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August 2011

Only Eighteen Inches: Why We Need New York

IMG_0136 "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy."  
(E.B. White)

Do not stumble over the language.  In the Summer of 1948, when E.B. White wrote these words, "queer" meant simply strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint.  And it's true, isn't it, that most of us would not regard loneliness (as opposed to privacy) as a gift.  Nor would we naturally associate loneliness or privacy with a teeming city like New York.  Yet it can be a gift and can often be more easily found in the city than the suburb, in the city rather than the small town.  New York is, in its own way, a Zion, a place to look and listen and soak up a world through which God is speaking, its canyon-like streets, mountainous buildings, and rippling streams of humanity every bit as revelatory as those of the natural world.  It is a place to prize the gifts of loneliness and privacy as a vista from which to see things one may not see as easily elsewhere.

I do not always eat alone.  I do have friends, some I even enjoy having a meal with.  Yet eating alone in a large city permits observation.  About seven years ago (I always say "seven years when I cannot really remember how long it has been but know it's been quite some time), I was eating alone in Milwaukee.  The food in the cafe was inconsequential, neither so good nor so bad as to be memorable.  Its acceptable nature allowed me to do what I had come for: watching and listening.  What I heard and saw became part of a poem.  I looked out the window and saw, for example, a bum passing by, and he became "santa claus looking worn &/ frail, an overdressed rabble of a/man, bearded, half-blind, under-/nourished, with a sack of treasure/on his back."  Seeing him I realized that what separated me from him was not only eighteen inches of glass and sidewalk but the grace of birth, place, and family circumstance that put me here and him there, that but for eighteen inches of grace he and I were much the same.  

Turning to my side, however slightly so as not to arouse attention, a man and woman --- lovers, friends, or associates --- were engaged in conversation, and the "woman sips, motions, shrugs,/dismisses, her upturned laugh/rippling through the air."  Did I detect under the laughter and banter a darker current, a deep pool in the city's canyon?  Only 18 inches away, maybe I did, maybe I didn't.  Observations are often tentative.

In his short essay, White describes a phenomenon many of us likely know from eating alone in the city.  Taking his lunch one day in an inevitably crowded cafe, perhaps the now-closed Schrafft's on Fifth Avenue that my wife may remember from New York excursions with her mother (not to say that she is much older than me!), no doubt at a little table by a little table by a little table, with conversations heeped one upon another, he found himself inches away from an actor he recognized though did not personally know. It bears telling:

When I went down to lunch a few minutes ago I noticed that the man sitting next to me (about eighteen inches away along the wall) was Fred Stone.  The eighteen inches were both the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants.  My only connection with Fred Stone was that I saw him in The Wizard of Oz around the beginning of the century.  But our waiter felt the same stimulus from being close to a man from Oz, and after Mr. Stone left the room the waiter told me that when he (the waiter) just arrived in this country and before he could speak a word of English, he had taken his girl for their theater date to The Wizard of Oz.  It was a wonderful show, the waiter recalled --- a man of straw, a man of tin.  Wonderful!  (And still only eighteen inches away.)  "Mr. Stone is a very hearty eater," said the waiter thoughtfully, content with this fragile participation in destiny, this link with Oz.

I know exactly what he means, the connection and separation of that eighteen inches, the slight and yet profound rubbing of one life against another in the city.  It's possible to feel both a deep loneliness and yet a deep participation in the life of a city, both a continuity and discontinuity of existence.  Mostly, I like it.  It's a place of great revelation, for "fragile participation in destiny."

In another reflection from his walk around New York, White falls to simile to describe the city: "A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning.  The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines."  I think I know about those internal engines, the labyrinth of tunnels, power lines, water and sewer pipes, and who knows what else that lie underneath the city streets.  Pause at the corner of 44th Street and Broadway and feel the subway train pass beneath, and it's as if the city lives, its internal engines droning.  Stand outside the Amsterdam Theatre and ponder the feet that have moved through its doors, sense the community of saints and sinners that stretch backwards and forwards in time --- the communion of humanity.

But there is something deeper still.  An eternal engine powers all the activity here, and when I stop and listen I hear it: the bruised glory of humanity, the sometimes misdirected creativity and ingenuity of a people made in the image of a Builder of worlds.  Walking down Seventh Avenue, past the shops and restaurants spilling life onto the streets, I sense there's faith and love and hope --- eighteen inches away.  In the car horns and drone of traffic and jumble of conversations, I'm hearing life, and it is glorious and sad all at the same time, both a hymn of praise and a lament of loss.

It'd be easy to avoid the city.  I could light out for The Rambles of Central Park and lose myself in a relative wilderness.  I could stick to the vast emptiness of the West, hole up in my home, retreat to a hotel room.  But the city is my destiny.  It's where the people of God live, where a distance of eighteen inches will, soon and very soon, mean nothing.  Where even the gifts of loneliness and privacy will be swallowed up in love, remembered, if at all, as mere shadows of the Real.












Why We Need Zion

Zion2 A week ago my family was in Springdale, Utah, gateway to Zion National Park, for a one-week vacation.  One morning I encouraged my wife to rise early with me and depart at 7:00 on a couple of hybrid bikes for a twenty-mile round-trip ride into the canyon.  Having shuttled in there many times, we assumed it was a fairly level grade.  It wasn't.  Most of the ten miles in is a moderate but unrelenting uphill trek.  Pausing on the way down at the Zion Canyon Lodge for some hot chocolate and a rest, she told me that if she did this (the bike ride) everyday, "she might really be somebody."  I assured her she already was somebody.  I asked her what she meant and she said if she did this everyday she would be able to "kick some butt" (well, it may have been slightly more colorful than that). Yes, fellow Bible study ladies, she really said that.  But that's the thing about vacations: you sometimes begin to think of yourself in new ways.

Like I began to think of myself as a foreigner in my own land.  Our neighbors were from Brazil, speaking Portuguese, mostly, and loudly sometimes.  Walking the many trails of Zion, snippets of conversation in Japanese, French, German, Spanish, and various Slavic languages were left hanging --- a lot of French, in fact, which makes sense, as all of France must be on vacation, its economic growth at a flat zero.  It was an odd sense of displacement, like the world had come to me and I was the alien in a foreign country.

And yet we don't go half-way across the United States to meet Europeans, or muscle up to "kick butt," but to settle into something that doesn't change much in a world that swirls with change.  Creation.  Boulder-strewn mountains, a Virgin River full of snow-melt, deer, birds, and various other creature of the wild.  Walking the Pa'rus Trail at dusk one evening, we had to walk around no less than three tarantulas --- big hairy looking arachnids.  Often on our hikes, I'd put my hand out and touch the red rock of Zion's canyon walls, both to reassure my mildly acrophobic self that I would not fall to my death and to take the pulse of something much, much older than me, much more stable.  Stopping, I could hear only the wind in the canyon, still enough to hear my breathing, my heart beating, still enough to hear sounds normally buried under the roar of the city or the low hum of the suburb.

In Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past, Simon Reynolds says that the 2000s have become a time when nostalgia in pop culture, particularly music, has overcome the present.  He ponders whether the lack of creativity and mining of the past is symptomatic of a culture in decline.  I don't know.  Perhaps the shock of 9/11 gave us all a longing for an era that seems to have been simpler or better or more familiar in some way, or perhaps as Reynolds points out, the ubiquity of music and the accessibility of music from every era has made it difficult to think a new thought, make a new rhyme, innovate and energize a new generation.  And if he is right, if we are stuck in the past, what is the solution?

I think part of the answer may mean that our creators limit their access to pop culture in order to return to more basic forms.  I think it takes us back to Creation, back to the sounds and sights that have endured, to places where you can have a fresh thought, where the noise of the internet, muzak, and an endless stream of words come to an end.  For Christians that means revisiting the two great Books of life, Creation and Word, nature and the Bible.  In Creation we come face to face with the elemental and yet begin to notice its variation: sunsets, light in the late day, the color green against red cliffs and an azure sky, the whisper of the wind in our ears, the constancy of flowing water, the color of wheat, the sound of a single voice in the silence, the rhythm of a heartbeat or footfall, the chatter of a squirrel, the sound of rock thrown in water, or the ponderous path of a spider walking across the trail.  In some sense you begin to see and hear again, and I have to believe that while we don't create ex nihilio (out of nothing), what comes out of something so foundational will have a freshness, a built-in timelessness.

The Word itself is full of human narratives, of love and loss, of tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale.  The human experiences captured there are timeless and reverberate through the stories will still tell.  Bad choices, bad consequences, reversal (repentance), re-commitment, grace, hope --- it's all there, from reluctant prophets to an errant people, from great fish to parting seas.  Murder and mayhem come right alongside love and forgiveness.  It's a seedbed for all great novels, songs, and films, forever giving up its stories to those who read them and ask for fresh ways to tell them.

One day in Zion we're all floating down the Virgin River on tubes, dodging rocks and fallen brush as best we could.  I found myself separated from my family at one point, alone on the river.  I grabbed a tree branch and held on, waiting for them.  In a few minutes a buxom Italian woman floated up, close enough to reach out and touch.  She asked if I was OK.  I didn't dare look.  She had a hat on that was emblazoned with the word "ATTITUDE."  I remembered that from the outfitters.  I also remembered her big burly husband. Without looking, I told her I was fine, that I was "just waiting for my FAMILY."  Buoyant, she floated on by, and I was alone again.  I looked back up at the mountain, thankful for another story, for life floating by, caught in the corner of my eye, and the even grander story that filled my vision in that mountain.

So I went to Zion for a vacation.  That's true.  But it's more than that.  I heard and saw things there that I have a difficult time hearing at home.  The Words I read there seemed sometimes to rise up off the page and become orb-like, 3-d before my eyes (metaphorically speaking of course), living.  The tweets and status posts I scanned at home paled in comparison to the tweets of Creation and the posts of the Word, new every time I see them.

So, my advice?  My remedy for cultural malaise?  Meet new people.  Buff up so you can kick butt.  But more than that, find your Zion, your "promised land," even in your own backyard.  Unplug the phone and television and internet, and begin to listen and see things you haven't seen for a long time.  You might just have a new thought.  In two great Books are all we need to create anew.  We just have to stop talking to ourselves and read them.  We have to listen.