“Identities and memories are not things we think about, but things we think with.” – John R. Gilles

I’ve been thinking a lot about memorials and monuments and public memory and political power through voice because of the new class I’m writing for DailyOm.com on Sacred Space.  There’s a lot to think about when you see monuments and memorials as sacred space in the same way that altars or religious sites are.  And they are, they are just a different kind of sacred.  That’s what I’ll be teaching on.

One thing for me that is quite striking is the difference between monuments which, by their nature of being large, made from art and architecture, and on public land are by their very nature political and statements made by the rich and those powerful enough to enlist the rich, and memorials which are the public statement of individuals feelings and experiences.  Monuments make statements meant to control public understanding of values and historical events, memorials celebrate the individual and their unique experience.

I believe this conflict is one large part of the political upheaval that occurred during the construction of the Viet Nam memorial.  The class between those that needed a political statement or thought that, because this was a monument, there would automatically be a political statement about the war, and the designers and supporters who wanted no statement and wanted to honor those who were fallen, those who were lost, and those who were left behind.  In the end I believe the power of this moment is demonstrably because it is a memorial.  It is a place where individuals go to remember their loved ones, reconnect with the past, with their community and family, where they can work on healing, and create a more positive future.

I also believe that this struggle continues in New York at Ground Zero.  The struggle between what people actually need, which is a memorial to connect, to grieve, and to build a new future, and the needs of the government, the rich, and the powerful, to make a statement, decide history, and control message through monument.  I worry that in the end the site will become like the statue of Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem.  A ruin whose message is not only meaningless but a warning to future civilizations.

In the meanwhile, I continue to be uncomfortable morning one part of an event significant to Americans while ignoring the other parts, the plane that was diverted and crashed, the Pentagon.  And I feel uncomfortable marking this day while ignoring so many others.  Darfur has had two years of peace talks and there might be hope for the people there.  Can we celebrate that victory and honor the dead?  Can we celebrate the healing that continues in Rwanda and their methods for creating that healing?  Can we honor their dead and remember?  What about the Serbia-Croatian war? Can we have a day that celebrates the Croatian Independence and honors those who died, those who were forever changed, and the progress that has been made and the struggles that continue?

In a land of power and plenty I have no problem with memorializing an event in our history that caused such devastation to so many people. I honor them and send my prayers and my blessings to each and every one.  But they are not alone in having experienced devastation and I do not wish to be involved in the politics that surround the event nor forget that there are others that also suffer and deserve our recognition and respect.  We in America are lucky to have lost so little and I count those blessings dear indeed.