20 years ago

DOMESTIC SECURITY–SEPTEMBER NOTES

The night is warm, which seems surprising in the harsh shadows, but it is only early September; even in the Pocono mountains, frost is still a few weeks off. These old canvas tents, rubberized, permanently mounted on wooden platforms, effectively block both sunlight and moonlight. So when excited thumping on our tent flap wakes us, it could be noon, but we chaperones feel too bleary for that. Ellen gropes for the alarm clock phosphorescing on the crate that serves as nightstand. “Two fourteen,” she states, stifling a groan. “What’s wrong?”

The flap opens to a triangular gap of harsh propane lamplight. The girls—there are four of them, those bunked in the tent furthest into the woods—all talk at once in hushed, excited voices. Amy woke up out in the woods, still in her sleeping bag! Someone had dragged her there, two someones, maybe three! She heard voices, whispering, and feet, walking—tiptoeing—near, very near. She woke amid dry leaves, on the ground. Hours went by. She was too scared to move. When all was still she ran to her tent, woke her tentmates. What if those people are still out there? Maybe kidnappers. No, it must have been older campers, teenagers playing mean pranks. Her sleeping bag is out in the woods somewhere. Maybe 40 yards from the tent, Amy doesn’t know. Her companions shiver.

We’ve gotten out of bed by now, pulled on our shoes and jackets. The girls agree to go back to their tent if we accompany them. We tell them to be quiet; the last thing we need is to waken thirteen other 11-year-old girls at two-thirty in the morning. Oak leaves crinkle underfoot as we walk past the firepit to the girls’ tent. I switch my flashlight off; the moon’s so bright I don’t need it. Sara’s red hair looks like a silver halo around her pale face. Ellen, resigned, opens the tent and peers in. Her flashlight reveals nothing particularly untoward. We troop inside and the girls sit on their cots.

Amy’s cot is bare: no sleeping bag. She looks chilly. Her tentmate Julie offers her a blanket, and we praise the gesture. Ellen, not a physically demonstrative person, nevertheless keeps her arm around Amy for a moment after draping her in the blanket. “It’s alright,” she says. Amy sniffles.

Having calmed the girls at the scene of their scare, Sara and Ellen go over the story again—methodically this time—keeping their voices even and unemotional. I offer to look for the sleeping bag. I like the woods, day or night; Ellen retains suburban qualms about hidden dangers and would rather be staying in a hotel than interviewing a 6th-grader in the middle of a state forest, even if it weren’t two in the morning. Or three, as it nearly is now.

The girls had tied the tent shut with what is left of rubber strapping and ropes. None of the tents have complete fasteners anymore. All of them have sides that no longer tie down to the platforms, and many of the door-flap ties are frayed or missing. The girls have ingeniously substituted shoelaces. Idly, I wonder which girl is going about with flopping sneakers.

The woods is still at first, frozen in the white light of the barely-waning moon. I notice the light before I notice the shadows. Every tree trunk resembles paper birch. The tents make wide, geometrical planes beneath the leaf canopy. In back of the tent, no sign of a rumpled sleeping bag. I take a few further steps and, on a hunch, investigate the side of the tent where Amy’s cot is. There, bunched up next to the platform and still partly covered by the open tent wall, is Amy’s bag.

Girls fall out of bed regularly at camp. The cots are narrow and slippery, covered by nylon sleeping bags. Counselors consider falling out of bed an inevitable event. In most cases, the child rolls instinctively away from the tent wall and winds up on the close-slatted wooden floor of the platform. Often the landing is soft, as preadolescent girls tend to clutter their tent floors as naturally as they clutter their bedrooms. Sometimes the sleeper doesn’t even wake up.

Amy, a sturdy and unimaginative child, a good worker, quite near-sighted, had fallen out of bed toward the wall. Because of the absent tie-downs, she’d landed on the chilly ground, hard with drought and covered with leaf litter. She had wakened to a landscape as unfamiliar as Mars—moonlight’s wan cast and resulting hatched shadows heightening her disorientation. And the whispers? And the footfalls in the forest? I could have heard them, too, had I been less familiar with the way a woods sounds at night. Several twigs fall nearby. A large moth bumps against the tent fly. The moon sheds an icy light over the oaks and red maples and wild cherries.

…moonlight’s wan cast and resulting hatched shadows…And the whispers? And the footfalls in the forest?

It seems calmer in the girls’ tent. We’re pretty certain that her tentmates have doubts about kidnappers, and that at least two of them agree Amy fell out of bed. But what’s the likelihood they’ll go back to sleep? And what about camp protocol? If Amy complains to her parents that no one respected her terror or addressed her concerns, if they believe her story, can we be sued?

At 3:30 a.m., we’re discussing legal implications of a minor event in a child’s life. But all three of us are mothers: our girls are sleeping in the other tents, we understand how frightened Amy is. This may not be just a minor event to Amy. We know things like this can reside in the mind and psyche for years. The blurry, moonlit woods, with its uncertain snaps and thumps, its rocks and chipmunk holes, the sounds like whispers—these can lodge in a person’s memory. Such a thing can foster insecurities, act as one more trauma encountered on the way to adulthood. We worry.

We want to stay out of trouble; we want to soothe Amy. We want to go back to sleep.

It’s against camp policy to have a chaperone share a tent with the girls, but we decide to break the rules for the remaining two or three hours of the night. I take Amy’s place in the far tent, Amy takes my cot in the chaperone tent. Julie asks me what I think happened, and I tell her I am pretty sure Amy fell out of bed. I also tell her I think Amy responded in a normal way. “If I woke up in the woods, in the moonlight, without my glasses, I think I’d be as terrified as she,” I say. “You did the right thing to wake us up. That’s what we’re here for, to keep you feeling safe.”

In no time, I am listening to the soft rhythm of the girls’ relaxed breaths. I lie awake awhile, dreading the fact that in about two hours I’ll be awake again, full sunlight and giggling all around me. I think about my daughter, two tents away, probably bunched up in her sleeping bag because she gets cold easily. At least she slept through our little drama. I think about how much coffee I’ll need to get through the coming day’s scouting activities. I recall the cool aura of the forest by moonlight, how safe I felt, how I want to convey that sense of safety to Amy, to my daughter, even to Ellen, so uncomfortable under the trees.

            This is the morning of September 9, 2001.

———————–

September 11, 2001.

The kids have been at school about an hour. I’ve cleaned up the breakfast mess and am making a cup of tea, checking my schedule for the day. My husband’s working in his home office instead of commuting into the city. I can hear the computer humming.

He bursts from the room, switches the radio on.

“A plane hit the World Trade Center!”

My eyes go wide.

All day long, I try my sister’s phone numbers. Work. Cell phone. Home. I know her husband will be at their apartment in Fort Washington, as he doesn’t leave for work until 10 in the morning, but I can’t get through. Sometimes there’s not even a recording: “All circuits are busy.” So many means of communicating with her, and none of them work.

Her office is downtown: Canal Street. From her 9th floor office reception area there is a view to the southeast, where the twin towers dominate the skyline. I am sure she is safe, but I’m not sure how safe she will be on her long route home.

I sign onto my internet account, relieved to find J’s e-mail address on a message: “I witnessed the second plane crashing into the second tower about -hour ago. It is really scary. Hopefully we won’t have another incident in another -hour. We are staying in our offices, tho no one is doing any work. It doesn’t seem prudent to leave now. I will try to leave in a few hours once things seem safer. I’ll call you later. I love you.”

The message header reads: “Horribleness.”

My husband spends the day with news sources. I keep turning the radio off, trying the phone. No, my parents haven’t heard anything. No, my brother hasn’t either—just the same message I got. I imagine my sister walking 200 blocks uptown on this hot day, one amid an exodus of others in the sunlight and the dust.

Four pm. The phone rings—it’s my mother. J reached her on her cell phone. She was headed uptown on a bus that was empty enough, at 160th Street, to take her the remaining 30 blocks home. “I don’t know how this worked,” she said of the call getting through, “I can’t even reach our home phone that’s 30 blocks away.”

She’ll tell me about her walk a few days later.

It’ll be a long, long story.

————————

Almost two weeks have gone by, and my son won’t, can’t, sleep. 9:45, 10:30, he’s still tossing in bed. By 11 o’clock we let him come into our room; he spreads his sleeping bag on our floor. He’s been camping out like this, on our floor, for days. Even with us, he stays awake most of the night. He admits he feels terrified. He worries every day his dad commutes to New York City.

It’s okay, we say, Dad wasn’t in the city that day.

But lots of other people’s parents were there that day, he answers. And he could have been. He could have.

Tonight, he goes to sleep at last.* I watch him lying there, one arm bent over his head, his lips parted off-center. The dog squeezes next to him and crawls halfway beneath our bed—her denning instinct takes over when she’s tired. Her long tail sweeps across his chin and he stirs slightly.

…minutes and hours seem extravagant, faithless, artificial things. But breath!

Many hours I have watched this boy at sleep, wondering at him. A few hours old, having gravely observed every bright or moving object in the room, after studying my face with his deep, wet eyes, having suckled his first milk and bellowed at being cleaned up and weighed, he fell asleep in my arms. I had felt him asleep for some time within the womb, but now I could watch the drowsy process. Now he breathes. In and out. I could not count the minutes I’ve spent watching him; minutes and hours seem extravagant, faithless, artificial things. But breath! And the slight twitching behind the eyelids, and the pulsing fontanel! Only during his sleep could I appreciate these things.

For when he was awake, he was constantly active. In an instant, he could crawl. Another instant, and he ran. Then he acquired speech, the product of which he loved. Talking is what he’s been put on earth to do. For many years the only times I did not hear his voice chattering in the background of my daily life were when he was at school and when he was asleep.

The world opened itself to him. Cautious, sensitive, he was always secure in his understanding that the world is eternally novel, interesting, and eager to receive his attentions. In the mornings he would tell me his dreams. Even sleep was entertaining; he had few nightmares. He felt safe in the cosmos.

I knew that someday he’d meet the bully, the unfair teacher, the irredeemable tragedy, and wondered how he would face such a thing. For years, he came to me, discussed the behavior of other children, talked about evil characters in books and movies, showed me what is wonderful in his life. “Look, Mama,” he said a thousand times, “Look at this new kind of acorn. Look at how the corn is blowing. Look at that big truck. Look—I think that little girl is crying. Look at my drawing. Look at me, Mama—I’m balancing. I’m a pirate. I’m Peter Pan!”

            Buildings are collapsing, Mama.

            Look, don’t look.

He’s nearly thirteen. No incipient beard, no hairiness or sweaty armpits yet, no break in the tenor voice. He rolls his eyes at his peers’ hormonal hijinks, the schoolboy crushes, won’t attend a dance. But the time is coming—he knows it. He’s quieter, gets lost in books, stands out in the meadow with a whippy stick, slashing at goldenrod and sumac. He lies in bed after the lights are out. He’s thinking. It keeps him awake, kept him awake even before last Tuesday.

He just has more to think about now.

~

We fool ourselves, thinking we can protect those we love.

~from journal notes of September 10-23, 2001

~

*(He will sleep for 14 hours, and I will let him do so, writing a note to the middle school claiming he was ill.)

A whilom history major

In an effort to get myself to sleep during a recent spate of insomnia and to enrich my understanding of ancient Roman history after reading Beard’s SPQR earlier this year, I have been reading a 1904 anthology of historians writing on various topics pertaining to the early Roman republic. History writing has changed a great deal in the past century; perhaps the historians of yesteryear were entertaining and concise by the standards of the time, but perhaps there is a reason history has a reputation for being dry. It is an undeserved reputation, in my opinion, yet I admit to finding a few of these fin de siècle commentaries soporific.

These historians toss names around as though we readers could be expected to know one 3rd-century BC general from another and assume we are already well-versed in the Punic Wars. Admittedly, it is likely the average educated reader in 1904 had more Western Civ background than the educated reader has today. I have heard of the Punic Wars, but I was rather hoping the historians could frame them for me in a way a modern reader might understand. So far, no luck with this anthology.

Perhaps that is not possible anyway–a modern reader really cannot fathom what life was like so long ago, or what constituted “civilization;” although current re-creation attempts offer a sort of immersion, no one can know how accurate they are (see: experimental archaeology). Contemporary historians, however, seem more willing to do a bit of cultural speculation, relying on archeology and artifacts as much as–or more than–upon the ancient texts listing wars, generals, leaders and enemies. One reason I decided not to pursue a history major in college long ago is that the discipline required so much task-reading of names, dates, and places before the student could move into the interesting materials of everyday life, food, culture, livelihoods, skills, crafts, religion, the arts…the kinds of things that interest me. I lacked discipline.

~

But words interest me. Another reason the 1904 book is so helpful at bedtime is the general pacing of the prose, but the word choices are fascinating. I do not just refer here to archaic history jargon but to vocabulary in general. It’s what one of my colleagues among the English instructors terms “ornamental.” Ornamental prose has its place, and there are times I relish its languid character, but it tends to drag for the reader more accustomed to contemporary American-English conciseness. So I get sleepy.

There are charming rewards to this stuff. Last week, the word whilom kept me from slumber. I had to find out what it meant before going to sleep and was about to throw off the blankets and get my dictionary. My kind spouse had the smartphone on the bedstand, however, and dictionary.com identified it as “archaic; erstwhile.” Here’s a little bio of the word from worldwidewords. Reading a compendium such as this one offers me insights not only into ancient Rome but into the world of scholars of 100 years ago–quite a different culture from today.

~

Ann E. Michael is a whilom history student and umquhile psychology major who turned to philosophy and English and then earned a graduate degree in Creative Writing. She recommends The Historians’ History of the World Volume 5 (ed. Henry Smith Williams) as both educational and snooze-inducing.     🙂

Insomnia

Screech owls. Yipping foxes. Howling eastern coyotes. Tree frogs. Flying squirrels. The brown crickets, slowing their chirps as the temperature falls. Night sounds that I notice when I have episodes of insomnia.

night

eerie night

All my life, I have experienced insomnia–sometimes to a distracting degree. Now that I have a chronic condition that induces fatigue, insomnia plagues me less frequently; but something about the change of season from summer to autumn tends to arouse the sleepless demon. A colleague speculates that this seasonal insomnia occurs because for most of my life I have had to operate on the school-year’s calendar, September to June instead of January to December. Annually, this has been my transition time. I think she may be correct.

~

One of the most frustrating aspects of insomnia has been my sense that lying in bed unable to sleep is time wasted. We have only so many breaths to take in our lives. Stewing in anxiety, listening to thoughts run heedlessly through my consciousness–such fruitless minutes! I know I should be giving my body complete rest, nestling into proper circadian rhythms, instead of restlessly tossing. Or I should just get up and do something useful (but I’m too sleepy to do anything useful).

I am not a Buddhist; but learning about the practice of tonglen has provided me with a method for insomnia that does not feel wasteful. When I cannot fall asleep, or when I waken in the darkness and cannot get back to sleep again, the mindful breathing and the focus on compassion that tonglen prescribes are enormously helpful. I slow my breath and think about breath; I think about life, and about all sentient beings. In my awareness on the brink of sleep, I send compassion outward with my breaths–outward to all other beings in the cosmos. I repeat in my mind, “May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May they be released from pain and the causes of pain. May they find peace. I send compassion to all sentient beings.”

The practice is akin to prayer, which I learned very young (my father is a “man of the cloth”) in church and at home. From early in my life, however, I encountered problems with prayer because I had problems with the Omnipotent Other Being to whom I was  directing my prayers. In the abbreviated tonglen practice as I practice it, I do not need to direct my thoughts to any one being but toward all beings. [I should note that in actual Buddhist practice, there is considerably more contemplative work in tonglen; a good reference is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.]

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First Presbyterian Church of Yonkers NY, 1964

The benefits are several. Maybe my consciousness does not affect the consciousness of other beings, or in any way affect the suffering they experience. I certainly allow that may be the case. Nonetheless, the practice of thinking kindly toward all other beings works to make me feel happier and kinder; it reminds me of my own and others’ generous spirits. In addition, the practice soothes me both bodily and in my mind. Slow breathing is comforting and relaxing. All kinds of studies show that slow, thoughtful breaths relieve physical stress and mental stress while allowing oxygen to flow freely through the blood. All of that is helpful to the body–and the slow breaths are relaxing enough to get me back to sleep. Which is also, as studies show, quite essential for good health.

~

The night sounds and the changing seasons kindle me to write poems, as well. Sometimes those middle-of-the-night awakenings are charged with inspirations, or snippets of imagery from life or dream.The urge to write differs from the urge to share compassion, but they feel like kinfolk to me. Poetry springs, often, from the feeling of shared struggle.

~

May we make good use of insomnia. May we be free from suffering.

The Protestant in my upbringing says, Amen.