Sunday, July 9, 2017

Memory and Memorial: Come from Away and Villa

Photo: Play Co.
Guillermo Calderón's play Villa is about three women asked to resolve the impossible--how should they treat the remains of General Pinochet's demolished Villa Grimaldi, a notorious site of torture and rape in Chile. Should it be reconstructed?  Should a museum be built?  Should they do nothing and allow the gardens and reclaimed space by survivors remain?

Midway through the play I started to think of about the urban planning event I went to after 9/11 to talk about what New Yorkers wanted to do about the World Trade Center site.  I cannot remember who ran it or why it even happened.
It was a pie-in-the-sky kind of discussion (with a big budget--I recall digital buzzer thingys that we would indicate our votes with) because it made room for the possibility that the towers would not be rebuilt. Or maybe that is just my memory of it.

I was certainly of the mind that "absence" could be effective memorial.  Not rebuilding would keep the landscape in a way that would reflect how we had all been permanently changed.  I had no interest in sitting in a proposed park space or eating my lunch on a memorial bench.  At that time the idea that life should go on in that space seemed abhorrent to me. These were dark days and I was in somber thought over how I wished to remember.

Even the idea of remembrance was something I struggled with.  I recall a character in the Headlong production of Decade, a piece looking back at 9/11 ten years later, talking about not needing to "remember," because frankly no one would let her forget what had happened. Did a character say that?  Or was that just my memory of it?  Did that represent my feeling at the time, 10 years on.  

In the years since I have traveled to all sorts of memorials.  Auschwitz-Birkenau (oddly enough on 9/11/2008), the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, the Holocaust Museum in Berlin, the site of Hitler's bunker, the House of Terror in Budapest, the Holocaust memorials in Budapest, and the Peace Museum and Peace Park in Hiroshima.

How we memorialize has been something that has struck me as I've gone to these places.  It speaks to culture, the events at issue, and I imagine there was no "one" way that people thought any of these sites should be treated.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, an exhibition hall that survived the blast and was left as a shell, was debated.  Should it be torn down since it was a horrific reminder of the suffering?  Should it be preserved since it remained standing and represents strength and resolve?  They chose to keep it.

The Peace Museum and Peace Park in Hiroshima take so many different approaches.  There is no ignorance of the fact that Japan was at war but it does focus on civilian casualties and particularly the children killed or made ill by radioactivity.  There are abstract sculptures and personal testimony exhibits.  There are pieces of bodies and no shirking from the horror. There are dedicated monuments to different groups, including Koreans forced-laborers who fought for years to get their memorial and the memorial placed within the Peace Park.

The curated museum in Auschwitz felt all wrong to me and the abandoned, crumbling buildings of Birkenau II made memorial sense to me.  I wept in the open field where a marker said people had been killed.  I understood better in the open spaces than I could in the codified exhibits. 

Calderon's smart, funny, and dark play helpfully points out that trauma lives in all of us differently. We process our grief and pain through laughter, art, images, or abstraction.  There are contradictions that cannot be reconciled because there are people who will want to remember and people who will want to forget their personal pain and loss.  No one thing can serve all. 

And so my trepidation with the 9/11 adjacent musical Come from Away became a manifestation of that.  It is based on real people and true stories but it is not my story.  It is not how I wish to remember or memorialize the day.  And the warmth generated by some Canadians taking care of strangers felt oddly like it was negating the care and generosity of New Yorkers to their own at the same time.  (For even more disconnect I was flying to Canada on that day and let's just say no one was particularly nice to me in Canada). 

Yes the pain of 9/11 was felt beyond New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.  Everyone has a 9/11 story.  As I've traveled the world, many people voluntarily tell me theirs when they hear I am from New York.  I've struggled for a long time with who's story it is to tell and the weird possessiveness I sense when anyone tries to tell theirs.

In telling some stories, I tend to sense the absence of others.

My father was a firefighter and he and I had a very difficult relationship.  But we were never closer than right after 9/11.  For once we talked about his work and I needed to know what had happened to all those firefighters.

We attended the funerals of firefighters together in the immediate aftermath.  When one firefighter dies in the line of duty, it is a loss to the community of all firefighters.  So it is not uncommon that fire departments from many different places will come together to publicly mourn a firefighter who has been killed.  I was scheduled to meet my father in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral with his squad.

In a sea of faces and uniforms looking identical (a lot of white men with a particular mustache that my father favored his whole life) I worried that I would never find him. With the panic of a child lost at the mall, every man around me looked like my father.

My 9/11 memories are colored by the days after as much as the day of. 

In listening to the women in Villa debate different memorials I found myself wanting to vote with them.  I liked the do nothing or the empty field.  I like giving people space to have their own experience of memorial.  Without curation, guidance, or manipulation, I want my feelings to exist and be valid in the form they take.  

I cannot know the pain of the person sitting next to me.  Or how these spaces make them feel.  But I like to think we can each find our place when we have the choice. 


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