Okay, so I'm thinking some more about this. I talked to my mom, who shared that there were a few moments of silence at her school and throughout the day, but... um, yeah. You know what never really occurred to me before? I mean.. Yeah, it did, but it's sinking in in a new way tonight.
Every town around here lost people on 9/11. Lots and lots of people. So every town has a memorial. Most of them are made out of twisted steel from Ground Zero. Every high school has one. Every town hall. Most parks. They are completely and totally ubiquitous. Other towns around the country? Not so much. I know there are, of course, memorials at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., but I'm really in the thick of it here.
So if the pledge of allegience, a prayer, one verse of "America the Beautiful," and reading the names of people from my county who perished (followed punch 'n' cookies) seems completely inadequate to commemorate the sheer scope and loss of the tragedy, and 24-hour coverage reminding people minute by minute of the worst experience of their lives feels overwrought at best and exploitative at worst... what is an appropriate tribute? How can we commemorate 9/11 with dignity? How can we achieve that balance?
I can show up. I can be with my coverage communities in good times and in bad. I can reflect their pain back to them in photographs. I can say, "This happened. This matters. You have been seen and heard in your grief and in your anger, and you are not alone."
But you know what? My most meaningful tributes to the lives lost can't be scheduled for every second week of September. They can't be planned at all.
A few weeks ago, we covered a scandal at a local mosque. It was the sort of scandal that could happen in any organization, any religion. The president of the mosque made some bad budgeting choices. Then, he refused to disclose financial records, which made members of the Islamic society angry. Then he fired the imam- the pastor, if you will- without consulting the executive board. To round out his astonishingly bad choices, he changed the locks without telling anyone, including the teachers and counselors who run a summer day camp for children at the house of worship.
The day camp folks showed up, and found that they have no way to get into the air-conditioned classrooms, let alone bathrooms for the dozens of kids whose parents were counting on the day camp for childcare. The mosque remained locked through Friday, Islam's day of worship.
This is where I come in. I went out to Friday services with a reporter. We photographed women and children carrying signs and umbrellas, while the men prayed and heard a sermon in the parking lot. It was pouring rain. Since the regular iman had been fired, a leader from another mosque filled in for Friday services.
It seems important to note that different mosques serve different communities with different ideologies. Just as Greek Orthodox Christian churches largely serve families of Greek heritage, and Southern Baptist Churches differ from Metropolitan Community Churches in terms of conservatism and politics. It's the same with mosques. The locked mosque mostly serves families of Middle Eastern heritage. The imam who was filling in comes from an Islamic Center rooted in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and draws from the legacy of Malcom X.
As my colleague and I start to film, photograph and interview, the rain really picks up. I watch the reporter, my friend, a practicing Hindu who wears the most fantastic saris to the annual company holiday party, gratefully accept a plastic poncho from one of the Muslim women. I think about places in the world where Hindus and Muslim clash in ways that make the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland look like bosom buddies.
The guest imam speaks to my camera about the injustice of locking people out of God's house, sounding for all the world like Louis Farrakhan. I stop the interview briefly to allow an elderly man pass us after finishing his Friday prayers. The elderly man nods and acknowledges us in a traditional way: "Salaam aleykum" ("peace be with you") and I respond in kind ""Wa-aleykum a salaam" ("and also with you"). The guest imam seems surprised. He blesses me and calls me, poster girl for chubby white women everywhere, a sister. Me! Chubby white woman! I'm touched.
I pull a red bandanna out of my camera bag to wipe the rain from my gear, a bandanna given to me by the mother of Welles Crowther. Welles died on 9/11 after saving numerous lives in the World Trade Center. (I've written about him before. You can also watch this). He held a red bandanna over his mouth and nose to protect himself from the smoke as he helped injured people to safety. He was a volunteer firefighter who used his training six years ago today. His body was found with FDNY firefighters in what was a command center in the South Tower. They made him an honorary FDNY firefighter after his death.
As I wipe the wetness from my cameras, I think about Welles' sacrifice. I do this whenever I use the bandanna. It's a talisman for me, a token I reach for before approaching grieving families, but I've also used it to hold back my hair and mop up Diet Coke in my car.
Just then, a fire engine screeches down the street, stopping at a warehouse nearby. (An automatic smoke detector was on the fritz. False alarm.) A militant black man has just asked Allah to bless me. I see my Hindu co-worker smiling warmly and thanking a Muslim woman, their matching nose rings glinting in the rain. I marvel at the pluralism in my community, at the connections across cultures, at the tolerance in action.. I tuck the bandanna back into my bag and whisper, "Thanks, Welles." As the fire engine's siren blares, I imagine I hear a response in its whine: You're welcome.
And THAT'S how I commemorate 9/11.
Now... Who wants some punch 'n' cookies? :)