Back to previous post: Timebinders, in Ohio and elsewhere

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

August 19, 2002

110 Stories
Posted by Teresa at 08:37 PM *

UPDATE: Use this link to read the poem on my website—Elise’s journal is getting slashdotted. Let us know if you experience any display problems.

“110 Stories”, a poem by John M. Ford. It’s formal rhyming iambic pentameter, ABAB: one story told per line, 110 lines total for the stories in the World Trade Center. I first read it last fall. Someday I’ll be able to read it without crying.
There’s no one you can help above this floor.
We’ve got to hold our breath. We’ve got to climb.
Don’t give me that; I did this once before.
The firemen look up, and know the time.
These labored, took their wages, and are dead.
The cracker-crumbs of fascia sieve the light.
The air’s deciduous of letterhead.
How dark, how brilliant, things will be tonight.
It was good enough to be published anywhere at all, but most magazines weren’t opening mail from strangers; and even if they had, there was a tidal wave of writing about 9/11.

(Yes, but this bit’s by Mike Ford.)

I’ll confess: I passionately wanted it for my weblog, but didn’t ask for fear that he’d say yes—the paying venues where you send submissions like this want first rights. But none of them bought it, and they’re stupid, and it is altogether right and proper that Elise should have published it.

I told Mike at the time that as soon as this thing hit the net, it would start spreading like wildfire. I suppose I’m doing my bit to spread it now. So you, whoever you are: If send a copy of it to your mom, or your college roommate, or you mailing list, leave the author’s name on it. And if it comes back around to you again with the name missing, stick it back on.

Comments on 110 Stories:
#1 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2002, 02:28 PM:

Um, so, where's the tip button?


#2 ::: michael weholt ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2002, 03:19 PM:

the first moment of the current pure dread came a couple of weeks ago when the mayor held a press conference to describe plans for the commemorations to be held this coming Sept 11. i had about a day, 24 hours or so, of something underneath my physical self being sick to its stomach. then it passed, of course.

the second moment of the current pure dread came just now, sitting in my office about a hundred feet from ground zero, reading Ford's poem, especially the opening lines, the dialogue of those who were about to die, and of those who were about to watch them die, whether live on the spot or elsewhere.

i was telling somebody the other day that the day itself was bad enough, but the weeks and months that followed were even worse in a lot of ways. at least for me. i can't tell you how much my interior life has changed because of that day and (most especially) because of the weeks and months that followed. there's something inhuman about a universe that -- oh, wait, we *do*, in fact, live in an inhuman universe -- that thinks it's funny to arrange for your Normal Routine to just disappear from the face of the earth.

and yet i am so much more lucky than some other people. i'm ashamed of myself for feeling like i might not be able to face what's coming in a few weeks.

i'd go out for coffee right now but then i'd have to walk past the card tables on the corner with the hand-crafted books of horrifying photographs spread out on them. (only a few tourist dollars each!) the tables are set up precisely where i ended up after running down seven flights of stairs and fleeing this building i'm sitting in now, cops yelling (and that perfectly coiffed woman in her stylish suit and sensible shoes standing in the middle of the street, screaming, christ it was like a 1950s B-grade science fiction movie), the very spot where I stopped and turned and looked up and the stranger next to me said in perfect astonishment, to no one in particular, maybe not even to himself, that there was another one, there was another plane.

well, it's only one day. a day in the life. and it's only a poem. a hundred and ten little stories. oh, christ, it's painful just thinking of the number of floors there were. it's just a number, but the number reminds me of how tall they were, and how i looked up at their magnificence every workday morning, towering above me. the starbucks that used to be right on the corner. i heard the manager died that day. he was delivering coffee some 80 or 90 floors up. i guess the boys in the coffeeshop were shorthanded that morning so the manager had to pitch in.

well, one day i'll be dead. my memories will be adrift too, like the thousands of memories hanging like smoke in the afternoon sunshine just a half a block away from where i'm sitting right now. when i look at it that way, i don't guess it will be so bad. it's only a day. it's only some speeches and some extended moments of slightly self-conscious silence, and so forth. i think the problem is that it reminds me that something of my previous self has been dying inside me over the last year, making room for other stuff, i guess. i'm not sure how i feel about it. it's does strange and wonderful things to a guy when he gets up every morning with the vague half-remembered feeling somewhere down in his gut that the next 757 could just as well have his name on it as anybody else's.

i think it's sort of like being alive, or something. no wonder i'm afraid.

#3 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2002, 08:34 PM:

Oh Michael, hugs. I have to say I've been dreading the 1 year anniversary myself. Either American doesn't do these things very well, or I'm just too easily embarassed by sentiment. Or maybe both.


#4 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2002, 10:13 PM:

I haven't decided what I want to do on 9/11 yet. Since my company lost ~330 people, they're open, but not for business. They'll have counselors and talk groups, and they're serving breakfast and lunch.

I just don't know if I can deal with that.

On the other hand, I'm pretty sure I don't want to spend that day alone, either. On the original day, I was alone for most of it, communicating with my friends only by email and AIM. It sucked.

I loved the poem, but I couldn't really read all of it. I kind of bounced around in it, reading a few lines here, a few lines there, taking a break, etc. Actually I may have read all of it by the time I stopped.

Damn he's good. Dammit.

#5 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2002, 08:27 AM:

Stefan, thanks for the suggestion. Patrick and I are going to be putting the poem up on our website, and we'll put the tip jar there.

Christopher, you can come and spend the day with me, if you don't mind having an hour or so of it be a memorial service in my neighborhood. You can sit that out if you'd rather.

Michael, do please come too, if you wish.

The piece you wrote that day when you got home was stunning, but we got the writing, and you got everything the writing came out of.

I've tried to imagine what it would be like to survive a disaster that wiped Tor, the Flatiron Building, and its immediate neighborhood off the map. I can't. I can imagine us finding new offices in that neighborhood, but I think I'd always start to turn the wrong way at the corner, and I'd know like you know in dreams that if I could just remember where I left them, the old offices and everything in them were still there, somewhere, nearby, dislocated but not lost.

#6 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2002, 01:58 PM:

Thanks Teresa, I may do that.

#7 ::: Vicki Rosenzweig ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2002, 11:28 AM:

(1) Thanks for putting the poem here; I'm now linked to it, rather than Elise's LiveJournal, from my Weblog.

(2) I'm tempted to ask if there's room for one or two more at your place next month. Or maybe I'll just go up into the hills, with a bottle of water, a completely irrelevant novel, and no radio.

#8 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2002, 04:17 PM:

I think "110 Stories" is the kind of poem that kids might be reading in English Lit class 100 years from now. "OK, you've all seen the videos of buildings falling and people running around. Now read this so you know what they were feeling."

#9 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2002, 01:19 AM:

Okay, I was avoiding it, but I finally read the damn thing. Swallowing lumps and choking back tears. What *is* it with human beings that we do this to ourselves? That we take our pain and horror and organize it into effective couplets and give it to other people. Then we read other peoples' evocations of their horror and pain so we can be horrified and pained too. It hurts. Make it stop hurting.


#10 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2002, 10:44 AM:

Mary Kay,

Shared pain is lessened.
Shared joy is increased.

Or so they tell me. I know that telling my story has helped me, and listening to other people's stories has helped them AND me. Writing poetry is an intense form of this; I haven't been able to write anything about 9/11 yet.

We'll see what happens.

#11 ::: graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2002, 07:07 PM:

They were, most of them, so brave as the day asked, without warning, expectation, understanding
any of those things; pretty good for plains apes.

"I was safe here, before" is the world carried inside, the same as the safety; the one can be changed into the other's seeming. (Even thought it takes a long while to life a fallen building.)

#12 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2002, 09:01 PM:

Christopher: I thought about that formulation as I was posting, but I dunno. Perhaps I've been unlucky in my choice of confidantes or my situations or whatever, but I've never found sharing pain halves it. Not for me. I don't know if it functions that way for other people, I've had people quote that to me often, but nobody ever specified it worked for them. Shouldering someone else's pain seems a lot to ask. Turning pain and joy into art may be what creators do, but I'm dammed if I know why I keep reading/viewing/ingesting it.

Hmmph. I seem to be depressed today. Maybe I'd better go have some ice cream.

Graydon: Either I've forgotten how to read graydonian or you've forgotten how to write in English...

#13 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2002, 12:09 AM:

I first saw it as e-mail, in a format that makes it hard to spot the author's name. Didn't matter; I knew who it was a sentence and a half in.

I had a little trouble with the last two sentences, notably "life" as a verb. Up explicate 20%?

#14 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2002, 09:05 AM:

Mary Kay - oh, no, you can't expect it to be halved. Just lessened a little bit. It's not like sharing a jar of pickles. The people who all have pain about the same thing get together and share it; they don't then have the average level of pain or something; they ALL have less than they had before.

That's why you need to keep doing it over and over.

All that said, maybe it works better for some people than others. Still, isolated suffering is the worst thing, in my personal experience (I think it's foolhardy to try to compare levels of pain across people).

re Graydon's entry: there are two typos in the last para: the last bit should read "Even though it takes a long while to lift a fallen building." I think.

Even so it's difficult (I like it that way). It seemed to me that it meant "We remember feeling safe in those places; this feeling is exactly like the actual safety itself; we can transform the former into the latter, despite the fact that rebuilding may take a long time."

I'm not sure I AGREE with it, but I think (think!) that's what it means.

Interpreting poetry is always uncertain.

#15 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2002, 06:22 PM:

I think that the effect of sharing pain depends a lot on who you try to share it with and how they respond. People can sometimes react in terrible, stupid ways when confronted with a painful reality. This happened to me recently; I went to someone for comfort and the response I got was like a kick in the gut.

On the other hand, I then got to be righteously angry for about 24 hours, which was in many ways preferable to the way I'd been feeling before.

#16 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2002, 07:20 PM:

Christopher: Oops, careless of me. You used the shared pain/lessened formulation and I was thinking of the shared pain/halved, shared joy/doubled version. Sorry. I don't know if it works for me in any formulation. If someone shares his pain with you then you've got his in addition to yours and vice versa. I suspect my view is, however, severely biased due to having suffered serious biochemical depression for years. Nothing but the right drugs helps that pain and while the depressions started, oh, 35 years ago, I didn't get the right drugs until 10 years ago. Of course they didn't exist much before that. But an experience of that nature probably seriously skews your view of pain.

Janet: I'm sorry for whatever it was. Virtual hugs now and real hugs at worldcon if you want'em.


#17 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2002, 02:02 AM:

Mary Kay, there's this great scene, I think it's in the Nibelungenlied but it might be the Volsungasaga and I'm too tired to go check right now, where a woman has just had about six awful wretched tragic things happen to her, more or less at once. So a bunch of women get together with her, and by way of helping her cope with it tell her about the awful wretched tragic things that have happened to them. The cumulative message is (1.) yes, it's awful; but (2.) you don't die. She takes heart.

I first read that in high school, and found it affecting, believable, and encouraging.

In my older age, I also find it slightly funny: In the Northern Thing, that's what passes for consolation. (Of course, these are people for whom "Death is man's fate; all things pass and are forgotten" practically counts as "Good morning" or "Have a nice day".)

#18 ::: graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 02:08 PM:

It makes a whole lot more sense if 'life' is replaced with the intended 'lift', and 'thought' with 'though'; Christopher got those bits right.

The point I was trying to make is that being safe is a head-state, not an existing-in-the-world state; the change from safe to unsafe (or the other way around) is pretty much entirely independent of one's surroundings.

#19 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 06:40 PM:

Graydon, I agree absolutely. We humans don't normally go around consciously aware of the possibility that any of us could die at any moment, but that's the literal truth, however unlikely. If something happens that suddenly makes you much more aware of your own mortality, or that of those you love, it seems as though the world has become less safe. But usually it hasn't; it's just that you're more aware of the danger.

Last fall I started writing an essay comparing people's perceptions of safety after the attacks on September 11th to my own experience of living with a chronic illness -- one that probably won't kill me anytime in the next 20 or 30 years, if I'm careful, but will probably ultimately contribute to my death. But the essay never really came together and I abandoned it.

#20 ::: michael weholt ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 11:45 PM:

I can't speak for anyone else, but I think that in my case it isn't so much a matter of the world suddenly seeming a more dangerous place as it is a matter of life suddenly seeming both immeasurably precious and slaughterhouse cheap. Life has become the sort of dichotomy a cow might ponder in her sweet pasture, of a summer day, if she could imagine the manufacture of ground beef.

#21 ::: graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2002, 02:01 PM:

The cow is provided with the information that some other entity has arranged for her feeding; extrapolating from that to an expectation of being eaten is somewhat easier than extrapolating from 'all that lives is food' to a visceral awareness for one's self that something will eat *me*, by and by. (Hopefully but not certainly after one has departed from any capacity of impulse to protest the imposition of the other entity's digestive imperative.)

I keep feeling like I shouldn't say anything about the whole issue, in part because I was not directly effected, and in part because I have no emotional understanding of having ever been in a state where recognizing that some unbeknownst and overwhelming thing could kill me would be a revelation. Little voices in the back of my head produce 'don't they travel on roads? know how to swim? use power tools? walk around near high buildings? consume unsterilized food? breathe in the company of others of their species?', which isn't helpful of understanding; those are head-state things *about* world-state things, not world-state things precisely.

Cattle die, kinsmen die,
The gods themselves will one day die.
To have what comes be nervous
Is so well as flesh can do.

#22 ::: michael weholt ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2002, 04:50 PM:

I don't think you should feel like you shouldn't say anything about the whole issue. Your response is your response, whatever it is. Same for anybody else.

But I say again, it isn't a matter of suddenly realizing my mortality, or the danger I'm in just by crossing a street. I think I've been perfectly aware of that since my adolescence. It's something else. Perhaps I don't have the ability to describe it precisely. There's a distinction I can't properly put into words. Something is different. I can taste it, but can't describe it, the same way I can't properly describe the taste of asparagus, say, or baked apples.

#23 ::: graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2002, 05:23 PM:

I would say that the scope of the possible you're using has expanded; not that you had suddenly noticed that you could die, but that you could die _like that_. (Or 'that can happen here', or similar; something got into your imagination of the world which was not there before.)

It isn't, as an aside, that I feel like I don't have a right to talk about these things, so much as I think I won't manage to talk about them usefully.

#24 ::: michael weholt ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2002, 06:47 PM:

You may be right about the I "could die _like that_" stuff. I do know the thing that occasionally jolts me awake at night is seeing all that WTC facing material hitting the building across from me as the second plane plowed into the south building. All I can think of is how many people were shredded at that very moment.

It's just stunning. Even as I type this I can feel that feeling again. I mean, I've always been bothered, like everybody else is, whenever I hear about a plane crash on the news. But this is so much more immeasurably real to me. I can hear the blast. I can see the metal facing material, the glass, and gawd knows what else hitting the building outside. At that moment an entire plane load of human beings was shredded, right above and a block to the west of me.

It may well be that it's just that one particular moment I can't find a way to absorb. The rest of it, I can cope with. I can scab over the rest of it.

I don't believe in ghosts and departing souls and all that, but I do think they make good metaphors for things we can't otherwise describe. So maybe I can describe it this way.

It's as if, at that moment, immediately after the concussion, I was hit by some sort of blast wave made up of all those shredded souls. It's as if I'm suffering now from soul-radiation burns. I have been able to recover from the rest of it, but the scars from those particular burn injuries remain... the flesh of my own soul is now stretched and wrinkled, forever, fried by the heat of all those other poor souls blasting right through me.

Maybe it's something like that.

#25 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2002, 07:15 PM:

That makes sense. (And is very evocatively phrased.)

I would caution against the use of 'forever', that extremely long time; goodly numbers of folk who have witnessed -- or done -- such things have come to a fashion of peace and tranquility of spirit again, but I'm certain such recovery is simpler if it is not thought impossible.

My own experience with severe emotional trauma is that a year is just about enough time to really notice the full extent of what happened; recovery of equilibrium seems to take between three and five years from the date of the event.

#26 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2002, 03:09 AM:

FWIW, I must have been on the pavement below you, Michael, at that moment. (One Liberty Plaza?) One reason I feel oddly detached from the whole attack, even though I was on site, is that I didn't comprehend what was happening until I was safely home. And even though the towers were visible from my living room window, I wasn't in the apartment when 2 WTC (my work building) collapsed, and I was facing away from the window when 1 WTC fell. I heard it, but didn't see it. OTOH, I saw the footage of the first plane hitting 1 WTC clearly for the first time the other day (since I didn't have cable on 9/11), and it did jolt me in a way I hadn't felt in months. So maybe I haven't fully processed it yet. (I am considering sponsoring the web page for the ballplayer Ricky Ledee, in memory of the one person I know who died that day, whose last name was also Ledee and who might be a relative of Ricky. It's a meager gesture, but it's something.)

#27 ::: michael weholt ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2002, 07:55 AM:

I didn't know what the blast was at the time either. The "blast wave" I described is something that assembled itself in my mind just yesterday when I was responding to Graydon.

At the time, I thought the explosion and all the crap hitting the building outside our windows was the first building collapsing. I walk to work down Broadway, and was down there when the first attack in 1993 took place, and so as I walked toward the towers in the morning I would often fantasize how far I would have to run away to escape being crushed by the buildings were they ever to topple over like two great metallic Redwoods. I have this melodramatic imagination, you see.

The office I work in has a fire escape door down a short hallway that leads to a small exterior balcony that you could hang out on and, before all this, get a magnificent view of both towers. I was the first and only one in the office that morning, so I thought I'd go out on the balcony and see if I could get a better view of what was happening in Tower One. Well, the door would often stick but you could always get it open eventually, only that morning, I couldn't. I was pounding on it, throwing my shoulder against it, cursing up a storm, thinking to myself, this is some great fire escape. *Jesus*.

So finally I gave up in disgust and walked back down the hallway till I got to the windows. It was just then, maybe three seconds after I left the door, that the second plane hit. If that door had opened, I would have been peppered with that debris. Just a small word in favor of gross violations of the Fire Code.

Anyway, it wasn't until I had run from the building and was out on Broadway that I understood what that blast had been. I think it was then that the meaning of that blast first hit me. Jesus. All those people shredded at that very moment. That connection was made when my mind was about thirty-five feet above my head, on account of all the adrenaline and fear and confusion and so forth raging through me, so that might explain why the connection is so powerful to me. I guess when you are in a state like that, certain memories and emotions get burned into your brain and something of your emotional state at the time will always return whenever images of it return to your mind's eye. I think that's why the images will startle me awake at night, just as I'm dropping off to sleep.

It's also why I get such an unpleasant jolt whenever I see those lovely hand-crafted picture books of the Horror that they hawk on the street. You work (worked) down there, Chris, so you know what it's like on every street corner with the hawkers and their little card tables. You're walking along with your headphones on, grooving on your tunes or whatever, you pass the hawkers, sometimes you glance down at what they're pushing, sometimes you don't. Last week I glanced down and saw the picture of the second plane suspended in the air, just before it actually hit the building. The tower rises up the left side of the picture, the plane is banked slightly, gracefully almost, maybe 50 feet or so away from impact. Everything looks so strangely ordered and neat. So well-composed. So natural and unnatural at the same time. It really is one of those impossible images you encounter in dreams. Like your dead grandmother standing in your bedroom, or yourself doing the Australian crawl through the air about three feet above the sidewalk.

#28 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2002, 10:33 AM:

Michael, I don't know if this is an explanation or not, but there's a great difference between "I could die at any moment" and "someone actively wants me dead".

For most Americans, the latter was a new idea on 11 September.

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.