This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the San Francisco Chronicle on November 9th, 2001.
It was Day Three of a four-day hike across New Zealand’s Milford Track. Karen and I had just zigzagged 2,000 feet up and were resting at the Mackinnon Pass overlooking the Clinton River Valley. Think Yosemite. Think the most beautiful valley you’ve been lucky enough to see and we’ll just let that stand in for this Valley, ok?
Rearing up at the valley’s head are the Nicholas Peaks, snowcapped year-round. Everlasting Daisies and Mt. Cook Lilies, both with petals white as those peaks, lined the Pass.
Keas – green mountain parrots – pecked Karen’s lunch bag and tugged on my bootlaces while we rested for the 3,000 foot descent.
After shooing away the Keas, we started down into the valley under the grey, granite eyes of the mountains. I don’t know why Karen and I wanted to sing, but we'd been singing all week while we tramped. We didn’t talk about it. It just felt right, so sing we did.
Our first words were “Christos Anesti.” They begin a hymn that’s sung in Greek Orthodox churches just after midnight on Holy Saturday, when that Saturday becomes Easter Sunday. It's sung right after the lights go out in the church – all at once – and the congregation stands in darkness, the smoke from incense no longer visible but the air still smelling sweet. In that darkness, there is one light left – a candle in the hands of the priest. He leaves the altar, that single flame flickering, and approaches the congregation. We wait, in the dark, holding unlit candles.
Quietly, the priest lights the candle of one of the parishioners in the front pew – then those two lights touch two wicks, then four lights touch four wicks, then eight touch eight, and in San Francisco or New York or Athens, suddenly the church is ablaze, each face lit with warm candlelight. Mary with her child and St. George with his dragon, they loom out of the dark, their icons beginning to glow gold and red, and we sing “Christos Anesti.”
That day on the Milford Track, with keas flying overhead, Karen and I sang, mimicking the sounds of that song, not knowing how each of the words translates, but knowing the meaning of the hymn is full of hope. And as we descended into that fern-filled valley, with some of the Japanese trampers already laughing when they heard us approaching (here come the Singers, we had become the Singers to them, and they didn’t understand the words, either, but they liked our enthusiasm, laughed with us as we passed), laughing already at the Singing Americans, we sang Christos Anesti partly because it one of the few songs we knew complete, but also because it’s a beautiful song and the location demanded – New Zealand deserved – beauty, so we gave what we could.
September 11th. 8:40 am. A beautiful and blue New York day. In Manhattan, Vassilios Torazanos works in the tiny Church of St. Nicholas. The little building stands all of 35 feet tall in the shadows of the Twin Towers. Byzantine icons – St. John the Baptist and the Archangel Gabriel – those icons, gifts from Russia’s last Czar, are just two among many watching over Vassilios as he collects hymnals.
September 11th. 8:46 am. Vassilios looks up, thinking he hears a thunderclap, but that can’t be – thunder doesn’t burst out of blue skies. But it's happening. The plane. The crash. The fire. The smoke.
Vassilios never considers his car, he just runs – away from his church, away from Manhattan. Towards the Brooklyn Bridge, towards home. Behind him, the Twin Towers plunge from the sky, crushing all that's beneath them, his Church of St. Nicholas included.
Then the endless video loop. Smoke billows, towers crumble. Over and over and over. There is a collective intake of breath around the world, and it lasts for days.
By that weekend, like a needle being dropped onto a record, interrupted routines started back up. Karen and I had to stop talking about it. Needed a distraction. We drove out to the Avenues and saw Anniversary Party at the Balboa Theatre. We traded scenes of New York for scenes from Hollywood and added Popcorn and Red Vines and Diet Coke.
Baseball even started up. Karen and I planned to go to the first game following it all, but Karen decided she wasn't up for games, so I went with my friend, Andy.
Marines in Dress Blues handed out flags and candles at the gate. I bought a red Giants cap, the closest thing I could find to red, white, and blue. Everybody was in ride, white, and blue. We headed to out seats, behind the visitor's dugout. The singing of God Bless America hadn't yet become a cliché, so as the words scrolled down the Jumbotron, as 40,000 remembered 3,000, patriotism gave way to sorrow.
Ushers walked down the aisles lighting our candles. Wick touched wick, neighbor turning to neighbor, flame touching flame, and as Andy lit my candle, all the park's lights went out. The Giants' announcer asked for a moment of silence. 40,000 people held 40,000 flames, in silence, as the park glowed.
Church was also an interrupted routine.
San Francisco’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral was destroyed by the 1989 earthquake. It's only now being rebuilt. So on that Sunday, we sat in folding chairs in a chapel taking the place of a cathedral brought down by an earthquake and watched Father Steven, and listened to Bishop Anthony, and looked through the stained glass windows salvaged from the old cathedral on Valencia.
The only items salvaged from St. Nicholas in New York would be a charred cross and a twisted brass candelabra.
After the service, after Bishop Anthony eloquently addressed what had happened in New York and began handing out the antidoron - the blessed bread we share at the end of the service - the choir sang God Bless America (land that I love) and after accepting the antidoron, Karen and I walked slowly towards the exit (stand beside her) past little Greek ladies stuffed into black dresses. They sang along, not knowing what the words meant (and guide her) but appreciating the beauty they made. As we passed the tear-streaked faces of women born in another country but celebrating their new home in song (through the night with a light from above) Karen and I held hands and cried and became The Singers once again. Please take a moment to remember those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.