Walking and Witnessing

For several years, I treated this unhappy anniversary as though it were sacred, like a national or religious holiday, taking a personal day off from work to walk the city streets, across bridges, through parks, along rivers, looking east and west out over the water on bright blue sky days to remember what was lost, what we’ve learned, what we’ve since forgotten, circumambulating the square footprint where tall buildings once stood, retracing my steps that led me uptown that day, up and away with my back to a nightmare I dared not look back on.

I’d walk and I wouldn’t stop walking during those annual pilgrimages that led nowhere. And while I walked, I’d call family and friends to tell them I loved them, that I was grateful they were in my life, running the battery dry because I could. Talking while walking was simultaneously a luxury and an act of defiance, one in direct contrast to that morning when the cell towers went down and chaos reigned and I couldn’t reach anyone, and no one could reach me, except for the filthy strangers in ties and suits asking for quarters for pay phones that had lines around the block.

And when I did reach someone, what was there to say after we’d witnessed the unwatchable, whether on street corners or on television screens, except to close our eyes, breathe a sigh of relief, and say we’d call again soon before hanging up to call someone new. Because the not-knowing was too much, almost as bad as the not-watching would later be when, weeks afterward, I read a piece online, “Witnessing” by Debra Fontaine, and wished then that I hadn’t walked so far or for so long in a straight line without looking back downtown. Wished I’d stopped, turned around at least once mid-way into my exodus, like Lot’s stubborn wife or a desperate Orpheus, to steal a glance over my shoulder, knowing full well that there could be no going back.

Witnessing means walking forward, not looking backward. The walks I’d take in subsequent years were attempts to make a circuit, one I wouldn’t, couldn’t allow myself to complete back then. One I still can’t seem to finish today. With each passing year, I make fewer phone calls to commemorate this day, sitting longer at my desk, working but not witnessing. And yet each year, still I walk. Like a fool, I walk in search of new bridges that might help me to close that unfathomable distance.

Paul W. Morris has been involved with the website in several capacities since early 2001, including editor, marketing consultant, event producer, and contributor. He was an editor at Viking Penguin and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review before becoming a freelance gun for hire. He’s killed time at Entertainment Weekly and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia staring into the abyss, but nothing stared back. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including his introduction to a recent translation of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. The former Director of Literary Programs at PEN America and Vice President of the Authors Guild, he currently serves as the Executive Director of the literary nonprofit House of SpeakEasy. He lives in New York City.