The Great Wall: A Remembrance
At some point during the aging process, it is said, each individual death becomes every death. You grow older, a relative dies, a friend dies, someone you work with dies, somebody somewhere dies. One way or another, Death is brought to your attention and then, by some alchemical process, confronting that specific instance of mortality triggers memories of every other death: your parents’, their parents’, your aunts’ and uncles’, the girl behind you in French class whose car slid out of control, the staff member who was found days after she’d collapsed in her kitchen, the retired colleague who lay down for a nap and never got back up. The specific gets swallowed up by the universal. Waves of grief rise and fall, ebb and flow, and before you know it, you’re in the Valley of Darkness, slogging along, alone.
For most of us, the grief eventually gives way and, without really noticing it, we find ourselves back in the daily grind, experiencing the everlasting indifference the living have for the dead.
Life does, indeed, go on, though at times it may seem nothing more than a roach-like life, one that skitters off and then takes flight into the darkness.
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is upon us. The memorial at Ground Zero has been furiously rushed to completion in time for today’s inaugural, surviving-family-members-only, ceremony. The goal, ostensibly, is to preserve the names of the thousands who died on what is surely the most consequential day in the history of the United States and to enshrine, as heros, those who were in the wrong place when the planes went in and the buildings came down.
I felt at the time and continue to feel ten years later that it was the day the nation, as such, chose to embrace fear, death, and grief as a way of life.
Other responses were possible, but the living called out for revenge on behalf of the dead–an eye for an eye; a formal policy of pre-emptive retaliation; battle plans named Shock and Awe and Infinite Justice; kill’em all and let God sort it out.
To be sure, I was as terrified as the next person in the immediate aftermath of the attacks–perhaps more so. I advised a colleague to drive home on back roads, in case planes fell out of the sky on the New Jersey Turnpike. I swore I’d never fly again. I stood in the central hallway of my office building and told the few students straggling in to go back to their dorms and wait for news. I walked home under that astonishingly blue sky, in a new world of silence: no honking, no hiss of traffic, no air traffic, save for the sudden screeching sound of the Air Force making its presence known. I sat my young girls on the steps and, with my wife, told them that something terrible had happened, but that we’d be OK.
The protective incuriosity of the youth shielded them from the initial experience. They disappeared and their parents watched the buildings collapse and collapse and collapse, never quite able to believe what their eyes kept telling them.
Within weeks, I was on a plane to a conference on the future of teaching. I spoke extemporaneously about a New Yorker cartoon where a man approached a ticket counter, saying, “I want to go back to September 10th.” My wife and I considered changing our plans to live overseas starting in the summer of 2002. We had the concerns of the privileged: we worried about getting to Europe, about travel after we were abroad, about anti-American sentiment, about putting our kids in danger.
Reason loosened terror’s grip. A determination to be optimistic about the future counter-balanced the round-the-clock news reports, which have continued uninterrupted up to this very instant, about the immanence of the next major attack, the next sleeper cell, the next conspiracy. We boarded the plane in Newark. The plane arced over where the Twin Towers had once been. And life went on.
Everyone knows The Great Wall of China. One of the seven wonders of the world. Building on a scale never since repeated. Look at how that ribbon of sweat and stone slices through the forested terrain, denying passage.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
Well, sort of knows it.
It turns out the Monument to Chinese Isolationism isn’t actually visible from outer space. It isn’t now, nor was it ever, continuous. But these minor details hardly distract from the ongoing, living impossibility of the Wall. Nearly four thousand miles of rammed earth, brick, and chiseled stone, piled into a guardable mass, protecting the tribes within for millennia, keeping fear at bay.
When I started teaching more than twenty years ago, I was assigned, and assigned to my students in turn, Walker Percy’s “Loss of the Creature,” where he insists, in a lastingly aggravating way, that it is virtually impossible to see the Grand Canyon. Percy’s argument is that, after you’ve driven across the country and stepped out of your car thinking you’re about to have an amazing experience, what you see is not the Grand Canyon, but your preconceptions:
It is almost impossible [to see the Grand Canyon] because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind. Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex, head on. The thing is no longer the thing as it confronted the Spaniard [Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, credited with its discovery in 1540]; it is rather that which has already been formulated by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon.
Percy has a surprising power to haunt his readers. He makes you doubt your own experiences. He makes you question your motives. Why am I dropping a quarter in this telescope? Is it to see the colors of the canyon? Or is it to go through the motions of looking at the canyon?
Smile. This is me having a life-changing encounter with the natural world.
Or. Smile. This is a picture of me seconds before I get back in the car and drive to the hotel, where I plop down on the bed and dial through the cable channels until I drift off to sleep.
It’s the same picture.
As it happens, through the kind offices of a number of remarkable people, I had the opportunity to travel to Beijing in the summer of 2006. The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continued, of course, as mere inconveniences to all Americans, save those directly involved in the conflicts. For your average American, the only evidence that a war was going on was the shoe-and-belt removing ritual at the airport. So, I took my shoes off in Newark, flew to L.A., and joined an extraordinary group of teachers heading to China for a conference on literacy.
Despite the day-long orientation in L.A., I wasn’t prepared for the sensory overload that came with actually being in Beijing.
When I was a sophomore in college, we read St. Anselm’s proof of the existence of God: God is that which nothing greater can be conceived. You get to God by exhausting your own sense of scale: the biggest thing you can think is smaller than God. This recursive mental activity produces, over time, a sense of awe. Not “awesome,” which is now used indifferently to describe everything from going to class to getting out of bed to unleashing a carpet bombing campaign on the cradle of civilization, but awe–an encounter with the very limits of human understanding, a scaling out to the unscalable realms of the eternal, the infinite, the unknown.
I don’t mean to suggest that I felt, at any time, that just by being in Beijing I had been placed in the presence of something divine. To the contrary, to the extent that I’ve ever had a glimpse of something in this realm, it has always manifested as being at the furthest extreme from the giganticness Anselm invokes–in the evanescent and the ephemeral, in the narrow compass of human community, as when a band of strangers embarks on an adventure together.
In essence, I’ve gone the long way round the barn to say that, from the moment we landed in the Shanghai airport to change planes and found ourselves in a building that seemed to have no outer limits, I felt I couldn’t begin to comprehend the scale of what architects call “the built environment.”
I should have prefaced all of this by saying I have travelled a fair amount, but the scale. The scale! Everywhere. The traffic. The smog. The masses of people. The number of bicycles. The restaurants. (Party of two hundred? Right this way!) The populated distances. The campus, where the library was, as measured in square feet, larger than the entire United States and you needed an airplane to get from one section of the card catalogue to the next.
“Le silence eternel des ces espaces infinis m’effraie.”
Pascal’s fear is not mine; I’m not turning to his most cited phrase now because it captures what it was like to sit on our tour bus and move slowly along the packed highways of Beijing. Rather, it’s the productive tension between the economy of Pascal’s eight word statement and the lasting significance of the destabilizing encounter with space on an unthinkable scale he describes that gets at the experience I’m trying to point to. As everything gets bigger; you get smaller and smaller. And yet, as you try to re-map yourself into this new cartography, the disorientation of shrinking to the vanishing point produces thoughts and feelings that grow and become disproportionately intense, vivid, electric.
There was one gal who hadn’t travelled with the forty or so of us to Beijing. Met us there, having taken some other route. Spent time in the country. I didn’t quite follow it all: I was only just getting to know the others in the group, so she was another unfamiliar face, among many.
The Tour Leader who was responsible for chartering the whole trip had never dealt with educators before and she didn’t know what to make of the group’s general desire to explore without being chaperoned, to have unstructured, unscheduled time. With each passing day, she grew increasingly aggravated with us, lecturing us on the necessity of obedience and insisting upon following her lead. I can’t speak for all of the folks on the trip, but I know that a number of us ended up feeling pulled back to a model of human understanding more appropriate for high school, where everyone was simultaneously colluding to avoid being chastised by the angry authority figure at the front of the room and trying to find ways to sneak out of class without a hall pass and have some fun. While there was good reason to keep on a tight leash during the conference, this reasoning made less sense as we settled into the cultural immersion part of the trip.
Jen had even less patience for the Tour Leader than (we) Elders did. So, as the tour was coming to an end and it was time for the grand finale excursion to The Great Wall, she made plans to go to a different part of The Wall and to get there using public transportation.
How can the sightseer recover the Grand Canyon?
. . . It may be recovered by leaving the beaten track. The tourist leaves the tour, camps in the back country.
I’ll confess to being honored to being invited to join Jen and two other young men her age who were getting to The Wall by other means. Jen had done all the research for how to get off the beaten track: she knew which part of The Wall we should head out for; where the subway was; which line to take to get all the way across the city to the massive bus depot; which bus to take to the next depot; how to barter for the next link to our target destination.
With three guys in tow, Jen was the alpha-dog, enjoying the adventure, confident that everything would work out, even though we didn’t have a syllable of functional Chinese to share between the four of us.
And, sure enough, after traveling for hours, after having been seemingly left in the middle of nowhere, we got a cab, which drove for another hour and dropped us at the entryway to what was billed as the most spectacular section of The Great Wall within a day’s drive of Beijing.
What Percy terms “the creature”–i.e., a direct, unmediated, unprepackaged encounter with experience–was within reach.
We cut through the corn, climbed past the pine, edged up next to The Wall, pulled ourselves through an opening, headed towards the “best spot.”
Of course, there’s a paradox in following directions to go off the beaten path to see what has been recommended as the best spot off the beaten path, but this is part of Percy’s larger point about how elusive “the creature” is now that the world has been so thoroughly mapped, photographed, travelled, and documented. If you’re going to get at the creature at all, you’ve got to move through paths defined by paradox and contradiction.
A sign greeted us at the entranceway: the “best spot” was reserved for filming for that day and on into the distant future. It was perfect, in its own way: access to reality denied by order of the movie industry!
The creature high-tailed it over the furthest crest, cackling.
Getting off the beaten path isn’t the only way to see the Grand Canyon, though. Percy includes the possibility presented by disappointed expectations:
It may be recovered as a consequence of a breakdown of the symbolic machinery by which the experts present the experience to the consumer. A family visits the canyon in the usual way. But shortly after their arrival, the park is closed by an outbreak of typhus in the south. They have the canyon to themselves. What do they mean when they tell the home folks of their good luck: “We had the whole place to ourselves”?
We head in the other direction. It may not be the best spot, but how bad could it be?
What is the point of The Wall, really?
We walk and walk, each step made possible by labors unimaginable.
Who mourns the nameless millions who made The Wall?
We marvel at The Wall’s existence. At the vistas. At the very fact that we are doing this, together. We offer praises to Roy Fox and Martha Townsend for making the trip possible. We talk to the desperate people who yammer next to us, every step of the way. We buy their water, their post cards, their good will, our peace of mind.
The Great Wall: once you’re on it, how do you get off?
It goes on forever, a ribbon to eternity.
No two steps are alike.
There’s no rhythm. No settling in.
Each moment is a bone-jarring introduction into the startling reality of the next moment.
For as far as the eye can see.
I have no idea how far we’ve walked or for how long. The Mongolian woman who had been walking with me for the first hour or so, telling me a story of unimaginable suffering, is long gone. When we crest and pass through one of the abandoned guard houses, sometimes there is someone to sell us water, sometimes not.
I’m the oldest and I think, one foot in front of the other, forcing up, slowing down, that this is not such a bad place or time to die. In the prime of life. On one of the world’s wonders. Why not?
But I am just tired and I don’t want the day to end. There will never be another like this one for me and I know it.
Ahead, there’s a spur on the other side of a footbridge.
It doesn’t seem like much. Just get down to the bridge. Get off The Wall. Scoot down the mountainside. Find a cab. To the mini-bus. To the bus. To the subway. To the hotel.
It is, literally, all down hill. To the bridge and down, down, down, to the camp where there are cabs for hire.
But I’m really feeling my age, which by this point I figure is at least equal to the age of the universe, if not older. We’re all sun-baked and wobbly, feeling the bridge sway beneath us.
And then, suddenly giddy, discovering that there’s a zip cord down to the car park.
I’m ready to leave the ground, hang above the water, weightless and free.
I am ready to fly.
I land on the dock below and prepare to take pictures as the rest of the team zips down.
We return to the hotel and trade stories of our adventures with the rest of the group. Forty-eight hours after that, we all have been dropped back into our respective lives.
And then six years later, last week, the news that Jen had died. Violently. In her own home. At the hands of another.
Jennifer L. Wilson was committed to elementary education, was a teacher of teachers, was a spark. I knew her for less than two weeks, spent one memorable day walking with her on The Great Wall, and feel this profound loss, even though I had no expectation of our paths ever crossing again. I can only imagine what her passing means for her community, her students, her friends. She had that rarest of human talents–she made things happen.
On 9/11, which might best be termed the National Day of Reaction, I think again of our walk along The Great Wall, breached and broken by the inexorable passage of time, the one-time impregnable line of defense in steep decline, now nothing but a tourist site.
Time does not heal all wounds; it simply outlives them and then doesn’t even take note when the wounds are gone. When did we stop feeling the raw pain of December 7th? When did those who survived the bombings on August 6th and August 9th let go the memories of those days? When will those targeted by drones, those driving the wrong mountain road, those attending the wrong wedding, those shopping in the wrong crowded bazaar, the nameless ones congregating at places without names: when will they forget being present at the very moment the business of the everyday turned to tallying the day’s casualties?
The first step down the path towards peace comes by way of trying to see the world through the eyes of another. Ten years ago, the nation’s leaders, democrat and republican, liberal and hawk, united in committing us to a future of fear, with the blind and unrealizable goal of exacting revenge on the unnamed, uniformless forces arrayed against modernity.
Can we step off this path and start anew?
I’d like to think so.
A single column version of this post may be found here.