Report From Island Beach
September 11, 2001
I’ve been sent into exile. My landlords, who are also my neighbors in Ocean Grove, are doing construction on their house. The sound of tearing, ripping, sawing, and hammering has sent me further down the jersey Shore.
I drove looking for refuge and returned to this area twenty miles away where I’ve often bicycled to go birding at Island Beach State Park. Something told me that I’d find someplace here that would be just right to hide out for the weekend and I have. It sits next to the entrance of the Park and is the Island Beach Motor Lodge. I am sitting in the wood paneled living room of Penthouse Four, the door wide open, the sea but fifty yards in front, still rough and pounding from last night’s storm. Penthouse Four? Well, it’s the third floor, which is as tall as they get around here. It is ramshackle and weathered as it should be. There are pieces of mismatched furniture – a plaid couch and a velvet Lazy-Boy. There is a little kitchenette and its cupboards hold a haphazard collection of plates, flatware, pots and pans, as if a child had been here playing house. There is a big red fire extinguisher smack in the middle of the living room wall (for those summer frat parties, no doubt) and I was impressed to discover that there is a carbon monoxide detector next to the bedroom’s door, though I’m confused as the heat is electric.
I’ve noticed that I felt an even greater sense of relief not just because I am now eighty miles from New York but because, strangely, I am no longer at home. I think this is because “home” – represented by New York and its extension for me of Ocean Grove – has become dangerous and insecure. And as I drove further away from it even this little bit, I felt myself relaxing with each mile as if I was doing a hypnotic trance and counting backwards, twenty, nineteen, eighteen, etc.
I’m not at a stage where I feel particularly comfortable laughing out loud, but this funny little motel with its four — count them — third-story, ocean view penthouses gives me the kind of pleasure that perhaps other people feel when they see circus clowns dressed as tramps. There is an incorrigible, loud family in a room behind mine who keep sneaking out to my private rooftop patio for a smoke, each one, down to the twelve-year-old, sneaking out separately. Their little blonde girl of around eight years old appears to be smoke-free but only minutes ago just dashed out to toss a colander of crab shells left over from dinner over my railing and then went squealing back inside when she noticed me through the open door.
I went for a drive to visit a lighthouse twenty miles further down the shore. I’ve seldom seen so much traffic on a fall Saturday out here, almost as if the summer people were back. And it’s raining off and on to boot. All along Route Nine, there is a plethora of American flags, and signs encouraging us to be brave or expressing sympathy for “the victims.” In almost every village, firemen and their volunteers were out with sand pails collecting money for “the victims” or “our brothers.”
But what struck me more than these continued little shouts of allegiance or despair were the indicators of everyday trauma that will most certainly crop up in my patients and in me. I was thinking particularly about this because I’m putting together a training for an agency on worker self-care that addresses the challenge of when the client and the worker share the same trauma. It occurs to me that while many therapists often have similar trauma as their patients, it’s a choice the therapists can make to not share their own trauma, which is undoubtedly for the best. But here is a case where there is no choice. I think this is true all over the country, though there is something particularly eerie about it in New York when for example a patient and I are stung by the smoke from Ground Zero as the wind shifts and blows it into my office, or when we both have trouble finding a new subway route, or more basically both see the same empty space downtown where the Twin Towers used to be. This means of course that to varying degrees we might be sharing the same acute symptoms.
Last night a loud, furious and brightly flashing thunderstorm woke me. It was about three a.m. and as I snapped awake I immediately thought of the Towers falling. Perhaps it was the sound and fury outside that reminded me of the flames and violence from the pictures I’d seen on TV. Or perhaps it was just a sense of being threatened by violent forces. I found comfort in getting up to stand in the doorway and watch it and listen to it and be sprayed by the salty rain. It felt good that the violence wasn’t man-made, that it was nature’s force.
In the morning, I discovered that the phone-lines had been shorted-out by the storm. I’d brought my laptop in order to do some research on the Internet and so felt released from this chore and that’s when I decided to visit the Barnegat Lighthouse. As I walked out the door I discovered the little corpse of a spotted sandpiper that had been smashed against my door by the storm. The silent phones, the dead bird, the gray sea all gave me a continued sense of exile, but still I felt safe and in many ways quite content.
Though it rained off and on all day and was very windy, there was quite a crowd at the Barnegat Lighthouse. I was so looking forward to visiting it. I’d been this way before on bike on a long trip from New York but I’d been forced to continue on past the lighthouse because of fierce rain and wind. “That was when I was young and foolish,” I thought to myself and this made me feel good to think that at fifty-two, I was young and foolish only four years ago! The last time I’d visited a lighthouse was also on a bike trip — to the tip of Montaulk on Long Island. It was off-season, and there was no one at the office at the base of the lighthouse in Montaulk, but it was open so I climbed the stairs. When I got to the top I found an old woman, so frail that I was amazed she made it all that way. She worked there, she said, as a volunteer, and preferred to greet people at the top rather than from the base where she was supposed to be. The two of us were alone and enjoyed the views together for some time in silence. When I left, I had the impulse to kiss her, thinking that something magical might happen, and so I did, on the cheek, and she kissed me back. But she did not become young, and I did not become handsome. It’s only now that I realize it was the kiss, itself, that was magic.
I thought of this as I climbed the 217 steps to the top of Barnegat Lighthouse. So many of us were climbing up. When I got to the top, three men were coming in from outside the walkway and one of them exhorted me to take off my hat and even my glasses saying that it was the windiest he’d ever seen it and that it would blow my glasses right off my face. He was right! I wouldn’t be able to see the view without my glasses so I kept them on but never once took my hand away from holding them flat against my face. The whole little circle of walkway at the top was completely covered by steel bars, thank-goodness, since the wind could, as you circled the tower, actually blow you off your feet at certain spots and into the bars. Protected by the bars, I actually enjoyed this edgy game. It was exhilarating.
After about twenty minutes I began my descent. There were five or six people ahead of me and as many behind me. The stairs were in a tight spiral and it was after only a couple of turns that I started to think about all of those people descending the stairs, eighty and ninety stories down, at the World Trade Center. I’d seen photographs on the Internet and read the description on the New Directions Listserv from the “friend of a friend,” and so could clearly imagine this. It was the way one’s calf muscles felt, and the beating heart, and the quiet of all of the people around me that really got to me. At each narrow landing, people, young and old, stopped to rest. I kept going, for I knew that as soon as I got down and back outside I would stop thinking about the World Trade Center, at least without such intensity. I was right. Ten minutes later I was back in the car, an opera CD playing as I headed back to the motor lodge. As I drove along, I also realized that I’d been thinking – in the form of the Montaulk and the Barnegat Lighthouses — of two towers that were the tallest of anything around them and they were still standing.
When I returned to the motel, I discovered that the phone-lines remained dead. I fell asleep in the Lazy-Boy while reading and when I awoke it was dusk. The intermittent rain seemed to have stopped. The sea was still stormy and wonderful to watch. When I went to the door to look out I was drawn further to the railing of the patio by a collection of cigarette butts that I kicked angrily over the edge. That’s when I noticed a wedding party on the beach just down from me. The bride and groom were middle-aged and he must have been a fisherman as there were several tall fishing poles being held by men standing around them. ‘Young and foolish,” I thought to myself.
Much later, I checked the phone lines and they’d come back on, though I’d no desire at that point to get on the Internet or to call anyone. I’d found that I enjoyed my exile and for the next few hours at least wanted to remain alone on this distant shore.