My friends have asked that I write something more real, honest, and from the heart.
Thinking about the towers.
Modernist assumption: “You get at the Universal through the personal”
I went up in the towers once – it must have been July of 1999. I was in New York for three days as part of a month long academic summer program through Wake Forest University in Winston Salem NC, sponsored by and held at the Reynolda Museum of American Art. http://www.reynoldahouse.org/
On our three-day tour we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. The director of the program, Nick Bragg, put his hand on the cables of the bridge and encouraged us to do so too, to feel the vibration of the city, the pulse of life. During our visit we hit all the major museums, caught Brian Dennehy in Death of a Salesman, did a walking tour of cathedrals, trump tower, and of course we went up in the twin towers.
This was after the first bombing, so security was very tight. I expected the view from the top to be like that of the Sears Tower in Chicago, which sways slightly and has forced me from the top with nausea. Not so the tower we had ascended. It was also open to the air.
I wish my memories were clearer. I remember a slightly balding security guard checking our bags in the lobby. He was especially concerned about Errol Claus’ (the historian) 35 mm camera. I remember walking past Windows On The World, the restaurant that we heard so much about in ongoing NPR coverage. I rode down last with Nick and Errol after everyone else had left the top; places with gravity tend to hold me and I felt something there, seeing the potent symbols of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, so small beneath us. I know what I was thinking about then, I was thinking about my brother Kris.
My brother Kris is a pilot for Midwest Express and he is often in NY flying his routes or doing training. One day in the nineteen nineties he woke up before dawn in a New York hotel and made his way down to the Statue of Liberty. He touched the statue and he put his toe in the water there. He then raced to the airport and flew his route back to Milwaukee, where he sped back to his house for a shower and a fresh travel bag. Back in the pilot’s seat, he flew a different route across the West and landed in Santa Barbara, where my brother Andy was living at the time. He got there with enough time to make it down to the beach and stick his toe in the Pacific Ocean before the sunset of that single day.
Kris’ America is a vast place seen daily from a vantage not unlike that of the towers, but small enough to bookend with his big toe and a little salt water. I know he went often to watch the towers be removed, as often as he was in NY. As a pilot, grounded that day, his link to this tragedy is deep. For my brother Andy, his twin boys Nick and Jake, were born on September 12th 2001. So as is often the way: out of tragedy, Joy.
I was driving Ruthann to work when we first heard a cut in on NPR that a plane had struck one of the towers. We had one car between us and had to do quite a lot of driving that first summer in St. Louis, trying to make the transition to the cost and pace of city life. I can’t help thinking that all those hours in the car together kept us together and healthy. When we got the second car we lost that time and lost sight of each other.
I remember imagining as NPR told us what was known, that the impact must have been from a small single prop plane like the one that had hit the Empire State Building. It wasn’t until much later, while in the waiting room of the Jiffy Lube having my oil changed, that I began to understand what was happening. There was a small television with the ongoing coverage and the guys in the garage kept coming in asking for updates.
The next day in my classroom at Meramec we did information triage. We wheeled in a big TV set and I explained what was being said and gave a history such as I knew it then of the events that had led up to this attack, which for the record have nothing to do with Muslim hatred of our “freedoms” and every thing to do with what the CIA has been up to for the past few decades.
For the next few weeks we would start every class with “This is what I heard, but I don’t know what it means.” These classes were critical-thinking-in-writing classes where we were looking at shifts in perspective, paradigm shifts. I tried to make everything that was happening clear and I also tried to use that rare moment when the shared paradigm shifts, to teach the most important lesson I could teach: that the paradigm is always shifting and we always have room to grow in knowledge and compassion.
I haven’t had much compassion for myself of late, and I haven’t been growing in knowledge like a reed either. I’ve been stuck. I hit a wall that semester at Meramec, maybe September 11th was part of it, I don’t know.
I was discovering that I couldn’t make a living as a teacher, at least not as an adjunct one. Several of my colleagues were battling rare cancers and I began to think of their diseases as linked to the stress of the profession, the reward for their struggle was an early death. Rich came into my office to ask what teaching schedule I wanted for the coming term and I said, “You know what, I don’t.” I shook his hand and went to tell my boss Greg that I would not be returning. Rich passed away in the middle of that next session from one of those rare cancers and none of my colleagues called. I heard about his passing some months after the funeral from a mutual friend.
The sense of loss I felt at turning my back on my students and my calling ultimately led in part to the demise of my relationship. That hurt brought up older hurts and I began to slide. Here’s the thing. I have a broken heart. I’m not really sure how it got that way, but it is that way, broken. It could have been something simple and sad and far off in my past like the Citizen Cane rosebud sled as metaphor for a lost childhood with dad or something like a love affair gone bad, or twenty such events all added together. I’m not sure that the original cause matters all that much, at least not as much as the effects and the key effect is that I don’t really live in my life, it’s more like something I’m watching rather than something I actually participate in.
Even though I have a wonderful caring and supportive girlfriend and more friends than you could shake a stick at, I don’t get to enjoy these things fully because I’m not all here. I have my foot in another room and I use humor as the shield to keep anyone who wants to from joining me in this other room. I suppose the other room is safer, in the other room it doesn’t matter if people leave me, or if I chase them away. It doesn’t matter that the innocent religious faith of my youth did not survive my education, it doesn’t matter that people die and someday I will too and I have no idea what that means. The thing is, I am sick of living in this other room. I want to live my life fully. I want to come back into life, to stop being afraid, and to answer the call as it were. I have been resisting the pull of life, which has done its best to get me to come out and play while I have stood in the doorway waiting for the right game, the game doesn’t matter, it’s the playing that does.