Long ago, we humans came to rely on rituals as a method of marking our cycles of time; spring planting, birthdays, harvest or anniversaries. Over the centuries, these rituals of passing have helped us keep our bearings in a very uncertain world. This weekend is no different.
With the tenth anniversary of 9/11, many of us are
taking the time to remember that horrible Tuesday morning. With so many gifted writers and thinkers discussing 9/11 (then and now), I’ll defer to them, to do what they do best. But as you might expect, I
have an observation or two of my own. Hinting that mine might be a little off the proverbial beaten path, let me open with a joke. And while I love jokes, I will be the first to admit I don’t tell them
very well. So with my thanks to Declan, an old Irish acquaintance, permit me to share one of his, with you:
An American tourist was on a vacation in Rome when he noticed a marble column in St. Peter’s with a golden telephone on it. As a young priest passed by, the traveler asked who the telephone was for? “Why it is a direct line to Heaven. If you’d like to call, it will be a
thousand-dollars.” The visitor was amazed, but declined the offer.
Throughout Italy , he kept seeing the same golden telephones, always at the entrance of the sanctuary. At each, he asked about their golden telephone and the answer was always the same: a direct line to Heaven and you can call for a thousand dollars. England, Germany, Scandinavia, France, and Spain…all offering the same call for the
same thousand-dollar price.
Vacation over, the weary tourist began his trip home by way of Dublin. With the better part of a day before his outbound flight, he decided to wander the city. As he walked about, he spotted an old village church and decided to step inside. As he entered the ancient chapel, he noticed yet another golden telephone. Underneath it there was a sign stating: “DIRECT LINE TO HEAVEN – 25 cents”. And next to the sign, stood an elderly village priest, actively involved in greeting each of his parishioners by name as they entered for mid-day Mass.
“Father,” said the tired tourist, “I have been all over Europe and in every one of the cathedrals I visited, I’ve seen telephones exactly like this one. But the price is always a thousand dollars. Why is it, that this one, is only 25 cents?”
Without any hesitation, the priest started chuckling as he responded, “It’s very simple, my son. You’re in Ireland now. It’s a local call!”
OK, you may have heard that one before. But it does remind me how lucky I am to have a broad stripe of characters and malcontents from around the world…all coming into my life at one point or another. From Hong Kong and Sydney to Beirut and Mexico City, every one of those friends held a positive (and understandable) bias for where they came from. They were quite correct in being proud of what their culture had taught them. I’m deeper and wiser for each of them having taken the time to share with me, what they had learned ‘back home’. But I wonder…do any one of them have an inside track on the rest of us? Does their call cost a quarter?
And beyond ethnic variations, we haven’t even cracked the religious (and non-religious) backgrounds of these people I call friends. I’ve known Protestants (in all their flavors), Catholics, Agnostics, Jews, Muslims, Taoists, Wiccans, Hindus, Atheists, Buddhists and the most tragic of all, Chicago Cubs fans. And as before, each of them, coming from their own spiritual traditions, taught me something about the larger thing called Life. My grandpa used to call it, “…many paths to the mountain top”. But do any of them have ‘inside information’ the rest of us don’t know? Is there one part of the world that’s figured it out? Quarter anyone?
This weekend, millions of us are going to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the tragedies of 9/11 in hundreds of different ways.
I will never forget the time and place when I got the call from home within a minute or two of the first plane’s impact…“Did you hear?” On that particular Tuesday back in 2001, I was finishing out a project for an insurance company in Chicago with NY offices in the Twin Towers. Within seconds of ending my call, other phones began to ring, one after another. Phones that knew other phones were calling. Connection. “Did you hear…” Local calls.
In the days and weeks immediately after the attacks, there was a sound that profoundly defined us as a nation. Do you remember the Grinch, standing on the mountaintop with his ear bent, ready to feast on the anticipated sound of Christmas morning despair from all the Who’s in Whoville? Like the Grinch, I have sometimes imagined terrorists around the world, being equally puzzled by what they heard. It sounded nothing like what they were expecting to hear. Yes, there were sirens and screams. But amidst the chaos, there was the quiet sound of each of us, checking in with those who mattered to us. “You OK? Yeah, I’m fine…Did you hear?”. As the morning unfolded, the country gathered around the television. All together, each one of us watched the skies over North America begin to empty – simultaneously. In that one frozen moment of time, all of us were ‘local’.
Local radio was filled with reports of Chicagoans spontaneously calling the airports and hotels, offering to take in stranded travelers for the night. For me, a vivid memory was riding my CTA train home that evening. As we pulled into the Belmont “L” station, I spotted an unshaven and disheveled gentlemen standing on the east platform, facing towards the distant tragedy. It was clear he had not showered in weeks, but his Vietnam beret was spotless. He was simply standing there, at full parade rest. No ‘Can you spare a dollar?‘ banter..not even a cup for coins. There he stood, one man who had stepped up for his country long ago, standing there still – filled with an odd and powerful dignity. I didn’t know him or ever find out who he was, but I remember having to choke back an unexpected wave of emotion. I wonder if he didn’t already recognize those impacting jets as signals…indicators that the time for me and my fellow commuters to find our courage was here. I will have the image of his ‘local call’ etched into my brain till the day I die.
At some level, I can empathize with the residents of Nagasaki or Hiroshima when they tell us they would never wish their atomic morning on anyone else. Why? Disaster is eminently local. We all get it. But so is Hope. We all need it to keep from going mad in the face of Evil.
I am not leading the charge for rekindling some lost and instant fellowship so many of us felt in those days and weeks after the deaths of our fellow citizens; or the tens of thousands that have died since. I am not gathering other villagers to march on Washington in some Frankenstinian (sp?) exercise. That’s grist for a different posting at another time.
I am suggesting you consider that perhaps a fitting memorial might be as simple as finding that someone you haven’t heard from in awhile. Make a call. What about the young couple who live in the apartment downstairs and work three jobs? Offer to babysit for them or perhaps invite them up so you can cook a meal for them. Or if you really want to go off the charts of Normal, consider paying the toll for the car behind you. Why? Because it has never been more important to remember that no matter where we come from, or what we believe, we are innately local by our very nature. We have things to teach each other. We are connected and what we do, matters.
So this weekend, commemorate this tenth anniversary by making a local call of your own. Connect. I suspect the person on the other end of the line may well remember your interest as something that they will never forget. And all that, for a quarter.
‘Red Telephone’ photo courtesy of Dr. Jonathan Rawle.