For me, autumn is the season of association. Perhaps, it’s in its ghostliness, in its smoky, leafy Halloween flavors that remembering becomes important. I’m really not sure. I only know that today, when I inhaled that first crisp earthy hint of autumn in the air, I began to remember.
For most Americans, remembering in autumn means lingering on the autumn of September 11, 2001. I remember, particularly, that I was studying abroad in London, shoving my way toward a better view of Queen Victoria’s portrait in Buckingham Palace when security guards escorted our group out onto the lawn, and my sister and I squeezed clammy hands and waited for news of our family, of our country. I remember riding the Tube to class across the city and feeling shame for fearing everyone, the old man and the teenage boy, the woman whose eyes were cast down on the gritty subway tile. I remember huddling in a hotel lobby on Bedford Square, the smell of taxi exhaust and street vendors roasting chestnuts wafting through the open window, while professors weighed the dangers of our class meeting in a threatened area of the city.
Mostly, I remember not knowing how to reconcile my existence in what seemed like two very disparate worlds. There were the smooth arching corridors of The British Museum through which I walked and gawked each week. And there was the rubble of the World Trade Center blaring across every paper and screen. There were the extremists fleeing London to join the Taliban. There was the kindness of British strangers who, upon hearing an American accent, would draw near to touch our shoulders, tear up, and offer condolences.
As is often the case for me, a poem offered me another way to think about the world:
Try to Praise the Mutiliated World by Adam Zagajewski
Try to praise the mutilated world. Remember June's long days, and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine. The nettles that methodically overgrow the abandoned homesteads of exiles. You must praise the mutilated world. You watched the stylish yachts and ships; one of them had a long trip ahead of it, while salty oblivion awaited others. You've seen the refugees going nowhere, you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. You should praise the mutilated world. Remember the moments when we were together in a white room and the curtain fluttered. Return in thought to the concert where music flared. You gathered acorns in the park in autumn and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. Praise the mutilated world and the gray feather a thrush lost, and the gentle light that strays and vanishes and returns.
Christianity’s most universally recognizable image, the crucifix, embodies how horror and mercy, evil and goodness can be nailed together in the same mind-blowing frame. We live in a world in which “executioners sing joyfully,” a world with exiles and ships that sink into “salty oblivion.” And we live, too, in a world of “wild strawberries”, where we must remember when “we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered.” Zagajewski’s poem offers a view of a difficult world, a mutilated world in which violence and beauty often linger near one another, as well as a world which has the capacity to astonish the careful witness with the way the “gentle light … strays and vanishes / and returns.”