Notes From An American Abroad in Melbourne, Australia
A Few Days After September 11, 2001
Yesterday we took the tram out to the American consulate on St. Kilda Road here in Melbourne. Several other people got off the tram at the same time and walked in the same direction. You could see the building from the intersection, a modern low rise building, modest architecture, unremarkable except that people were walking around the small pattern of box hedges that marked the front entrance and which bloomed with bouquets of cut flowers in paper wrappings, with plants and sprays of roses, with candles and cards and letters printed and written on red, white and blue papers and addressed to the American people from the people of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. “Our hearts are with you,” “You are in our prayers,” “We send our love.” I watched a young teenage girl leave her mothers side to put a bouquet of daisies on the ground at the foot of the massed flowers and I went over to speak to her: “Excuse me,” I said, , “but as an American who feels very far from home right now,” and the tears started again, “I just wanted to say thank you very much.” I felt a touch on my arm and turned to see her mothers wet eyes as she smiled at me and said, “That’s OK.
That clock radio clicked on at 5:00AM that first morning and there was heard a segment of the first press conference held by the Mayor of New York. It made no sense at first; then facts filtered in, contexts drew lines, and there was a wavering instant when you hoped that it was some kind of fictional radio drama, “Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds,” but this was all true.
Two jets crashed into the twin towers of the 110 story World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. First one and then a second plane crashed into the towers, flames and fuel spilling into and through and down the building, trajectories and shards of wreckage and bodies falling down into the streets of New York like fireworks, and then the buildings themselves pancake down to the ground and thousands are killed. At the same time another plane flies into the Pentagon - 800 estimated killed - and a fourth plane crashes in a Pennsylvania wood, perhaps in an aborted attempt to crash into the White House. More deaths, and more waiting to see what is next.
After the 7:15AM Mass, which turns into a requiem, we spend the rest of the morning in dumb witness in front of the television. Most of the local broadcasting is curtailed as CNN, CBS, ABC, beam in directly from the east coast of the US with more news and pictures, the same pictures from different angles, over and over again, as the death toll rises, as suspicion points to a fundamentalist in Afghanistan. The day goes on and the flags over the Parliament building next door go to half mast, a report comes that people are putting flowers at the doors of the American consulate which has closed for the day, a service is scheduled at the Anglican Cathedral. I worry that I will cry too hard in public and be unable to stop.
Where does this begin and where will it end? Where does God meet all this? In the sad and angry tears of people left behind? In the graceful acts of courage, reconciliation, redemption: the firemen walking into the collapsing building, the doctor with a face dusted like a shroud continuing to care for the wounded and dying? In the dying victims: the two month old child carried by his father on the plane, the same father who decided to stop the hijackers, who in turn believed that this was Gods will for them? In the chaplain killed in giving the last rites to another victim. In the widespread pain of people waiting for word of a partner, a child, a parent, a friend, waiting and perhaps praying across this little fragile linked up world where we all are nerved together in the shocking light of this new holocaust. What does God mean here?
Perhaps the answer to all this is only in the attention, the listening, the very surrender necessary in prayer. Maybe there some peace is found; not certitude, not any kind of answer except that maybe God is big enough to reconcile all this somehow. There may be such love over all. But that does not ease.
In the afternoon my friend John and I drive to a meeting in Gembrook, a new retreat center an hour away from Melbourne. The people there have just gotten the news on the radio and want to talk about it, but I can’t hear more and go out for a walk on the grounds. John joins me after awhile and soon Tom, another trustee of the place, comes down the hill from the main house, crying hard himself, and the three of us end up sitting on a fallen log at the edge of the vegetable garden, empty now at the end of a dry Australian winter, and the beginning of an uncertain spring, and after some more talk and tears we end in silent prayer again.
And I remember what happened in December 1986, when an American plane flew into a mountaintop in Greenland the week before Christmas and several hundred people were killed. I was the acolyte at the midweek Eucharist at a local parish, nobody else was attending, I asked the celebrant if this Mass could be dedicated for those killed earlier in the day. And as the service went on I knew - could almost see - that they, the dead, were there; the very same ones who had been ripped out of the sky were somehow with us, that (and this is very hard to write) there was a tear in the world and the people who died could see us through the torn fabric of the cosmos, and could take comfort, solace, nourishment in our prayer, pain, remembering of connection with them, even though that very awareness came at the time when the connection was lost. And I knew with deep certitude that they were being fed with our tears, and that what we were doing and feeling mattered and made sense on a greater level than I had understood before.
Thursday we went to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The building was crowded and we sang Amazing Grace, and there were readings of Paul at his best from Romans and the Twenty third Psalm and the Beatitudes from Matthew and then the Consul General spoke briefly about how touched he was by all the flowers and tributes placed in front of the American consulate by the people of Melbourne. And at the end a soloist sang, American the Beautiful: “Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.” And so many of us cried for what had been lost and what we held dear and for what we didn’t know. And then we took the tram out to the consulate and I saw the little girl and the flowers.
After that John and I walked to the Botanical Gardens a few blocks further on St. Kilda Road. We stopped at the Shrine of Remembrance on the way, a memorial for the dead of WW1 and WW2, a tall stone building with plaques and books open to the names of people who died in Europe and the Pacific, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Far East: all the places of heroism and holocaust, places where the best and the worst of human nature was seen. From the balcony on the upper floor you can see the skyline of Melbourne and the water of Port Philip Bay, and at the foot of the monument, the eternal flame for the Royal Australian Air Force, and a small statue of a man leading a donkey loaded with a wounded soldier. The mans name was Simpson and he and the donkey tended to the wounded and dying in the midst of the battle of Gallipoli in WW1, taking water to the troupes and bringing back the wounded from the front lines for several weeks until they too were killed.
And I know that we do not need more wounded soldiers, we do not need another donkey carrying the victims of war and hatred and violence. We do not need to seek vindication of any kind. We have been there, we have done that, it does not work.
We walked into the Botanical Garden around three in the afternoon on this early spring day. Trees and flowers are starting to bloom, the weather was fine and across the pond from the tea house there was a wedding with a bride in white, men in dark suits, women in big flowered hats. Outside of the tea house we spoke to a man with three shy, grinning greyhounds named Bill, Ernest, and Wilma. In the line to be served a family in front of us - a grandmother, father and two sons around 10 and 12 - were making jokes about how much tea and how many cookies they could eat. We took our food and went to sit on the terrace outside overlooking the pond and it was a very peaceful place.
Listen: there is no reason to hate, there is no profit in anger, there is no glory in inflicting death or in dying for that matter. There is too much to love, too much to lose, too many who are worth far too much. And all we can do is keep the world open, keep our hearts open for the wideness of Gods mercy, for the depth of our connection to one another, to the constant surprise rising up of the fragility and the strength of love which does endure and will succeed. And this is heartbreaking work, but it must be done, so that we can remember again and again, how much there is to lose, how much to gain.