Post Road Magazine #26

Disintegration, Loops

Marin Sardy

Loop: 2001/1991

    In September of my second summer in Tok, in the subarctic blackspruce bogs of Alaska's interior, I awoke at about 4:30 each morning and spent the next six hours up on a small hill, catching songbirds. In nearly invisible mist-nets our research team caught them as they flew through the forest, where they stopped to eat and sleep during their long flight south. Yellow-rumped warblers, dark-eyed juncos, Swainson's thrushes—doing my rounds from net to net, I plucked them loose and carried them in cotton bags back to the tent, where we would band them, measure them, take notes about their plumage, and then set them free. It was late morning when we rode the Fish & Wildlife Suburban back into town and passed the post office, where I noticed that the flag was flying at halfmast and wondered why.
    I was twenty-six and the world was still more or less a forest beneath the wide ether, the home country of the sharp-eyed kinglets and sparrows and crossbills I saw each day. In the big back room at the headquarters building, our crew leader met us in the doorway and said, "The World Trade Center has been hit by a plane." His eyes were wide with excitement. "Both towers collapsed!" My mind turned itself over and came up empty.
    He showed us the footage on his computer monitor—that clip of the second plane disappearing as a smoking pair of rectangles seemed to eat it up. I don't remember being upset. I was stunned, yes, and riveted, and I do think I was horrified. But even after we returned to the bunkhouse and turned on the television, after we spent the next two hours watching the same footage and piecing together the news accounts of the four planes, the crashes, the suicides, the rescues, the rest. . .it didn't sink in like it was supposed to.
    Like it was supposed to. Now this phrase seems to contain everything I knew and felt and wondered during those years. My utter failure to react. The whole country was in a state of alarm, and I wanted to feel like I was part of that, like my home and my way of life had been attacked. But I didn't.

    I was young and from a state with less than a million people and national parks larger than Rhode Island. My way of life, as far as I knew, looked nothing like that of those New Yorkers who I imagined spent their days fifty stories above the earth, with their eyes on computer screens and telephones at their ears. It was a city I had only once seen and never understood, on the other side of the continent, in a culture that was purportedly my own but to which I had always, as an Alaskan, felt like an outsider. My life, as I saw it, was about holding small birds in my hands.
    Most of us at Fish & Wildlife were not radical in our thinking. We were liberal and countercultural but in the end we were politically moderate. In the weeks after the attacks we were subdued except for my crew leader, who went on about how America should have seen this coming and that of course we deserved this. I certainly didn't like his misanthropy—he had once said in complete seriousness that he would rather rid the planet of automobiles than have world peace—but truly, his detachment from the horror of that day wasn't so different from mine. On television I saw crowds of thousands gathering in collective grief. They were in places I couldn't even picture—New Jersey, Iowa, Pennsylvania—and they seemed to feel a bond with New York that I couldn't comprehend.
    But maybe what explains things better is that I had already had one catastrophe in my life. I was out there in the woods with my little songbirds, trying to hide from the very close, very personal fallout of a much more human-sized disaster. I couldn't, did not want to, feel that this bigger disaster was mine to mourn. Now it seems that 9/11, for me, was never what it was, but only had meaning as a stand-in for other things in my life that I shared with almost no one.

    Two thousand one—that was the summer Abby totaled my Subaru station wagon on a drive down to Haines as I sat in the passenger seat beside her. I had in previous months begun to write out a few scraps about my life: the mental illness that swept in when I was a child and carried off my mother. My ferocious memories, raw on the page. Abby had read them and praised them. But I had no idea what to do with them next. They resisted any structure I tried to give them.
    Abby was only twenty-two or so and had never been on that highway, a shoulder-less strip that wound along the Chilkat River through its narrow valley into town. We were coming in from the north just as dusk began to fall, and since it was August, it was the first time we had seen dusk since May. On the far side of the river, a chaotic ridge rose, touched with late light on the white of snowfields at all angles. I was pointing out the peaks when I looked back at the road and saw a moose casually crossing our path.
    A wasted eon passed as I waited for Abby to react, realized she didn't see it, and willed my lips to speak. "Moose," I said. It felt like a whisper, and already irrelevant. The moose was a large female, trailed by a small calf, and she was just entering our lane.
    "What?" Abby said. She was still glancing at the mountains. By the time she dropped her foot hard on the brake, the animal was so near that all I could do, as the front bumper touched her foreleg and swept it out from under her, was close my eyes. I saw the dark mass of her hindquarters floating toward me, then sightlessly felt a tinkling rain of shattered glass touch the right side of my face. The moose rolled up over the hood and smashed in the right corner of the steel frame, cobwebbing my half of the windshield and blowing the side window in on me before our momentum lifted her up over the top of the car.

    If I go back another decade, to around 1991, I find myself in a peachcolored duplex on a woody Anchorage cul-de-sac. My mother's house. There are the pinks and beiges of her décor, the chocolate smell of her cupcakes. She keeps finches these days, my teenage years.
    It has been a good five years now since she went mad, and we have settled into what I will someday refer to as the "new normal." Life is an intimate dance with insanity. My mother's delusions are wild and I hate to listen to them. Her whole being, composed of oddly mismatched emotions and misapprehended cues, is askew. She can still manage her house, but she inhabits another realm, one I can neither visit nor envision. From that distant land she encounters the rest of us, poorly translated. She is abstractly loving and brutally blind.
    And this is what sticks:
    The cat has killed the birds again. In their cage they were captives to Sweetie's swatting paws and staring eyes, flitting about to avoid her claws, perching sideways on the vertical bars, back and forth across the space to keep away. This, unless my mother was loading them into her car and driving off with them for the weekend. Birds, I have learned, do not handle travel well. Now they are dead from the sheer stress of it all. I have watched as our delicately striped zebra finches, a mating pair, slowly lost their soft feathers and grew bare in anxious agony, revealing patches of gray skin along their necks and backs before collapsing and dying. This has happened before, and each time my mother just buys more. She somehow doesn't see what she is doing, what is happening. The cat. The driving. I try to tell her, I shout and stomp, but it doesn't help. She assures me that the birds are just fine, they are happy, they are okay. She keeps replacing them and I keep watching them die.

    After the impact of the crash I opened my eyes to find the corner of my car's steel frame just above my right brow, at least half a foot beneath its usual position. Abby pulled over and when we got out I hopped around on the shoulder a few times as the glass fell inside my jeans. I unzipped them to clear the slivers out of my underwear, and when we looked back we saw the moose lying behind us in our lane, struggling to stand on its broken legs. I turned away fast, but the image of the creature rising slightly and then collapsing, rising again and falling again, vibrated through my mind. Abby and I stared at each other for a moment. Bizarrely, neither of us was hurt. Not even a scratch from all those shards.

    Abby was not Alaskan and didn't understand what would happen to the moose now. She wanted to know if we could help it.
    "Its legs are broken," I said. "God, I hope someone comes along and shoots it."
    "Where's the calf?" she asked.
    "The calf's gone," I said. "The calf will die."
    "Why? Maybe it will be okay."
    I felt a flash of irritation. "It ran into those bushes, by the river," I said. "There are bears down there. It won't survive."
    She tried to argue the point. "No," I said, trying to be patient. "All the bears are gathered by the river now, because the salmon are running. Wolves are down there right now too. Without its mother, it won't live."
    Later I would replay in my mind that conversation, and the moment of the crash—the moose's heavy body in the field of air before me, no time to move anything but my eyelids, the bits of glass brushing my face. Finding the ceiling compressed halfway down to my fragile forehead. There was even something magical about the way the glass had sparkled on my clothes, the sound it made when I shook it off onto the road. But it would be a decade before I understood how much I identified with the calf.

    "Of course loss is the great lesson," Mary Oliver once wrote, and I taped it on my wall. By my late twenties I was drowning in that lesson, trying and failing to escape the fact of that lesson when I rode into town after a morning of bird banding and saw the flag flying at half-mast. After absorbing the looped footage of the falling towers and listening to clips of citizens' dismay, I began to feel a bit nonplussed, offended, even outraged to see all of America so shocked by the fact of this loss.
    I had only a vague feeling that I should have cared more about the deaths and survivors than I did. On the news, college students spoke of "the end of the innocence." America, it seemed, had collectively fallen into a state of blind contentment in the 1990s and now was being snapped out of it. Whose innocence? I kept thinking. Shouldn't they already know all this? Shouldn't they know that it all can disappear?
    The primary emotions I felt in reaction to 9/11—or more specifically, to America's collective reaction to 9/11—were contempt and envy. I was jealous that someone had been innocent, and full of contempt that they had believed they could stay that way.

Loop: 2011/2001/1987

    I have always thought of nostalgia as something to avoid. I suppose that after a decade of relying on my wits to discern reality from within the clouds of my mother's delusions, I distrusted that rosy glow. I was more prone to purely forgetting—a protective, shielding kind of forgetting that just lets the gaps lie. Now they attest, however blindly, to pains once felt, to things lost, small horrors witnessed, moments not seized, days gone awry.
    I can identify the beginning of this forgetting as my twelfth year, the year I faced and could not comprehend the odd half-loss of my mother to mental illness. Sometimes it seemed her whole soul had collapsed. That the person we knew was replaced by a stranger. Yet the stranger knew our mother, had known our mother. The stranger vaguely remembered her, sometimes seemed quite like her. And her body, the body rolled on, insistently present. The face I recognized. The eyes, the hands, the hair—it was all still there. It moved, inhabited space, showed its age.
    My tactic was to resist the incomprehensible by shedding it immediately. And it was easy to do. Outside my mother's house, life continued as usual. Others rarely spoke of her, or to her, and when they did they behaved as if she were just fine.
    By the year of 9/11, my gaps were taking over. They not only pocked the past but also riddled the present with holes. Spaces left by all my forgettings, growing wider with age, were becoming too obvious to ignore. I rarely spoke about my mother, and I was beginning to see that ever-larger chunks of my life were falling into the void of that non-telling. Half of my childhood was in that void. And more. Whatever mechanism enabled me to forget a moment so easily required that I not really be present as the moment was happening. This had become habit, my usual mode of facing anything uncomfortable or sad: shut down, do not absorb. Habitual now was the muffled safety of non-presence, as were the hundreds of hours I spent alone in the woods, in self-imposed isolation.
    Even as I tried to write my scraps, I was noticing I had certain habits of storytelling that troubled me. I created gaps. I heard myself sometimes, telling the story of the crash with the moose with zest, evoking the high drama, and I was aware that I was not saying what had caused me to remember the event so well to begin with. The image of the moose in the road, unaware that she was crippled, was its searing centerpiece. But I always left out the part about her calf.

    My fiancé, Will, and I found ourselves living in New York in the fall of 2011. We talked about 9/11, off and on, for weeks as the date of the tenth anniversary approached. He was in Brooklyn on the day the planes flew into the towers. That was long before I knew him, when he was married to someone else and had a little girl, and a boy just days away from being born. Will stood on his Cobble Hill rooftop and watched the first tower smoking. He felt the stages of surprise that I never experienced: first, the assumption that the first plane was also the last. Then the next level of shock when a second plane appeared seventeen minutes later. And again when the towers began to collapse. He smelled the odor of burning debris that filled the city. He watched the bits of paper that floated on the air, blown across the East River from a hundred stories high. A scrap landed on the roof beside him. "Mom," it said, and a phone number.
    As the anniversary came nearer, Will recounted the ardor of his protectiveness toward his new son, who was born on the 21st, and how he and his then-wife stopped fighting for nearly two months. He mentioned the day an envelope filled with anthrax was mailed to an office not far from the midtown building where he worked. When I Googled the anthrax attacks of 2001, I was stunned to learn that five people had died. I never knew.
    I asked him to mark the day with me, saying I wanted to visit Ground Zero and see the crowds. To see the New Yorkers. I felt that maybe this time I could touch what happened in a way I had never managed to before. I felt embarrassed by my younger self. I wanted to confront 9/11, to feel a connection with the people who lived it, as I had so fully failed to do back in 2001.
    Will agreed, somewhat neutrally. This was his first September back in the city, so it seemed right for him to revisit his memories. There would be extensive ceremonies at the 9/11 Memorial. The president, victims' families. Unveiling the waterfalls that now filled the empty foundations of the twin towers. But as the day approached, he got nervous about being downtown. The panic he had felt in the weeks after the attacks started creeping back in, a resurgence of old trauma, and I could see he was fighting to keep it at bay.
    When we found out the Memorial was closed to the general public until after the anniversary, he was relieved. Instead he spotted a listing about a commemorative concert at the Metropolitan Museum and said he'd like to go see it. It would be a live performance of The Disintegration Loops, a musical composition that had begun as a decayed magnetic tape of an instrumental piece recorded decades before. The composer, William Basinski, came across the tape in his archive in 2001 and was fascinated by the gaps in the sound that occurred where the material of the tape was disintegrating. He selected a segment of the original piece—a mild, moody American pastoral movement—and looped it, digitally manipulating it to alter the effect of the gaps in each loop. He recorded the results as a new, seamless creation that would now be played by a small orchestra.

    When Will was still married and living in New York, he used to experience a kind of preemptive nostalgia. It would arise even before the present had become the past. On Christmas, while he was at home with his family, he would feel a burst of longing for the day he was still at that moment living. He would sit in his apartment and watch his wife and daughter as they opened their gifts, and think about how much he would miss this day once he was back in the office, once his daughter's school vacation ended. He would envision himself envisioning it all in a week or two. Before it was even a memory, he would see the warm glow of memory shining on them, on him, on this day.
    By way of nostalgia, those pretty moments seeped into the gaps left when he blocked out the nearly constant fights he had with his wife, in which she evaded her most recent infidelity, or defended it, or argued that it was his fault. Nostalgia filled in those gaps with his own benign imaginings, enabling him to not see the gaps. It was a psychic sleight of hand, a compensatory process by which his mind revised events as they took place. Nostalgia would distract him from memories of the affairs he knew about, and the other ones too, which he intuited but would not acknowledge. It would release him from the feeling he got when she told him, "I wish you would just die so I could be free of you."
    And nostalgia would draw a fine haze over his quiet, soothing drunkenness, and over the beers he had downed on Christmas Eve to conjure that celebratory glow, and the hangover he felt that morning before he began to drink again in the afternoon. And when the holiday ended, nostalgia would buffer him from the fluorescent atmosphere of the midtown offices where he worked.
    It wasn't the past he yearned for. It was the happiness he was not really feeling in the present, and a reality that would enable such happiness. Nostalgia was how he escaped his own life by remaking it, and how he spared himself from knowing that escape was what he wanted.

    My twelfth year, the second of my mother's illness, was an inbetween time in my family's understanding of our loss, when the initial shock had worn off but we did not yet recognize the change as permanent. For me it was a time of knowing what was happening and yet being unable to consider that it might keep happening, indefinitely.
    I have only a handful memories of that year. Moments at my father's house. Moments at school. Moments in the park across the street, and at the house of a friend who lived nearby. But the interior of the house my mother rented—she only lived in it that one year—escapes me utterly. I have tried and tried to conjure an image, at least, of my own bedroom, but nothing comes.
    I can't know what happened in my missing year, but I suspect it was fairly prosaic: that my mother had a terrible illness and I had to witness it, and witness it, and witness it. Loss to mental illness is a particular thing. For the first few years everything about it read like a dead language turned upside down. My siblings and I couldn't yet see patterns in the strange, imperfect logic of psychosis. Life with my mother was a complicated blend of sense and nonsense. I believe what my gaps hide are innumerable small comments, gestures, and expressions that collectively betrayed this truth.

    When the 11th came, Will was somber most of the day. He talked some about 9/11, intertwining the attacks with the impending death of his marriage, which finally came a few years later. He spoke of the way the events of the day focused and sharpened his pervasive, amorphous unhappiness, the state of his life and his family at that moment in time— that this was what he most remembered now when he thought of that day. He was quiet as we made our way through the Met to the concert room and found seats. The high-ceilinged room housed the Egyptian sandstone Temple of Dendour, a strange and humbling backdrop. I fell still when the looping music began.
    As it progressed, the gaps grew longer. I sank deep into the music's low tones, cadence, hypnotic repetition. With each loop the song felt more like a memory, with suggestions of all we find missing when we retread the past. The loops seemed elastic, pulling at our ears as we listened. They spoke of my own memory more easily stretching as I grow older, encompassing greater spans of years, folding and twisting and pulling ever more distant associations into the orbits of events I have lived.
    Something else, too, was taking place: the gaps were coming alive, asserting themselves as insistently as the sounds. I began to feel them as a presence. Soon I was picturing them as soft white terry cloth muffs, or corded mops, or felted dusters, absorbing the sound and eventually pulsating with all they had taken in. They were soft but dense, claiming the space between the notes almost forcefully. After a while an odd perceptual role reversal occurred, and it was the musical notes that felt like interludes. The gaps became the main event. I breathed in time with them, exhaled into the emptiness, felt what I could only articulate in retrospect: that absence is not simple, not simply a void. It is a space packed full.
    And there beside that temple, utterly out of context, I may have found the real purpose of my selective amnesia, of Will's nostalgia. More insidious than avoidance, perhaps the real value of both, I felt, lies in their power to simplify. We have known that something was lost, but what remained? A shell of a marriage, a foreigner who was my mother. The nostalgia, the gaps—they created completeness where it was not. Where Will erased his loss, I made mine entire. After all, something always lingers of what is destroyed. And in that long aftermath, faced with all that has not disappeared, the worst of it may be that we are forced to confront the persistent presence of what remains.
    Walking through Central Park to get home, I still heard the looping music in my head as we traversed the lawns. We stopped near the northern edge of Onassis Reservoir, where an opening in the bushes gave us a wide view of midtown. Will pointed out the office building where he had worked ten years before. Leaning on the railing, looking over the water at the skyline, he commented on the way, in the months after 9/11. he and his wife were briefly freed from the battles that usually bogged them down. It was similar, he said, to the way the whole country was united for a short while. He noted that America now seemed almost nostalgic for that awful day.

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