Double-take of feeling

These lines from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy stay with me:

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.

September 11. Here we are in 2004, three years away from that event. It’s usually a hard day for me. I worked downtown, right near the World Trade Center (at the corner of Williams and Fulton), and I was at work when it happened.

It’s not something I care to think about or talk about. One year after it happened (while I was still living in New York) I spent the day with friends and family, and put together this photo essay. But earlier than that, about six months after it happened, I went to visit my best friend Dave in North Carolina. After I returned, I wrote this:

I was in a haze; a deep unyielding haze masking my movements, making mere thought distant. It took me all day to come to recognize it, that’s how it engulfed me. Finally, at about ten o’clock at night I was brushing my teeth and trying to figure out why I had done nothing all day – thought nothing, felt nothing, completed no single task, thought, emotion, or action. My first thought was the cigarettes – the night before I had three cigarettes while having dinner with Michael, et al, and cigarettes – especially Michael’s Marlboros – always make the following day a struggle. It’s worse than a hangover.

But it wasn’t the cigarettes. I could tell. It was much deeper, claiming more and more of my life – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – with each passing hour, the creeping fog of a winter rain slowly devouring the entire landscape, skyscrapers and rivers included. I stopped brushing my teeth for a second, holding my brush in my mouth. Slowly, painfully, I reached back through the haze to figure out when it began. Today’s Tuesday. Tuesday night. Yesterday was Monday. Got back home Sunday night – spent a long weekend in North Carolina visiting David and his wife Liz.

Wait – getting off the plane on Thursday in North Carolina was haze-free. Seeing my old friend, delighting in his new life – it was the first time I’d seen him since the wedding almost a year ago, where I was best man. He eagerly drove me around town, showing me things, his wife in the back seat smiling at her husband’s pride. There was a stop at their new house, a brief visit with the dog, then off to a restaurant for dinner, a comfortable place, housed in a big old lumbering mansion, full of intimate and cozy space. Candles, bluesy Louisiana music played by a live band, and after a few cocktails at the bar we sat for dinner.

Right now it’s all still clear. I order a magnificent meal – shrimp, portabello mushrooms, seared pork loins. Fantastic taste, and we are all cruising along, laughing like the old friends we are, buzzing on the cocktails, eating excellent food, and the music is so good and then he asks me about September 11.

I suppose it’s only natural; his wedding was in July, and now it’s April. I haven’t seen him, although we had talked about it before, on the phone. But now, suddenly, my throat tightens up and I can’t seem to stop myself, the thought of that day turns the succulent dinner to ash in my mouth, and now I can’t taste anything, can’t hear the music, and I glance awkwardly over to his wife. I don’t know her. I’m not ready to share this with strangers. She can’t possibly know how real this is, how un-exaggerated it is, how it hits me so hard in my gut I can’t think or even breathe. I’m not even sure Dave will know. I’m not even sure he will come away from this table with his heart full of terror, followed by dread, relief, then gratitude and, in the end, grace. Dave knows me perhaps better than anyone else in the world, and I’m afraid he won’t know this. But then I’m relieved he won’t know; I don’t want those I love knowing this.

I swallow the tasteless mush in my mouth. Feel it slide down my throat and drop – plunk – into my stomach. And then I open my mouth and the story rushes out; the alcohol might have helped it along, might have loosened my tongue a little, but mostly it is because I love Dave so much I can’t not tell him, he might be the only one to ever hear me, but I can’t hear myself, I have no clue what I’m saying, I’m already lost, confused, disoriented and finally numb. The haze moved in fairly quickly, practically materialized out of nowhere, coating my entire skin in a thin film of sweat, leaving my stomach full but my gut with a sense of being canceled, stuck in the freezer to grow frozen and cold to the touch.

I managed to amble through the weekend, limp along, and maybe laugh a little, but I don’t cry. I don’t see anything clearly. I don’t really even see anything, nor do I want to. I’m just sitting in the haze, unaware that it’s even there. Until now. Tuesday night, 10:15, toothbrush in a foamy mouth, staring at the mirror. The haze hasn’t lifted, it just cleared momentarily, giving me a glimpse of my stubbled jawline and vacant stare in the mirror, a cold draft making it’s way to the bathroom from the window. I suddenly realized I’ve stopped brushing, just holding my brush in my mouth, and now I start brushing again, vigorously.

3 Responses to “Double-take of feeling”

  1. anne dickey Says:

    Seamus Heaney’s words also circle in my own mind, having read them on your website back then and finding them so apt. Just a day or so after I first read it, I saw The Cure at Troy on the shelf of a humanities in medicine professor here in Charlottesville and brooked a lull in conversation to point it out.

    Another thing that is self-healing — and involves a self-revealing double-take of feeling — is dreams. In fact that’s precisely what they are.

    I’ve been sleeping more than usual lately, and today, I’ve just woken up in an oddness from the dream that took my morning. It was about nonresistance and calvary and a dry goods shop, and a community of beautiful, simple people. I spent a lot of the siege in a corner holding a baby, and then they all walked out, orderly, two by two, whether to their deaths or to their armistice I could not tell. I still had the baby and no clue who the child’s mother was; whether the mother was alive; if the baby and I would live if we stood up. We were alone against a concrete wall; she was asleep, we were getting hungry.

    Maybe it was running into the Catholic Worker guy downtown last night. Maybe it was a letter to a Mennonite friend I wrote when I got back; or my ambivalence about having my own children but desire to protect those that exist; or my fear that, as you mention, something is encroaching, and peace, war, or hard work, I’m no-count and a chicken.

    But I take it as an article of faith and experience that whatever complicated feelings that your dreams double-take within you, your heart and mind will turn with them, first, to revealing the self and next, to healing it. The first take of feeling damaged, and the second take, when its utterance is safe, can heal from the first. Whether it’s therapy, dreams, ritual, or recounting.

    Here’s to patience to hear the old things.

    Your friend,

  2. Mary Helene Says:

    I’ve been thinking of you all day, wondering whether to mark the day with an email to you, or just let the day slip quietly by.

    We went to the vigil for the 1000 soldiers killed so far in Iraq. The sun was setting over the bay and we lit candles, sheltered in dixie cups. As it began to seem time to go, a tall, thin, clean-shaven man in his late 40s stood up and apologized for disturbing us but before the wax melted onto our fingers, he wanted us to remember the Iraqis as well as the Americans. “I have a son in Iraq right now. He tells me it’s about 15 Iraqis dead for every American. I check the causality lists every morning, as parents will do, for my own son’s name, but, I wouldn’t be able to leave here tonight without reminding you that even if we call those Iraqis insurgents, they are like us – they are parents, they are kids.” Then he was silent. Someone started “We Shall Overcome” followed by four different verses which different people in the crowd began – “We will live in peace someday – deep in my heart, I do believe, that we will live in peace one day” was one. Then it was quiet. People snuffed out their candles, not at once, but one by one, and left in silence.

  3. As If It Matters » Blog Archive » Says:

    […] At one point I wrote about September 11, but I couldn’t write about what happened. I still can’t. Last week someone asked me about it, and although I managed to avoid discussing it, just the asking shut me down deep inside – I was not in a mood to talk about anything for several days. […]

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