After 9/11, I had the pleasure of spending a good two years or so in the throes of post-traumatic stress. It was awful – a really not-fun time.
One day probably two months into that awful time, I was sitting on the Hudson River early one morning (I’d taken to wandering early – the insomnia being what it was, and anyway it was one of the only times I could cross the city on foot without having to push past too many other bodies). Across the way, there was Jersey – in all its ugly industrial skylinery. I sat on a bench with a cup of coffee and a napkin, staring at the river.
I’ve always had this thing for rivers. Maybe it’s the way they never stop. They’re always going somewhere. You can put almost anything in them, and they’ll still be moved to keep going. The amount of force humans must exert on a river to get it to go a different direction – or to end its flow altogether – is simply astonishing. If you’ve stood on the Hoover Dam, you know what I mean.
I sat there on the Hudson River, my insides swirling with the residue of fear which would keep me off planes for four years and out of tall buildings and their elevators for as long as I could possibly come up with another way to navigate those things. But my body was still, my eyes fixed on the river. A breeze came all the sudden and took the napkin off my lap, even as it plucked a leaf from a nearby tree and sent it sailing to where the napkin had been against my knees. The message wasn’t lost on me. The seasons were shifting. Nature was marching on, with or without those big tall buildings downtown.
Later, in the spring, I sat in Washington Square Park and watched a pair of squirrels chase each other up and down a couple of trees. I thought about the twists of fate which dropped these wild animals in the middle of the Manhattan, of all godforsaken places. These squirrels who had no idea there was such a place as, say, the trees which stand so thickly behind my home here in Asheville, NC, now. Those NYC squirrels only have a few trees. They’re far-apart trees, too, and sorely outnumbered by humans and their many inventions. And yet, those squirrels had succumbed that spring to mating season. There’s no way around it.
We can destroy the structures we’ve created, can blast out the rock and build atop it, can even manipulate the imagined science of money, but we can’t manipulate everything.
Life goes on.
I share this little parable partly because Jonathan Sanders got me remembering those months after 9/11. I had moved to New York three months before that awful day to be a singer-songwriter. To make it happen. By the time September rolled around, I was pretty embedded in a certain acoustic music scene there. Everyone came out immediately with their songs about that day. It was only natural to try to make some sense of it all. To try to roll up all those erratic emotions, all the non-understanding of how humans could do that to other humans, and make order of it all, organize it into melodies and poetry.
I couldn’t write anything. There was no sense to be made. It took me until that morning by the Hudson River to even come up with a concept. The song I wrote about all of that was not good, but it worked for me. It was a making-peace song about how there are two ways anything can go in this world: either they can kill you, or you survive. If it’s the former, well, then, rest your soul. If it’s the latter, then you’re fine, or you will be.
I’m tired of all the doomsday b.s. that’s been swirling lately. The “our government is destroying us” crap. The finger-pointing and angering and rudeness and feeling let down. I don’t care what upsets you. What are you doing? What are you going to do?
Outside my window right now, the trees – standing densely down a small hill – bend against the weight of some scattering squirrels. The branches – though thin – are close enough together that the squirrels can leap from tree to tree. It’s quiet here. It’s nice. I’m drinking coffee, and there’s a napkin sitting still on the table, next to an orange tomato my girlfriend was given from someone’s garden.
If I pull myself into the present moment, it’s almost like the ideological debates which have been pissing everyone off, don’t even matter. Of course they do matter, in the sense that everything matters, in the sense that the way we treat each other matters. I can easily get bent out of shape about the fact that bullying won somebody something in Washington. But that’s not news. Washington is full of bullies – always has been. We have people there who were sent there expressly because they don’t come from that system. As such, they don’t really know how that system works, fundamentally, having not come from it. And so they’re messing it up. That’s what you do when you don’t know what you’re doing – you mess up. Ask any teenager.
It’s impossible not to recognize how much the priorities have shifted, though, since I sat on the Hudson River. What a blessing to be arguing about money and not some of those things which were dropped on us by our government back then. I’ll take it.
This is a music site, though, so rather than going any further into a diatribe about politics – or more shmaltzy optimism of the sort I know you all love – I’ll take a cue from Sanders and get out of the way, and give it back to Steve Earle: