Many years ago a friend and I had just arrived in Yellowstone from San Diego. Within minutes of our arrival, a raven flew onto the side mirror of our moving rental car, on the passenger's side where I was sitting. Scott was the tribal administrator of Mesa Grande, a small Native American tribe. We had already discussed totem animals and my long history of synchronicities with ravens, so he understood when I asked him to stop the car.
A pair of determined black eyes stared at me over a prominent beak, which was pecking at my window. The curious bird alternately looked at me and my window's control, as though wanting me to open it. We didn't have any food in the car, or other objects that would attract ravens. I don't normally anthropomorphize, but his look somehow told me he had stopped us for an important conversation.
I had heard that ravens are considered messengers from "the other side" in many cultures. After the raven and I looked into each other's eyes for several minutes, I turned to Scott and said, "He's trying to tell me something, and I don't know what it is. Whatever it is, it is imminent, and it will be obvious and profound."
Our lodging was in the park, with no TV or cell phone access. The next morning we walked into one of the park's restaurants for breakfast. An unusual number of people were gathered around the bar for this early in the day, especially in a park. They were staring intently at the only TV. Two planes had already hit the Twin Towers. Rumors were that there might be more hijackers in unaccounted planes.
Those who could evacuate Yellowstone did so, out of fear that our country's parks might also be targets. Planes were grounded. Scott and I were stranded. News was spotty. Speculation was rife. My heart sunk as my intuition told me we were probably going to war.
It was surreal to discover this while "vacationing" in an area that looked like a worst-case scenario for the world ending in a nuclear holocaust. Yellowstone is located in the crater of a large volcano. Its steam vents spew water hot enough to cook fish, and the acrid sulfur smell reminded me of death. In 1988, just 13 years previously, the largest wildfires in Yellowstone's history had burned through over a third of the park, which hadn't fully recovered. We drove through acres of felled, charred trees. The only other human beings presnt were park rangers and the occasional wildlife photographer. Places described in the guidebook as crowded, but worth the long wait, were completely deserted.
As a psychiatrist with a predominantly psychotherapy practice, my first concern after my family was for my patients, but I had no way to contact them. They were under the care of someone covering for me. It wasn't until I returned to my answering machine that I learned how many people had been personally impacted.
The father of one patient with paranoid schizophrenia died on one of those planes. Another patient was on business travel in Boston. She was to have been on one of the planes that left from Logan International Airport. She decided to stay an extra day for reasons she couldn't explain.
Another patient's mother worked for Morgan Stanley, at the top of one of the towers, and his stepfather was working at the Pentagon. They both survived. Oddly, this patient's biological father died that same day in an unrelated accident. My daughter's nanny had a brother who worked in the area and was missing for several days. He was one of those volunteers who joined the civilian rescue effort.
Some patients were glued to their televisions out of fear. Those who could, rushed to send aid. Some quit their jobs, because their perspective changed about what really matters. The biggest surprise was those few people for whom this was just another day. They didn't see a need to talk about it at all. Their personal life was more important.
Initially, the events of 9-11 united Americans, and the world, but now our reactions are dividing us. Terror may temporarily bring us together, but how can we ever feel safe again? Only love and compassion can truly unite us. Perhaps that's what the raven was trying to tell me.