All Hail the Storm King

img_20160914_180955254_hdrThere’s something monstrous and all-encompassing about New York City, as though the longer you’re there, your memory of the way the world works elsewhere is slowly cached until it fades into oblivion. Everywhere about the City, nature prevails. The pigeons come close and tilt their heads to look at you as though you’re the one that doesn’t belong amid this concrete, not them. The mice and chipmunks and squirrels are perfectly content to live among the steel-and-glass ignoring you, mostly. The trees manage to climb surprisingly high, a wooden skyscraper unto themselves, their roots searching the dirt beneath until it slams up against the concrete veins and arteries of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Everything here unnatural seems to have grown together so well that it may have become one with Mother Nature herself.

Until, of course, you leave New York City and discover that this is not the norm, that – in fact – it’s a kind of beautiful, artistic and architectural blasphemy unmatched the world over.

img_20160917_104720302_hdrSuffice to say, it is still jarring to me that less than an hour away, the signs of the City are replaced with countless acres of trees and farmland, of mountains and lakes, of the River Valley where the remnants of the Appalachians come crashing into one side of the Hudson and pick up again on the other as though there’d not even been a creek in the way or perhaps as though Moses learnt to part rocks the same way he’d parted water. In the early days of autumn, just when the dog days of summer have tired out, and there’s a light breeze whispering to some of the trees that dying is a part of living, you can escape here and forget there ever was any concrete or steel or glass or plastic or car horns or subways. This is the land of towns with names like Fishkill and Beacon and Doodletown and Stony Point. It could just as easily be Tennessee.

It is not a place without its reminder that New York City is close by, of course. The train to Montreal whistles off the Hudson and churns on the tracks like a tornado rolling through, and the traffic and passers-by are a diverse lot of run-down hooptie cars, the people packed-in tight on their way to the next ‘job,’ juxtaposed with an occasional Tesla driven by a lone Frenchman who wears G Star Raw and is environmentally-conscious. And yet, in the same way the City can make you forget this place over time, this place – this dance with Mother Nature – manages to flood back over you singing, lulling that this is the real America. Cue Paul Simon on a search.

img_20160917_113923636And what is the real America but that hard, tried juxtaposition, that reminder that nothing is simple or can be easily broken into ‘this vs. that’ but is instead some mosaic of anything-and-everything we’ve ever done, imagined, or desired – the best and the worst of us – all thrown into the same mixing pot we once celebrated in this country.

Here is the Catskills, and here, maybe ten minutes west of the river and buried in its rolling hills there is an art gallery stranger than most. Imagine an outdoor museum, five hundred acres of it – something akin a postmodern Stonehenge with giant architectural feats planted like seeds that grew uncontrollably large in a river valley. It is the exact opposite of New York City: these structures that seemingly don’t belong actually make a very good case that they were born and grew up here and couldn’t reside anywhere else but a garden ‘that rivals Versailles.’ Against a backdrop of perfectly groomed green grass, knolls perfect for sledding, and oak and pine, these artistic gods – like a Picasso come to life – tower toward the pristine blue above to kiss the clouds. Their rusted metal – black and red – screams to the sky, but it’s somehow overwhelmingly peaceful. Once again, what didn’t belong found a home, and at home, you can scream loudly and find peace in it.

img_20160917_121225180The name of the place is fitting, too: Storm King, as though just around the mountain to the east there lurks Zeus ready to fire his bolts directly at the towering metal structures. I half-expected a postmodern ‘Night at the Museum’ were I to hang around until after dark.

Maybe that’s because seeing a giant, rusty metal structure next to a pond gives it life. But I think, too, its wild shapes, its shadows, the way the light might hit it at different times of day, leaves you to imagine that this one stationary structure could be a million things to a million people across a million eons. Somebody throws one gargantuan slab into the pasture, sculpted in steel, calls it art, and it tells a vastly different story at sunset from what it told at sunrise. Could it be said to be the same thing on a cloudy day when the sun doesn’t give it its sharp shadow that, arguably, is as much a part of the sculpture as the body the artist built? Or does the absence of its shadow breathe into it new life altogether?

img_20160917_121025271We small creatures who look upon such vastness are made somehow smaller still by this place. What of life is any different? Is not everything we look upon equally as complex? I am caught often, chained even, by my very limited perspective: that how I encounter you or the things you and I have made depends on just how the light hits us, just where we’re found in it, and just the time of day (or week or month or year) that your life and your creation may have graced mine. It is difficult, sometimes, to wait through the cloudy days to see again the shadow. It is that much more difficult, should they remain, to not let the clouds skew our view of what we know or once knew to be true. We are the storm kings and queens tasked to wade through the layers of our limited perspectives, to call out with humility precisely what those layers for us may be and to view it all as the birds of New York City might: looking curiously on and wondering what belonging is while knowing and claiming, this is our home.

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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station

I’m not sure why, but lately, I’m hypersensitive to all the sounds that surround me. Maybe it’s because I’m used to a more rural environment that the sounds of the City are just that jarring to me. Maybe it’s because I’m living just next to the Garden State Parkway, which leaves in its wake a low, constant buzzing almost like that of a hummingbird. Whatever it is, lately I’ve heard it all.

I’ve heard the click-clack of the train that runs over the tracks in the morning, the screeching of its breaks, the muttering of passengers who’ve come to know one another, the familiar lines, “Tickets please,” or, “Remember, if you see something, say something,” the latter of which in reference to terrorism seems to be used to maintain a constant state of communal fear.

I’ve heard the taxis honking, the subway’s mechanical voice promising, “There is… a… local up-town train… one station… away.” I’ve heard quiet, though even quiet is filled with background noise: the harsh police sirens, a jackhammer, the wind weaving through and beating the buildings above – or is that the cars on the street? It sounds so similar to the buzzing of the Parkway. To this country-turned-city boy, so much of it is, well, kind of harsh. There’s no respite, it seems, in the sounds of the City.

In fact, the other morning, I heard screaming. A woman in the train car behind me was giving voice to some kind of anger, though I don’t know the cause. She ran through the aisle cussing at no one and then stood between two train cars. When the train pulled into Penn Station, she started screaming louder and began spitting on the glass door that was about to open – the one we were all standing behind. A man warned a woman in front of me, “Hey, watch out for this nutjob when the door opens.”

The screaming woman was obviously poor and in some kind of psychic pain. I thought immediately about the man’s use of the word “nutjob” to further disconnect her from us and how, in America, her mental illness and poverty were likely deeply in cahoots and were both things we used to see her as somehow “less” than us. For a moment – a brief moment – I considered attempting to console the woman or shaming the man for typecasting her in such a way that robbed her of her humanity. But I did nothing, said nothing. After all, she might spit on me. Or, I thought, I wasn’t trained or prepared to know how to deal with her situation. So I just let the words fill the air as more harsh sounds, and when the doors opened, the police entered the car and whisked the woman away. I have no idea what came of her. But I couldn’t escape the notion that her psychic pain was likely intensified by our collective apathy, or worse, our disdain for her situation which mirrored our fears of what could, perhaps, happen to us or to those we love. The police carted the ugliness away so we didn’t have to hear her suffering any longer. God bless them?

In one of his trips to encounter Syrian refugees, Pope Francis has remarked, “We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – ‘suffering with’ others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!” I think he’s right. There’s no “suffering with” others; it’s us and them, and we want the sounds of their screams, their tears, their harsh contribution to the world to simply be removed, forgotten, compartmentalized from the public sphere. I find myself too often among those who want that.

But if I stopped there, having heard only the harsher sounds of the City, I don’t know what hope would be left. And I do know that I would not have heard all there was to hear:

On Thursday, I met with the director of three Christian-run hospitals that were set up to serve the people of Lebanon and, since the Syrian crisis, have come to serve (indeed, being overrun by) Syrian and Armenian refugees, as well. While much of what he shared was hard to hear, there was hope to it, too. He described the relationships between many Christians and Muslims in Syria and Lebanon as a “mosaic,” that in suffering together, their religious differences had not always gotten in the way of their willingness to help one another. He described churches which were distributing water to anyone, regardless of creed, in Aleppo since those ancient structures had been built on top of water wells. He described instances of Muslims protecting Christians from ISIS and vice versa. And he described the good work he was doing: offering psychosocial support for children experiencing PTSD, healthcare to refugees even when the UN refused to fund it and the clinic picked up the cost; the list went on and on, and in it all, what I heard was not the sound of dogma or hopelessness but of the dignity of all people and the hope of a brighter future for those currently entrenched in conflict.

In the afternoon, as I headed back home to New Jersey, there were certainly still those harsher sounds. But that’s not all I heard: I heard a violinist in the subway and a jazz band filling the air in Penn Station. I heard gratitude in all the chattering on the train and people ending their phone conversations with love. I heard conductors from the train wishing passengers a good day as they exited. I heard a car honk – but to get the attention of an old friend. And as I got closer to the humming of the Parkway, I heard a mourning dove cooing a friendly reminder that it’s finally spring.

What I’ve noticed for me is that there are some sounds that pull me back into the full symphony of life. It’s so easy, so tempting to get sucked into one section or hear only a solo and be convinced of the domination that sound holds over the whole corpus. But while the ambiance of brokenness is assuredly in harmony with the ambiance of love, we need not forget that love leads the melody. Sure it’s all happening at once, each screech and scream perhaps isolated to a painful solo that in that moment needs to be heard, but what the mourning dove or the violinist or the kind conductor adds to the world is not isolated but is heard by those with ears willing to listen. And so, too, we contribute our own euphony or cacophony to the orchestra of life. Sometimes, we give both. Sometimes, we give more of one than the other. And sometimes, for better or for worse, we find ourselves silent. What we add or take away from the symphony is often entirely up to us; other times it isn’t. But perhaps the best we can do is simply listen, to be as aware as we can of how it all comes together (or doesn’t); that before we decide to contribute, we know exactly what we’re going to offer and why and how it belongs in this space where there are so many other sounds seemingly detached but, in truth, are just a completely different instrument yet still in connection with one symphony. Needless to say, I guess I’m a little thankful that I’ve been so hypersensitive to all these sounds lately. They might just have something to teach me.