New York


Cafe Un Deux Trois

Sometimes, even in a museum-rich city like New York, you have to head outside to find art elsewhere.

Sushi Zen

This past Saturday began with a trip to the Museum of Modern Art, and it ended with me slipping away from a largish band of blog-buddies to walk the streets of Manhattan alone. I suppose it must seem odd that I’d traveled all the way to New York to visit friends who I then promptly ditched, but I think those friends understand my sometimes solitary ways. I love museums, but I need to sample them in small doses. Sometimes the sheer stimulus of being around that much art, especially if I’m in the presence of energetic, articulate folks who have so much brilliant stuff to say about that art, is a bit overwhelming. So on Saturday, after a leisurely gallery-stroll and languid lunch, I was ready to slip the bonds of sociality and hit the streets, alone.

In case you haven’t figured as much, I love to walk city streets alone. Walking with dear friends is wonderful, but walking alone is something else entirely. It’s not as if I prefer walking alone to walking with friends; it’s just that I sometimes need to spend time by myself. When I’m with friends, I still look around, notice things, and take pictures, but sometimes the presence of another person is simply too distracting. If I’m focusing on a friend or group of friends, it’s easy to overlook what’s going on around me, and somehow those anonymous goings-on help me feel grounded. In an odd, paradoxical way, being alone in a group of strangers sometimes seems more comforting to me than walking with a group of people I know. When I’m with people I know, I’m always aware of the personal interactions between us, and with that comes the usual insecure angst that most folks left behind when they graduated high school: “Do these folks like me?” “Am I talking too little, or too much?” “Am I making a fool of myself, or am I coming across as an obnoxious know-it-all?”

Strolling by sushi

When I walk by myself in a sea of strangers, I don’t have to consider myself at all. Nobody knows who I am, and no one cares: there’s absolutely no need to wonder how my behavior is affecting anyone else. When I walk by myself in a sea of strangers, I don’t have to worry about what to say, who to heed, or how to act. There’s no need to worry or wonder about the irresistible human tendency toward cozy cliques and covert couplings: alone, I needn’t insinuate myself into any group. When I walk by myself in a sea of strangers, I am free to act as an entire, unthinking Eye, simply observing the people, places, and things around me with no thought toward how a figment called “I” fits into the scene.

And so on Saturday, after I’d slipped the cultured bonds of both art and friendship, I walked some five miles along Manhattan streets, heading up to, through, then across Central Park, circling back to Sixth Avenue, and ending at Times Square. I had no definite destination, just the soothing rhythm of my own feet underfoot. As I walked, I took a few but not many photos, my focus being the purely physical sensation of walking unencumbered: first this foot, then the next. Losing myself to the moment, the motion of my own strides, and the mood of anonymous faces around me, I forgot everything I ever might have known about art, friendship, and the cozy cliques and covert couplings they each sometimes inspire. Losing myself to the moment, motion, and mood, I simply watched the city and its denizens transpire around me, the raw materials of awareness culminating in my midst.

Just married

That’s when I happened upon Art Elsewhere. Where but in New York could you flee a museum to find the ultimate painterly moment: a bride and her just-married husband loading wedding presents for their departure, the sumptuous folds of her dress matching the intricate wrinkles of a renovation-wrapped facade? Where but in New York could you watch such an intimate moment–a couple’s first cooperative endeavor as man and wife–without anyone paying the least attention to you, the sight of brides and their just-married grooms seeming so commonplace, everyone’s grown indifferent to the wonder of it all?

If Vermeer were here, he would have painted this girl with a wedding dress instead of a pearl earring; if Picasso were here, bride and groom would be rent into angle and plane. Instead, passersby simply passed, and only one anonymous blogger–an Eye, unthinking and entire–stopped to snap the scene. This, too, is an artful moment, catalogued in the museum of the mind.

Click here for a photoset from Saturday morning’s trip to MoMA, before I fled the scene to find art on the streets of Manhattan. Enjoy!

Take five

New York is such a high-energy city, even Central Park ballerina-mimes have to take an occasional break to hit the (water) bottle. I’m back from my whirlwind weekend in Brooklyn and have two online classes to check, four face-to-face classes to prep, and a weekend’s worth of photos to sift through before declaring myself officially home and settled. In the meantime, you can read Rachel’s account of a weekend spent with friends. Right now, I’m craving a cup of the real chai she mentions…

Coney Island, NY

When you cruise the Big Apple with a wild woman, you’d better know the proper places to frequent.

When I arrived in New York City on Friday to visit that girl, we promptly took the subway (terror threat be damned) to Coney Island, the quintessential spot for Wise Guys and Wild Women. Although it might seem odd to visit such a kitschy tourist spot on a drizzly Friday afternoon weeks after its Labor Day closure, the choice seemed somehow apt. I love New York City for its downtown rush of interesting people, but I also love it for its odd and off-cast places filled with quirks and corners. Off-season Coney Island on a gray afternoon is a perfect place for contemplation, your imagination sparked by the picture of how the place must look in summertime with people thronging its sand and boardwalk, or how it might have looked decades ago when folks now dead brought their friends, sweethearts, and children to enjoy an escape from the city.

Coney Island, NY

When in Coney Island, you do as the Coney Islanders do. Although the rest of the place was nearly abandoned, Nathan’s, home of the famous hot dog eating contest, was open. Given my penchant for famous hot dogs, it’s only natural that Nathan’s would be a bright spot on an otherwise overcast day. When I was growing up in Ohio, the term “Coney Island” was synonymous with chili dogs. Now that I’ve had the ultimate hot dog experience of eating a Coney Island at Coney Island, I can say with conviction that Nathan’s all-American dogs don’t hold a candle to Tony Packo’s Hungarian kind. Gustatory disappointments notwithstanding, Nathan’s open-air counter and free fries on Friday weren’t a bad way to get a taste of Coney Island’s quintessentially quirky flavor.

Even off-season, there are certain sights you must see when you wander Coney Island’s beach and boardwalk. The boardwalk itself is wide and well-weathered; it’s impossible to look at it without imagining it thronged with people, past and present:

Coney Island, NY

Along the boardwalk, you’ll see the usual assortment of sideshow diversions, emptied of both freaks and the tourists who shoot them:

Coney Island, NY

And for Inner Child in all of us, there are carnival rides, now motionless, for your summertime amusement.

Coney Island, NY

An empty October beach might seem like a lonely scene, but to my eye it’s the site of contemplation.

Coney Island, NY

I think I feel more at home with an almost empty Coney Island than I would with one choked with fun-seeking tourists, seeing how I don’t like carnival rides. Had I explored Coney Island on a busy summer day, my attention would have been pulled by the people; walking there instead on a drizzly October afternoon, I focused on the place itself with boardwalk and beach horizon stretched like a blank canvas before my imagining mind.

Coney Island, NY

Truth be told, I often feel the most alone when I’m unaccompanied in a large crowd: there’s something about the throng of anonymous faces that erases my own individuality, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Like a modern-day Thoreau or Muir, I feel unsettled in crowds; when I go to a fair or festival, I often go alone to watch others rather than joining the mixed and mingling crowds. I guess in that respect I’m a bit freakish myself, not minding being alone much less lonely. Most folks, I think, go to crowded spots to forget their intrinsic aloneness, but this is exactly the sensation I seek. Wandering as an unmarried and childless woman in a sea of couples and families, I’m reminded of the existential truth of it all: we’re all alone, but some of us distract and distance ourselves from that fact.

On Friday, though, I wasn’t alone, having another Wild Woman to accompany me. Although Wise Guys are feared for their big guns, I think Wild Women (or worse yet, Wise ones) are the real danger. Sometimes when I wander a fair or festival as an unaccompanied woman, I feel not merely freakish but downright dangerous, the future of civilization itself relying upon society’s ability to tame women, converting them into placid wives and mothers. As a willfully childless woman, I both consciously and conspicuously Don’t Fit into that system, and I sometimes feel that in the silent stares of husband- and kid-accompanied women who consider me with quiet eyes when they see me walking unattached at family-filled events. A woman walking alone isn’t merely threatened by the nefarious intent of those who would injure her; she herself is a threat to the larger social fabric, a Wild Woman who refuses to be tamed and contained by the very conventions that keep civilization afloat.

Coney Island, NY

At the end of the day, though, even a Wild & Wise Woman can’t live on philosophizing alone. One of the benefits (or downfalls) of sightseeing with a companion is the fact that they too might be Armed and Dangerous with an all-seeing digicam. Now that she’s posted her own photos of our Coney Island excursion, that girl might have to go into Witness Protection. She might not have been able to Shoot the Freak, but she did shoot this freak, and that’s probably about as Wild and Wise as it gets.

    On the flood front, my cellar is now drained and nearly dry, thanks to yesterday’s all-day efforts of my landlord and his parents. Already this morning, the furnace repairman arrived like a knight in a red van, repairing and re-lighting the oil furnace that provides me with both heat and hot water: this means a hot shower is in sight for yours truly, my first since New York. My street is now quiet after yesterday’s circus of sump pumps, electrical and sewer crews, construction contractors, and industrial pump-pulling National Guard humvees. Things are starting to get back to normal downstream from Beaver Brook, but…the forecast calls for nearly constant rain between now and the weekend, with estimated accumulations of 2 to 6 inches: enough to bring back the deluge if it falls fast and furious. So here in Mudville we’re hoping and praying for gray skies that weep short and slowly while we continue to spend these next few days getting back to what passes for normal.

Leslee & Dave peruse poetry

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Nerdy. Although I would never dare to suggest that either Leslee or Dave is a nerd, I think it says something about my nerdy ways that this photo of the two of them–snapped in a New York City bookstore after we’d visited The Gates with Abdul-Walid–is one of my favorite images from that February trip. Want a snapshot of happening New York City nightlife as imagined by Yours Truly? Here you have it: a bunch of bloggers in a bookstore. How nerdy is that?

Sometimes these days, I feel filled to overflowing with gratitude like a vessel brimming with beauty.

Years ago when I first met my friend “A,” we both were working our way through Julia Cameron’s handbook of creativity, The Artist’s Way. The chapter that spoke to “A” the most powerfully was “Recovering a Sense of Abundance.” Cameron explained how artists, writers, and other creative people need to see the Universe as a full and generous place: if you dare follow your dreams, the Universe will provide you with what you need, albeit in simple and sometimes frugal ways.

I think I’m finally realizing what Cameron has been talking about all along. Last weekend while I wandered around New York City with three good friends and a pencam, I was dazzled by ordinary images of abundance: a bead shop full of bright baubles, a corner convenience store stocked with colorful produce and products.

The first time I went on a Zen retreat, I spent a silent and austere week hurting and struggling in a monastery in Rhode Island. For a week I spoke only during 5-minute, every-other-day interviews with the Zen Master; I ingested no sugar, alcohol, or caffeine; and I showered every other day in a monastery-mandated attempt to save well water. When I returned to Boston after my week-long stint of monasticism, I remember standing agape before a Copley Plaza shop window filled with colorful soaps, lotions, and sponges. I was dazzled at the abundance of shapes, colors, and textures. After a week of austerity, my mind couldn’t process the wide assortment of personal care products presumably needed to keep a human body working and presentable from day to day.

The first time Thomas Merton visited Louisville after entering the austere Abbey of Gethsemani, he railed against the rampant consumerism he found in the big city. What need did people have of all the crap that merchants hawked in shop windows? With the typical zeal of a newly converted young monk, Merton wrote a seething rant about the foolish people who spent their lives in active pursuit of material goods while he and his fellow monks held the world together through their contemplative and abstemious lifestyle.

In a future visit to Louisville, Merton’s view changed markedly. Softened by months of prayer and silence, Merton did that most miraculous of things: he changed his mind.

    In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . This sense of liberation could have taken form in the words: �Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.”

In this passage (published in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander), Merton points to the Universe’s most astonishing example of abundance: the wealth of human persons who fill it to overflowing, each of them carrying within them like hidden treasure an untold story.

The abundance found in shops, markets, and busy diners isn’t a sign of wickedness. It’s a reminder from the Universe that we are amply and abundantly loved, and to whom much love is given, much love is required.

Balloons

I’m writing this post one day early because if there’s one thing that 364 days of blogging have taught me, it’s that sometimes you run out of ideas to write about…but you should blog anyway.

Yep, tomorrow (December 27, 2004) marks my one year Blog Birthday: it’s been 364 days since I sat in my empty office in an empty Parker Hall on the empty campus of Keene State College and posted my very first “secret” entry on Blogger. Since then I’ve mustered the nerve to tell folks I’m keeping a blog, started posting photos as well as text entries, moved from blogspot to three separate URLs, and now find myself, one year minus one day later, wondering what the heck I’ve learned from the experience.

I think I already stated the sum total of what I’ve learned from one year minus one day of blogging: some days you have no idea what to write, but you write anyway. The same goes for what blogging has taught me about taking and posting pictures: whether you consider yourself a photographer, and whether you think a particular scene or object is photogenic, take and post pictures anyway. In one year minus one day of blogging, I’ve learned that my idea of what is a “good” or “interesting” post or picture doesn’t necessarily relate to what others think is good or interesting. In some cases, posts that I felt were empty cop-outs–something slapped online in a lame attempt to post something on what felt like a nothing day–garnered more positive comments than posts I’d carefully crafted.

Steeple with skyscraper

This isn’t to say that I never can tell when I’ve written a good post. In recalling this first year minus a day that I’ve been blogging, I’ve determined five posts that I’d deem my favorites: entries where I clicked “save” feeling that I’d really, truly expressed what I was aiming for. In each case, commenters agreed: I’d struck a nerve. Although I’ve never hit a homerun, I have to believe that blogging is a bit like baseball. Sometimes if you keep swinging, you do the impossible: you hit a round ball squarely. And although I’ve never hit a homerun, I imagine I know something what that feels like. I imagine you can feel the reverberation of contact running through your bat and up your arms and into your spine: you feel the magical crack of contact, the thrill of that sweet spot. In a word, you know when you’ve swung and hit true; you know there’s no need to dash toward first base; you know you can stand back, jaw agape, and watch with the crowd, amazed, as that tiny white dot disappears into the heavens. This one’s going over the wall and outta the park: Ladies and Gentlemen, this one’s going, going, gone.

And so, in order of their appearance, here are my top five favorite blog entries from this past year, written without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs (blogging without asterisks):

Taxicabs

  • Sleeping with Strangers. It’s fitting, perhaps, that this first homerun favorite describes a bustrip to New York taken last winter, in January rather than December. I’ve referred to the poems of Walt Whitman several times in this past year of blogging, but this ode to coming and going is my favorite, with a provocative title that Papa Walt with all his physical karma would truly love.
  • On Photography. Ever since I started posting photos on Hoarded Ordinaries, I’ve struggled with the notion of photography: as an amateur shutterbug with no formal training, who do I think I am posting pictures online? I started posting pictures because far-flung readers expressed an interest in seeing my corner of the world; I continued posting pictures because I myself am a visual person, preferring to see as well as imagine the things I read about. And in “On Photography,” I think I finally (sort of) came to terms with my own philosophy of amateur shutterbugging.
  • One Art. I love Elizabeth Bishop’s poem of the same name, and as my “Sleeping with Strangers” post showed, sometimes an evocative poem can be a wonderful starting place for a blog-entry. Talking about one’s own death–either a life-threatening asthma attack or a passing suicidal impulse–is understandably difficult, but somehow the image of the ocean off California’s Point Reyes coupled with Bishop’s poem gave me the framework to tie together an admittedly rag-tag constellation of ideas.
  • My People. After all the whining I did about finishing my PhD dissertation, it only made sense to post a big self-congratulatory post (and picture) when I went through the formal ceremony that marked the end of that journey. As tempting as it was to post a brief “I graduated: woo-hoo!” entry, I wanted to post something that summed up the beginning, middle, and end of my doctoral journey: something that gave credit to where I come from as well as where I’ve now arrived. As much as graduating with the title of “Doctor” made me proud, strolling the streets of Boston’s North End and feeling a connection with my working class Italian (and Irish) heritage made me even prouder. No matter how far we go, we are our people, and this entry pointed toward that fact.
  • Separated. As much as getting my doctorate was a huge turning point, ending a nearly 13-year marriage was an even greater transition. Part of the reason I didn’t fully disclose this detail of my personal life until after-the-fact was I hadn’t informed everyone in my family of the split; more importantly, though, I wanted to wait until I felt ready to blog the break. When you make your life “public” on the blogosphere, sometimes you struggle with how and when and why to make certain details widely known, and this post marks my official “coming out” as a soon-to-be (and now officially) divorced woman. Several months after the split, the time was right to explain what had happened, and this combination of words and pictures felt like the perfect way to come clean.

Imposing facade

Looking back at my top five favorite entries, I realize they are all serious: I’ve not included any of my humorous or silly posts. I guess this says something about me as well as about my blogging: although I do occasionally post fun or funny stuff, the serious stuff is what feels “right” to me. One of the joys of blogging is the experimental nature of it all: one day you can try your hand at a serious post; the next you can experiment with a lighter, more zany voice. In a word, blogging provides a forum where you can let all of your personalities (if you happen to have several) out of the bag, each with a day and a spotlight all their own. One year minus one day later, it feels like a long, strange trip, this foray into blogging. One year minus one day later, I hope I’ll be swinging my blog-bat for many seasons to come.

Temple of Dendur

I’ve always maintained that I was born in the wrong century, or at least born with an old soul. When other folks go to Manhattan, they shop and drink and party. When I go to Manhattan, I seek out spots of solitude, seeing the City That Never Sleeps as being an oddly fitting setting for contemplation.

Wide-eyed

Gary and I were in Manhattan for three days, and during that time I sought out three of my favorite quiet spots: the old (and old-fashioned) dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, the wending pathways of Central Park, and several quiet spots at the Metropolitan Museum. When I refer to these as quiet spots, I don’t intend to suggest that these places are devoid of people: everywhere in New York is crowded the week before Christmas. Instead, these are places where I can pause and visit a place that it neither ancient nor modern, a place that carries spots of tranquility amidst the rushing throngs.

Bathed in light

In a city renowned for its shopping (and in a season devoted to said pursuit), I spent less than $30 on purchases this weekend, buying a $13 scarf to replace the one I lost and $15 for a set of NYC walking tour cards. In a city renowned for its night life, this weekend I imbibed something less than one beer over dinner with Annette, the winter-brisk lights of Times Square being ample intoxication for a simple soul.

Stories in stone

When you take a Country Mouse to the Big City, she spends her time seeking out things she can understand: solid stone and shadowy corners and spots of sunlight. I love the rush of bodies that is Manhattan…but sometimes being near the fire is as good as touching it. Mine is an old soul born in an inopportune time, yet sometimes in a solitary instance even an old soul comes home.

The following is my belated response to the Ecotone topic, “Coming and Going.”

I’ve had the words of Walt Whitman ringing in my head ever since we went to Manhattan this weekend. There’s a bus that connects Keene and New York, so we spent a good portion of the weekend wending our way through snow-blanched fields and anonymous brick facades. And although we were on a bus, not a boat, the lines of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” kept echoing in my mind:

    Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
    Clouds of the west–sun there half an hour high–I see you also face to face.
    Crowds of men and women attired in the usual constumes, how curious you are to me!
    On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose.
    And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

Whitman, of course, never rode a bus. Although he was a native New Yorker, he lived in the era of stage-coaches and trains, not buses. Had he been born somewhat later, though, Whitman would have loved buses. He would have loved the scenery streaming by at 55 miles an hour; he would have loved the trucks and cars you see from above as you pass. And he would have especially loved the stream of anonymous faces: at each stop, new faces embark and old faces disappear, never to be seen again.

Buses, like cars, inevitably put me to sleep. When we lived in Randolph, Massachusetts, I regularly took a city bus to and from Boston. This bus traveled the urban streets of Roxbury, and I was typically the only white face onboard. And I always, inevitably fell asleep on that bus even though my mother’s voice warned me that inner city Boston was a dangerous place and that anything could happen to me as I slept defenseless on a bus with strangers. But nothing ever happened on that bus to Boston; I simply slept.

And so this weekend on a bus to New York I similarly slept, and so did Chris, the two of us nodding as faces black and white slept around us. And in a dream I imagined our souls floating above our sleeping bodies, the souls of rich folk and poor folk, white folk and black. Above our bodies, these souls mixed and mingled, dancing in a delicate swirl as landscape and clouds streamed past our windows like the inevitable march of time. For while we rested, time rolled on ever wakeful, gradually and invariably taking us toward our intended end.

Manhattan is a marvelous city not primarily because of its museums, music venues, and fancy restaurants, although Chris and I sampled all of these. Instead, Manhattan is marvelous because it is home and host to a diverse crowd of humans, a pedestrian�s dream. Walking the streets of Manhattan, you see people everywhere, endlessly walking: women in designer furs, homeless men with cardboard signs, suited businessmen with cell phones, puffy-jacketed youths selling imitation handbags. Eavesdropping on the streets of New York, you�ll hear the tongues of the world: Italian, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, German, French, Hebrew.

On our walk home from the Metropolitan Museum, Chris and I stopped to watch the skaters at Rockefeller Center. Everywhere stereotypes were shattered as urban youths skated alongside suburban mothers alongside gay men in tailored slacks. All those faces simply flowed fluidly around the rink as teenagers joked and jostled, lovers held hands, and children clung tenuously to the hands of parents and grandparents. In the hypnotic swirl of faces circling singly, Whitman�s words again resonated in my head:

    Whatever it is, it avails not�distance avails not, and place avails not,
    I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
    I too walk�d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
    I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
    In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
    In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
    I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
    I too had receiv�d identity in my body,
    That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew should be of my body.

The faces of New York City, emanating with infinite variety, transcend both space and time: visiting Manhattan is like traveling across the world or across the centuries. The faces you pass on the street might be the same faces Whitman studied; the gray-bearded homeless man brushing his teeth in Central Park, thinly hidden from a young woman tossing snowballs to her dog, might be Whitman himself. �Maybe he�s a Zen Master,� Chris said of the homeless man; maybe we all are, I thought.

This weekend in New York a woman died while walking her dogs in the East Village: she stepped on a poorly insulated electrical plate, fell to the sidewalk, and was electrocuted. Her dogs were injured but survived, one with burnt paws and the other with a bitten nose; the woman who died was only thirty years old. Just like that, she came to the end of the road, and her ferry crossed to some other shore. She�d been walking, not sleeping, but even the wakefulness of city streets couldn�t save her from fate�s sudden unforeseen turn.

We all are coming and going, even those of us who never leave our hometown or house. All of us are wending inevitably toward some end which we�ve not chosen nor do we know. In the interim, we skate and sleep with strangers, if we dare; we walk our dogs and brush our teeth as if we�re fated to live forever. We�re not, but we forget; in our slumber, it doesn�t feel like the bus is moving. And yet it floats, gradually and inevitably, toward a sunlit shore we�ve never seen and can�t begin to imagine; around us is an infinite band of other travelers, nameless faces, whose souls mingle with ours across the aisles.

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