Tim and I have never re-posted anything on Hedgehogs Without Borders. But because today is the 10th anniversary of September 11th, we wanted to re-share a story I wrote for the 4th anniversary in 2005. (The original post was named "A Day of Reflection," but other than the minor title edit I've made, what comes below is unchanged from the first publishing.)
At the time I wrote this story, we were in Madrid, Spain and we were about a third of the way through our 18 month round-the-world trip. The sky that morning in Madrid was a gorgeous clear blue – that same gorgeous clear blue that I remember so clearly on that day in 2001 when our hearts broke. Waking up today, ten years later, in our little cottage on Cape Cod the sky is still a gorgeous clear blue. And our hearts still hurt. But every year we honor this day by thinking of all our friends and families around the world, by sending them love, and by being forever thankful to have them in our lives.
And so it is that we come to share this story with all of you today. And, as I mentioned in the original post: don't worry, it's not just about art...
My first year out of college I worked for a quirky little-known art education museum called The Barnes Foundation. The Barnes Foundation was founded in 1922 by an eccentric man named (wait for it) Dr. Barnes.
Dr. Barnes was a self-made man. Having grown up in Kensington, a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, he struck luck when he developed a medicine called Argyrol, a medicine that helped cure eye problems common in children. And with his money, Dr. Barnes started investing in art and eventually amassed a collection that to this day is in the top 10 of private collections all over the world.
It’s at this point that his story strays onto a path that one wouldn’t expect. You see, Dr. Barnes wasn’t a fan of the art critics and the art schools that taught you what you should see when you looked at a painting. He wasn’t a fan of the snobbery that often accompanies the art world. And he wasn’t a fan of “right” or “wrong” when it came to art, he was just a fan of art.
He was also a fan of the common man. So much so that in his factories he hung priceless works – Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, and so on – and he even allowed his workers to take pieces home and hang them in their own living rooms, many of which were in his old poor neighborhood. And he absolutely prohibited the wealthy, the privileged, and those from the art world to view his gallery. Instead, he allowed entrance only to those without means and decreed in his will that the price of admissions should never rise above the minimum wage.
Dr. Barnes had a theory that if you gathered all sorts of people into a room – people from different backgrounds, races, economic classes, religions – if you gathered them all in the room and presented them with a painting and just asked them what they saw, what they felt, without all the crap about “impressionism” and “surrealism” and whatever else anyone “in the know” would know how to say…he thought if you gathered them all together and just had them talk that eventually all of these different people would see they actually had something to talk about. That they could, in fact, talk about something together. That they could, in fact, relate to one another in spite all of their differences otherwise.
Dr. Barnes hoped that if you got that many different people in a room and they saw they could talk about art…well, that they might start thinking they could talk about other things too, like politics and religion and education.
While Tim and I were waiting an incredibly long eight hours at the airport in Quito for our flight to Madrid, we met a lovely couple from Israel, Ron and Tal. After joking and laughing for almost four of those hours together, the topic of violence in the Middle East came up. Tal told us what it’s like to grow up in Israel, how she’s used to seeing on the news each day how a Palestinian blew up this and an Israeli blew up that. And then she paused and finally said, “I hope you do not take this the wrong way, because I do not mean it in any way other than what is good, but after September 11th…after September 11th, we felt a lot less alone.”
I’ve heard Tal’s sentiments before and I know what she means. Humans connect based on common experiences…and the everyday life of an Israeli or a Palestinian is certainly anything but an everyday experience. But after September 11th, the feelings we had connected us a bit more to that world. And on some level, I can now relate better to Tal’s stories. And on many levels, she can relate to ours.
We were in the Galapagos Islands when Katrina devastated the southern US. We first discovered it on the front page of a Spanish newspaper on our plane returning to Quito.
There's a powerless feeling to being so far away from home during a disaster, natural or man-made. Every news article I read makes me think, "Wait, I don't understand. What happened?" Then again, given all the details I have read, I think I would probably feel the same if we were at home too. "Wait, I don't understand. What happened?"
I've been wondering how I would feel being abroad on September 11th. I've been wondering if I would forget what day it was while we wandered around Spain. I've been wondering if the day would pass unnoticed by me without the reminders I would have had via the media back home that the fourth anniversary was fast approaching.
But, like the previous three years, I haven't forgotten. And I have a feeling I never will. My mind seems to remember, "September...oh. It's September again."
We’ve been in Madrid for a few days now, and today we visited the Centro de Arte Sophia Reina. The main reason for our visit was to see something I have wanted to see since my first year of Spanish class in high school: Pablo Picasso’s master work, Guernica.
Picasso painted Guernica in 1937 as a protest against the violent bombing of a little town with the same name in northern Spain. And it depicts the madness that ensued during and after that bombing, killing over 1,600 people.
Even looking at Guernica in a textbook or in a picture online, it’s hard not to see how absolutely stunning it is. You don’t have to like Picasso’s style or agree with his politics to not become fascinated by all its intertwining parts, every glance bringing something new to the forefront.
Picasso is quoted at saying at some point that a painting “…while it is being done, it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it’s finished, it goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it.” I wonder if he had any idea of how right he was.
I remember when I first saw it in my Spanish textbook that I was simply mesmerized. But I had no idea what I would feel when I saw it in person, almost 15 years older than the girl I was when I first laid eyes on it.
I’ve never been in a war, and I can barely remember what life in the US was like during the Cold War, but I understood Guernica in a way that I never understood it when I was younger, before September 11th. And even though I learned to describe how I felt when I looked at a painting when I worked at The Barnes Foundation, words can never describe the emotions that swept past me as my eyes took in Picasso’s painting. I can’t lie and say that images from September 11th didn’t pass through my mind when I looked at it. And I can’t lie and say that I didn’t understand the emotions, the grief, and the fear on the people's faces in that painting.
Common experiences bind us through books, art, movies, stories of love and tragedy. Common experiences and empathy bind us and make us feel cared for, understood, loved, and less alone. Dr. Barnes knew that when he created his art gallery. He knew it would be common experiences, and people talking about their experiences, that would pave a way for people from different backgrounds to talk.
We’re in Madrid, the site of a bombing exactly thirty months after our September 11th. And next we’re headed to London, the site of a bombing a mere two months ago. We were in Argentina, and saw the Mothers of the Disappeared marching for their lost children. We were in Ecuador and heard about a tribe that was massacred by another tribe last year. And we’re going to Southeast Asia to see Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma. And while all the stories in all of these countries are different, many of the feelings – those horrible and powerless feelings that let you think you’re all alone – are the same.
But there’s hope, and love, and perseverance in all of those places too. And it’s those feelings that we can draw upon. It’s those feelings that allow us to think everyday life can and will go on. And it’s those feelings that I like to focus on today, the fourth anniversary of September 11th.
It’s those feelings that remind me of how absolutely blessed I am in my life.
I know we all have our own way of coping with tragedy. For September 11th, mine is to see the day as one of reflection, as a day to be thankful to all of the beautiful friends and family I have been blessed with in my life. It’s a day to remember I’m not alone, and to remind my friends that they aren’t either.
September 11th, above all other days, is the day I remember to live my life and to love the life that I live.
So thank you, my friends, for being in my life, past or present. Thank you for caring about me and for letting me care about you. Thank you for making me laugh and reminding me of what's important. Thank you for listening and for sharing and for dreaming and for telling me what you're feeling throughout your days.
Thank you, my friends, for experiencing and sharing this wonderful thing called life with me.
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