Fathom Mag
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A Shadow of What Remains

In less than a year the building beneath my feet would be a smoldering ruin in the streets of southern Manhattan

Published on:
September 13, 2018
Read time:
4 min.
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In November of 2000 my friend Andy and I stood atop the World Trade Center. The wind whipped around the towers and the late fall chill seeped beneath my coat. Standing that high above the city at night was otherworldly.

Lights splayed out for miles around. Tiny cars moved down city streets, their headlights creating thick bands that stretched to the horizon. Toy ships plied the harbor near a miniature Statue of Liberty, while the dark Atlantic loomed in the distance beneath a canopy of stars. We were young, recently graduated, and both just starting to plot the course our lives would take into adulthood.

We were young, recently graduated, and both just starting to plot the course our lives would take into adulthood.

In less than a year the building beneath my feet would be a smoldering ruin in the streets of southern Manhattan. A dividing line between one world and the next. A singular event that separates current reality from all that came before it. Not long after, when Andy was diagnosed and eventually succumbed to cancer, the structures that had seemed invincible in my own life began to crumble as well, until they too lay in ruin around me. Fifteen years later I’m still digging out of the wreckage.

Bound to Belief

For every miracle that happens there are millions of miracles that don’t, and I’m not sure how to reconcile that with what I believe about the nature of God. My faith compels me to believe in a God that can intervene miraculously in this world, but, if I’m honest, my heart no longer trusts that he will. Too many prayers have gone unanswered, too many friends have faced the realization that the miracle they’ve begged for will not come. 

There are days when I sit in church, recite the liturgy, partake in the elements, and yet wonder, ‘Do I even believe this story anymore?’ Told of God’s goodness and love through the lens of his intervening miraculously on behalf of his children, where does that leave me when he doesn’t? 

Adrift and convinced that God’s definition of ‘good’ is not the one I’ve been sold, and wondering if my cares are of little consequence to a god who will establish his kingdom, come what may. Faith is fragile amidst the chaos, confusion, and noise that life brings, and all of humankind’s attempts to reconcile belief in a loving god with the reality of a broken world—to explain the unexplainable—have done me more harm than good. 

Belief is a reality from which I cannot escape, even when I desperately want to.

Instead, I’m kept from falling into unbelief by the unfiltered presence of him that I find in nature. Belief is a reality from which I cannot escape, even when I desperately want to. I look into the sky and I see stars hung in the darkness. I sense the worlds set on their paths in the infinite depth of the universe. I contemplate the primeval power of the sea, the jagged edge of a range of mountains, or the touch of my child’s hand, and I’m denied what I sometimes think I want the most, an exit from this story and reality where I have to reconcile God’s goodness with the evil I see around me. 

And so I’m left searching for balance on a cracked and ever-shifting foundation, unsure if I will ever find my footing. 

Despite all of this I am drawn each night to return to my own liturgical practice. As I prepare for bed I recite the Lord’s Prayer, a relic from my childhood. It is the central conflict of my spiritual life, this desire to leave it all behind in order to establish a logical consistency with a universe where evil exists, and yet an overwhelming impulse to recite a 2,000 year old prayer given to us by God incarnate. I cling to this prayer like a lifeline. Perhaps this is His grace, a reminder that the god who laid the foundation of the earth has made me this promise—on earth as it is in heaven. 

Grounded by Memory

The older I get, the fewer memories I have that recall a single emotion. A joyful night atop the World Trade Center is laced with heartache. A prayer of faith is tinged by a current of doubt that flows underneath. Friendships grown distant, children hurtling toward adulthood, life cut short too early. 

Grasp a memory tightly and it slips away, look at it closely and it will dissipate like fog.

Grasp a memory tightly and it slips away, look at it closely and it will dissipate like fog. And yet, like the hope that the Lord’s Prayer still offers, my memories ground me in a way very little else can, and writing is often an exercise in recording moments that I don’t want to forget, an attempt to once again hold in my hand what has passed.

Some painters return time and again to the same scene, convinced that their inspiration has not been captured honestly by their brush. But no matter how many attempts they make, each is at best a shadow of what lingers in the painter’s mind as his hand traces a face, a mountain slope, or the surface of a pond. And so, they return, over and over again.

Like the artist, I’m continually pulled back to my pen and paper, hoping this time to unlock the perfect sequence of words, the mysterious combination of noun and verb that will capture on paper a reality that exists beyond language. I return again and again, until my studio is littered with canvas of the same pond, on each the water slightly different. A play of light here, a ripple of waves there, yet all a shadow.

Returning to the Past

I visited New York again with my sister shortly after the World Trade Center attacks. We rode the Staten Island Ferry across the harbor and looked at the lower Manhattan skyline, forever altered. After several quiet minutes she said to me, her heart broken afresh, ‘They’re really gone.’

After all these years, that’s what I feel when I visit the places or people where Andy’s absence is undeniable. My friend, who once occupied space in this physical world, whose laugh once rang in my ears, whose work once lifted up the people around him, is – nowhere. Given an eternity to search the deepest reaches of the universe, I would not find him. 

And yet, despite this absolute, the veil between life and death remains unbearably thin. Memories like that evening in New York City linger so closely I am nearly convinced that somewhere they still exist in the present, and if I could find the right key I would be able to unlock the door between our worlds and revisit them. I could return to Manhattan and see the towers still rising above the skyline from across the harbor, and know that up there, high above the city, stood two young men, looking out over the infinite spread of lights below them and wondering what life would bring. 

John Graeber
John Graeber is a writer living in Chattanooga, TN. He is a graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, and has also contributed to Glide Magazine, Nooga.com, and Christ and Pop Culture. You can follow him on Twitter @jbgraeber.

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