination team killed Osama bin Laden, and wonder what that flag means to them.”

“Not even a New York partisan like myself could call a six-lane boulevard bucolic, and in truth coexistence here is ever a bit provisional.  But this cacophonous and wounded place has not lost its tolerance.  Perhaps in this age, that’s a greater victory than we realize.”

“So a Sept. 11 commemoration might well be a celebration of democratic culture’s enduring presence.  …But is it impossible to imagine that in the midst of concerts and quilts for peace, communications with the spirit world and varied forms of political and psychological exorcisms, there might also be a recognition of what was at stake that day, and what, to a great extent, still is?”

  •  The New Yorker: After 9/11, September 12, 2011

“We called it ‘remote-control colonialism.'”

          – Hisham Matar, “The Light”

  •  The New Yorker: After 9/11, September 12, 2011

“Last year, I got a job offer in Istanbul.  ‘At least you’ll be in the world,’ a friend observed.  ‘As opposed to in America.’  I remembered then how after 9/11 people had said that America was now part of the rest of the world.  The feeling hadn’t lasted.”

“For years I didn’t think I’d ever want to recapture anything I felt in 2001, least of all that sense of free fall and obscurity.  But when I started looking for it again it was right where I’d left it.”

          – Elif Batuman, “In the World”

  •  The New Yorker: After 9/11, September 12, 2011

“To live in, or near, a war zone was frighteningly new to all but the immigrants who had come here to escape such places.”

          – David Remnick, “When the Towers Fell”

“My mind is decorated with splinters.”

“We do not necessarily need anniversaries when there are things we cannot forget.”

          – Colum McCann, “Dessert”

“A decade later, we pay tribute to the resilience of ordinary people in the face of appalling destruction.  We remember the dead and, with them, the survivors, the firemen and the police, the nurses and the doctors and the spontaneous, instinctive volunteers, the myriad acts of courage and kindness.  A decade later, we also continue to reckon not only with the violence that bin Laden inflicted but with the follies, the misjudgments, and the violence that, directly or indirectly, he provoked—the acts of government deception, illegal domestic surveillance, ‘extraordinary rendition,’ ‘enhanced interrogation,’ waterboarding.  …Ten years after the attacks, we are still faced with questions about ourselves—questions about the balance of liberty and security, about the urge to make common cause with liberation movements abroad, and about the countervailing limits.  Only absolutists answer these questions absolutely.”

          – David Remnick, “When the Towers Fell”

  •  The New Yorker: After 9/11, September 12, 2011

“It is the burden of the survivors and the curious to decipher final moments, whether they occurred a year, ten years, or a thousand years ago.  Do they speak to the reality of a particular time, to the nature of death itself, or to an individual’s final instincts during his or her last moments on earth?”

“Past horrors give us a language with which to define new ones.  Worldwide terrors become personalized.  …The job of reconstructing lives belongs to the living, the memory keepers, which is what all of us became that day, willing or unwilling witnesses, unable to look away.”

          – Edwidge Danticat, “Flight”

“In fact, 9/11 poses distinct challenges to the artist. As with Mr. Stone’s movie, there is the danger of trying to domesticate an overwhelming tragedy. There is also the question of presumption: How does one convey the enormity of the event without trivializing it? How does one bend art forms more often used for entertainment or artistic expression toward the capturing of history?”

This is a question I frequently ask myself, and yet, contrary to Michiko Kakutani (and more like Edwidge Danticat, who writes of “the memory keepers“), I believe the domestic realm is essential in our understanding of any tragedy.  This is where most of us live our lives, within the domestic, the quotidian.  We seek understanding through art (novels, memoirs, visual art, oral histories, music, photographs, even thoughtful journalism).  And really, what we take from 9/11, what we learn from the events of the day and its aftermath, is not about that single day, or any single date, anniversary, or memorial.  Much of politics and history occur in the in-between, in the places and ways in which we live our daily lives.  What do we and our politicians do?  What do we teach our children?  What do we speak up about, and what do we look over?  How do we tell the stories when we are looking back?  Which details do we put in, which do we leave out?  This is art, and this is how history forms.

About Kara Krauze Kara Krauze is a writer, consultant, and educator. Kara has worked in publishing, financial services, the mental health field, and community organizing. Her essays have been published in Quarterly West, Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Highbrow Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She has a B.A. from Vassar College in International Studies and a M.A. in Literary Cultures from New York University. She has participated in workshops in New York City, Prague, and France, studied in Moscow and lived in London. Her writing, including a memoir and novels, engages with the subjects of war, loss, and memory. She grew up in Ohio and currently lives in New York City. Kara founded Voices From War, offering writing workshops for veterans, in 2013.
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