Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Crestfallen Sigh

There are some things that just resonate with my being, admittedly, they are usually sounds or smells, but today - a quote. One that I run over in my head like you might run your tongue across your teeth - feeling for irregularities, any resistance in a space so smooth and familiar you could completely forget it exists:

"So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark —that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
-Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I don't mean to make light of the tragedy of 9/11 by quoting a drug-endorsing eccentric writer who speaks of a time of decadence and its passing (and who likely had MDMA in his system while writing it). I mean that I understand what it feels like to have a defining moment, from which you measure all others and lucidly know that it's happening. You know that there will never be a time like this again, you've floated to a place that the tide of your life will never allow you to drift. Either a consequence of a memorable wave, or having the 'right kind of eyes' reveal the truth in its foamy surf.

9/11 was a wave-break for me. I don't know anyone who suffered directly from the tragedy. I was living my life in a quiet college town, watching CNN only because someone else turned it on, and frying bacon. Bacon is the perfect decadence to represent how blissfully unaware I was that a life outside of my own insignificant struggles even existed..

I was riding a wave of innocence and oblivion, disconnected from the world or the people who inhabited it, I was in it, but barely so. That morning, most people my age can tell you where they were, at school, work, a coffee shop - jail, the bookstore, asleep, in the arms of a lover... I can even tell you what my apartment smelled like and what I had for breakfast (besides bacon). But what comes to mind when I see, hear or run my tongue past the date, 9/11 is an emotional place I inhabited then. I was young.

After watching the news a whole day on Tuesday, numb and restless, I went to the store to buy the September 12, 2001 newspaper at 1 am. I shared a moment with the paper man as he slapped down the day's stack of papers, knowing that he passed a torch to me... words and photos to explain the indescribable day before. I'm an emotional 'cutter'. I purchased 3 copies. My life was unbelievably busy and important at the time and many people depended on me. In spite of that, responsibilities stopped, my obedience to all external things dwindled and I sat cross-legged for vast stretches of time in my living room, cutting out tiny scraps of newsprint. My hands and face were black with ink and tears, drawing blood from my spirit with each snip. I cut up photos, intricately carved out words... some tiny, some large, and all based on my guttural reaction to the object. The weblike facade of one building was a stunning centerpiece, surrounded by words I fiercely wanted to usher up the stairs with responders only a day before: hope, courage, acceptance. I cut out these words in the closest letters I could find, with great care, and surrounded the facsimile of despair clipped from the front page.

We always do things that don't make sense in periods of intense grieving. I withdraw. I cut myself off and protect myself with ideas, just as I was trying to do in the collage. Someone had suddenly removed the blindfold from my eyes, I blinked against the harsh light, and the world was ugly, cold, full of suffering and hopelessness. I couldn't bring order to what I knew to be suddenly true, and tried to arrange it with decoupage instead - meticulously pasting and identifying each subtle piece as I went. I finished the homage in 3 sleepless and toothless days, without a voice to scream with, no sharpness to fight the universe back as it cut me into tiny bits.

From my paper fortress, I watched the wave roll back, surrounded by little stacks of words and pictures. A cloud of communal grief appeared stinking around me, permeating my skin... stealing my breath... twisting up my nostrils until it tied itself around my thoughts. Everything was acutely different. People died for ignorance and zealotry. Innocence died and was pulled down by the tide as the wave pulled it away from me. I don't live in New York, or DC, and frankly most of the time I don't even live in the world you recognize, but that day I held my breath as the wave of change, one that forced molecules from my body at once to inexplicably touch everyone elses', splashed against the small of my back as I watched. Foreign, cold, uncomfortable.

And then it rolled back. Time receded from me, and the fires from that day grew smaller and more faint. Painted over by time, eclipsed by new heartbreaks and other tragedy, I no longer look at the news and long to console or help. I've learned not to look at the news at all anymore, especially with the 'right eyes'. The last ten years have carried me out to sea, but each year I get close enough to shore that if I squint, I can still see the innocence and pain and change I knew then.

I'm the most guilty because I have never grieved the loss of a human soul with dignity, and ironically ended up penitently suggesting my husband's undergraduate thesis for him on disaster animal rescue. I couldn't be sad about losing loved ones shortly after 9/11, or all the people who still rest because of that day, I was sad because dogs and cats in Manhattan were left without food or water while the city sat evacuated and lonely. Go fish.

10 years of waves have since broken against me, all shaped the same, reducing in size as I learn to resist. I moved the collage from apartment to apartment. At first, I cried every time I saw it. Under my bed, it peeked at me when I grabbed my shoes in the morning and reminded me of the sadness just beneath most ordinary things. A few years later, I moved it to the garage, face down, unable to haunt me when I didn't invite it to... and finally, after enough time, I discarded it - along with the fortress I built and the sadness and isolation that went along. I've let go of the pain, and now that wave just turns around and recoils. It's hard to see these waves for what they really are... little laps of weather, shaping and polishing us as we endure them. They are strong, leave behind a more virginal world, and disappear from sight quickly, but enough years of their aggression changes our shape.

Off to work again. I still can't believe it's been 10 years. I can't put my sadness for that entire year into words. If I had a superpower, and it was teleportation, I would say "I'm sorry" to the two girls I loved then. Chloe, Grandma - You're my wave, I know you're stronger than me - even if you're gone, and I accept the path that you dictate. Carry me there.

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