Search the Archive:

Back to the Weekly Home Page


Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 28, 2001

Guest Opinion Guest Opinion (November 28, 2001)

Sweet bells echo in the heart of a new American Sweet bells echo in the heart of a new American (November 28, 2001)

by Martine Heyer

It is clear America has never experienced War on the "homeland."

Stunned, numbed and seeking solace -- those were my feelings during the first week after Sept. 11.

Then I realized what I was looking for, what would make me feel more whole again I was looking for a communal three minutes of silence, outside on a plaza, street corner, park, no cars or trains -- the planes were already stopped. I was looking for a silent echo I remember from my childhood in Holland.

From being a new American citizen, I slipped back into my more familiar Dutch persona, despite having lived in America for 34 years. America is a great melting pot, and I'm proud to be a citizen. But Americans do not know the power of silence.

In Holland, every year since 1945 we observe one or two minutes of silence to commemorate the end of World War II and all the loss that went before. We do this at 7 p.m. on May 5 -- wherever we find ourselves.

Silence is most profound in contrast with noise. So first there is noise: the sound of church bells pealing, which have their own power. (Remember the beautiful sound of bells pealing on TV when Princess Diana was laid to rest, that beautiful haunting sound...?)

In Holland, at 6:45 p.m. exactly, bells of all churches start pealing -- ding dong, ding dong -- on and on for 15 long minutes. Slow and majestic, the sound reaches everywhere, in cities, villages and countryside, calling everyone to observe the silence, everywhere, anywhere. Everybody is near a a spot where killing took place during the war, where victims should be honored. In cities, virtually everyone walks under the pealing bells to the closest square, street corner or commemorative cross.

At 7 p.m. precisely, the ringing fades away. Cars, streetcars, tramways have stopped, even the trains. People stand clustered or apart. Slowly one starts hearing soft sounds rising -- birds, insects. Even babies seem to know this is time to be silent. Here is a moment to be in the moment, with neighbors, friends and passersby. The moment feels holy.

I remember it as a young child, my siblings touching pursed lips with forefingers in the universal, "Shhhh," and my mother giving my hand a squeeze.

I remember it as a teenager, casting looks about to see if my love of the moment was also attending, giving those that met my eyes a silent smile, sometimes even smothering a giggle with a girlfriend over something only we knew to be funny.

I remember it with tears in my eyes and head bowed. I remember it as a recognition and a pledge never again to let humans kill other humans while we stand by.

Now, in America, in my imagination these moments of silence would fly over the country. The silence would come as a great tsunami from east to west, New York to California -- through the time zones this visceral awareness of togetherness of experience would strengthen us, deepen our respect and awareness of our nation and its victims of violence, and let us experience this in our souls.

I felt a pang of envy when newspapers mentioned that Europe was honoring the New York victims with three minutes of silence. Within three days England, Holland, France, Germany -- with more than 200,000 people at the Brandenburg gate in Berlin -- paid their nationwide respects.

Through years of painful experience, the people of Europe have learned how to come together in a personal collective silence of thoughtfulness or prayers -- not privately, at home, away from others, through TV, but up close and personal, together.

Yes, in Palo Alto churches held prayer meetings, moments of silence, even a candlelight vigil -- if you heard about them. But there was no local communal commemorative. And there do not seem to be any church bells ringing, ever, in Palo Alto. (Is there a law against it?)

The candidates for City Council recognized and paid respects to this newly changed, "9/11 world." But the city has no way to call its citizenry to respect -- or even warn citizens of danger. Maybe there is a lesson for us in there somewhere. I know in America church and state should never meet, but is it not interesting that it is in church halls, the Buddhist temples and other places of worship, that government voting takes place all over Palo Alto?

Now if we could only arm them with bells or a carillon. Then we could all come together and have a few moments of silence when disaster strikes and we need to honor the fallen -- whether the rest of America does so or not. Martine Heyer works in property management. She has been a Palo Alto resident since 1967 and became a U.S. citizen in May 2001.


Copyright © 2001 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.