Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Keeping Vigil -- Part III -- Light the Fire

I'm sitting in my office on a Tuesday morning, going over an order with a vendor. She asks, "can you hang on a minute?"

I say sure. She puts me on hold. I'm treated to some bland music. I put her on speaker, and turn to check my e-mail. The sun, streaming in over Queens, is beating on my right shoulder through my window on the 43rd floor. The mind-numbing tunes end and my vendor says

"Do you have a tv in your office?"

"Yeah, sure," I reply.

"Better turn it on. Plane crashed into the World Trade."

I zip down to the 42nd floor conference room and turn on the tv. Other people are already beginning to gather as I rotate the set so it's pointing out the glass wall into the office proper. We all watch the second plane hit and the excited "ohmygod what's going on" buzz dies. A second later I think the world just changed , and a second after that I say it out loud into the general silence.

About half the gathered crowd is now turned to look out the south windows. From our perch on East 53rd we can clearly see both towers smoking away. The view is only too good when the towers come down later that morning.

On the Saturday morning following, I set out for the Catskills from my little cottage in Putnam County (1 hour north of NYC). I knew where I was going, but the physical location was less important than the soul-location I was headed towards.

I intended to sit out overnight, deep in the woods, alone and without shelter or food, and simply tend a campfire. My raw soul and cracked heart yearned for deep quiet, and in sitting out all night, I hoped to make space for my anger and sorrow to manifest -- my spirit was too full of both and heavy with the exhaustion of bearing them since Tuesday the 11th 2001. Just before 9 a.m. on that day, the world had lurched and come to a standstill. I needed to sit out on the land and see if I could feel the Earth turning again.

Several summers prior, I had the happy honor of being best man at my friend E's wedding. Disdaining the traditional stripper-bar bachelor party, he wanted to go camping instead. I scouted some locations, finally settling on a not-too-difficult trail not far from Phoenicia, NY, that was secluded enough that our hooting intoxication would be unlikely to disturb anyone with two legs. E and I headed up the trail fairly early that weekend, intending to locate a campsite that everybody could set up at once they arrived. We were about 75 minutes up the trail when we dropped our packs and bushwhacked off to the left, thinking we had found a likely spot. It turned out to be too small for the four tents we were figuring on, although nicely situated near the edge of a precipice looming over the valley down below. The view was lovely, but inebriated revelry that close to a dropoff such as that was not a wise idea. We went back to our packs and continued up, eventually finding our spot another 45 minutes along.

That September Saturday morning, driving up the New York Thruway, I was thinking about the first spot we'd found. And hoping I could find it again.

I had a late lunch at a diner in Kingston, then headed north until I reached the trailhead. I hauled my pack out of the car. It contained a couple of tarps, a blanket my Grandmother Chadima had made me, about six liters of water, some ritual objects and the means to make fire. To it I strapped my drum and beater and headed up. I recognized the spot immediately, but when I hiked off to the left to find the actual site, I convinced myself I was mistaken and got back on the trail. Ten minutes later, I unconvinced myself of my mistake and turned around. Maybe the light was different (it was later in the summer, after all). Second time, I located the spot near the precipice and, shucking my pack off, stood for a few moments taking the place in. It is a cut into the steep, rocky hillside about 15 yards wide. In front, a forty-foot drop. Perhaps ten yards behind me, the mountain began its ascent again. Secluded, lonely, perfect.

I drank a lot of water and set to gathering wood and stones. Wood for the obvious reason, and stones for making a ring to contain the fire. I guessed it was about five o'clock (I don't wear a watch). When I had a large pile of stones, I found one that spoke to me and made it my cornerstone. I then hunted one down that fit nicely into one side of the cornerstone and mated them together. Then I looked until I found one that fit into the other side of the cornerstone and placed it so. Most of the rocks I was working with were pretty flat, and I continued until I had a full ring about four feet across and maybe three inches high. Again, I looked for a stone that spoke to me and, selecting it, searched for where it fit into the first ring. I continued this process (going out to look for a stone when none that I had gathered seemed to fit in the spot I was working) until I finally had a ring of four or five levels about a foot high, fitted together by intuition and sweat. I drank another liter of water, rubbed citronella oil on my clothes, ears and neck until they burned dully and I hawked and spit at the reek (I'm not a big fan of citronella scent -- but even less a fan of commercial repellents). Then I started to crack branches and logs, either with my bare hands, or by leaning them up against large rocks and leaping on them with all of my 200 pounds (only belatedly wishing for a hatchet). When I was satisfied I had a decent supply of firewood, I sat down, drank more water, and...sat.

With the end of all my activity, it got pretty quiet. The sun was going down behind the ridge behind me and so I was already in shadow, although there was still that gray-blue twi-light. Shadows were soft to non-existent. The day animals were hushed, and the night animals were not yet stirring. I wondered if -- today -- I was a day animal or night animal. I set out a tarp and placed my blanket on top for sitting. I set my drum near the blanket, and an amethyst and a crow feather on the stone ring. I put the fire-makers next to the crow feather, and closed my pack and set it off to the side. The hush was getting oppressive.

Without the weight of media saturation that blankets the senses in the City (only augmented by the rage and muted hysteria of those first post-911 days in NYC) or the do-do-do of my first hours on the mountain, the anger and sadness I'd been hauling around began to well up from inside me.

On September 12th, I'd gotten up around 4:30 a.m. (couldn't sleep) and to my girlfriend's astonishment and annoyance I dressed for work. The trains were running, I could get into Manhattan. And I couldn't bear the thought of a day in front of CNN poking through the rubble, physical and otherwise, the attacks had left. I was in the office early enough to watch the sun rise over Queens and the darkened City. Darkened, but still there -- still alive. I walked the halls of the office -- empty desks...missing persons...the dead...their surviving friends and familymygodmygodmygod I broke down in the kitchen trying to make coffee. I could feel the flood behind the first tears and stifled sobs and couldn't bear to let it out there in the cool sterility of the environment. I cleared my throat and growled violently, forcing the softer emotions down and away.

The lid I'd mostly kept on it all week was now off. And it was coming to swallow me as the night was swallowing the day. I bolted.

Back to the trail I went -- as fast as I could through the brush and stepping over fallen trees and the larger stones. Once I reached the trail I turned right and half-ran down the side of the mountain. Wind rolling down the mountain blew in my ears and I felt more than heard the thud-thud-skip of my boot-shod feet skidding down the trail. I was about a half-mile down the trail -- maybe five minutes' flight -- when I misjudged a footfall in the failing light and took a full-length spill onto my hands and knees, sliding five or ten feet until I lay flopped on my face near a curve in the trail. I felt my belly on the earth, dirt on my hands and cheek. I was quivering with energy, panting out breaths that couldn't seem to fill my lungs. I let out a roar.

fear and fear and frustration and self-pity and sadness for everyone the dead the survivors the living the maimed and soul-burnt and parentless children whose motherfathers were now ash or crawling into the bottle and rage rage and rage for all the reasons those wicked desperate men did what they did to the World Trade to all those people to me the world and the next madness would be worse worse worse I roar I Roar I ROAR I ROAR I ROAR I roar...

I coughed and gasped for breath after the initial wind of it had blown through me. The ragged edge of my breath shook me and my vision swam and came back into me. My dirty hands framed a small patch of earth a foot in front of me that I could only just make out -- my thinking mind came back into myself then and I saw the light and dark had switched places. Where before the shadow was merely stretching across the light in the landscape, the night had now come and daylight was only afterglow -- a pale memory of sunlight. Faded as my courage -- thin as my hope for the world which had stopped turning. I heard a line from a song I knew:

"Every day -- you crawl into the night -- a fallen angel with your wings set alight"*

Get up, lad.

I still can't breathe, but I push myself up a bit and fall sideways from my hands and knees and, twisting, land on my ass.

Get up, man. Get back up that hill and light your fire.

I gather my legs, drawing harsh breaths, shaking sweat from my face, and stand. I brush my wild hair back from my eyes, wipe some leaves and dirt from near my eye.

Light that fire.

The voice, accented in soft Scots burr, gets my legs pumping and I start back up. I feel more than see my way into the gloaming. By the time I've retraced my steps it's close to complete dark, but fortune smiles: at the place I'm to leave the trail there is a fallen tree for a landmark, and there is the glimmer of daylight clinging to that spot as the fallen tree has left a hole in the leaf-canopy for the last shreds of light to penetrate. The hundred-odd yards back to my camp is much slower going, tripping and staggering along through the underbrush. I reach the place, though, and am glad I set out my matches and tinder that afternoon. Locating them by feel on the stone ring, I put the matches in my pocket and blindly snap twigs and make a stack I can light with a match. I wait in the dark for a pause in the night-breeze and strike a match, cupping it carefully. I remember feeling the coolness of the earth under my knees sinking through my jeans into my body as I created heat and light with my hands. The match edge hoves up next to a slender twig and its glow dulls before catching. I find more thin sticks and break them into short lengths and add them as the fire begins to grow.

Soon enough, I have a roaring fire. I have no need of its heat, but its light is most welcome. I push fear back thirty feet to the edge of the glow. Into that circle will come my sadness. I have more than enough to fill the space.

I turn a slow circle, surveying what will become my world for the night. The rock-face behind me will guard my back, the trees all around will keep vigil with me, the valley in front of me yawning open: the future to come. I set my blanket closer to the flames, and sitting, gather my drum to me. My eyes, and ears, hands and drum; night-watch by the fire. Tis enough. Eyes fixed on the flames, I lean in, holding my bodhran** against my chest with my left hand. I bring the tipper up in my right, and begin to drum.

(I will conclude the Keeping Vigil series of posts in part IV -- finishing up the tale of that night on the mountain -- as soon as waking life allows.)

* Afro-Celt Sound System / "When You're Falling" -- yes, I know, those aren't ACSS's actual lyrics -- what, Spirit isn't allowed to improvise? [wry smile]

** A bodhran ("boo-rawn") is a simple frame drum of Celtic design. A tipper is the short stick used to strike the bodhran.

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