Aggrandizing the damages

At points, the city is broken.

Fractured.

It is inevitable, but as it happens, we can practice kintsugi. In kintsugi, we aggrandize the damage of an object by filling the cracks with gold. We believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful.kintsugi

So does the city.

When it is repaired by those who want to see it prosper.

a smell of urine

This view hasn’t changed; only those who take it in.

There was a time when the same eyes that would have looked out on the Atlantic Ocean from the “Windward Coast” (“Ivory Coast”) would have looked out on what is now Central Park West. Of course, in 1850 there was no Central Park West.

There was no Central Park.IMG_3124

A little more than 100 years later, the eyes of the succeeding generations would have looked out onto a drug-laden Upper West Side. They would have looked onto Amsterdam Avenue and probably not onto Central Park West. They would have looked down from soulless high-rises with broken elevators and the smell of urine in the stairwells. Heroine needles. The eyes of 1850 had a qualified power; they were landowners. The eyes of 1950 were emasculated tenants.

I sip my boutique coffee on the outcropping of schist that would have been here then but was probably sculpted after the Windward Coast eyes were told they must look elsewhere. I came here on a cool Sunday morning before church. I sit and sip and decide how long to stay. It’s my choice. I could stay longer if I wanted to.

Where I sit was once, “possibly…Manhattan’s first stable community of African American property owners,” as described by the descendant organization that benefited from an early use of eminent domain to oust the community itself along with everyone else in the surrounding 843 acres.

Owners were compensated for their land. Some moved and reestablished themselves. Others did not.

It is one thing to compensate for land.

It is another to compensate for place.

photo: author

The Sweet Shoppe

“Take off this stuff about writing poetry, and add in something about church,” he said, handing me my résumé across his desk.

I had graduated with an English degree and was spiritually curious but decidedly agnostic, despite the president’s popular far-right stances and his wife’s naïve “Just Say No” campaign, both wrapped in an understanding of religion like an assassin in a monk’s habit.

“That doesn’t matter,” he retorted, referring to my spiritual state. “They’ll look for some kind of church involvement.”

ice cream - Peggy CollinsHe was a fellow surfer, whom I’d known for a few years during high school and then college, and now I was turning to him for job-seeking advice. He later suggested to several of us one Saturday afternoon—all much younger than he—that we consider sinking a few old boats offshore from our shared beach community in order to create a reef, which would trap and build up the sand and result in year-round waves. As a 20-something party boy, I didn’t bother to wonder whether this was legal. I cared only if he had enough money to do it.

It never happened.

To my knowledge.

There in his office, floor to ceiling glass behind me but still feeling like a cage, he told me to lie while not one hair of his slicked-back sandy blonde hair moved. His midnight blue shirt had thin white stripes; his yellow tie was fastened tight up to a starched white collar, and a silver collar bar restrained the knot.

Years later, having had a spiritual conversion to Christianity, I and my wife decided we wanted to purchase pew Bibles for the beach community’s quaint church, which had worship services from the last Sunday in June through Labor Day. Visiting ministers would preach one, two or even three Sundays, as in the case of the well-known former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, who always packed the house. Later these ministers might be seen on the cocktail party circuit, or in Bermuda shorts at the club, which perpetually was threatened or washed away in hurricanes and nor’easters over the decades of this century-old community.

One minister would perform baptisms in the ocean; he had a handlebar mustache and an infectious smile. Another looked like Santa Claus. I asked him prior to my senior year of college, “Why don’t you tell everyone what you really believe?”

“Because,” he answered slowly, “if I did, they wouldn’t invite me back, and I want to be able to minister to them over the long haul.”

I sang in the children’s choir at this summer community, and the organist and choir director taught all twenty or so of us kids to have all forty or so eyes trained on her at all times. We sang “Dona Nobis Pacem” and other anthems, and after Friday afternoon rehearsals we’d each get a ticket for a free ice cream at the Candy Store—or the “sweet shoppe,” as my friend’s British nanny would call it. Mary—“Mother Mary,” as those of us who went on to sing in the adult choir would call her—taught us to hear our singing from where the congregation sat. From the pews.

Annunciate the “t” at the end of words. Soften or drop the “s” at the end, so that we don’t have mass hissing. Drop our jaws when singing “slumbers” (“not, nor sleeps”) and gloss over the “l.”

Thursday night rehearsal was worship in itself.

And in those pews there were hymnals but no Bibles. So it seemed fitting that a useful gift to the church would be enough copies of that tool, so that people hearing the sermon, and especially those preached by Mary’s husband, now deceased, but who came closest to telling me those truths I needed to hear but didn’t want to hear, could follow along. These were, after all, highly educated and literate folk. You’d imagine that the corporate attorneys in the room—there were not a few—would want to cross-reference the source if they heard something they might object to.

To discuss the gift, I called the Church Committee Chairperson, who at the time was the wife of the fellow surfer in the slick-backed hair, the man in the glass cage, the man with the restrained yellow tie who wanted to sink ships to get consistent waves and who told me to lie about my salvation. I told her over the phone about the gift, and that we wanted to memorialize the man who told me Truth.

There was a pause on her end.

“Now… ‘pew bibles,’” she started. “Are these associated with some kind of denomination?”

I told her that they were not, and described that they could be any one of a number of modern translations. That they typically sat in shelves behind the pews or could be stacked at the ends of the pews.

She needed time to figure out how this could work.

A week later she called and said that, unfortunately, it would cost too much money to retrofit the shelves to hold the Bibles. As to my alternate suggestion for stowage, neither was there enough room at the end of each pew to stack them.

The man who told me the truth that crushed me to life had died, and others who had sprinkled it on my tongue to make me thirsty had retired, but others—including Bishop Spong for at least a few more years—continued to come and offer their messages, which were ravenously consumed week after week. Hurricanes and nor’easters continued to ravage the beach and reclaim the dunes and toy with the houses as though they were made of Lego, and the men continued to come and preach their messages to the smiling women and men who packed the pews.

The service would end promptly at eleven.

Many would shake hands quickly on their way out, because they were due at the courts and needed time to bike home first and change into tennis whites.

photo: Peggy Collins

Says who?

The author of the gospel of Mark (second book in the New Testament) is said to be either Mark the evangelist, a companion of Peter (one of Jesus’ twelve disciples), or an unknown figure.

In either case, what strikes me today as I read the All Angels epiphany reading (Mark 1:9-28) is the problem of authorship and, therefore, the believability of the events. I use “problem of” more in its meaning as “issue of.”

In this passage, one of the events is Jesus’ baptism and then his immediate departure “for forty days” into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan. We know from the other gospels that there are three temptations, not outlined in Mark. Jesus was first tempted with food, then with proving his identity, and finally with being offered power. In each case, Jesus answers Satan with Scripture, and he is ministered to angels.

The problem of, or issue with, authorship for me is this: either Peter or the author made up these details—either someone lied—or Jesus lied, or all are telling the truth.

As he speaks about the Spirit (who sends him into the wilderness in the first place), Satan, angels and the power of Scripture, Jesus also implies obedience to the Spirit and reliance on Scripture. Left to myself, I don’t want to trust so thoroughly in these things. But through understanding the source of these events—that they came either from Jesus’ lips or were fabrications—we gain an understanding of the relative importance of certain disciplines and of a certain way of living.

If indeed Jesus is the “author”—the one who truthfully conveyed these events through Peter, who then conveyed them through Mark the evangelist or through another writer—then I must confront the reality that I might have to live differently than I am now. I might have to trust and obey more. I might have to submit more. I might have to have more faith.

Chuck Colson used to say that one should always challenge a fact or statement or claim with the response, “Says who?”

That’s a problem I must wrestle with and respond to.

The Weight Room/Delivery Room Dichotomy

Courage.

I watched a video yesterday of a well-known minister talking to a group—pretty sure they also were ministers—about courage. I personally like this speaker and greatly admire him professionally, so I had no problem listening to and being open to his message. I felt “convicted” often, to use a term that Christians like to throw around, meaning that we hear something we know we should obey and in fact really believe we will as soon as the talk is over but then somehow rationalize our way out of thirty seconds after the video/talk/sermon/lesson concludes.

crowe gladiatorI was convicted.

In that way.

Because all of what he said was in fact something that I—and dare I say most of us—want to hear not because it makes us comfortable but because it makes us uncomfortable in an extremely exciting way. He challenged people to consider whether they “really would follow Jesus”…whether we really would leave our parents, our spouses, our children, our loved ones’ unburied bodies… all to follow him.

And certainly, while one listens to this, one’s heart is stirred. One thinks—I too think—“Why… Yes! I want to follow Jesus like that. I want to be courageous like that!”

And I know the speaker believes this and I know he wants this for himself and even has followed his own advice.

Yet, for the vast majority of us, for the 99.99% of us, even for the 90%+ of those listening that day to this very believable and winsome and sincere and candid speaker who many and I value greatly, for us courage… and faith… and obedience… means not leaving when a voice calls but rather staying put. Dealing with it.

Like Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Because when I heard this speaker’s opening example of what he thought was courageous, and which most of us would agree was courageous and was in fact courageous, and which closely mirrored a story in my life when I risked bodily harm on behalf of another and on which I often “hang my hat” to cling to an image of self-worth when it comes to this courage thing, when I heard him tell this story and then cite the biblical examples of courage, they all shared one thing: action.

This is not to say that action out of obedience is not filled with faith and courage. It genuinely can be. This is rather to say that sometimes God calls us not to act but to not act.

To stay.

To slog, even.

There are plenty of examples in the Bible of God calling people to do stuff—to act—in a way that those around would think crazy: Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac; Noah building an ark; marching around Jericho seven times and blowing on a horned instrument in order to defeat a city. Not exactly a winning strategy in my opinion. First-year failure at the War College.

But those servants obeyed and acted and were faithful. And courageous.

What did Mary hear and what did Mary do?

Mary heard from the angel Gabriel, “You are pregnant though you have never been with a man. God did it. Give birth to this baby. He will save the world.” She said, “may it be done to me according to your word.” May it be done to me.

And this, in my opinion, is the big difference in how men and women experience pain and suffering.

What? I thought we were talking about courage. We are. Courage is about doing something painful when you don’t want to do it.

The difference in men and women when it comes to pain and suffering is seen chiefly in the Weight Room/Delivery Room Dichotomy. I bet you didn’t know there is such a thing. There is.

Men experience pain, and claim to suffer nobly, when we go to the gym and lift weights and sweat and tear and rebuild our muscles. We say, “No pain, no…” We gain mainly through self-inflicted and monthly-membership-fee-paying pain. It is self-controlled, approximately an hour-long, sufficiently air-conditioned pain, preferably with towel service and copious single women who we think ogle us when in fact they are only laughing inside about how we think they’re ogling us.

Women, on the other hand, give birth.

I have been at the birth of all three of my sons and have seen each in all its glory. As anyone who has been at a birth can attest—mother, father, caregiver, doctor, nurse, photographer—the one thing missing from most Christmas crèche scenes is the smell. And I’m not talking about the sheep. And that’s just for starters.

And by the way: I’m bringing this up not to curry favor with my wife or other women I know. My wife is from Texas, and there’s essentially no way to curry favor with a Texan wife except for finding her a good Tex-Mex restaurant here in New York City, which I have failed four times at and thereby have lost all credibility. This blog post about the differences in how women and men suffer will not change that. Tell me where to find a really good chimichanga and free chips and salsa, and I might stand a chance. But not with this post.

I’m bringing this up because the nature of my suffering lately is to stay put and deal with what’s been dealt to me. And I can’t. Or at least, inwardly, I know I have fought it tooth and nail. Many times.

I want to suffer like a man—like Maximus on the Germania battlefield in “Gladiator”—not like a woman with her legs spread apart in front of five people in hospital gowns and a sixth doing Instagram. I want to lop off the head of an enemy with one whack of my broad sword. Not have both breasts removed by the deft hand of a surgeon.

I don’t want to suffer like a woman.

And yet, I exist on this planet because of the courage of a woman who, even though she couldn’t raise me as her son was at least brave enough—at age 18 and unmarried in 1963—to carry me around for nine months and then spread her legs on May 17 in front of a room full of strangers and no husband. Likewise, I witnessed my (adoptive) mother courageously giving in to brain cancer when there was nothing to do but to give in and live courageously her remaining days. She put on her best blouse and skirt, showing off the legs of a woman half her age, and went to Thanksgiving dinner on Long Island with the entire extended family the way we always did, even though her head was swelled to the size of a pumpkin. She had a martini and didn’t give a shit. She wanted to be with family. She didn’t go anywhere new to be courageous; she stayed. She died about a week later.

The courage of a woman has been a model always, even if it’s one I can’t seem to follow.

Anything I am suffering from these past days and years—real or imagined—I want to suffer like a man and conquer. I want masculine courage to help me strike out and take hold of. Climb up over-vert and capture. And be loud doing so. Yell. A lot. Because few are the “guy movies” where the main character is silently courageous. Gotta be a loud badass to be a really courageous badass.

No.

Instead I’m being asked to be rather quiet. Subservient. To stay put. Have the courage of Mary. See it through. Trust. Don’t worry about your reputation. Or your agenda. Or your dreams. You will be disliked.

Jesus suffered at times like a man. And he suffered at times like a woman. He suffered in a way that each of us can gather strength from. He did it all.

I wish only that these days I was being asked to suffer like a man. Because I’d almost rather lose an arm in battle than my dignity in a silent coup.

But there you have it.

Time to shower and wake the others for breakfast.

Russell Crowe in “Gladiator.” Image by AndrosForm.com.

Finding Nevsky Prospekt

My wish for 2014—which I mark more as the conclusion, in May, of the twelve months since I turned 50 than I do as the period between January and December—is that it will see me moving more into the realm of adding value to my community and to the city of New York.

Specifically, I am:

  • looking to use my role as a fundraiser to achieve full funding for the initiatives that have been laid out in front of my colleagues and me;
  • considering applying as a member of Community Board 7 (Upper West Side of Manhattan); and
  • doing initial research for a book-length project on the “White Russians” who emigrated to the Upper East Side and of whom many lived in my building growing up, so much so that it was dubbed “Nevsky Prospekt.”

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, and I could easily fail at any or all three of these goals.

But if I don’t put these “out there” for all to see, then I am less inclined to take them seriously and more likely to fail.

So.

Bring it, 2014.

If not now, maybe soon

“Seriously?” he asked me. Barely a teen, there was so much—conceptual or real—that he’d not seen or even dreamed of.

a bldg for then, if not soon“Well,” I admitted, “it is only a thought. An idea. I kind of figure that heaven will be something like this—that we’ll be able to create almost anything we want. So long as it holds to the laws of gravity and so forth.”

Our eyes caught, and we had the same scandalous thought.

“But,” I continued, “if it’s like ‘The Matrix,’ maybe we can bend the laws a little!”

“Yeah! Like I think, Dad, what I’m going to do is to practice all the parkour moves I want to do…”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Only…” and he started to walk away to pack his backpack for school, “I won’t ever get hurt and stuff.”

There was a smile on his face as though his hope were catching up to his dream—as much of a smile as he would allow himself when he made a remark that he wanted to linger on. He looked at me over his right shoulder as he walked to his bag. His smile was there. And when I watched him start to put his binder in his bag, his smile was still there.

His movements and steps were confident, deliberate, as though he finally felt his feet growing down to the ground.

photo: Bosque Urbano, by MAD Architects