Reflecting Absence

It was nighttime, and I was disoriented. I would have been disoriented anyway. After going through an extensive security protocol that I quickly learned was normal in New York, my friend and I followed a security guard/tour guide along dark, twisting pathways through the bowels of Lower Manhattan. We weren’t really inside, but we weren’t outside either. I didn’t know where we were. Still I followed the guide along with other tourists, all of us walking solemnly, single file through this labyrinth. I wondered if I should be weaving a string through it like Theseus in case I needed to memorize the route back.

We weren’t actually underground, but it felt like it. We had been waiting in line to see the 9/11 memorial site in one area and emerged at the actual site in a completely different area, as if we had hopped on the subway and poked our heads up from underground at an arbitrary spot along the route.

After more twists and turns and fences signalling construction was still underway, I found myself exhaling deeply, unaware that I had been holding my breath. I was standing here, in this open space:

16-acres with a North and South Pool surrounded by a field of white oak trees.

The New York minute slowed to a crawl. Although we were at street level again and skyscrapers stood above us, this space felt immune to the obnoxious traffic sounds of New York. It was in but not in the city. A sacred space where you don’t notice other tourists, where you don’t feel inclined to rush, where the sound of the continuously flowing water and the sight of 2800 names of men, women, and children etched into the perimeter of the fountains silences you into stillness and contemplation. I traced my fingers along the names arranged in no particular order.

As the architects of the site explain, “any arrangement that tries to impose meaning through physical adjacency will cause grief and anguish to people who might be excluded from that process, furthering the sense of loss that they are already suffering.”

Chantal. Garth. Richard. Garth – I pointed this one out to my friend standing beside me. The same name as her husband. Thousands of names. Somebody’s husband, wife, child, mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother, colleague, friend.

The imprints of the two World Trade Center towers were bigger than I pictured when my mom burst through my bedroom door eleven years ago where I was sleeping to tell me of the crash. Bigger because there’s nothing to fill them. Open, deep, and visible reminders of loss. Designed by architect Michael AradReflecting Absence is a suitable name for the memorial, as what do holes do? Remind us that something isn’t whole, that there is an absence that can’t be made present again.

How do you erect a monument to something that isn’t there anymore? How do you make present what is absent, without trivializing or ignoring the enormity of what was lost? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you let the absence speak for itself, which is what I think these fountains do well. Some have criticized the memorial for not offering hope, but I don’t think the holes are entirely devoid of hope. They’re filled with rushing water, a sound that never grows old, that never grows hopeless. There’s movement, there’s renewal, there’s maybe even a reflection in there as life stares back at life.

My friend and I left a different way than we entered. Out one gate and onto the street. That was it. As we crossed streets and were surrounded by soaring skyscrapers, people shouting, and taxis honking again, we looked back on the site, still unsure of how we got there. Some spaces are like this – they lose you in the best possible way.

New York, I am remembering your names today.