A stinging nightmare in wake of attacks

This Just In...

October 22, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

I TOLD A psychiatrist at a reception that I had had a nightmare, and he chuckled and wondered if it had been the "didn't-study kind." This is the kind in which a young student arrives in an unfamiliar classroom to discover that he's about to have a final exam for which he has not studied.

I told the psychiatrist my nightmare had been more terrifying than that -- not the stuff of mere anxiety and panic, but the stuff of inexplicable attack on a lovely blue-sky day.

I had been walking on a horse farm that seemed familiar to me. There were long lines of white four-board fence, and thick, sloping patches of emerald-green clover between the paddocks. I was walking in front of my children, enjoying the day, when suddenly, from under the clover, wasps, little yellow jackets, attacked.

They did not come in a swarm. They came from here and from there, through tiny, concealed hatch-doors in the clover, first one, then the other, then another and another. They landed solid stings on my arms, but none so nasty that they caused me to scream or run. My children uttered squeals of concern, but not pain.

I, much taller than they, seemed to be the target.

Another impression: The yellow jackets were attacking without cause. They might have been protecting the clover for their honeybee cousins, but I'd never heard of such an alliance among insects of the order Hymenoptera. I'd done nothing to provoke the yellow jackets, so this seemed to be an unreasonable offensive against harmless interlopers.

Just when I believed the attacks had tapered off and stopped altogether, another started.

Still, we continued our stroll through the clover between the white-board paddocks. We were frightened, and I was in some discomfort, but we did not run away.

I can remember the nightmare better than I can remember the psychiatrist's reaction to it. I think he became distracted, perhaps intentionally, and I can't say that I blame him. (What was I doing anyway, looking for free, quickie analysis at a cocktail party?) "He's not a Freudian," a friend said of the psychiatrist, and we moved into the next room to visit the barmaid.

I tucked my wallet-size nightmare away, like a snapshot that might be important someday. I've been carrying it around with me since it occurred -- about two weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9-11 -- and, for the first time in my life, I find myself sharing it with others, sometimes strangers, with a complete lack of self-consciousness about it.

Several times during the past six weeks, I've been engaged in lengthy conversations with friends, co-workers and relatives about how the madness of September has affected our lives. Even friends previously disinclined to reveal their feelings about tender subjects have opened up; male friends who did not appear to have tear ducts admitted to fits of weeping. We've compared notes on the reaction of our children to the hijacking attacks and to the anthrax scares. We've commiserated about air travel. We've speculated about the future. Millions of Americans have done the same.

But I've taken it a step further. Ever since my walk through the clover patch, I've asked about nightmares. And I've discovered a shared experience -- to a person, almost all have had one bad dream each since 9-11.

I've done my own analysis of the nightmare, which is to say that I've accepted the obvious: the paradox of the clover patch as a place of sudden and shocking danger, hidden "cells" of stinging insects rising to attack a tall target without warning or explanation.

Of course, in order for the analysis to work as a metaphor for 9-11, I have to see myself as a citizen of the clover patch and the wasps as an alien menace.

If I'm an intruder, an ugly American tromping through a foreign world, then I have to accept the stings as a deserved punishment, part of the natural order of things. I've had that feeling before.

Once, while hiking on a muddy trail to a favorite fishing spot on a humid summer morning, wasps rose and got me good on the legs. I was hurting and angry, and after a while the pain turned to annoying itches. But I popped some painkillers and went fishing in the cool hemlock grove up ahead. I'd gotten what I wanted -- a few hours of fishing in a pretty place. But, on the way there, I'd stepped where I shouldn't have stepped. I'd big-footed the yellow jackets' territory. You can't negotiate these things with insects, so they just whack you. I got what I deserved.

But that's not how I feel about my post-9-11 nightmare.

I'm sticking with the former interpretation -- unprovoked wasp attack in my clover-patch home -- because that's how it felt when I woke up. That's how millions of Americans have felt since 9-11.

The thing is, I'm pretty sure I survived my nightmare stings. And for some reason -- perhaps because we had no place else to go, or hopefully because we found courage in the clover -- my children and I did not run. We were on guard and we were apprehensive, but we did not give up the ground. That's my fading memory of how the nightmare ended, in a place too wonderful to surrender.

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