Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Flies, Lightning & The Difference a Minute Can Make

'Haste is good only for catching flies' or so the Russian proverb says so needless to say I did not catch any of flies that seemed intent on being my travel companions yesterday. It seemed they were drawn to us all day, those minor annoyances buzzing by our ears, landing on our food, intent on proximity for reasons I can never know. I spent the morning trying to escape them and, admittedly, allowing them to alter my mood. Silly but true. 
Oklahoma City was sweltering even at 8 a.m. and so Carolyn and I decided to head downtown early to see the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial before the sun became too oppressive. The city itself felt abandoned with few people walking about and only minimal traffic. The city streets stretched before us almost void of other vehicles and the heat seemed to rise off of them in sullen waves. The people we did see were friendly and eager to offer assistance and moved with a slow assurance that is becoming increasingly admirable to me. 
The remains of Murrah Federal building are flanked by churches and as you explore the memorial, the steeples hover in the distance. I was struck first by the entrance and it's simplicity. The staunch black wall stands against the city skyline broken only by the light that flows through the egress and the quote about the door reminds those who enter not only of the people who died there but also of the people who lived and of the survivor's struggle to rebuild their lives in the wake of an act of explosive violence. 
One of the many things I loved about this memorial was that it honored survivors as much as it honored those who lost their lives and in doing so recognized that wounds inflicted by violence are enduring and while we may physically walk away from violence the emotional scars are far often more difficult to manage than the ones visible to the outside world.

As I walked the grounds of the memorial I was struck by the beauty that has risen from the ashes. A place once soaked in blood and littered with twisted metal and concrete has emerged a verdant field where empty chairs face a reflecting pool as an homage to all those families who will forever have empty seats at their tables as a result of a few radicals and their twisted ideological war against the government. The chairs line the footprint of the Murrah building and among them are nineteen smaller chairs, a striking reminder that among the casualties where nineteen children. It is a moving sight and as spectacular as it is saddening.  

The memorial itself is flanked by two doorways, one marked 9:01 and the other 9:03, the space between marks the moment the bomb exploded, the instance when the world changed forever for the people in that building, their families and the consciousness of America. In the immediate wake of the bombing, as people and dogs dug for survivors the speculation was that a foreign terrorist group had done this but in time the terrible truth that the extremism was homegrown became clear. As I stood there I could not help but consider the current political climate, its divisiveness and heightened rhetoric and wonder if we've forgotten the dangers from within. 

There was one part of the site that I found particularly powerful and it was not designed by an artist but a spontaneous proclamation by a someone working in the rubble of the building and it reads like a despairing call to salvage some sense of order and justice. Even in the midst of chaos human beings are driven to create order and understanding. 

Leaving Oklahoma City I felt the repercussions of that one minute when the world changed and I could not help but think of the scars closer to my home and how 10 years after 9/11 New York City has yet to physically turn Ground Zero into a monument to human bravery and a testament to the American will to survive. 

While Oklahoma City was struck by man-made lightning, as we drove through New Mexico its horizon was ablaze with the kind I am at least a bit more familiar with. All through New Mexico Carolyn and I struggled to capture in a photograph those moments when the horizon would ignite with singular strikes that were both awe-inspiring and frightening. Between us we must have snapped over a hundred photos but we were never able to capture a single strike on 'film'. The combination of the open plains, the clouds that came down in streams and seemed to tether themselves to the terrain and the explosive presence of the rumbling heavens made me feel tiny and yet offered me a largess that was enchanting. Like Alice I grew and shrunk in only a few instants. Eventually we turned, as humans do, to a simpler solution that was available and overlooked the entire time and captured it on video.

We ended our day driving through across the desert chasing lightning, beneath the open sky raging in the distance, the brush of tragedy still stinging our skin, we arrived in Santa Fe with an understanding of how much a difference a minute can make, the power of place and how silly it is to raise a sword to battle a fly. 

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