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February 7, 2005
The Ohio River was muddy yesterday, and the water level was way down -- it was up almost over the back, last week, my host said, a good twenty feet above what it is now. We would have lunch on board a sternwheeler permanently docked on the Mississippi side. I sat in a chair that would enable me to look across the river at Cincinnati.

This was the Underground Railroad crossing, this spot. Or not far from here. There were many crossings, and they moved around, of course, depending on who was crossing, who was meeting. A replica of one of the coded quilts hangs here in the conference center where I am staying, the colorful pieces of cloth arranged to send a message about how to cross, where to cross, when to leave, who to look for on the other side. A successful resistance on the part of a large community of people, most of whom would never meet and who didn't have cellphones. They signaled to each other in quilts, in songs.

The bridge next to our vessel was built by the same man who died building the Brooklyn Bridge, and it looks like a smaller version of our beauty, with round arches instead of gothic ones, but with the same lovely suspensions swooping down toward the roadway. White Cincinnati was a German town then, and parts of it still are, if in name only. In New York, the same; German immigrants on the East side built the Brooklyn Bridge under the direction of a German architect. There was at least one Underground Railroad stop on the Brooklyn side, too, come to think of it: a subway station is there now. And there was one up in Nyack, I recall -- you pass an historical plaque about it on your way into town from the highway. Somebody would appear, silent, exhausted, and the people would take one look and know just what to do. Who to send for. Where to hide him. Go to this house and just knock on the back door. People who came in poverty and people who came in chains. People who had something helping people who had nothing across the river, on to the next safe place up the line from here.

The cathedral Dean was preparing for a trip to Dresden -- he will represent us in an observance to the sixtieth anniversary of the Allied firebombing of that city, which destroyed almost all of it: this is not a history lesson we get in American high schools, but it happened. Strategically, Dresden was strange: it accomplished little at that stage in the war. One is forced to the conclusion that its main purpose was revenge. The occasion will be another in a series of recent elegies: survivors from decades ago, old people now, returning to stand in silence and wonder what reconciliation looks like. When do we get to forgive the Germans? he asked rhetorically over our coffee. When do they stop living under the shadow of the holocaust? And when is slavery forgiven? someone else asked. When is the war over?

When is the war over? Long after the fighting stops, that's for sure. Long after emancipation. Long after you cross. Maybe things are never over: maybe they just become part of us, and we draw on whatever strengths we gained from them, however unwilling we may have been to gain strength in that terrible way. Maybe we draw power from the wound and maybe, once we sense just how universal a wound it is, how all humanity is torn by it, how it is really one wound -- maybe we can draw love from it at well.
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