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Zach Savich


In late February, I got up to use the bathroom. I woke up on the floor. The story is as simple as that: I got up, I fell down, I hit my head.

I came to and couldn’t move. I came to and had spun around. Maybe I’ll live like this now, I thought. I’ll be on the floor. I marveled at how quickly we adapt.

At last, my survival instincts kicked in. I felt the back of my head. I stopped the bleeding with a towel. I staggered the few blocks to the hospital.

The doctor was winningly casual. He stapled me up and slipped me a tool. You can remove the staples yourself, he said. I think he mistook some scars I have for toughness.

I walked home—this was Philadelphia—thinking about the blood I’d left on the floor. Would it be more disturbing to find a rat in it or a rat’s footprints?

I made it through a little work. Then my vision faltered. My knees went. I couldn’t think. What do they call it where you’re from, the barista asked, when I couldn’t remember the word for peppermint tea.

The treatment for a concussion is simple: rest, hydrate, avoid screens. It’s also confounding: “brain rest,” “avoid learning anything new,” don’t think. For six weeks to six months.

I went on medical leave and took the train to Cleveland, where my wife lives, grateful for insurance, for short-term disability. I’d recently accepted a job there, scheduled to start this fall. Grateful for jobs. I hugged a friend goodbye at the train station. Last casual public hug of the era.

And so when shelter-in-place began in Ohio, in March, I had a head start. I hunkered in a dark room. I practiced not thinking. I wondered if it was clever, to call the effects of a head injury a head start.

Lying in the dark, I remembered a video I saw at the Hirshhorn Museum, in DC. I was there in November. My mom lives in Maryland. We’d planned to meet for lunch, but she’s the full-time caregiver for my older sister, and things got complicated. So I wandered in museums.

I stayed for a while in front of Cyprien Gaillard’s “Pruitt-Igoe Falls,” a seven-minute film.

It shows the demolition of a housing project.

The dust slowly morphs into the pouring and pounding and mist of Niagara Falls.

Concussed, my head felt like it had parallel dust, parallel pounding and mist. I remembered the film, as though it could cancel out the fog in my brow.

Pruitt-Igoe was a public housing project in St. Louis. Its destruction, in 1972, was said to represent the death of two dreams: of Modern architecture, of urban housing reform. The contrasts with Niagara Falls are straight-forward: there’s the manmade, and the natural; the everyday, and the sublime; the utilitarian, and iconic touristy kitsch.

But the effect is complex. It’s hard to say what the “message” is.

“I wondered if this concussion actually resembled our present national illness,” poet Philip Metres wrote of a concussion he suffered. He cautioned against “crisis thinking” which “may itself be a kind of concussed thinking.”

He was writing in 2018, so he had other crises in mind. Or earlier versions of them. I’m wondering now what kinds of “crisis thinking” may be reasonable, given the actuality of crisis.

I’m wondering what forces are akin to the demolition of a public housing complex—of the dreams it represented—and which to a waterfall. And what happens when they meet.

Writing, now, seems like one way to fall into that meeting. To lean back into the seam between falling water and rising dust. To accept the gravity of that, and that neither water nor dust may catch us. Perhaps, writing can show the body—our bodies, already concussed, with symptoms that may last—in that convergence.

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All images other than author photos and artist artwork ©Matthew Batt 2020