My Mother’s Hair Turned White That Day

There is a chill in the air as I write, though I refuse to admit that summer is over and close the windows. Lately, I have been rushing to dance, eager to see if Lyrical will show up for me once again, leaning forward like a fifteen year old with a consuming crush.

Tammy’s Friday Night Waves class fell on the fourteenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001; and she decided to mark the occasion with a ritual. After what, for me, was a very engaging wave, Tammy asked us to form a large circle and join hands. She then asked people who were affected in various ways by the events of September 11th to step forward.  I forget the order of her questions, but she said,  “Step forward if you had to move your home that day.”  They stepped back and a new group–including me–stepped forward after she said,  “Step forward if you were there, Downtown, on September 11.”  Finally she said, “Step forward if you know someone who died that day.”

I realize, in glimpses, that I am writing a kind of autobiography through these many brief texts, if obliquely; and I am, as ever, grateful for your patient audience.

On the morning of September 11th, I rollerbladed, as usual, to work at an artist’s studio in Downtown Manhattan. The first thing that was odd was the fire. I was on the bike path along the East River; and it was impossible not to notice it. Initially, I thought the Bell Atlantic building was on fire. Even this early in the narrative, people stood paralyzed, watching. I paused briefly, and took a moment to draw the scene before me in my sketchbook. I was nervous about being late, and continued on. As I got closer, it got weirder and weirder. People were frozen. There was fire. I couldn’t process it. When I was close to City Hall, a man yelled, “It’s terrorists! Get out! You have to get out of the city! They don’t want you to know, but it’s terrorists!” That shook me awake a little, though I was still concerned about getting to work on time. I moved in fits and starts, unsure about what to do. Finally, I returned to the bike path. By now, people were streaming down it, completely silent. There was no hysteria whatsoever, just shocked silence. Many of the people walking north with glazed eyes had flakes of ash from the fires on their hair. I skated at a walking pace, slowly, slowly, by the side of a woman who was exceptionally out of sorts.

Tammy asked us to please move one step to the left, so we could stand in someone else’s footsteps. We moved twice to the left, then she asked us to continue to move until we completed a circle of the entire room, having a chance to stand in every person’s footsteps. It didn’t work at all. We were very crowded, for one. And no one could take the lead since it was just a big circle. We lingered, unable to coordinate our movement.

This was a perfect representation of what September 11th was for me. Quiet, vague shock, and a totally anti-climactic afternoon. Nothing seemed to move. After trying unsuccessfully to reach my then-girlfriend by pay phone, I lingered on the East Side. No voices were to be heard, except that TV’s and radios were on everywhere. Many stood next to open cars listening to car radios. Everyone lingered vaguely in silent disbelief, not making eye contact. I eventually made my way back over the Williamsburg Bridge. It was filled with silent walkers. I stopped at length on the Williamsburg side of the bridge where a throng of people watched the burning buildings in silence through the bridge’s red fence. My next stop was Woodhull Hospital, where I intended to volunteer. I found several parked ambulances, and a group of paramedics standing around with their arms crossed. They did not need my help. So far, there were no survivors.

In many of the meditation retreats I have attended, sitting meditation is interspersed with periods of group walking meditation. Many times, this was torture for me. There was always someone who moved maddeningly slowly, and, of course, the slowest person sets the pace. I often thought of making some kind of announcement or asking that the teacher dictate the pace, but over the years I settled into it, being simply part of the group field, moving as the group moved. At some point, I realized that walking meditation in a group did not bother me at all.

I confess that I am conflicted about how to think about remembering September 11th. On one hand, a dramatic event de-stabilized my world. Many people who were not far removed from me died. Many people died, leaving grief-stricken families. On the other hand, the United States doesn’t even make the list of terrorist-addled countries. All life is sacred, undoubtedly, but the nationalist tone of the media, especially in the first few days after, made me very uncomfortable. I finally shook myself awake three days after September 11th when President George W. Bush stood in the pulpit of the United States National Cathedral vowing revenge, though it still wasn’t clear who was responsible for the attack.

I wandered aimlessly. I skated to Prospect Park and did laps, smelling the acrid fires, hearing the soaring fighter jets and watching the smoke from across the river. Back in Williamsburg, I went to my accustomed places. Everywhere, there was a TV with images of the burning buildings.

My mother’s hair turned white that day. Back home, I climbed to the roof and watched the buildings burn, still in disbelief. I was on the roof along with one neighbor when the first building collapsed. What I was seeing could not be real. I sobbed, “Hundreds of people just died in that moment!” Hundreds was the largest number I could conceive of. That huge building that had loomed over downtown just turned into dust, caving sideways in a long-waisted swoon. It finally occurred to me to call my parents, and, thankfully, I was able to get service and let them know that I was alive.  

At the end of the night, Tammy said, “The dance is about being fully alive, about expressing that.” She mentioned the upcoming Lyrical workshop, and invited Meaghan Williams, the teacher, to speak about it. She invited everyone to attend, saying, “Lyrical is not just about joy and lift, but is also about all the things that block that. Lyrical is underneath everything already, wanting to come out.” At another time, she also said, “It is also about creating art, participation and community.”

One of the things Tammy asked us to step forward for when we were in the big circle was “if you felt like you lost your ground.” More than half of the people in the room, including me, stepped forward.

When the music of the second wave emptied us into Lyrical, I crashed into it with enthusiasm and specificity, then faded. After a short lapse, my engagement sparked again. I have an imaginary dance friend—a dragon—who came to visit me after a pointed, lilting experiment. I moved with the dragon throughout the room, coiling, rising, rushing, pausing—though most dancers were rooted in a given spot at this point in the wave. I note that my dragon only comes during Lyrical—the rhythm of the sky.

As I stood on my roof, gazing in frozen disbelief as the first of the two towers collapsed, a group of Catholic nuns in blue habits stood on the rooftop across the lot. They, too, stood frozen, gazing, their habits fluttering around them in the strong wind that blew from the East River.

Bruised sky

The late day sky is bruised and luminous.

Rushing with new souls—

Toil turned spacious.

Unlit mountains

Scraped with icy teeth

A delicate love for the

Whispers of spirit.

-poem from September 13, 2001

September 13, 2015, Brooklyn, NYC

This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.

 

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