Monday, September 21, 2009

9/11 Satyagraha

On September 10, Nikki was four days past due at her midwife's office hoping to get some indication that our baby would come soon, that the pain and discomfort of ten months of pregnancy would abate.

It wasn't until Nikki got back from her appointment that I saw the possibility that my daughter could be born on September 11, 2009, the eighth anniversary of the eponymous attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Nikki told me that a woman who we had met in our birthing class had been at the midwife's office and, though she was a full week past due, fixing to burst and desperate to have her baby, she had postponed her induction scheduled for the following day because she didn't want her child born on such an inauspicious date.

Nikki's original due date, September 6, 2009, had a comforting numerical pattern, 09/06/09, eclipsed by the following Wednesday, September 9, 2009, 09/09/09, which struck me as a powerful set of numbers.* I had considered our baby's birth on either of those dates, or even on the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, August 29, 2009, but had not looked as far as Friday September 11.

Having just moved from New York City to New Orleans a month before 9/11, with family and friends working in New York's financial district, and with my father and step-mother on New York bound airplanes on the morning of the attack, 9/11 was etched into my mind as a day of horror and anxiety. The fact that the attack was exploited as a pretext for war and the curtailment of civil liberties - in ways that may never be undone - only made the day more tragic.

But my wife was in agony so I reconciled with the date, posited that another day of early labor was infinitely less desirable than having our child share her birthday with a mournful American anniversary. I soon forgot all about days and calendars, which I traded for minutes and seconds, when I got home at around three or four and Nikki's labor had become much more pronounced. I timed her contractions - forty five seconds long every seven minutes - which tightened over the course of hours to ninety seconds long every four minutes around midnight, when we left for the hospital.

At the hospital, this continued for another five hours, during which time I tried my best to provide Nikki comfort, playing Bach's Cello Suites and Nikki's favorite arias from the St. Matthew Passion on the little stereo that she had bought for this purpose a couple of weeks earlier, when it all seemed so distant and theoretical. At a certain point, Nikki began to seem really focused, distant, in a place all by herself, and I started playing Philip Glass's Solo Piano Works, thinking that the familiar, round, cyclical musical forms might reach her.

When that ended with Nikki clinging to my shoulders and neck from her birthing tub but still, evidently, hours away from delivering the baby, Addy, our doula, asked what we should put on. I told her that there was an opera by Philip Glass on the iPod, that it was long enough that we would not have to change the music again. "Satyagraha?" she asked. I hadn't remembered its name. I had burned it onto my computer, without even glancing at the liner notes, from the New Orleans Public Library's music catalog a few years earlier. In the scores of hours I had spent listening to the opera, its music and words, though unintelligible, seemed true to me and more clearly resembling life and the thoughts passing through my mind than any music I had heard before. "That's it," I told Addy.

It began with a low voice and a deep string instrument and wound around the room, sometimes urgent, sometimes slack, sometimes almost disappearing into the rhythm of Nikki's contractions and then her pushing. When the baby's head finally emerged in the water and as I held the tiny baby against my standing, fatigued but triumphant wife, the final act of Satyagraha pulsed in the background, and then eventually stopped, unnoticed.

I sent news to our friends and loved ones by text, "Rose Mae Sothern born at 4:57. I am in awe of mother and child."I consciously omitted the date, not wanting to associate the sad anniversary with the miraculous birth of my daughter.

But as time passed, hours and then days spent with this new life, it became clear to me that it was seemly, necessary, for Rose, and others, to be born on this date, for things to occur that could create new anniversaries that might someday eclipse the tragedy, as had occurred at least for our little family. I sent out an email to some friends, this time owning the date: "Rose Mae Sothern was born at 4:57 a.m. on Friday, September 11, 2009, weighing in at 8 lbs., 10 oz., and altogether transforming the meaning of that date in our history for me."

I got a response from Rebecca Solnit, who I had met when she visited New Orleans while researching her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, on magnanimity of people in the face of disasters. She pointed out that September 11, 2001 had been, for the most part, "a day that people behaved beautifully under the most extreme circumstances in New York City, millions of them in contrast to the 19 who sought to destroy." But she made another observation, which gave rise to a sense of wonder, beauty, and synchronicity that tempts me to believe that the world is not simply spiraling meaninglessly but instead is ordered, blessed. She told me that September 11, 1906 is the day that Gandhi began to harnass non-violence as a tool against oppression in South Africa, a method of resistance called "satyagraha."

Without any of us knowing it, Nikki labored and Rose was born on the anniversary of satyagraha to the rhythms and sounds of an opera that Philip Glass wrote for Gandhi and his vision of social justice. It is an opera, with a libretto of sanskrit words of the Bhagavad-Gita, in three acts, the first overseen by the Indian poet Ravindranath Tagore, the second by Leo Tolstoy, and the third, the music of Rose's birth, by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The name of the opera, of Gandhi's tool for harnessing the might of a people against their oppressors, satyagraha, is a sanskrit meaning "the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence."

On September 11, 1906, again one hundred and three years later, and innumberable times in between, people have seen it and can attest to its power.

*Apparently the date, or its inversion, 6 6 6, inspired a man to hijack a plane in Mexico so that he could bring the coming apocalypse to the attention of the Mexican president. The news originally reported that there were four hijackers but that was based on the hijacker's own representations. As far as he was concerned, he was there with three others, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.


  1. I love your writing. ox

  2. Your essays are like poetry. Like getting lost in a good book. Rose will have a wonderful life filled with music, art, books, gardens, and lollypops. love, Aunt Irene

  3. Thank you for sharing such a personal time in
    you familys life and being so candid and honest
    with who you told it .....

    I never think of the bad of that Tuesday
    I reflect on how good we acted as people and I
    don't think I was ever more proud of who we were ..

    I will enjoy marking the time with thoughts on how your life
    is growing for you , your Darling Nikki & your beautiful Rose ...
    Thank you JD ......

  4. Hi Billy. So happy you are writing for all to read. One of my most comforting things when I was little was to fall asleep on a couch in the living room while my parents and their friends sat around talking late at night. The entries about your cooking while home with Rose reminds me of that. I miss you all. Wish I was in your living room.