How do we handle loss? We’ve all felt it ourselves, or stood next to it, or watched it unravel the lives of strangers. But what do we do with it? Where do we put it?
In two of my classes this semester, we’re reading Amy Waldman’s 2011 novel, The Submission, a book that examines the depths of loss and the tensions that arise in attempting to acknowledge and contain it. The setup for the book is pretty simple: it’s two years after 9/11, and a committee has been formed to select a winner for a nationwide contest to design a memorial to those killed in the attacks. It’s a blind competition, so no one knows anything about the designers until one is selected. The committee chooses the winning design, and the designer is revealed. His name is Mohammad Khan, and he’s a Muslim. Naturally, controversies unfold and lives are damaged--some irrevocably.
Amidst these controversies, several issues emerge, and our discussions have tried to address all of them. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on two: the complexities of public memory and the purpose of memorials. Khan’s design—a garden laid out according to rigid geometry—is meant as a public monument that will contain and reflect the personal memories and emotions of those affected. But given the plurality (and sometimes cross-purposes) of these memories and the racial tensions in our society, the difficulties of this task become too much to overcome.
And yet, these characters need to remember the dead, to offer some memorial to them, to gain closure and begin to heal. In one scene, near the end, a character honors his dead father by placing a small stone cairn in the corner of a garden. Waldman writes, “With a pile of stones, he had written a name.” The gesture is minor but meaningful. It is, in fact, the only real act of memorializing in a 300-plus page book about a memorial.
To connect more closely with the spirit of this character’s act, I decided that my students and I should create a memorial of our own—one that would be both individual and collective. So I bought a couple of bags of river rock at Lowe’s, hauled them to class in a bucket (nearly dislocating my shoulder in the process), and asked each student to take a few and place them somewhere on campus in memory of a family member, friend, or pet. After they found their spot and “wrote a name with a pile of rocks,” they took a picture and sent it to me with the name of the person memorialized. The rocks were meant to transform our campus into a group memorial comprised of individual acts of remembrance. And because people or weather or time will undoubtedly unstack these rocks, the pictures were meant to make permanent our memorial (as only the Internet can).
So here I present the memorial created by my Fall 2017 “Introduction to Literature” and “Critical Thinking through Literature” classes, a collection of pictures, stones, and names (I’m going to ask everyone to say something about their memorial in the “Comments” section of this post; it may take several days for these to appear):
Daniela Pereyda, Francisco Malfavon, and Muffy
All the people I can't forget
Anna Marie and Porter Meisland
Burl Dean Ellis
Darrell Von Driska
Doug Durrant (1st)
Doug Durrant (2nd)
Martin and Kai
Rajih Maida and Menum Barakat
Gerald M. Bloomfield II
Richard Peterson (Grandpa Pete)
Victims of the Las Vegas shooting (1st)
Victims of the Las Vegas shooting (2nd)