Eternal Return

Nancy Thurman Clemens

“Ma’am, is this your purse?”

We arrived in New York City last night.  The frenetic billboards laid claim to the darkness.  The taxis had television screens and debit card machines inside them.  Young men in baseball caps approached us on the street with tickets to underground comedy shows.  I was too alert, my head pivoting, jumping here then there.  I went inside the Marriott to press the button on the elevator.  Once inside our room, it was difficult to fall asleep with so much electricity outside.

Today, we’re visiting the Empire State Building.  The metal detectors stand guard up ahead as we wait in line with the other tourists.  Dressed in jeans, t-shirt, and well-used Nikes, my welcome home gift is slung over my shoulder—a metal gray purse that holds my gloves, scarf, and wallet.

Inching forward we begin to pass through security; my belt with its metal rings sets off the alarm.  Step back.  Remove the belt.  Move forward.  Silence.  I’m clear.  I can go.  But my bag cannot.

“Ma’am, is this your purse?” the Empire State guard said again, and I nodded.  “Could you step over here, ma’am?  I need to go through your bag.”

The security guard, with her echoing voice and smart maroon uniform complete with bus cap marked “Security” above a silver-rope-lined bill, reached into my welcome home purse and brought out a 9.25” Columbia River Knife, model M16-14ZLEK, with a serrated edge.  She held it pinched between her index finger and thumb with perfectly manicured nails.  My eyes were drawn towards the diamond and gold rings she wore on every finger.   I could have gotten those made at the bazaar for a steal.

“What the hell, Nancy?”  Jen, coming up behind me, asked before she could stop herself.  “Why do you have that in your purse?”

Sometimes, before the deployment, Jen and I would talk about what it meant to “be” in the world, to participate in it, to move through it, to recognize it.  As kids, we thought we were the center of the world; sometimes, as adults, we forget we’re not.  But my worlds are three, seen by me and unseen by the security guard, by my friend, by the onlookers craning their necks to get a glimpse of the woman with the too large knife.  And all three of me was gripped between hot-pink nails.  Mircea Eliade might say I’m my own axis mundi, a meeting place of my heaven, earth, and hell [i] converged into the space of the Empire State Building.


15 April 2011

We’re traveling to Forward Operating Base Salerno to attend a memorial service for some fallen soldiers.  In the last two weeks, we have experienced six attacks.  They warned us that this summer would see an escalation in attacks—even more memorial services.  Today’s service will be my first in country.  This is my first deployment where US deaths are such a regular, up-close occurrence.  Every few days, the chaplain leads us in a moment of silence while he reads off the names of the fallen.  I try to remember to pray for their families and not just for myself.

We received word that a gunman killed several people at a base up the road.  There were eight service members and one civilian killed.  One Air Force member had a one-year-old at home, and was set to leave in about three weeks—21 days to go.  They were in a training meeting with members of the Afghan Police Force.  One of the Afghan officers was “mentally unstable,” according to his brother’s interviews with the investigators.  No shit.  He just started shooting and then killed himself.  Sometimes, the stress gets to be too much and too much and too much.  And you have this thing strapped to you all the time, with its bullets and its fake security.  And you have nothing you can do about any of it.  If you’re Afghan, your country’s been at war your whole life; you might have memories of being five or seven and having electricity and parents, school books and no HUMVEES racing up and down your city streets, no Taliban kidnapping your sons and brothers, but it’s been so long.  So long ago.  But this man–his brother said he has shamed his family. The formation of US and allied military members were lined up alongside the flight-line, standing at attention, and rendering salutes, while nine flag-draped coffins were carried to the back of a C-130 for transport home.  Eight coffins were carried by military. Civilian contractors, a coterie of older and younger men and women, stumbling beneath a weight they did not train to carry, lugged the final coffin across the tarmac.  One of them almost buckled beneath it; he was sobbing.

I don’t know if I’ll attend any more ceremonies.  These things are too close together, too soon one after the other.  The young captain in Salerno was killed walking out of the chow hall.  A rocket, fired from the border of Pakistan, got lucky.  I wrestle with the need to honor those who gave their lives over here and the need to be whole for my kids when I return…yes, when I get back.  I read this story about a woman who was deployed to Iraq and brought an album of the dead back with her.  She couldn’t bear to part with the images of these men and women who died. [ii]  I don’t want to carry that back with me.  Maybe I won’t have a choice.

Sometimes, when I’m running the perimeter of the compound late at night, I think about being blown up.   I wonder if it will hurt when it happens.  I expect the blast will lift me out of my shoes, probably with my feet still in them.  The rest of my body will smash against the concrete in a mess of blood and tissue and pulp.  There’s really no way to protect yourself from a rocket.  I run with a knife in the pocket of my running shorts.  It’s too heavy to have it in my pocket, and it’s probably causing a permanent bruise on my leg, but the reassuring bump of it against my thigh gives me something.  I don’t know what, but I need it.


“I’m sorry.  I forgot it was in there.”  I tried to explain to the Empire State Security Guard that I was fine.  I was a normal tourist visiting New York City with a giant knife in her purse.  “I just got back from Afghanistan,” I continued, “and I guess I didn’t think about not needing it here.”  The guard barely tried to compose her face, and Jen never took her eyes off mine.

“Ma’am,” the guard started giving me solutions so we could move this along—people were really staring now, “you can’t take this to the top.”

Of course not.  I did not need to have my knife with me as I made the long trek to the top of the Empire State Building.  I could get it later.  The guard assured me I could pick it up at the security desk after our tour was over.

When we finally emerged from the intricate transportation of elevators, stairs, and strange cable cars we were greeted with fresh gusts of wind, smelling crisp this far above the now toy-sized city far below us.  Andreas Huyssen coined the phrase “present past” [iii] in an effort to describe the moments in between tragedy and whatever comes after it—the interim space of returning.  New York is a city heaving with present past.  It’s neither there, back in the time of devastation and death, nor fully here, snapping pictures with the other tourists, but it’s continually trying to come home, whatever that looks like.  As I peered through the fencing that prevented people from plunging to the pavement below, there was skyscraper after skyscraper, an architect’s model of a cityscape.  There was also a tiny smattering of carefully arranged green space inserted between concrete buildings and city blocks.  I wanted to run.  I promised Jen I would leave the knife in the hotel room for the rest of the trip.



15 May 2011

I run every day after work, my blade banging away at my thigh.  Ba bump.  Ba bump.  There are guard towers inside the too low cinder block walls, and the guards watch me running.   Measuring me all the time.  Nine laps equal six miles.  Fifteen laps equal ten.  Like Murakami, I don’t find it painful to be alone, but he’s wrong about other things.  He says running is full of advantages because you don’t need special equipment to do it, just a pair of running shoes, and you don’t have to go anywhere special to do it, just a place with a good running road. [iv]  I need my knife because the eyes are always watching me, and rapes are not abolished here.  They are not.  But I still run.  And there are no good roads here, just circles, tiny circles with low walls that a child could toss a bomb over.  But still I run despite the circles and eyes watching my naked legs and arms, my American body alone here at 1 a.m. when everyone else is gone.  Because running takes me somewhere else.  It is the special place.  I brought it with me from home, and I’ll bring it when I head back.



The best way to experience the city is to run its streets. Jen and I trotted through Central Park with other early morning runners.  “On the left,” someone huffed at me as I drifted back and forth across the running lane.  I felt my own stiffness and the ghostly weight of my knife.  For me, the city was wavy, and I was banging into it with my running shoes rather than striding over it like Jen.  Steven Lehar explains the beauty of motor control and how it affects the mind:

The most remarkable aspect of motor control as observed in human and animal   behavior is not so much the synchronization

of many muscles and joints in a complex motor act,

for complex synchronization is easily achieved in man-made machines by way of

cams and cogs.

The unique property of biological motor control is the adaptability and

generality of the motor code.  The mechanical synchronization by way of

cams and cogs is rigid and stereotyped,

the motor control equivalent of templates in visual recognition.  Much

more           difficult to replicate is the generality exhibited in

biological motion, when the   regular sequence of the motor pattern is

modulated in analog fashion to avoid            obstacles,      or

to conform a complex pattern of steps to an irregular terrain. [v]

My worlds were convexing here on the streets of New York.  Not only was the city’s terrain unfamiliar, it was clothed with my known circles in Afghanistan, and I was off beat.  Time was everywhere and nowhere, covered and uncovered, cyclical and stopped at all points.  “The early Greeks saw existence as an agonistic movement of strife emerging out of a ‘negative’ force’” with no beginning or ending, just a continual recurrence.[vi]  Through Greek philosophers like Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, “the ancient world understood time in cyclic terms…where world conditions wind down and reconfigure themselves in endless cycles of return,” [vii] but Judeo-Christian views shaped time into a more linear movement from past, present, and future, with “the soul’s true nature [being] outside of time, in God’s eternal presence, a ‘now’ that never ‘passes.’” [viii]

“That’s where John Lennon was shot,” Jen brings me back, pointing towards a hotel across the street.  Her voice was too loud, banging out to me because of the headphone bud she had in one ear.  I was infused only with the sounds of the city and my own breath puffing in my ears.


“Back there,” she threw her arm back towards a brownstone across from the park, but there was too much for me to see.  It was too late.

Running through Central Park was like being on a movie set.  Every step brought us to a tree, bench, or tunnel that was in “that one movie.”  Every sight was cloudy with expectations of what it was supposed to be like, but the reality was a high definition of the unexpected.  Jen was looking for celebrities, imagining what she would say to Sting or Sarah Jessica Parker if we spotted one of them sipping a coffee on a park bench.  I was silently suffocating in over-stimulation, noticing places where barricades should be to fortify our safety.  There was so much here, too many different makes and models of cars, and too many different clothing types, and too many unprotected sidewalks.  And I couldn’t smell burnt rubber and feces cloying through the air with phantom fingers.  I had been stateside for only fouteen days.  My eyes were cataract with busted and blown helicopter and MRAPS parts sitting in inventory fields in Afghanistan, “Regret to inform you” missives waiting to be sent out, helmets and dog tags hanging on M-4s with empty boots beside, and I wished I could run harder.  I wanted to run so hard that I would separate time into the past, present, and future it was supposed to be, instead of the continuous stream of all things that ran along with me.  I wanted to be Jen, to see only what she saw, and know only what she knew.  I wanted to have her steadiness in this one world instead of my discombobulation in all three:  there, here, and the world of the return.

“Our belief in the reality of our perceived world is continually reaffirmed by the stability and permanence of objects we perceive in the world.  Nevertheless, there are deep logical problems with the direct realist view that cannot be ignored.”  Dr. Steven Lehar [ix]


15 September 2011

I ran tonight for the first time since the attack.  We haven’t been allowed to go outside for the last several days, and no sewage trucks have been able to come onto the compound.  We have about 1,500 people here, and the port-o-johns are only figured for 500.  I had to stop running to dry heave a couple times; the smell is too much.  The Colonel says I’m “ate up” for getting out here tonight.  He wanted me to wait until tomorrow when the johns have been emptied, but you can’t trust that things will get done when they’re supposed to around here.  Afghan time is different than military time.  And one day turns into the next, then the next, and soon I won’t have run for another week.  Despite retching under the watchful eyes of the Afghan guards, it still felt good to be out with the familiar thump on my leg.  I’ve actually started to form a callus where the knife hits.  It’s rough and scaly–my battle wound.  I pulled it out the last time I ran.  A cat ran out from under some wood slats and scared the shit out of me.  I was ready to attack the enemy, but it ran behind the morale tent.  At least I know that my instincts are to use it.  I think that must be good.  Running in circles for hours probably seems insane to the night-watchers (that’s what we started calling the guards in their plywood towers along the wall), but I see so much more at night than I can during day.  There’s too much moving around during the day.  Too many people to check out, too many vehicles coming in and out of the gates.  I run at night when it’s cool and slow.  I run past cleverly decorated tanker trucks with painted curlicues of red and orange art, and I make note if the truck has moved closer to the blockades around the living quarters.  I run past the military supply containers, lined up 50 strong around the circle, and I’m careful not to drift too close to the darkness behind them where my rape light would go unnoticed.  I run past the spot where the IED landed and stuck last summer, but didn’t explode—a dud, they said, but it still took them awhile to get EOD here to disarm the device and remove it.  I run past the newly formed bullet holes from last week’s firefight with some local Taliban.  It’s hard to decipher which ones are old and which ones are new.  The guards know.  I run past them as they peer between the slats of their towers, noshing on naan and nigella seeds, puloa and korma they brought from their homes.  I run hard, hard as I can sometimes, pushing myself past whatever it is that’s chasing me.  Tonight, I stopped into the chapel tent.  It was so black inside that I had to turn on my light briefly to see where to step.  I was completely alone, a rarity here.  No night-watchers’ eyes, just me and my breath going in and out, in and out, too fast after the run.  I tried hard to control it, make it slow down, and when I did, I could feel my heartbeat behind my eyes.  I played a game where I tried to be as still as possible, not even allowing my chest to move as I breathed.  Not blinking, just plunging my eyes into the blackness, unable to make a path or catch any light, anywhere.  And with every jump of eyelid and heartbeat, I prayed:  I want to go home. I want to go home.  I want to go home.  I want to go home.


We passed 5th Avenue and decided to break free from the confines of the park and run anywhere.   We ran past the Museum of Modern Art. (“We’ll visit MoMA later today,” Jen assured me.  I didn’t need that sort of reassurance from her.)  We ran past incredibly crafted brownstones with fancily dressed doormen and Bentleys waiting out front.  We ran past young professionals in Italian suits and overcoats, with smartphones pressed to their ears.  We ran for hours, nearly getting hit by taxis and delivery trucks, dodging pedestrians and subway grates, skimming between the crevices of the metal dinosaurs silently groaning all around us.   We found Grant’s Tomb in Riverside Park and, across the street spent a quiet moment in Riverside Church, taking in the beauty of its cathedral by way of an unlocked side door.  As it shut, the noise of the city disappeared behind us.  Sweaty and safe, we sat alone in a wooden pew, surrounded by white stone and stainedglass.

“You okay?” Jen asked.

I didn’t answer.  My eyes were caught by the enormity of the architecture—a massive ship’s hull turned upside down, and me inside it with the saints.

Jen turned her eyes from me and looked at the white cross etched in the glass.  We sat together for a minute or an hour.  Then, Jen asked, “You ready to head back?”

I nodded, my head filled with three worlds to Jen’s one.  We stood and started towards the door.

[i] Eliade, Mircea.  Cosmos and History:  The Myth of the Eternal Return.  While exploring the differences between religious theories, Eliade writes, “The architectonic symbolism of the Center may be formulated as follows:  1)  The Sacred Mountain—where heaven and earth meet—is situated at the center of the world.  2)  Every temple or palace—and, by extension, every sacred city or royal residence—is a Sacred Mountain, thus becoming a Center, and 3)  Being an axis mundi, the sacred city or temple is regarded as the meeting point of heaven, earth, and hell” (12).


[ii] Hurley, Terry.  “The Dead Iraqi Album.”  Powder:  Writing By Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq.  Eds. Lisa Bowden and Shannon Cain.  Tuscon:  Kore Press, 2008.  56-59.   “In the album are nine photos of dead enemy soldiers.  Some have been burned alive in their vehicles.  Several are still grasping their weapons…In the world where I grew up, this brutality was unimaginable” (57).

[iii] Huyssen, Andreas.  Present Pasts:  Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 2003.

[iv] Murakami, Haruki.  What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  Trans. Philip Gabriel.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.  33.

[v] Lehar, Steven.  “Motor Control and Field Theory.”  The World in Your Head:  A Gestalt View of the Mechanism of Conscious Experience.  London:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2003.  211.

[vi] Hatab, Lawrence.  “Eternal Recurrence in Nietzsche’s Texts.”  Nietzsche’s Life Sentence:  Coming to Terms with Eternal Recurrence.  New York:  Routledge, 2005.  58.

[vii] Ibid., 59.

[viii] Ibid., 60.

[ix] Lehar, Steven.  “Motor Control and Field Theory.”  The World in Your Head:  A Gestalt View of the Mechanism of Conscious Experience.  London:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2003.  1.  “The scientific investigation into the nature of biological vision has been plagued over the centuries by a persistent confusion over a central philosophical issue.  Simply stated, this is the question of whether the world we see around us is the real world itself, or whether it is merely a copy of the world presented to consciousness by our brain in response to input from our senses.  In philosophical terms, this is the distinction between direct realism and indirect realism…When we see an object, such as this book that you hold in your hands, the vivid spatial experience of the book is assumed to be the book itself” (1).  For Jen, she saw a city park.  She believed her eyes.  And I couldn’t.  I had been taught to be suspicious of the seen, and to recognize the unseen.  I saw both Afghanistan and New York overlapping, and all the time, running was present.