The Souls of Clouds-Part Two

  Before I settled into my critique of the New York Times, I want you to know that clouds figure into the story as a metaphor for ambiguity and deception. Clouds, even the loveliest of them, are guilty of being cloudy when it comes to meaning. I do not think clouds have an intrinsic meaning and therefore, it is up to each of us--meteorologist, accidental naturalist, or poet--to give them meaning. This does not mean we fully understand them.
    Clouds can also deceive or obnubilate meaning. Obnubilate means to cloud over, obscure, or darken. It is from the Latin ob (in the way) + nubilare (to be cloudy)--which is from nubes (clouds).
  It is our responsibility as readers to de-obnubilate--to clear away the clouds, to look behind the clouds, to understand the meaning of what we are reading. Had I not been studying clouds in nature for the past few years, I probably wouldn't be noticing how clouds are used in film and print media. Sometimes clouds are used in subtle ways to evoke happiness, the passage of time, a mystery, or a heavenly mattress. Other times, less subtly such as during last May's Rapture That Went Bust when some nice happy clouds were turned into menacing, churning, apocalyptic clouds through manipulation by time-lapse photography, color enhancement, and a very scary soundtrack. I am a little sensitive about our friends, the clouds. 
   Which is why, perhaps I was was ready to pounce on the New York Times on September 12. Which is why, perhaps, I took the photo of the Twin Towers in the clouds (above) for a birds-eye-view of the more familiar image of the Twin Towers in smoke (below).

   I felt tricked by the image and by the editors of the paper. I was curious about why the editors would have chosen such a low-quality image (enlarged from grainy 35-mm film) when they must have had access to thousands of more iconic, high-res images of 9/11. What were they up to? What did the inclusion of this photograph mean? What do the towers mean? What do the clouds mean? What does our memory of that horrific day mean? What was this bank of clouds hiding? Was the New York Times messing with me? With my curiosity bordering on suspicion, I began reading the special section, "The Reckoning: American and the World a Decade After 9/11." 
  I am sorry to say that the lead article, “Getting Here from There,” could have been subtitled  9/11 BFF.  I read it three times and can tell you that no one knows how to develop a long-term and meaningful relationship to 9/11. In the same way, teenage girls don’t want to do the work to maintain their friendships with other girls, unless you consider their using their cell phones to text “BFF” (Best Friends Forever) work.  
    The article, beautifully wrought by N.R. Kleinfield, was essentially a series of paragraphs composed of  meaningless phrases intended to make everyone in the country feel united again, the way we did in the wake of 9/11. 
   "It was called the saddest day in American history. It was called the worst day in American History."
   "People repeated the same thing: My life will be changed forever."
   "The memories remain fresh and overwhelming."
    "People shake their heads when they think back."
    A disaster psychologist is quoted: "Human history is full of tragedies, and within these tragedies, there is room for growth."
   Paragraphs in the article are dedicated to ordinary folk recalling exactly what they were doing when they “heard the un-heard of” (“They were on their way to teach music…sitting at a red light…getting  car loan…about to fill a lower-molar cavity…”) as if the very ordinariness of their lives should have guaranteed that nothing extraordinary would happen that day.
     This is an illogical but understandable human response, a fallacy of faulty cause and effect. It’s what causes us to blurt out, “But I saw him last week at the grocery store!” when we learn of the death of neighbor. Do we actually believe the person shouldn’t have died because he had been alive when we last saw him? Is this about us?
    Now I'm irked and need to push this a little further. The September 11th terrorist attacks killed thousands of people and left behind a group of grieving families and friends so enormous as to be inestimable. I think it accurate to say that everyone who witnessed the attacks in person or through the media was affected, some more seriously than others. Most of us, however, cannot directly connect ourselves to the victims or their loved ones. Nor can we connect ourselves to the World Trade Centers, the field in Shanksville, or the Pentagon—places most of us have never visited. 
    We grieve because we are connected to other people and other places through our humanity. But when we are done our grieving, when the faces are forgotten, the ruins are swept away, when the horrific events are compressed into a four-character symbol—9/11—and reduced to an iconic image of two towers, one plane, and one smoking gash, we have only this: the memory of a moment. That memory is of ourselves that morning—and what exactly we were doing the moment we first “heard the unheard of.” 
    What was I doing? I was cleaning my kitchen and listening to NPR on my clock-radio—my white Dream Cube that matched my white-tiled counters. I remember.
    Remembering what we were doing misses the harder question—what were we not doing? Outside my immediate family, I was not working to end hatred, terrorism, petroleum-based consumerism, pollution, war, greed, prejudice, extremism, jingoism, crime, disease, poverty, starvation, and the thousand ills that plague our planet. I was not working hard for social justice, tolerance, or peace. I did not start or join an interfaith group. Sure, I was nice to my neighbors and strangers alike, volunteered in the classroom and community, planted school gardens, showed up once at an Iraq war protest, voted in elections, and recycled. But I was doing that before 9/11. So were a lot of other people. Obviously it wasn’t enough.
    In fact, it is never enough. And neither is all of our remembering, pausing, honoring, in memoriamizing. What does it mean when, in the New York Times this same Sunday, twenty prominent Manhattan corporations (including Chanel, Calvin Klein, Tourneau, Brooks Brothers, Tiffany & Co, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and Lord & Taylor), each took out an "in memorium/advertisement" that was a 3 1/2 x 6 1/2 white space containing a short phrase--In Remembrance, Time Will Never Let us Forget, We Honor Those We Lost, We Pause to Remember, Together We Remember, We Will Never Forget, In Memorium, or similar sentiment? The ads appeared to be competing for title as most spare, most restrained, most respectful...most lacking in meaning. Only Macy's, bless its upbeat little corporate heart, suggested we remember and "give back, volunteer your time, lend a hand, thank a hero, thank of a friend, be a good listener." It took 3000 lives to get to advice we got in kindergarten? Some Reckoning.
    I was feeling agitated, furious, and semi-livid. I should probably have put myself in Time Out. 
    Instead I re-read N.R. Kleinfield's article. I hoped that my reaction to it would be different. It wasn’t. I did circle one paragraph, the only one that rang true for me: “Ultimately, each person attaches an individual meaning to 9/11, if possible. Outside of the families of the victims, most people’s lives may not present themselves as remarkably different. But there is residue, lingering wisps of Sept. 11.”
     This made me think of fog and clouds with wispy edges that evaporate as they roll across the sky. I wonder if we will find any meaning in the wisps of 9/11 before they vanish altogether. 
    I looked at the grainy photograph of the Twin Towers in the clouds again. I looked for meaning and found none. And then I picked up the Op-Ed section of the paper and found another ambiguous cloud. This one, it turned out, had a silver lining. 

     TOMORROW: The Soul of Clouds--Part 3