Tuesday, September 11, 2007

One Wild and Precious Life

I am sure that those of you who read this blog in the United States will be hearing a great deal about the September 11th Attacks. In China however, it is just another day. I thought this tragic day was remembered quite elegantly by the folks at the Writer's Almanac. The Mary Oliver poem they chose is filled with hope and a celebration of the unique things that make life so precious. I thought it a nice antidote to the way this day is often covered in the media. Here is a small excerpt.

"On this day in 2001 terrorists flew two planes into Twin Towers in New York City, causing both towers to collapse. In the weeks following the attacks, many writers and other artists wondered how to respond to what had happened.

One of the first groups of writers to take action were the reporters for The New York Times, who began writing portraits of the victims in a special section of the paper called "Portraits of Grief." The journalists involved decided that they would try to write portraits of every victim of the attack whose family they could reach. And they decided that the stories would focus on how the victims lived, not how they died.

The portraits were shorter than the average Times obituary, at about 150 words, and they skipped things like college degrees, jobs held, and names of surviving family members. They just tried to capture some detail or anecdote that would express each person's individuality. There was a firefighter who wore size 15 boots; a pastry chef who could eat as many desserts as she wanted without gaining weight; a man who put toothpaste on his wife's toothbrush when he got up before her; and a grandmother who wore pink rhinestone-studded sunglasses and a metallic gold raincoat.

Ultimately, 143 reporters worked on the project, and they managed to write about 1,910 of the 2,749 victims. They would have written about every victim, but some families didn't want to participate or couldn't be found. The portraits were collected in the book Portraits 9/11/01 (2002).

One of the people who read the "Portraits of Grief" was the singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen, and he noticed how many of the victims of the attacks had loved his music. So he started calling the spouses of the victims on the telephone to express his condolences. One of the people he called said, "I got through Joe's memorial and a good month and a half on that phone call.""

The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver, from House of Light. © Beacon Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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