Transcript for Time to Mourn - Ilana Harlow

 

Jim Fleming:  Do you have a New Years Eve ritual, a fire, a party, a pause for reflection?  Maybe the first step to beginning again is taking the time to remember, and if necessary to mourn what’s past.  Shortly after 9/11, Ilana Harlow and Anne Strainchamps talked about how rituals, creative rituals can help us.  Harlow started by telling Anne a Buddhist tale of morning.

 

Ilana Harlow:  There's a woman in India who has lost a child.  A very young child who just begin to walk, and when he dies she tries to revive him.  She can’t revive him and she’s just beside herself, and she goes to a wise man and she says to him "can you please help me?  How can I revive my son?"  And he said "I can help you.  What I need you to do is to find me some mustard seed,"  and she said "I can do that."  He said "but that mustard seed must be from a house that has known no sorrow."  And she goes from house to house in her village and she finds that in one house somebody’s lost their mother, and in another house they've lost a brother, and another house they'd lost a son.  And she really realizes that there’s no such thing as a house that has not known sorrow.  She realizes that that's the way of the world.

 

Anne Strainchamps:  And so the story the message of the story is partly that death is universal, and we all experiences it in our lifetimes and we all lose people we love dearly.  But it also is a kind of lesson on how to get through that experience that revitalization how to morn, and it’s by telling stories and reaching out to other people and being part of a community.

 

Harlow:  Yeah I think so, and I think that of course when we suffer some a devastating loss, we can’t imagine ever going on at that moment.  And it turns out that we can indeed endure and these are some of the ways that we do.

 

Strainchamps:  You live in New York City and since September 11, what has it been like there?  What sort of ways have you seen that people are finding to morn and express their sorrow?

 

Harlow:  Well one of the things is that these personal losses that were suffered on September 11, were city wide and national tragedies as well.  And it seems like the grief was so great that it couldn't be contained in private homes.  It sort of private rituals of grief spilled out of private lives and homes into the public spaces, and so you really see the grief almost inscribed on the city itself.  And when you go to public parks or fire houses or even traffic islands and curb sides these are sites of continually evolving shrines.  They have candles and flowers and messages from all over the country and all over the world and art work.  And there are a lot of public rituals that are evolving of course there are no rituals that exist for the deaths of over 5,000 people in terrorist act, and what’s happened is that new rituals have to be invented.  One of the things that people are doing is that their looking towards past encounters with grief in order to deal with this current situation, and there's this commemorative art form that in many neighborhoods of New York City it’s still going on.  Memorial murals which are painted by graffiti artist are sort of very you have to really see them there are these very vibrant splashes of color on the grey of the city, and they celebrate the lives of people who used to live here.  And the walls often memorialize people who died young and sometimes violently.  And on the very afternoon of September 11, a graffiti artist named Chico painted a memorial wall on the lower east-side.  And this wall is dominated by images of the smoking towers, and then it’s inscribed in memory of family and friends R.I.P. September 11.  And that wall soon became the site of community gathering just as memorial walls usually are.  People affixed missing posters to them and there were flowers and teddy bears and candles that were left on the sidewalk below.

 

Strainchamps:  You write about a lot of more personal ways that families and friends have found to memorialize; celebrate lives of people they've lost through creative acts and often through making things.  I'm thinking about the family of the teenager named Jessie, and his family and friends found almost dozens of ways to celebrate his life and to mark his death and they seemed really drawn to make a lot of things.

 

Harlow:  Yeah I think that the creative response is so important for a couple of reasons.  One is that its a way of physically enacting your grief and it also give mourners a project to focus on, and also the creativity of it sort of counters the destructiveness of death.  I think one of the more striking projects of the story of Jessie, a teenager who lived on Cape Cod and who died of cancer at age 19.  Is that before he died he and his family did some sort of collaborative projects.  One of these was that he built a sauna with his father, and his mother had this idea that when he was gone she would be able to go in it and have this cleansing and know that he touched every part of this sauna.  And when she uses it there's a whole ritual to starting the fire and his father who built it with him said "he thought it was so wise of Kris his wife to think of using this as a memorial because it is something that you do rather than something you just go to."  And this idea of really physically creatively expressing your sorrow and then having a physical expression of it a material expression of it I think is very helpful.

 

Strainchamps:  What else did they do beside the sauna?

 

Harlow:  The other thing was the one of his very best friends unfortunately was not there at the moment that he died, but came and sat with him right after he died.  He flew in from out of town, and rushed to the hospital it was too late but he sat and he held Jessie's hand for awhile.  And as he was sitting with him he got an image of a glowing sun.  And everybody said that Jessie when he was close to death had sort of a glow about him.  And so there was this golden hue in the room and his friend Dan was holding his hand and had this image of a golden sun.  And as soon as he left Jessie he had this idea that he should build a memorial to Jessie on their favorite beach where they used to go surfing and it was in the shape of a glowing sun and they cut it out of wood actually out of the same wood that the sauna was made out of.  Many people from the community went and they hoisted it up onto the dunes so that surfers could see it even from the water.

 

Strainchamps:  It’s amazing how creative people get about their mourning.  I'm thinking also there's a one woman and her family actually made their father's coffin by hand.

 

Harlow:  This is the daughter of a prominent African American civil rights lawyer in the south.  And everybody expected him to be buried in a sort of golden poufy coffin.  "She said he had design issues with that and he just wanted to be buried in a plain pine casket that was crafted by his children."  And she and her brother are architects and when he died the mother looked at them and said "ok you know what he wanted."  And the designed a very plain coffin with tongue and groove planks and sisal rope handles and she tells this great story.  Which also points out how making art, making commemorative art, can really turn into a ritual, because they were building the coffin on the porch of a big old Victorian house in the south in Georgia.  And as people do in the south everybody kind of walks by and talks to the people sitting on their porches or out on their porches.  And the whole town kinda walked by ‘cause it was a scandal that this lawyer was having this coffin made by his kids and everybody walked up onto the stairs.  And was saying "hi, how y'all doing," and nobody said anything about the coffin.  But sort of the ceremonial richness of it drew kind of lured people in, and people were sitting on the banisters and drinking lemonade.  And she said "that it was so satisfying for her because she felt like she was creating a vessel for her father.  She was creating a safe place for him and even though she knew it was only his shell it sort of making an embrace."

 

Strainchamps:  Your book ends with the story about the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman, and it seemed like a really good story to tell at the end.  Would you tell that one?

 

Harlow:  Sure Itzhak Perlman was performing at a concert, and in the middle of his concert a string on his violin snapped and you know there was sort of this moment of silence and the audience is wondering what’s gonna happen and everything just halted.  But he just motioned to the conductor to start that movement again and by reorganizing the key that it was in he played the entire piece on only three strings.  You know he got a standing ovation and he silenced them and he said "the challenge in life is to make music from what remains."

 

Fleming:  Ilana Harlow wrote Giving a Voice to Sorrow

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