The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 11, 2006


Grief and Inspiration

for the Commentary page

By Teresa Leo
In all my trips to New York City, I'd never seen the Twin Towers up close. Since Sept. 11, I have visited New York, but still hadn't been to the World Trade Center site. I'd seen images on TV that seemed distant, unreal, out of time and place. Though I grieved with the rest of the country, my life went on.

That is, until this past Labor Day weekend, when I visited Ground Zero.

When I emerged from the Chambers Street subway station, right at the site, I was met with the whipping winds and heavy rains from the outer bands of Tropical Storm Ernesto. I was immediately swept into a crowd of several hundred people who were milling about or pressed against the fence, angling for a view. I made my way over and got my first look.

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind -
As if my Brain had split -
I tried to match it - Seam by Seam -
But could not make them fit.

Words vanished. I was reminded of Anderson Cooper trying to describe New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He said watching on TV was like looking through a straw limited by the scope of the camera. If I tried to explain what I saw at Ground Zero, I might say vast and steel and concrete, but language is inadequate. I asked fellow onlookers to describe what they felt and words like overwhelmed, stunned and surreal were repeated. I was struck by our inability to articulate our feelings.

I followed several people across the street to St. Paul's Chapel, both to seek shelter from the relentless storm and to visit the place that served as a volunteer relief ministry for recovery workers at Ground Zero. This chapel, built in 1766, not only withstood the Great Fire of 1776 but also remained intact after 9/11, with not a single pane of glass broken in either tragedy. Here, I thought, I would find some words of comfort or explanation.

what is it
they say can turn even this into wisdom
and what is wisdom if it is not
in the loss that has not left this place

The sign at St. Paul's said it's a place of "unwavering hope and healing, providing sanctuary and extending community." This small but beautiful building lived up to that description. Whereas across the street words were difficult to muster, here they were plentiful - on banners that hung from the balcony, on a giant scroll where visitors could leave messages in crayon, on the memorial altar that held mementos "to make real, individual, and personal the devastation and loss."

What I found at this little chapel was a quiet solace, a place, like other memorial sites - at the Pentagon, in Shanksville, Pa. - that bear testimony to the way people come together, that bring comfort when language breaks down and words fail.

During my time in the chapel there was a memorial service where we said prayers for peace, love, compassion and unity.

Buoyed by the service, I was ready to head back across the street. I wanted to walk the entire periphery of Ground Zero.

To live is to build a ship and a harbor
at the same time. And to complete the harbor
long after the ship has sunk.

As I walked in the pouring rain, I viewed the enormous efforts that have gone into honoring those who were lost and showing our nation's ability to rebuild and renew. Only five years later, the new Tower 7, which stands 52 stories, is complete; the World Financial Center has been restored; and work is under way on the memorial site at the heart of Ground Zero.

On Liberty Street, which bounds Ground Zero on the south, a large crowd was gathered in front of the Engine 10-Ladder 10 Firehouse, and in the middle of the crowd was Firefighter First Grade John Morabito, who had served during and survived 9/11. He often speaks to people who visit the site, both to help them and to answer questions, but also to help himself heal by talking about his comrades who were lost.

I asked him what he wanted people to know as we approach the fifth anniversary. "Never forget what happened," he said, "but also know that we as a nation are resilient, and that we're still open for business."

Back at the front of the site where I began my walk, I was thoroughly drenched from the rain, but also saturated with a feeling of how, in the end, it's the people that matter. Whether it's a firefighter helping others heal or those who risked their lives on Sept. 11 or people who leave anonymous messages like the one I saw on a wall on the street: "I was here; we are with you all."

I am lighter:
in front of strangers I sing.

Just as I was about to head down to the subway, a group of Mennonites from Lebanon County, Pa., formed at the top of the stairway and began singing "Amazing Grace." One of their members told me they take a bus to Ground Zero every couple of months just to sing, to spread the message of peace and hope.

What started out for me as a day of feeling small against something large and overwhelming became its inverse - I was empowered by the masses of people, strangers who, like me, had come to ground zero on a stormy day to understand, pay tribute, and connect in some palpable way. I came as one but left as many, carrying with me the spirit of this place and the people who, in the face of a great tragedy, demonstrate compassion and embody the power of hope.

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -


© 2006 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.