Photo © Hugo Glendinning

What Did We See?

Here is letter I received from (The Rev.) Mary Haddad, Cathedral Canon, American Cathedral in Paris. Mary came to the premiere of What Did We See? – my orchestral suite from Between Worlds – for its premiere at the BBC Proms on 25th July 2018.

So, where to begin. The whole experience at Royal Albert Hall was a little surreal and ironic.  I was in London only by accident having been invited for the 60th birthday concert at Wigmore Hall of pianist Angela Hewitt, performing the Goldberg Variations on Thursday, July 26.  My friend Ian had tickets for the proms the night before, Beethoven and Brahms, so I came a day early for that, my first proms and concert at Royal Albert Hall.

Back to 2001 in NYC: I was recently ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, working at the Byzantine-domed St. Bartholomew’s Church in midtown Manhattan.  On Tuesday, September 11, I was invited to be one of 20 people to be part of the studio audience for the then Archbishop of Wales Rowan Williams (he went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury), giving four televised lectures on Spiritual Formation in the Twenty-first Century.  Trinity Church Wall Street which owns most of lower Manhattan including the little St. Paul’s Church where George Washington worshipped, had en entire television studio in its office building a block away from the World Trade Center.  We all began arriving as scheduled at 8:45am as the nightmare that was 9/11 began to unfold within eyesight and earshot.  Several times that morning we all thought we were going to die.

When I got out of the car that morning the first plane had just struck within minutes but I didn’t know that or see that.  I only looked up in the sky and saw the very first jolt of the building with lots of silver twinkling in the blue sky; it was ironically a very beautiful sight. Strange but beautiful.  In New York anything is possible and I remember thinking, is that ticker tape, like some magical release from the buildings of a zillion pieces of something glistening in the morning sky. Then closer and more dangerous unfolding….in the lobby of Trinity Wall Street as second plane hit sounding like an explosion in our building, where we were then sequestered to be in the sealed safety of the television studio.  When the first building came down, visible on TV to the whole world but not to us, it caused the windows in our building to explode on the lower floors and our building filled with smoke. That’s when we didn’t know if our building was on fire, but it was one of the shock waves that suggested we’re going to die.  Someone found construction equipment in a closet and we were wearing smoke masks and huddled in a stair well in the basement of the building when police opened the doors and said we had to evacuate. We stepped out into darkness and inches of dust, still raining down. I remember seeing computer screens on the street and ladies shoes all in what looked like a war zone but it did not register that those belonged to a human being and that all that dust was pulverized remains of….what?  Who could process any of that in the state of shock we were in.  We began to run together toward Battery City. I remember turning back to see where others in the group were and seeing a wall of darkness moving which was the second tower coming down. We outran it – you could because if you remember from all the videos, it was like a mushroom cloud that had its layers and eventually settled.  We made it to a construction trailer in Battery Park where we huddled together until the cloud settled and revealed sunny skies again.  Somehow the city was sending buses to collect people and we got on a bus that dropped us off at 34th street and we walked the rest of the way to upper manhattan covered in dust.  Rowan Williams wrote a little book about it called Writing in the Dust or something like that.

In the aftermath, I was drawn to return immediately to lower Manhattan to find our car, abandoned in the middle of the street when the whole city became clogged.  And then to process it all by becoming a Chaplain at St. Paul’s Church which miraculously was just across the street from where the two buildings collapsed but had no damage, earning the nickname “the little chapel that stood”….it became the locale for a round-the-clock relief ministry to recovery workers for nine months.  I was a chaplain also at the morgue, blessing body parts.  It was all part of my own process for dealing with the trauma.  You either ran toward or ran away.  I ran toward.

Because I was within the radius of the crime, I was given crime-victim compensation (strange language, right?) to get PTSD therapy which I did from a top specialist, a classic NY Jewish psychotherapist who I say saved my life.  I learned a lot about PTSD, how shock compartmentalizes emotions.  So I learned to experience emotions; I learned to cry, maybe one of the most important things to emerge from the whole experience.  She is still my therapist today, whenever I need a check-in, even though I left NY in 2007.  A huge experience of 9/11 revealed that I had been suffering from PTSD for many years prior, my father having been killed in a tornado in Windsor, Ontario Canada when I was twenty in an accident that struck the Windsor Curling Club killing 9 people. So I learned at the age of 20 that life was random and absurd.  Then living in Los Angeles in 1994, I experienced the Northridge earthquake at 5am where I thought I was going to die.  Then 9/11.  Then I moved to Paris in January 2015 and within my first week there, Charlie Hebdo attack happened.  So I joke that while some people are prone to this or that predisposition to cancer or whatever medical ailment, that I have the disaster gene.

Back to London on July 25. I had lunch with a friend at the Chelsea Arts Club and we got talking about my relationship of almost a decade and how it ended not long after 9/11.  And I was recalling, quite randomly on that afternoon, how 9/11 was the catalyst and so quite unexpectedly we were talking about that morning and its aftermath and how and where people landed in its dust. There were people who actually wanted to leave NYC and I remember saying aloud, who would want to go live in a city that wouldn’t be the site of a terrorist attack.  I think, in retrospect, my father’s death in remote Windsor from a tornado signified once and for all that there is no safe place on earth that is exempt from random and absurd acts.

Then we arrive at Royal Albert Hall and we’re in our seats about 5 minutes before the start and Ian, says, look, a world premiere of a work about 9/11. I had barely minutes to read about it when the lights dimmed.  I was trying to read more as the work started and then, again kind of randomly but not randomly, I heard my friend Fiona’s voice who had recently given me advice about my studying French, she said, just relax darling and listen for the music, just listen for the music of the language. So this mantra, relax, darling! in Fiona’s British accent, emerged as this kind of mantra inviting me to settle in and not think – which, by the way, was also the process always encouraged by my PTSD psychotherapist, to experience on a sensory level not on an intellectual level.  So here I am sharing this all as background, to see how all cylinders were firing that night.

So I settled in, I relaxed, (darling, thank you Fiona) and was taken on this extraordinary journey in time with the music viscerally leading the way.  I cannot say how or why but entirely through the music did the whole morning unfold as above, beginning with blue sky and beauty, and then, for me, somehow each scene was recalled and revealed, the stairwells, the smoke, the stepping out into ash, at one point, my eyes involuntarily teared up, just singed with the power of that moment and then gave way to the release of the mushroom clouds giving way to the blue sky again.  To the place of reconciliation, to the place of connection, which is what healing ultimately is.

All metaphor and all reality intermingled. When the music ended, I had been taken somewhere and released. I could feel it in the deep cellular level of my body and spirit, not my mind in the intellectual sense.  Notwithstanding the years of therapy I have had that bring me to this place, I could – again viscerally – experience the healing of time and life wash over me, on a cellular level.  I say, cellular, because in the last decade I have begun a meditation practice (from living in San Francisco and discovering the Zen Center there) and then in Los Angeles a yoga practice that brought the body in sync with the mind and spirit. All of this revealing to me the single crisis of the christian narrative that it, ironically, leaves out the body.  The Word became flesh, but the church did not.  And so my real healing was made efficacious when the body became aligned, a process that is on a continuum and for me, that continuum included your work that night.

When your work ended, as chronos intruded the chairos moment, I verbalized to Ian, I wonder if the composer is here and then you appeared on stage and exited directly away from where we were sitting.  When the Beethoven work concluded and the interval came, my body and soul still viscerally responding to your work in a kind of centered calm and clarity, along with a kind of awe, I turned to Ian, I have to find the composer and speak with her.  We exited from our seats and there you were, standing right before us.  And we engaged, for which I am very grateful.  Though I understand as a different kind of communicator, when we send out a message and it is received, that is the beauty, the purpose, the telos, there it is.  Your work had visceral authenticity and integrity which is why it was able to take me where it did. I would be fascinated to know more of your process, what you studied and learned in your exploration of that morning that allowed you to create as you did.

I think I shared with you also, that as I listened to the array of percussion – and that was right where we were sitting, and so we could see and hear quite vividly – I was hearing and seeing sounds I had never seen before which became its own metaphor for the unraveling of that morning.  We were all seeing what we had never seen before and we were changed by that.  And yet, your music expressed the ultimate transformation of consciousness that is the plane of experience we all meant to be drawn to and taken.  And that is the place of transformation, where darkness gives way to light and to that place of calm, of beauty, of goodness.

And I have had a chance to explore some of your thoughts and I am amazed at the many points of intersection we share. I loved Philippe Petit’s expression of joy as the man on wire between the two towers.  That was/is a mesmerizing story connected to the trauma of 9/11. He was coincidentally the artist-in-residence at the episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in NYC.  I’m also drawn to your notion of composer as shaman.  I’d like to think in the non-institutionalized sphere of religion that shaman is the role for all teachers and practitioners of wisdom.  I’ll be thinking more about that.”

Rev. Mary Hadda, Cathedral Canon, American Cathedral in Paris
4 August 2018

A live performance of What Did We See? by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, conducted by Karen Kamensek, 14th September 2018 at the Ultima Festival was broadcast by NRK. The recording which also includes a performance of Dune of Footprints is available to listen to here.


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