Presence Hidden Language

Scott reflects on one way we memorialize those who died on September 11, 2001, as we mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks.

MUSIC: “The Void Says Hi” by Doctor Turtle.

SCOTT: Two buskers are sitting on benches, facing each other, on either side of the mosaic circle that reads IMAGINE. They’re in Strawberry Fields, the Central Park memorial to John Lennon, and there are usually any number of visitors gathering. While there, tourists wait their turn to sit inside the black and white mosaic, taking pictures, singing along to the buskers playing songs by John or the Beatles or other songs of the time. 

MUSIC fades.

SCOTT: But right now, there aren’t many people at all. One of the buskers turns to the other and says, “Where is everybody? People must be downtown. It’s 9/11, right?”

It is. It’s September 11, 2011, the day that the 9/11 Memorial opens at the footprints of the World Trade Center, now filled with two reflecting pools and embraced by the names of those who died on that day in 2001: those who died at the site of the Pentagon; and at Shanksville, Pennsylvania; and at the towers themselves, from both the bombing in 1993 and the attack in 2001. 

But today in 2011, today is reserved for those families of the fallen, for the children who are mourning the loss of parents they had never met. And over the years, I’ve watched the televised reading of names, of those children reading the names of parents they never really knew — but they do now know in some way, in some way of memorializing them by speaking their names, giving them some presence right now, once more. Today honors them. 


SCOTT: You’re listening to Hidden Language — a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Scott Lunsford.

JAY: And I’m Jay Varner. Today, Scott reflects on one way we memorialize those who died on Nine-Eleven, as we mark the twentieth anniversary of the attacks.


SCOTT: From Strawberry Fields we can take a train to Rector Street in downtown Manhattan. 

MUSIC: “Kindness” by Edoy.

SCOTT: We walk and we see and we hear the footprints of the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, water falling from each, down into the chambers that once held the towers. We see 2,983 names, all etched in a bronze surface, around each pool. And we touch and we feel the names, and we see someone rubbing one of those names on paper — giving some presence to that person again. The pencil brushes along the paper, giving presence through letters and words. Taking away an imprint of the inscription honoring her or him or them.

Them. The loss of a mother-to-be and her unborn child. There are many inscriptions of them.

A few years later, a museum next to the pools will open. It’ll take visitors down an escalator, adjacent to an original staircase below ground, down to the chambers. But now, years before, there is a temporary museum above ground, a short distance from the site. Construction scaffolding down the street leads us there — it seems too industrial, too hard-hat, . . . 

MUSIC fades.

. . . too loud. It isn’t silent. It isn’t solemn. 

And as we move around one corner and enter the makeshift museum, we are asked — compelled, maybe — to think about that day and the hours after the attack. 

MUSIC: “Wind Chimes and Bells” by Almusic34.

That day, when loved ones took other forms of paper and posted them around the perimeter of the towers. Posters with pictures of their partner or their sister or their brother with a typed description of what that person was wearing that morning before she left for her job. She worked in Tower 2, on the 104th floor. That’s what the description on the poster says. It mentions the color of nail polish she was wearing. The writer of the poster, the partner or the brother or the sister — we don’t know who — someone who had not simply seen her that morning but had paid enough attention to note the color of her nail polish. Before she left for Tower 2, up 104 floors. And that partner or sibling or parent tried to give her attention again, to give her presence again through that sheet of paper, through that surface. And they posted it around town on other surfaces, on street signs and poles and fences and mailboxes.

But just as soon as it went up as a missing-person poster, it hung there as a makeshift memorial. Just as other posters did — just as other posters with the same attention to detail — what they were wearing, what tattoos and scars and facial hair and necklaces adorned their bodies before they left for work that morning. The posters became a way to remember — their purposes changed. From help me find her or him or them to honor her or him or them.

And here, now, in this small museum, we are asked — we are compelled — to see many of those same posters. These posters that later on had been collected from those useless street signs and poles and fences and mailboxes and now mounted onto this long blue wall that greets us as we walk into the temporary museum. There’s one poster here at the beginning. Just here, perhaps tilted in a way that brings out its own presence, tilted in a way that makes it more noticeable, or perhaps tilted to represent the chaos and disorder. And down the wall, just a few inches away, is another poster, tilted in its own way. And here’s another. And another. And as we move down the wall the single, tilted poster becomes two and four and eight and more and  posters and posters and posters, ascending and clambering and overlapping with one another until the description of each person meshes with others along the wall.

The posters themselves take on new meaning, new purpose — to memorialize, to remember. To give us pause and occasion to recollect. To re-member. To re-collect. Old definitions of remember trace back to these roots of member and collect. Of giving flesh again, of putting together — of giving a space in which we are asked, compelled, to come together ourselves, to collect our memories, to collect the description of one person on one poster with that of another next to it and next to it and next to it — a mosaic of memory on this long, blue wall. To again give presence to her.

And to him.

And to them.

MUSIC fades.


SCOTT: You’ve been listening to Hidden Language. Music for this episode was written by Doctor Turtle, Edoy, and Almusic34. Our theme music by Jay Varner.

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“The Void Says Hi” by Doctor Turtle. CC BY 4.0

“Kindness” by Edoy. CC BY-SA 4.0

“Wind Chimes and Bells” by Almusic34. CC BY 4.0

MUSIC: “The Void Says Hi” by Doctor Turtle.

MUSIC fades.


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