Stony Brook was one of 30 locations chosen by Governor Andrew Cuomo to host the “New York Remembers” exhibit. It is located in the Skylight Lobby of the Charles E. Wang Center and displays several artifacts from Ground Zero, including building fragments, pistol fragments, and an FDNY Ladder Panel. It also includes a 35 foot-long chronological timeline of the events that lead up to and followed the attacks on the World Trade Center. The exhibit will be open to the public throughout September, from 8 a.m until 8 p.m on weekdays and 2 p.m. until 8 p.m. on weekends. A Commemoration Ceremony was held on Monday, September 13th 2011 to honor the Stony Brook alumni whom we lost in the attacks.
When I was six, my grandfather gave me a rock. “But this isn’t just any rock,” he told me, “This is a piece of the rock of Gibraltar.” It was just a chunk of limestone, smoothed at certain edges, angular and sharp at others. But when my grandfather died, it’s one of the few things that meant anything to me.
Walking through the “New York Remembers” exhibition in the Skylight Lobby of Stony Brook University’s Wang Center, I am reminded of this rock by the many small artifacts collected from Ground Zero: building fragments, soot-covered keys, an aluminum mural of the Statue of Liberty marked in burnt-orange with the word “ok.”
So what is it that pushes us to find symbolism in hard objects, to find meaning in wreckage…to seek our lineage in battered iron and shards of glass? The 9/11 exhibit attempts to understand the impact of tangible objects on our understanding of history. It struggles to show how being able to touch allows us to be touched, to be moved and forever changed.
As I press my fingers against the cold, vermillion fire panel on display, I find myself able to trace the abrupt shift in mentality from “this can’t be happening” to “this happened.” I can almost sift through the godless, dystopian sketch of a national emblem reduced to jagged shambles and ash. I can navigate through the devastating web of actions that cost thousands of people their lives on September 11th, 2001.
Some say the World Trade Center was alive. It had a pulse, a heartbeat. The blood of thousands bustled through its veins every day and when it crumbled, so did our misguided sense of American immortality. “Before your eyes empires rise and fall,” Carly-Ann Gannon explained at the on-campus Commemoration Ceremony this past Monday, standing beneath the weaving brass of The Memorial Arch. The truth is, the Romans did not walk through majestic plazas thinking, “One day these will be ruins.” To think of disaster on that scope is almost crippling, it’s easier to believe that you are above it. And Democracy these days, if anything, allows us to do just that. It allows us to impart the blame on someone else. It allows us to say, “Well I didn’t vote, so I’m not responsible for the embittered resentment our great nation wrings from faraway lands.”
Then things happen and we don’t understand why. Our government moves within and without us and we don’t see it, we don’t know in what direction. But we should. If we are reminded of anything from 9/11 it is that we are always vulnerable to the consequences of our country’s actions. When you place your hand on the torn wing of an airplane, a tattered flag, remember not only the lives lost in 9/11, but also the lives lost on other days, in other wars: lives lost and still losing, still fighting.
There are the things we hold on to, the things we save: a photograph, a severed tooth, a cinder block. And then there are the things that have been laid to waste, things we can’t get back: time, buildings, lives. “Have we found peace?” asked Sister Sanaa Nadim at the Commemoration, as bees swarmed and sunlight beat and students just kept on walking by. In some tiny ways we have, but in so many ways we are still searching, still desperately scrambling.
New York remembers. We remember buildings that literally scraped the sky, so much so that when they came down they brought pieces of heaven with them, leaving gaps in the horizon. We remember infrastructures shattered, skeletons collapsed onto skeletons collapsed onto skeletons. We remember loss and mourning, faces and places, we remember names of people who can’t be here to remember with us as the pleated chords of “Amazing Grace” reverberate in our bones.
It’s why, to this day, I hold on to the “Rock of Gibraltar” given to me by my grandfather. It’s why concrete fragments of the Berlin wall still circulate around the world, carrying with them incomprehensible value. It’s why there, in the clear display case of the “New York Remembers” exhibit, is a speckled triangular slab of granite separated from the World Trade Center during the collapse. And yes, they’re just hunks of stone. But the hearts of those stones are engraved with answers, pumping with the unfailing optimism of humanity.