We were on an island, in a yellow school bus, which was racing up and down hills at well over a hundred miles per hour. Every time I looked out the front window I was convinced that we were about to die, but somehow our driver navigated the curves with ease despite the obvious defiance of physics.
In my hand was a carton of a half-dozen eggs. As we barreled up and down the hills, I opened the carton. I reached for an egg and it cracked as I touched it. Inside was dead black baby bird covered in a gooey mess.
As I cupped my fingers around the bird in order to lift it out of the egg, the egg next to it suddenly hatched. Out of that egg burst a healthy little yellow chick.
Out of nowhere, a shoebox appeared. I put the chick in the shoebox to protect it, but the shoebox had strangely wide holes on the sides, and the chick kept escaping out of the holes. I tried to cover the holes with my hands, but there were more holes than I had hands, so no matter what I did the chick would escape. Meanwhile we are being thrown around the bus as it continued down the hills at a terrifying speed.
At one point, the chick escaped just as we were being tossed about, and it was crushed under my foot. I picked it up, it was dead. I started to cry and pet it, and suddenly it sprang back to life.
The bus started to pick up speed even faster. I put the chick back in the box, but it escaped again. Suddenly a second chick hatched out of the egg carton. The hills were getting steeper and I could not keep the chicks in the shoebox no matter how hard I tried.
At that moment, my alarm went off and I woke up.
* * * * *
I went to meet someone for coffee at ten. Today was a bank holiday, so when I got to the plaza it was mostly deserted. The coffee shop was open, however, and given that it was a sunny day we sat outside and drank coffee while we talked.
A few minutes into our conversation, three birds started running about beneath the tables next to us, chirping unusually loud to the point where I couldn’t hear what he was saying.
“Shh…” I whispered to the birds. “Vous êtes trop bruyant.”
They quieted down for a moment, though continued to run about beneath us. We continued our conversation.
Suddenly they were even louder than before, and as I looked down one bird had another pinned down by the neck, as though they were dogs fighting. A third was hopping about, watching a few inches away. The pinned bird was screeching in pain.
“Arrêtez!” I yelled towards them, perhaps a little too loudly, not able to contain my horror. They stopped and flew away, only to come back again a moment later.
He looked at me and smiled. “Do you always talk to the birds?” he asked me in English.
“Yes,” I said without thinking, realizing a moment later that perhaps I had just revealed more about myself than I should. “And usually they listen, but things seem off today.”
* * * * *
Two messages from trusted friends in three days, both with the same message gleaned from dreams. I am in the hospital. Rhyd is with me. In each respective dream, each friend is with me as well. One mentions something specific to my leg, the other mentioned that Rhyd had carried me. When I had gotten the first message last Saturday, I noted it in the back of my mind but did not let it get to me. But when I got the second message this afternoon, I panicked.
A few minutes later, Rhyd walks in and sits down next to me at the coffee shop, having finally found tobacco after an hour-long search due to the bank holiday. I relayed everything that had transpired in the last day.
He took out his book in which he had recorded his divination system, which consists of lines from many of his writings, each with an assigned number. He takes my computer and pulls up a virtual dice.
“When you are ready, click the button,” he said. I do as he says.
He takes that number and inputs it into the roll instructions. “When you are ready, do it again.” Again I do as he says.
He consults his book and starts to write down lines. After thinking for a moment, he draws lines between the lines.
“Read them as stanzas – here, here, and here,” he says, pointing to the lines.
Once again I do as he says.
* * * * *
“It’s dark inside the tomb. Desert priests staring into the sun.
Feather in pocket, or in ear. The moment of the magician, the revolutionary.
I wanted a fuck, a fire, a cup of tea.
The world between the walls.”
* * * * *
A little while later, we left the coffee shop in search of curry. An hour later, we were still walking around, nearly every place closed due to the bank holiday.
We finally came across a burger place. “This place is kind of my guilty pleasure,” he says.
We got in. I realize quickly that rare meat is exactly what I needed.
We walked back to where I had locked up my bike, next to the same coffee shop that I had been in and out of all day. We said our goodbyes as a friend approached, and so we lingered a moment longer to talk with her a bit.
At that moment, I looked towards the road right next to the coffee shop, right next to where the birds had fought that morning. In the road was a newly dead pigeon. I winced and pointed.
At that moment, a car came barreling down the road, hitting the pigeon again dead on. I heard the sound of it crushing under the tires, and winced again as more feathers scattered.
“I really need to go home now,” I said to them both.
I got on my bike and pedaled home as fast as I could.
I can’t blame the river herself, as I was acting the fool that day, but nonetheless I considered myself a goner, accepted my fate as I felt myself pulled under, and then was given a second chance thanks to a concrete pillar holding up a historic bridge. To this day I’m not sure if the river herself guided me to the pier or if there were other forces at work. But needless to say, from that point on I was terrified of rivers.
The incident happened at the tail end of a string of traumas, traumas that I was attempting to shake off that day when I decided to swim across the Delaware and back in a foolhardy attempt to “prove” something to both myself and the world. And after nearly paying for my foolishness with my life, I broke in a very concrete way. In the subsequent months I sold most of my possessions, left home for the energy and anonymity of New York City, and tried to start over the best I could.
In those early days, much of my healing came from my first attempt at self-employment: playing ukulele at the southern entrance of Washington Square Park by the chessboards while offering three-card tarot readings for $5. I didn’t find much financial success, but I found myself over time, and over the course of a few years managed to pull myself out of my trauma and enter into more stable forms of self-employment by teaching myself how to silkscreen. Blocking out the fact that I lived a stone’s throw from the confluence of two rivers, the Hudson River and the East River, I made peace with much of my past.
And then a few years later, some six summers after the incident with the river, I was struck by lightning. And again I barely escaped with my life, but this time the damage was not just psychological. And once again I fell into a deep trauma, a process that echoed my previous cycle. Terrified of storms and terrified of myself, I ended up selling most of my possessions and fleeing 3,000 miles from my adopted city, away from a temperate climate where thunder and lightning was the norm to the Pacific Northwest, where drizzles were common but storms were rare. Once again I found myself living near the confluence of two rivers, this time the Willamette and the McKenzie, but I kept a healthy respectful distance and once again was able to find my place.
But the cycle continued. Trauma struck again, and I uprooted myself two hours north to Portland, once again at the confluence at two rivers, the Willamette and the Columbia, hoping that I would fall into old patterns and find myself once again. But this time it did not happen as it had in the past. While I felt at home in a sense, I was depressed, stuck, I felt trapped.
After two years, not knowing where else to turn, I listened to the Gods whispering into my ear, decided to fulfill an old promise, and embarked on a pilgrimage to Europe. What I did not understand at the time was that I was setting out on that journey for reasons other than I assumed, and Their reasons were colliding with my own struggles.
The moment I stepped off the train in Rennes, I felt I was home. I felt like I was speaking to the Earth with my feet. I was once again at the confluence of two rivers, the Ille and the Vilaine, but unlike in the past I felt a pull towards these bodies of water, my fears seemingly evaporated.
‘Vilaine’ means ‘ugly one’ in French, which struck me when I first heard it as the river is anything but ugly. In fact, she was the most beautiful river I had ever seen. Forgetting my previous trauma around rivers, I befriended her quickly, taking daily walks along the bank, talking to the ducks and sharing with her my secrets.
And it was a few weeks later that I learned through a local friend that long ago, before the Romans came when Bretagne was Gaul, that the Vilaine was dedicated to Taranis, the Gallic god of thunder and lightning.
The pieces suddenly fell into place. And one night, at the bar with friends, I realized I knew. I knew where I belonged. I knew for what I was fated.
But then I denied it, pushed it away, went back to Portland, tried to continue living as I had been. And the Gods would have none of it. And They did what They do… first they knocked softly, then they knocked insistently, then they broke the door down and proceeded to destroy the house from within, so to speak.
On Samhain, I finally admitted it. I knew I had to go back, and I knew that I had to make an effort to stay. And once again, the cycle, selling all that I had, saving every penny I could, this time asking others for help. This time it was 6,000 miles, not 3,000. But a week ago I found myself once again at the banks of the Vilaine. I was home.
And both in honor of patterns as well as the past, I reverted to my former self, quickly acquiring a ukulele and a pack of Tarot cards. Being led rather than leading, I found myself at the bank of the confluence, singing to the Vilaine, playing songs I haven’t played in years, allowing my feet to touch the water, allowing my fears to evaporate, allowing myself to just *be*.
This afternoon, I went down for the second time, and as I arrived at the confluence a storm started to roll in. For an instant, the smell triggered my PTSD, but as I continued down the bank it faded as quickly as it came on. Despite the rain, despite the river, I sat just inches from the water.
She wanted to hear the Beatles, and so I obliged. And the rain came down, and the river lapped at my feet, and I reflected on twenty years’ worth of trauma as I sang to the river and the thunder god. The sun came out as it rained, the warmth and the wetness colliding with my fingers on the strings and the tears down my cheeks.
I was happy. And once again healed. And most importantly, I felt at home.
I was hurrying home, deep in thought and not paying attention, when I walked right into his sign, accidentally tearing it with my boot as I plowed through the cardboard.
I looked down at the torn sign and snapped back to reality. “Oh god, I’m so sorry,” I blurted to the man sitting a few feet away as I started to bend over to pick it up.
“Only Need $20 More For Bus Ticket Home” the sign said. Next to the sign was a collection of objects presumably for sale. There were a few tattered romance novels, some antique Coke bottles, and what looked like a piece of antler.
I picked up the antler and examined it. Part of it was broken off with a small stump remaining, but it was a beautiful piece, and I realized that if I sanded the broken stump down it would make a nice wand.
“Where is home?” I asked.
“Milwaukee”, he answered. “I left years ago and swore I’d never return, but over the time I’ve decided that maybe one actually can go home again.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out $20. “Sorry again about your sign, but hopefully now you don’t need it,” I said as I handed him the money.
He broke into a wide smile. “Oh thank you, thank you so much.” He got up to shake my hand. “I hope that piece treats you well.”
I thanked him again and continued home, waving the antler around like a wand as I neared my corner. I went through the front door of the building and up the stairs, leaving the antler outside my door by the landing on the second floor before going inside.
A few days later, I dug out my dremel and went out on the landing with the intention of sanding off the stump on the antler in order to give it the right shape. I had done some bone carvings some years back, and didn’t think much of it as I put on my goggles and turned on the dremel.
I held the sanding tip to the antler and made contact, and within a second or two I started to suddenly panic and uncontrollably shake. I quickly put down the dremel, and before I could understand what was happening my body went into full panic attack mode. I started to hyperventilate and I lowered myself into a seated position as my heart started to race and I started to sweat.
Terrified, I put my hands over my head and closed my eyes, and all I could see and feel and taste and smell was fire. Visions and sensations poured through my head; a fiery inferno, the screams of the dead, the stench of burning flesh. I felt myself being pulled down into myself and I briefly opened my eyes, but the visions and the smell did not immediately cease and I felt myself tightening into the fetal position as I closed my eyes again and reminded myself to breathe.
My heart was pounding ever faster, and it took me several minutes of slow breathing before whatever had come over me faded and I was able to uncurl myself and sit back up. As I felt myself come back, I stared at the antler in horror, utterly confused and terrified at what had just transpired. What had flashed through my mind was familiar, all too familiar, and yet so deeply buried and deliberately forgotten. But…what? How did the…
At that moment, my upstairs neighbor bounded up the stairs towards the landing, and as he got within a few steps of me he suddenly froze and sniffed the air. He looked at me, wide-eyed.
“That smell. Holy Mother of God, that smell. What the…?” he said, his voice shaking slightly.
I pointed to the antler and the dremel and tried to summon the proper words, but he had no interest in what I was actually pointing to. I looked down again where I was pointing and the objects suddenly read out to me as a solved riddle: friction and antler. Fire and bone. I looked up at him again but he spoke before I could.
“That smell,” he said again, his voice barely above a whisper. “It smells like when the Twin Towers were burning.”
II. Lessons in Capitalism and Imperialism: February, 1993
Our fifth-grade class had spent all month learning about the stock exchange, and it seemed fitting to wrap up the unit with a day trip to the Financial District. We piled into a big yellow bus and rode into Manhattan along with the morning traffic, eventually inching our way downtown towards Wall Street right at the peak of the AM rush hour.
We started out with a guided tour of the New York Stock Exchange, had lunch at a Burger King near Wall Street and, afterward, we walked over in a group to the headquarters of Solomon Brothers, located in the World Trade Center complex.
It was the first time that I had ever seen the Twin Towers in person, and I was instantly mesmerized by their energy and presence. We stood in front of the towers for a moment as our teacher took a few photos, and then proceeded across the street towards Building 7 where Solomon Brothers was located. As we walked away from the towers, I kept looking back as I struggled to process that anything could be so tall, so vast and so otherworldly. There was something truly unreal about them, as though I had stepped onto a Hollywood movie set or I was being fooled by a hologram.
One our way into Building 7, one of the guards wanted to check one of the bags that our teacher was carrying. We stood back as she was searched, all of us quite confused as to why there were security guards in the first place, let alone why our teacher had to open her bag up for them. After she was waved along by security, a few of us immediately wanted to know what that had been all about.
She gently tried to explain that the security guards check bags because they were worried about people potentially sneaking in “bad things”, which only piqued our curiosity further. She then told us that it was hard to explain in a few words but it was something we could discuss the next day, and then quickly led us toward the elevator while changing the subject. Within moments, the incident was forgotten.
In school the next morning, we talked extensively about our trip and what we learned, what the good parts were and what we didn’t enjoy so much. I was still wondering about the security guard and hoping that our teacher would talk about it, but nobody else brought it up and I was too shy to do so.
The following afternoon, we came in after recess to learn that a bomb had ripped through the garage of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, with reports of both deaths and injuries. We looked around at each other, both terrified and confused. Why, we asked. Why would someone do that?
Our teacher had no answer that afternoon, telling us only as much as the media knew at the time. Over the next few weeks, however, it became apparent that the bombing was an act of terrorism, which eventually facilitated the discussion around bombs and security guards and bag searching that our teacher had evaded during the field trip.
“But why do bad people want to hurt us?’ one student asked.
“Because we are the most powerful country in the world, and sometimes that means that we do things that anger people who do not have power,” she answered.
Nobody asked anything after that, but I stewed on her words long after the subject had been exhausted. I wrote them down in a journal and thought about them often, especially when watching the nightly news. Between my own personal awestruck experience with the Twin Towers in and of itself and having been on that land in their presence only 48 hours before the bombing, my attention was suddenly aimed towards subjects like terrorism and empire in a way that would never have occurred had we not gone on that field trip.
III. Of Boxes and Blemished Skylines: Summer 1996
I remember the very first time I heard the joke.
I was with a friend, in the backseat of her parents’ station wagon, on our way into Manhattan to see Les Miserables. As we approached the Holland Tunnel, with the skyline clear-as-day in front of us, her father turned around to face us.
“You girls know that the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are the two tallest buildings in Manhattan, right?” he asked us with a grin.
“But….” I started to immediately correct him, as everyone knew that the Twin Towers were the tallest.
He interrupted me with a laugh. “Yeah, the two boxes that they came in were dumped way down by Wall Street …”
We laughed along with him, immediately getting the joke. It was an understood and unspoken truth that for all their impressiveness in terms of height, the Twin Towers did look like two big ugly boxes, especially in comparison to buildings such as the Chrysler and the Empire State. While I had a strange fondness for them, even I had to admit that while they were otherworldly, they were otherworldly eyesores.
“You know, I was about the same age as you two are now when those towers first went up, and I’ll never forget how much folks hated ‘em at first. They called ‘em a blemish on the skyline, complained that they ruined the view of Lower Manhattan. And now a generation later, everyone’s buying tchotchkes with the Twin Towers on ‘em, and nobody can imagine what the skyline would look like without the towers. Funny how that works…” he said, drifting off into his thoughts.
I thought about what he has said as we came out of the tunnel. One of my neighbors had expressed a similar sentiment recently, and as I got a brief glimpse of the towers out the back window, for a moment I tried to imagine the skyline without the Twin Towers.
And while it was hard to imagine that those buildings actually existed in the first place, it was even harder to imagine what it would look like without them.
IV. Land, Once Water: Spring, 1999
“And it was right at this spot, at the base of a buttonwood tree, that the contract that became known as the Buttonwood Agreement was signed in 1792, marking the beginnings of what was to eventually become the New York Stock Exchange…”
‘This spot’ was in front of a hot-dog stand on Wall Street near the corner of Pearl Street. I was on a guided tour of the Financial District, having been dragged along by a friend from the West Coast who had never been to New York before. At that point, I had been taking the bus into city once or twice a week and I knew most of Manhattan like the back of my hand, but as I looked around I realized that I hadn’t been down near Wall Street since the school field trip six years earlier. I looked around, down the dark narrow street tucked within the oldest and deepest depths of Manhattan’s concrete jungle, and it was nearly impossible to imagine any sort of tree, buttonwood or otherwise, ever having grown in that spot.
We started walking eastward again behind out tour guide, who continued talking as we ambled along.
“Wall Street itself was named after an actual wall which once protected the settlement of New Amsterdam from both the British and the local tribes. The wall was built in the mid-1600’s, and originally stretched from Pearl Street to what is now called Church Street, which were the original shorelines of Manhattan over three-hundred years ago.”
Wait, what? I said to myself. The original shorelines of Manhattan are Pearl Street and Church Street? The present-day Manhattan extended three blocks east past Pearl and at least as many blocks west of Church. I thought of the Twin Towers, which I knew were just west of Church Street. If the tour guide was correct, that would mean that the entire WTC complex was standing in what was once the Hudson River.
“By the time the Buttonwood Agreement was signed, landfill had extended Wall Street out an extra block east, and the next year the Tontine Coffee House was built here at the corner of Wall and Water, which was to serve as the headquarters of the New York Stock and Exchange Board until the mid-1800s….”
I looked down where I was standing, suddenly aware that I was standing on an invisible border between bedrock and landfill, between the original boundaries of Manhattan Island and a man-made extension of “land” that was created from refuse. I looked eastward at the blocks and buildings, stretching towards the waterfront, buildings that I now knew stood where fish swam for millennia. I tried to imagine what the shoreline might have looked like around the time that the Dutch first fortified New Amsterdam with a wall, but once again the concrete got in the way.
The tour guide headed back in the other direction, still pointing out landmarks, but I was only partially paying attention at that point, still hung up on the idea that the lower half of Manhattan Island was once only half as wide as it was in the present day. As we approached the New York Stock Exchange, I tuned in to the tour guide again for a moment and quickly couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“And it was right here that on September 16, 1920, that a bomb went off in front of 23 Wall Street, at the height of the lunch hour on a busy weekday. 38 people were killed and over 100 were injured in what was at that time the deadliest attack on American soil. It was suspected that the bombing was carried out by Italian anarchists, but nobody was ever convicted, and it remains an unsolved case to this day.”
Wait, what again? A bomb? Here? My thoughts immediately drifted back to the WTC garage bombing, and then back to the tour guide’s words about Wall Street as a fortified wall that was built as a means of defense. The guide made no mention of the events that led to the need for a fortified wall in the first place, but I understood enough about history and empire at that point to sense a general pattern of cause and effect.
I looked around; the block itself felt like a fortress, holding itself in tension, in constant defensive posture against anything that may try to attack it. It felt nervous and guarded, and I felt the same as I continued down the narrow concrete corridor.
V. Fate and Foreshadowing: Late July, 2001
“You don’t have a fear of heights, do you?” he asked me at one point while giving me a tour of the main dining area. I had been looking out the window for a moment, temporarily paralyzed by the realization of how high up I was, and the look on his face was one of slight concern.
“Oh, no, not at all,” I lied. “I’ve worked in skyscrapers before,” I added nervously. That part wasn’t an outright lie, but I left out the fact that while I had actually worked in a few skyscrapers, I had never been higher up than the 29th floor.
“Uh-huh,” he said, sounding unconvinced. “New hires always tell me that they’re not afraid of heights, but then I’ve had some go and quit on me after a few weeks because they realize they can’t deal with it,” he said to me.
For the money I’ll make here, I’ll learn to deal with it, I thought to myself.
“This is as high up as you get in this town,” he continued, as if I needed any more reminders that I was on the 107th floor of the tallest building in Manhattan.
I nodded and smiled. “I know. I’m OK,” I said again, trying my hardest to project an air of confidence.
He smiled back and waved me over as he walked towards the back of the restaurant.
Other than the awkward exchange around heights, the interview went smoothly. I got along well with the interviewer, he seemed satisfied with my resume despite my relative lack of fine dining experience, and he was pleased at my willingness to take any shift that was available. I left there very hopeful that I had the job.
“I’ll give you a call in a few days”, he told me as I walked out.
But a few days came and went without a call, and by the end of the week I realized that I didn’t have the job after all. For some reason, that time I had really gotten my hopes up, and I took it very hard and very personally. Those around me noticed, and tried in their own little ways to cheer me up.
“You know, I have dreams of that building sometimes,” my partner said to me a few weeks after the interview. “In the dream, I’m standing against the windows on one of the top floors, and all of a sudden the building starts to sway violently back and forth.”
I thought back to when I looked out the window from the dining area of the 107th floor, that terrifying, paralyzing rush that the manager picked up on, and I nodded.
“Frankly, you’re better off with a job closer to the ground,” he said after a while. “Personally, I don’t know if I could handle being that high up all the time. That building always made me a little nervous.”
“Everything happens for a reason. I’ll find a better job,” I concluded.
After dinner, we walked through Midtown down to Lower Manhattan. The sun was setting, illuminating the skyline, and I stared down at the southern tip for a moment, thinking about the job I didn’t get. The job in the buildings that stood where the river once flowed, the buildings that swayed back and forth in my partner’s dreams. I suddenly felt a strangely unexplainable relief that I wasn’t going to be working in that building.
The manager probably made the right call, I admitted to myself as walked through the shadows of the towers towards the Brooklyn Bridge. I probably wouldn’t have been able to deal with being that high up.
VI. Consequence of Empire: September 11, 2001
I opened my eyes just a crack, immediately closing them again as the bright sunshine streaking through my windows temporarily blinded me. I knew it was already mid-morning, and I also knew that I wasn’t ready to wake up quite yet. I had spent the night before out late drinking with friends, and I hadn’t gotten back to my place until close to sunrise. I had only been asleep for three or four hours at that point.
But something had just woken me up out of a sound sleep, and I shifted my head slightly and slowly tried to open my eyes again to see if it was anything that I needed to worry about. The head of my mattress was up against a large bay window, and as I squinted my eyes open again all I saw was blue. The sky was an amazing, brilliant blue, not a cloud in the sky, a rarity that late in the season. I turned my ear towards the open window for a moment, heard nothing but birds and traffic, and rolled over back to sleep.
A little while later, I heard a similar noise again. That time I sat up, again my vision fixated on the sky, wondering if what I heard was the demolition project from a few blocks away. Again I listened for a minute, looked out the window again, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But as I lowered myself back into bed, an unsettling and creeping feeling came over me.
I tried to get back to sleep but failed, eventually settling for lying in bed while staring at the sky, too anxious to fall back asleep yet too exhausted to actually get up.
Out of the silence the phone rang. I jumped at the sound, then slowly reached over and picked it up.
“APLANEAPLANEHITTHETWINTOWERSTURNONYOURTVWEAREUNDERATTACK” was all I heard on the other end of the line.
I recognized the voice of a friend but thought I had misheard what he said. “What?” I asked. “Can you say that again?”
“TURNONYOURTVJUSTTURNONYOURTV’ was the reply.
I stayed on the phone and reached for the remote. I turned on the TV and saw the Twin Towers engulfed in flames.
I threw some clothes on and ran downstairs, flung open the front door, ran down to the end of the block, and looked northwards towards Manhattan. I could see what looked like smoke and fire in the distance, and the air was sooty and acrid. I looked around. My block was mostly empty, and the few faces I saw looked as ashen as the sky in the distance.
I stood, frozen, staring at the smoke in the distance. As I stood there, an older man walked past me, walking with a cane and wearing a hat that proclaimed his status as a Vietnam vet. He stopped next to me for a moment, and then looked me in the eye and motioned towards the smoke with his cane.
“That there,” he said, his voice cracking as he spoke, “that there is the consequence of empire.”
I nodded, repeating his words to myself quietly. The consequence of empire.
My thoughts started flashing, from the bombing of the WTC garage nine years earlier, to the 1920 bombing of Wall Street, to the original fortification from which Wall Street bears its name. The consequence of empire indeed – 350 years of colonialism that led us to this very moment.
I ran back to the house and stood in front of the TV for the next several hours, taking in as many vital details as I could bear. I reflected for a moment on the job that I ended up not getting a few months prior and a knot immediately formed in my stomach.
As I stood there, I slowly took in what this meant in actuality. Subways were shut down. Bridges and tunnels shut down. Flights grounded. Cell phone networks hopelessly jammed. ATM networks down. Stock exchange shut down. Traffic suspended throughout all of Manhattan for the first time in the city’s history. An entire ‘way of life’, shut down in an instant.
And out my bay window, only a few miles away, a fiery pit steadily burned, with television cameras catching every detail save for the one things that I knew could not be transmitted through sight or sound: the stench of fire, of metal and soot, of burning flesh and bone. The news was calling it a “rescue mission”, but my senses and my gut both told me otherwise. I could smell death in the air, and I could hear and feel the dead as well.
VII. City of the Dead: September 12-15, 2001
The morning after, I cracked my eyes open in the identical manner as I had the day before, and it only took a split second of staring at the blue sky to remember what had transpired over the past 24 hours. I lay there for a moment, my dreams still fresh in my mind, dreams filled with fire and horror and the screams of the dead.
I needed to check on a friend who lived downtown, and I couldn’t ignore the pull that I was feeling from the other side of the river, so I grabbed my camera and a few other items and set out on foot towards Lower Manhattan. It was around three miles between my apartment in Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridge, and with every block the smell in the air increased along with the tension of the land and the unmistakable screaming that shook through every bone of my body.
At the base of the bridge, an officer with a military rifle guarded the walkway. “Residents only,” he barked as I approached.
“I live on Warren Street,” I lied, and gave the address of my friend.
“ID?” he asked.
“Its in my wallet which is in my apartment on Warren Street.” I answered calmly. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for, I thought to myself.
He scowled for a moment, not sure whether to believe me, then relented and let me through.
I walked across the bridge, straight through Lower and Midtown Manhattan right up towards Central Park, walking in a city that other than the sound of emergency vehicles had gone completely silent. Not a single store was open, not a single car was driving through the streets, and there were very few people on the sidewalks. Birds eerily chirped as I made my way uptown, briefly pausing near 14th Street to take in the totality of the silence. It was a literal ghost town, in more ways than one, with the surreal nature only increasing when a military vehicle rolled right by me as though it was the most normal, everyday thing.
I continued uptown, taking pictures as I went. By the time I got to Rockefeller Center, I paused and looked around and for a moment was in utter terror. There was nobody in sight. No cars, no people, no sounds other than the shrill shrieks of sirens and the screaming that I couldn’t tune out. I stood across from Radio City, the only person in a 360 degree radius, and was so taken in and paralyzed by the emptiness around me that it took me a few minutes to realize that I was standing right in the middle of Sixth Avenue. A group of people walked by on the sidewalk and I was so surprised by their presence that without even thinking I pulled my camera out and took their picture.
I then laid down in the middle of the street and did a log roll straight across to the other side. I didn’t know why, but in that moment I needed contact with the land, with the concrete and ashes that I had been walking upon for miles. I lay still in the street next to the sidewalk for a moment, and the screaming I was hearing suddenly became a roar. When I got up, I looked over at the people on the other side and realized that they had been taking pictures of what I had just done. They waved, I waved back.
Remembering that I had a friend that I was checking on, I quickly made my way back downtown. As I approached Union Square, I quickly saw that makeshift memorials were already being erected in the park, and flyers with pictures of the missing were taped to nearly every street-pole.
It brought me back to what I couldn’t tune out, the screaming. The dead. I wanted to stop and pay tribute, but I was still on a mission, and I continued on until I arrived at my friend’s apartment four blocks north of the disaster. As I rang the bell, I could feel the heat of the fire, and the stench had become overwhelming.
“I haven’t seen a thing yet, I haven’t left the house and I don’t want to,” he said to me we sat down on the couch.
“I don’t blame you,” I replied. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get that smell out of my mind.”
He looked up at me. “My grandmother’s been in a constant anxious state since yesterday, and nothing I can say or do will calm her down,” he said, motioning towards the back room. “She says the smell reminds her of Poland when she was a child, and she’s been in a terrible state. She’s terrified. I mean, we’re all terrified, but I don’t even know how to begin to comfort her.”
I didn’t know what to say, and we both sat there in silence for a while with our tea and cigarettes as I tried desperately to tune out the screaming that had hit a deafening pitch.
For the rest of the week, I spent my afternoons in Union Square, praying and making offerings for the dead. The screaming only started to fade a few months later as the fire finally went out, but I heard the screams in traces for the next several years.
VIII. Fear of a Blue Sky: July 2010
“When you were a kid, did you ever hear that joke about the Twin Towers?”
I paused for a minute, trying to access a file in my brain that had been long since tucked away. “You mean the one about how they’re just the boxes that the Empire State and the Chrysler Building came in?”
She nodded, poured herself another glass of wine, and then continued.
“Isn’t it weird how one day the world has suddenly changed and you just can’t say things anymore? Like, my mother would go on and on about those buildings when I was a kid, about how ugly they were and how she wished that they had never been built, on and on. And even remembering and recalling that just feels so weird and inappropriate now. I mean, obviously telling any jokes about the Twin Towers nowadays doesn’t seem right, but even remembering that we used to make jokes feels funny, like we did something bad retroactively or something. Its weird, I almost feel guilty about it.”
“Yes,” I said. I knew just what she was talking about. “I think we all carry around much more baggage around that event and our relationship with those buildings in general than we’d ever want to admit or even conceive of,” I said.
“For example, I’ll give you one,” I continued. “I can remember years ago being in the back of a friend’s car driving into the city from Jersey as her father was telling me how there were no Twin Towers when he was a kid. And when I heard him say that, I stared out at them and tried to picture what it would be like if they weren’t there. I shudder when I think about that now, it just freaks me out. And I swear, its like I’m almost afraid to even put words to it, to say it out loud. Somewhere in my head I seem to think that it never actually happened if I don’t speak of it. “
She nodded. “Can I tell you a secret?” she asked me.
“Of course,” I answered.
“I mean, its weird and messed up. I feel like I’m just crazy or this was just some crazy thing that happened in my head, but I really just need to tell somebody and you’re good with crazy stuff.” She looked at me for affirmation and I nodded.
She took a deep breath. “Okay. So, a few years ago I was having a cavity filled, and I should preface this by saying that I hadn’t gotten any work done on my teeth since before 9/11. But I’m in the chair, and as the dentist started to drill, all of a sudden the smell just jolted something seriously deep and I suddenly started panicking and remembering the towers and the aftermath in this vivid and intense way that felt like I was on psychedelics or something. Its like it was right there for a moment, it was real and in front of me again. I had to get the dentist to stop, and it took me a while to calm down after that.”
I nodded vigorously and I told her about my experience with the antler and the dremel. “It was one quick and hardcore lesson in how deeply scent and trauma are linked in the brain, and the degree to which trauma is retained long after you think you’ve gotten over it,” I said to her. “It felt like an out-of-body experience, like I had completely lost control.”
Her expression suddenly turned to sadness. “There was a part of that experience, the part where your stomach clenches so tight you think you’ll choke…. I’ll tell ya, sometimes that happens to me for absolutely no reason at the most innocent times. Like last week, I was lying on my back in the park and there was something about the color of the sky that just threw my stomach in knots. It was that same blue, something about that shade…”
“I mean, listen to me,” she continued after a moment. “ Fear of a blue sky? It’s just absurd. But its also very real and I don’t know if I’ll ever rid myself of it.”
I just stared at her for a moment. as not only did her experiences so precisely mirror my own, but she had the courage to vocalize something that I couldn’t ever bear to acknowledge to myself up until that moment.
“Yes, the fear of a blue sky,” I said after a while. “It’s very real indeed.”
Minor details were changed for privacy reasons.
(Note: I wrote this a year ago and it was originally published on The Wild Hunt. I’m reposting it here as this set of experiences have only become more relevant from the time between when I wrote it and the present day.)
Above all, my polytheism rejects the idea that there is “one true way”.
Polytheism is not a singular path, nor a singular pantheon. My polytheism is neither strictly descriptive nor strictly prescriptive, and leans heavily towards a situational view. My polytheism is not cookie-cutter. What works for one person in their relations with their gods may look very different from what works for another, and providing that both situations are consensual, both are equally valid.
I don’t think anyone has the right to gate-keep or dictate what polytheism is. Polytheism is not a new concept. Those who are attempting to control the meaning of ‘polytheism’ seem to have forgotten that this is a concept that goes back thousands of years and spans across cultures all over the world. To define it in a way that excludes more ideas than it embraces is a form of cultural erasure. It is colonialist, and it is abusive. My polytheism begins and ends with “there are many gods and they are real”.
My polytheism reminds me constantly that the gods do not want the same things from all of us, which is why I reject the idea that all polytheists should put “Gods first”. My gods have made it clear to me many, many times over the years that it is my job to put people first. My gods are fine on their own. They don’t need me to put them first. The people they have asked me to help, on the other hand, are not fine on their own.
Those who insist that all polytheists should be putting gods first are asking some of us to defy the will of our gods. I put people first because that’s what my gods want me to do. There were times in the past that I did put the gods first, and they let me know very quickly that they were angry with those choices. I know better than to go down that path again. That’s not to say that its not the duty of some polytheists to indeed put their gods first. Because again, the gods don’t want the same things from all of us. Because again, there is no one true way.
My polytheism soundly rejects the idea of a singular ‘authority’ or group of authorities. I am wary of anyone who positions themselves as a spiritual authority, especially when they attempt to exert such authority across traditions or pantheons. History demonstrates very clearly the flaws and dangers in such thinking.
Those who claimed spiritual authority in the medieval era did so under a doctrine of circular logic known as the Divine Right of Kings. Those who ruled claimed divine authority to do so, and those who supported such rule stated that the rulers held the positions they did “by the grace of God”. In defense of such legitimacy, the rulers claimed that if God didn’t deem it, they wouldn’t be in charge. We see the same circular logic at work when it comes to many “priests” in the polytheist community, who claim that what they are doing and what they are saying comes directly from the gods, and who use such a supposed mandate to act with arrogance and harshly authoritative attitudes towards anyone who acts in ways they find disagreeable. Some go as far as to warn that the gods will be angry and vengeful if we do not listen to what they say. Again, this is spiritual abuse.
“[The idea that] “Gods get angry when you don’t respect their priests” reveals an awful lot about what you were hoping to gain from being their priest.” – Rhyd Wildermuth
Are priests necessary? For some folks, sure. Others are content and/or better off without such systems of hierarchy. Both paths are valid. Discernment is the key.
My polytheism puts a lot of stock in honesty, integrity, and accountability. If someone posits themselves as an “expert”, I want to know what basis they have to make such a claim. If someone states that they have X years of training in category Y, I want to know who trained them. And if that person takes offense to such questions, that’s a huge red flag from where I stand.
Anyone who is a true professional, a true expert, should never take offense at their credentials being questioned. If anything, they should be grateful that such questions are being asked, as honesty and integrity are crucial to such work. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. When we fail to hold those who claim ‘expertise’ to any recognizable standards, it can be especially damaging to newer folks entering into the community who will more likely than not instill their trust in such ‘experts’.
My polytheism holds that anyone who demands respect does not deserve it. Respect is earned through actions, through integrity, through the way that one’s work ripples through the community. Demanding respect comes from the ego, not from what one puts forth.
My polytheism distinguishes between facts and opinions. For example, having opinions on theology does not make one a theologian any more than having opinions on football would make one a star athlete. ‘Theology’ is a field of expertise in which standards are attached. One does not get to call themselves a ‘theologian’ on the basis of how many opinions they have, even if those opinions are well-researched. And while anyone is free to opine regarding theology, its more than a little problematic when those with no documented ‘expertise’ in the field of theology feel they have the right to talk down to those who actually *do* have such ‘expertise’.
My polytheism is of the “Many Gods, No Masters” variety. If your polytheism revolves around masters, that’s your choice. But if you insist that’s how everyone’s polytheism needs to be, I’m going to stand against that.
I’m not against submission as a concept, but the *reason* for said submission is crucial. There is submission based on mutual love and mutual trust, and there is submission based on fear and ‘authority’. The former is healthy and honorable. The latter is toxic and potentially abusive, and riddled with lots of complexes that far too many polytheists have carried over from the same monotheist religions that they claim to reject.
My polytheism stands firmly against the idea that one can or should never say “no”. This links directly with my above comments about submission, and again has potential for great abuse. I say “yes” as much as possible. But I reserve and have exercised the right to say “no”.
For example, I work mainly with three deities, of which one is essentially an eight-year-old child. And if I always said “yes”, the results would not be much different as if any given parent always said yes to an actual eight-year-old child. My apartment would look like a toy store, my freezer would be full of nothing but ice cream, I’d have no money to pay my bills, and my friends likely would be trying to intervene with concerns about my mental health and well-being. Discernment and compromise are the key.
My polytheism is centered on the belief that the gods have agency. But just like humans, they are not infallible. They mean well, but don’t always completely understand our circumstances. I don’t think that the gods are omnipotent and omniscient…those are concepts I associate with Monotheistic Christian Sky Daddy. I believe that the gods have the ability to be omnipresent but are not so by default. I also believe that the gods fuck up just the same as we do, and classical mythology drives that point home pretty clearly.
“God is a person like myself.” – Victor Anderson
Does this mean that the gods are exactly like us? Of course not. We are all divine beings, but the gods are divine to an exponential power. They are older, they are wiser, they are more powerful versions of ourselves. And yet, they are still mirrors of us.
And more than anything, my polytheism rejects the idea that an “apolitical” polytheism can possibly exist. Everything is political. And when you’re engaging in a minority religious practice that has a history of oppression and suppression, anything and everything you do is politicized. Whether you are overtly political or not is a different story, but polytheism is political no matter how you frame it. Inclusivity is a political act, as is exclusion. Working with the gods of the oppressors is political, as is working with the gods of the oppressed. When one side brands the other as ‘political’ and cries out in protest while they themselves are asserting political stances, they are engaging in nothing but smoke and mirrors while trying to maliciously claim authority and control meaning.
Ten years ago, a god asked me to take a journey, and I agreed. A year ago, she reminded me of my promise, and I completely turned my life upside down to make it happen.
One could say that it was an act of devotion, an act of piety.
It was also a rare request on her part, which was one of many reasons why I took it so seriously.
In general, my gods don’t demand either devotion or piety in the traditional sense. If anything, they have made it clear over the years that such ideas are *not* what they desire. I recognize that my experience is in the minority, as most other polytheists I know are primarily focused on devotion. But I would never question if whether what they were doing was “right” or not because I have absolutely no first-hand knowledge of their relationships with their gods. I have no authority to judge nor dictate what I think a relationship between other people and their gods should look like or to declare what is and isn’t pious within the context of their relationship, and to assert such an authority would be to claim that I had a power that in reality is impossible to definitively possess.
And to try to claim such a power is not piety, it is hubris. Nobody has ANY right to judge or dictate what relationships between gods or humans should look like, even if they are devotees of the god in question.
Why, you ask? Because the gods don’t want the same things from all of us, and the idea that they would want that is absurd. What a god asks of you may not be the same as what a god asks of anyone else. If you truly believe and profess that the gods are real and autonomous beings with agency, you have absolutely no way of knowing what that god may be saying to anyone else any more than you would absolutely know what any other human said to that person unless you were in the same room.
If you think you not only have the right to judge the deity relationships and practices of others, but you claim that you are doing so in the name of the gods and that you know definitively what the gods do and do not want, you are caught up in your ego and you need to check that shit. You are exposing your desire for power over, as opposed to power that is rightfully developed and/or earned and granted.
There is nothing pious about making declarative statements without qualifiers about what the gods want from others. And there is nothing pious about using ones reputation in the community and the mechanisms of fear to shame others into agreeing with your viewpoints regarding deity. To do so is nothing but arrogance, and arrogance is the opposite of piety. Assuming that one knows what the gods want of others, and assuming that they have the right to scold and chastise and shame others who do not fit their view of piety is the epitome of hubris. There is nothing ‘pious’ about it; it is an attempt to control meaning and to claim power.
Anyone who would say that they are focused on and dedicated to piety and then in the next breath declare what the gods want of others is exposing a potential minefield of inner complexes and control issues while plainly demonstrating the degree to which their thinking is steeped in a mess of hypocrisy and contradiction. They can speak in authoritative tones about ‘miasma’ until they turn blue in the face, but they authority they are attempting to assert holds no legitimacy in the face of their own miasmic hubris.
And whether consciously wielded or not, such a position is potentially a grave abuse of power, especially when those who put forth such ideas identify as priests, clergy, or leaders. It is nothing less than an attempt to control both people as well as meaning.
Humility and piety go hand in hand. Those who are truly pious, those who truly do speak for and through deity, tend to be creatures of great humility and awe. Arrogance, hubris, and impiety also go hand in hand. Those who harshly police meaning and act as gatekeepers of definitions and/or experience are not acting piously.
Once again: to attempt to wield power and control meaning through arrogance and hubris is to be in service to the ego, not the gods.
(This is essentially a continuation of my previous post, which was written two days before the Brexit vote. As there is usually clarity in hindsight, the messages and senses that came out of Strasbourg were further illuminated after the vote.)
For all the Americans who don’t get what this all means:
The EU was created mainly to prevent further war in Europe. I’m pretty sure you all are familiar with the world wars of the 20th century, but the horrors of war in Europe go back for over a thousand years. Wikipedia can explain the Thirty Years’ War and the Hundred Years’ War much better than I can, so I’ll point you there as I really don’t want to type out summaries of those wars on my phone. But I will stress that those are only the biggest two, and that there have been countless other wars that have devastated the European continent.
The seventy years between the end of WWII and now have arguably been the most peaceful time in Europe for hundreds of years, and the EU is the main reason why.
Is the EU perfect? No, far from it. As I’ve elaborated on in the past few weeks, there are many aspects of the EU that are pretty horrible, mainly it’s neoliberal economic policies and the racism inherent in its austerity programs. The power differentials within EU countries causes much suffering for those countries with less power, which is why Spain has been grumbling and Greece has made efforts to exit the EU over the past few years. Those efforts were unsuccessful, but were driven by legitimate grievances against Brussels and the Troika over the treatment they have received.
The U.K. on the other hand, or more specifically England and Wales (as Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain) did not have the legitimate grievances that countries like Greece and Spain do. This was not about economics, this was about racism and xenophobia. This was a vote based on fear-mongering, inaccurate rumors, and outright lies. This is indicative of the rise of fascism and the far right in Europe, a trend that is being mirrored in the United States. Trump is actually in the UK right now, cheering this decision. And fascists across Europe are also toasting this development.
Meanwhile, the refugee crisis is only worsening, with the UNHCR estimating that 24 people per minute are fleeing from their homes due to war and/or persecution, and the UK’s exit will only further empower those in other EU member nations who wish to close their borders to refugees.
History tells us not only of our past, but our future. As the saying goes, if we ignore history it is doomed to repeat itself. WWII was also fueled by racism and xenophobia, most notably but not at all limited to antisemitism. But while hate was the fuel that drove WWII, the war itself was started over food. Hitler invaded Poland for a very specific reason – to secure the food supply for the German people, as there was not (and still is not) nearly enough land in Germany to feed its population.
I’ve been gushing about the food in France all month, in terms of both the quality and the price, which was also the case in Germany. The reason such a food supply exists is due to a combination of EU subsidies and a lack of tariffs across borders as a result of EU policies. Which means that if the EU crumbles, a food crisis will result. And this is where history is crucial, as a combination of widespread xenophobia, the rise of the far right, and a food crisis were the primary conditions that prompted WWII.
And this does not just affect food, nor does it just affect the EU. This also puts the US in great danger as well as the rest of the world, especially given the rise of Trump and far-right nationalism in the US. A Trump presidency in the face of a weakened EU spells danger for the entire world.
Right now the UK has no PM as Cameron has just resigned, basically no functional government at the moment, and everyone who isn’t affluent and white is suddenly in danger. This will only further fan the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment in England, as well as severely affect the lives of poor, disabled, and other marginalized folks who rely on the financial and/or policy-based benefits and protections of the EU in order to survive.
From here, Scotland will undoubtedly once again hold a referendum for independence with the goal of joining the EU, and will likely succeed this time around. Meanwhile, Spain and Greece very well may be empowered to try to exit once again, and given a weakened EU have a much greater chance of succeeding. And while that may be advantageous to those countries themselves, it will still further weaken the EU as well as further exacerbate tensions within other EU member nations. I should add that a significant portion of Europe’s fresh produce comes from Spain and Greece, and that food is heavily relied upon by EU countries that cannot produce enough food on their own.
This entire situation is absolutely terrifying. And while there’s not much that us Americans can do to stop it, there are three crucial things we absolutely must do. The first is to educate yourselves on the politics of Europe and the EU. The second is to build communities of resistance and an actual Left in this country. And the third is to stop Trump.
I love you all, but we really really need to wake up now. It’s literally now or never. This is Tower Time. The storm is now here.