The Most Complex Trip Imaginable

“Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth”
Edward Burne Jones, 1861

The Most Complex Trip Imaginable

We are just back from two weeks away, the first week in Boulder and Denver Colorado, the second mostly in Riverside, California. In the envisaging stage, each week appeared daunting and the ensemble looked beyond our combined strength or coping skills. Yet the net effect has given us a sense of a cup that … as the psalm says … runneth over!

At first however, the cup looked merely perforated. We were greeted in Denver by a howling rainstorm that darkened the skies and made guesswork out of driving. What was that big white splash next to the little white splash? Has anybody seen the yellow line?   It was obvious that our choice of hotel had been a mistake, as to location and interior amenities. The “Send” function failed to work on our laptop, though many of our engagements urgently required email confirmation. Breakfast at a trendy eatery in holistic-health-conscious Denver served gooey-sweet yogurt along with 12 lonely granola bits and everything dusted with white sugar. One famed restaurant, which had hosted kings and presidents, brought a dinner plate that had no earthly connection with the one we had ordered and repaid our hunger by bringing me a yellow rose. I would have headed the column for that week, “They Can’t Cook in Colorado,” had not other concerns diverted me. At the paper I presented, the brimstone smell of anti-Jewish animus wafted up from the coldly staring audience. Finally, on leaving day, we had to beat it to the airport racing about two feet ahead of an unseasonably early blizzard.

That was the down side. Was there a sunny side? Well, the young woman on duty at the first hotel went to considerable lengths to get us booked into the hotel where we needed to be, near the Denver University campus. The Rockies look so good, you could eat ‘em. Our Colorado stay was bookended by the warmest welcomes from former colleagues on Jerry’s side and friends – now moved to Colorado – on my side. All of Jerry’s talks were listened to with a silence so intense that you could almost hear it crack. As for my talk, though I woke in tears the next morning – still seeing the faces of stone when I mentioned a vision I experienced that included a procession of Jewish angels – I fielded the one question I got with a confidence seasoned by many combats. I don’t talk for the hell of it. I really want to give some guidance on the difficult fronts we all face. It’s good to know that I will do that no matter how I am received.

In California, we were still pursued by technical glitches reflective of Murphy’s Law: “If it can go wrong, it will.” In other respects though, there was more sense that the current of happenings was flowing in our direction. At a School of Theology, Jerry gave a talk so unpretentiously delivered, tightly reasoned and relevant to the present state of things theological that the extraordinary response he got from the first sentence on was almost predictable though deeply gratifying.

The talk was one of several commitments undertaken by Jerry before the death of my father-in-law on September 16th. Now all those commitments had to be honored despite our present reason for being there: the graveside service for L B Martin. For that event, family flew in from Dallas, Florida and Memphis and formed the circle alongside a number of people who had known him locally. The service, which Jerry gently led, was honest, unrehearsed and moving. It faced the reality of a good man who had run his race to the finish line. The mourners were not there to mourn but to provide the sendoff and say their own goodbyes.

Meanwhile, running alongside all these demanding days, I was spending the mornings at a local hospital. Here is the story. Lately I’d been asking for wheelchairs at airports, so that — walking handicap or no — I could get to the plane by the time they were boarding. On a recent airport occasion, the dispatcher who called for wheelchair support asked Jerry what was wrong with his wife.

“Neuropathy,” Jerry told her.

“Oh, my husband has neuropathy. He was greatly helped by a new treatment offered only at Loma Linda.” That’s a highly-regarded research hospital within easy driving distance of Riverside, California, where we were staying. Then she was gone, to look after other customers.

To my mind, the idea of trying to squeeze medical appointments into a week already loaded up to the bursting point was … let us say … contra-indicated? But Jerry can be very stubborn. So we had an appointment every weekday morning that we were in Riverside, the first for evaluation, the next three for treatment. More will be required, as well as an at-home program affecting exercise and diet, but I never had a more thorough diagnosis of my body’s actions and reactions, inside and out. The initial effects look promising.

So fifty seconds with an airline dispatcher?

What are the odds?

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Rocky Mountain Lowdown

The Exodus Series Paintings
Maria Lago

Rocky Mountain Lowdown

Jerry and I have about finished the first leg of a complicated journey, the part that took shape in the cities of Denver and Boulder in the Rocky Mountain state of Colorado. Jerry had some talks to give on the interesting questions opened up by his book, God: An Autobiography as told to a philosopher. I too had a paper to offer at a conference on the presence and absence of God.

Jerry’s first paper, “If There’s One God, Why Are There so Many Religions?” was given at an institute that Jerry had founded long ago, at the time when he headed the philosophy department at Boulder. The audience of intelligent students and members of the public listened intently and asked questions that seemed consequential and genuine.

The conference in Denver included a panel where Jerry read a well-received paper but the panel’s main concern went to the second presenter, whose paper concerned what can be said about God and humankind after the Holocaust (called in Hebrew the Shoah): the deliberate murder by the Nazi regime of as many Jews as could be found by that regime on planet earth. Six million is the number generally given. The presenter’s thesis credited to Richard Rubenstein, a survivor, was that after the Shoah, nothing in the human story is the same.

The changes alleged were three-fold: #1 God is dead, #2 the Jewish covenant with God is dead and #3 Christian “supercessionism” is dead. Also, #4 on the side of the victims, the only ones who really know what the Holocaust was like are also dead. Those who survived the death camps must have managed to dodge that full knowledge.

Let’s look at these allegations one by one.

  • Claim #1. The “death of God” claim seems to mean that a fully powerful and good God would have stopped the Holocaust. Ergo, there’s no such God.

That doesn’t seem to me decisive against God’s existence. If God (as one Jewish view has it) has “withdrawn” enough to permit human freedom, then the crimes of human beings go on their own account, not on God’s.

  • Claim #2. The claim that Jewish “chosenness” is at an end is supposed to follow from the Shoah.

I don’t see that it follows at all. If the annihilation of the Jews is zealously sought by this most evil of regimes, how better could their malignity be expressed than by targeting the people with whom God has made an eternal covenant?

  • Claim # 3 is that “supercessionism” died in the Holocaust.

Supercessionism is the Christian doctrine that the covenant has passed from Israel to the Church which is now the true Israel. Giving up that doctrine does seem like one right lesson to draw, in that the abuses to which supercessionism gave rise did prepare the psychic ground for the Shoah. If this lesson were in fact drawn, both Christians and Jews could begin a far healthier co-existence.

  • Claim #4 is that only the dead who perished in it could fathom the Holocaust. The survivors dodged the worst and therefore can’t bear witness to what happened.

That’s not true. At the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann (he was the Nazi officer in charge of implementing the Holocaust) one of the witnesses who testified had crawled out from under a pile of naked bodies. The machine guns that raked the trenches had missed him. So he had the entire experience of being executed. The only part he missed was the afterlife – and we all get access to that. (Nor, I might add, was his account of the Shoah different from that of survivors who hadn’t been “executed.”) The witnesses were clear, cogent and unforgettable, to me at least, when I read the Jerusalem trial transcript.

No, claim #4 is wrong. The Jews saw with remarkable clarity what it all had meant where they were concerned. If Jews were to survive in future, they would need a Jewish army and a return to their ancient land where they could regain the will to stand and fight when they had to. Certainly they could no longer depend on the neighbor who might suddenly turn stranger on them.

The nation of Israel was, however, never mentioned by this presenter. Instead, the only ground-breaking, utterly new step proposed for Christians seemed to be “Liberation Theology,” whose followers tend to be anti-Israel.   Far from being renounced, supercessionism has been given a new lease on life by Israel’s adversaries. Where previously Christianity had deemed itself the “True Israel” thereby exposing original covenanters to every conceivable abuse, now the “Palestinians” have been deemed the “True Jews.” The Jewish nation is thereby left without intellectual defenders against regimes who don’t hide their intent to perpetrate a second Shoah.

In sum, it’s not true that everything has changed since the Shoah. Sadly, very little has changed.

The next day’s final panel had me and Jerry sandwiched between a speaker advocating a new human right: the right to form a religion around a mind-altering substance imported from the Amazon and another speaker who castigated the new Christian films for promoting false prophets. All but one of the questions went to these two presenters.

Jerry’s paper at least was listened to intently though no one volunteered a question.

My paper claimed that we live stories that are not fictional but have to be lived with intelligent awareness. I cited a case from my own life experience where two events that I view as providential helped my story come out right. One of the episodes I described included a vision I had as I was walking toward the building where a sort of professional trial was to be held. Suddenly, I saw a line of figures behind me who connected me almost umbilically to Jewish Origins: Ur of the Chaldees. I described the appearance of these figures (whom a friend had identified for me as “Jewish angels”) and the message they gave, which turned out both surprising and prophetic.

What struck me as I read this portion of the paper were the stony faces of the audience. No one smiled, looked expectant or even mildly receptive. I have no doubt that any tribal woman describing a vision of shamans in procession would have kindled wonderment and fascinated nodding.

I was from the wrong tribe.

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Moses and Me

“Moses and the Tablets”
Rembrandt, 1659

Moses and Me

I never liked Moses. Or more precisely, I never felt drawn to the Biblical figure. For one thing, he seems to me unromantic. He has no significant woman in his life (unless you count the sister and you don’t romance your sister). In this respect, he’s unlike the three patriarchs in Genesis, each of whom needed the right woman partner to carry through his mission. Moses strikes me as shorn of the female presence – solitary to an excruciating degree – even though he had a wife or two. From them he got sons (who did not inherit the family business) but nothing else that we know of.

I never heard anyone Jewish say that she did not like Moses, though I’m probably not the first to feel it. Since no one else is so exalted in Jewry, I might take a moment to try to figure out the “why” of my feelings.

After all, there are in Scripture other figures without romantic attachments who don’t call up in me the emotion of wanting to flee.

The psychoanalysts, whose charming doctrines of the soul were dominant through much of the 20th century, held that the base-line relation to a father figure would either be incest or parricide. If you want to pour oil on that fire you might want to know that the middle initial in the name of my actual father, Henry M. Rosenthal, was Moses. I never heard my father use the name, though he thought rather well of Moses. For my part, I can’t recall thinking of my father when I thought of the great founder of the Jewish nation. But perhaps there is a love/hate thing going on and I might attempt to lift out the interwoven threads, the better to look at each.

Normally, I can accept without resistance the fact that God has a relationship with human beings as individuals. This although I’m an educated woman and the idea of God as a person is routinely disparaged by educated people. They can affirm a God who is equivalent to “energy” or the “design factor” in nature (minus a Designer) or the state-of-the-art “equations of the physicists.” But sophisticated people want little to do with a God who says “I” and “Me” and means it! To my mind, this skittishness is a mistake.

One of our major tasks in life is to become who we are, not a derivative or borrowed character. To say what we mean and know why we mean it. Failing that, we remain divided, compromised, half-hidden — even from ourselves. To attain this, many different kinds of effort are required, but the chief one is to take oneself seriously. We need to see ourselves as fully important. To do that, we need backing.

If God takes us seriously, knows how it is with us, sees what we risk and what we could be, we have warrant for trying to keep in step with the unfolding of ourselves in real time. The God who is a Person would supply that necessary support in a crucial task. Why and how would God do that?

Because it takes One to know one.

So God’s relation to persons is something I can appreciate. I think many of the characters in Hebrew Scripture illustrate that relation and it is why the whole world names its children after them.

The reason I have trouble with Moses is that his basic task seems to me different. God is not just asking him to bring himself into being. The Lord is asking Moses to bring a people into being!

What’s wrong with that? Well just everything! We would be hated, with a fanatical zeal! We would be misunderstood and therefore envied, as if this people-to-God relationship were a privilege!

IT’S NOT A PRIVILEGE!

IT’S AN ASSIGNMENT!

That’s why we’ve endured when every other ancient people disappeared under the shifting sands of time. We’re here on assignment. That’s why every bad deed or obfuscating word from a co-religionist rends my intestines – and I’m sure they feel the same about me!

But Moses. more than any other figure in Scripture, took that assignment into himself frontally and full face. He lived the anguish of it, in his body and sex life and every other corner of himself.

This awareness has come to me via a book I’ve been reading titled Moses: A Human Life. It’s by a writer named Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. She’s a woman who has performed the unlikely feat of identifying with Moses so profoundly that his real place in our consciousness becomes much more evident than it was before.

A woman identifying with this most masculine of figures? Oh well.

With God

all things are possible.

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World History and Me

Lascaux Cave Paintings
c. 17,000 BCE

World History and Me

Last night I watched a documentary about the “discovery” by Europeans of the Western Hemisphere – that vast tract of land between Europe and the India that the spice-hunters sought.

In my childhood, that discovery was chronicled without scare quotes, as the collected tales of intrepid adventurers and pioneers who stepped onto the shores of a virgin continent, and whose courage and future-directed hopes made it possible for my immediate forebears to live and be well in America. America! Where the government did not organize pogroms! Where the Good Guys won and the Nazis lost!

Anyway, that’s no longer quite the received view of how to tell this story. For example, the documentary I watched explained that the Western Hemisphere had been thickly populated from North to South. Millions of people had once lived here.

So how did it get to be a virgin continent? Where’d they all go? Even the most sweeping of massacres couldn’t kill millions with the weapons that 17th-century colonists carried.

What did most of the killing were the nice, well-meaning, soul-saving missionary monks who reached out and touched indigenous people with their Bibles, their crosses and their benedictory hands. Those open hands bore a host of European diseases to which their intended beneficiaries had no immunity.

“If you were the Queen of Spain,” I asked Jerry over breakfast, “and you knew in advance that the voyage of Columbus would open the process that would end up killing millions, would you still give him that charter?”

“No,” Jerry said immediately. He wouldn’t. But after a moment, he added that “they” (the Europeans) would have explored the New World at around that time anyway. Advances in ship-building, navigation and world trade would’ve sent others on the same voyage even if – in the thought-experiment I suggested – Columbus had been held back.

A recent book, whose name escapes me at the moment, has an even more horrific story, telling against our very species: homo sapiens sapiens. If we look at the fossil record, we see a succession of hominids looking more and more like us: the australopithecines, homo erectus, homo naledi, homo neanderthalensis et al. So where’d they all go? The hypothesis to which I refer offers an explanation for the absence of these close competitors. Our ancestors raped some and killed the rest.

A rival thesis, perhaps more generally accepted, it that our species survived because of its greater “adaptability” and the rival hominids obligingly died out without a struggle. On this view, wars of annihilation only began when homo sapiens developed sufficiently to have something to fight over.

In the Torah Study class I attend every Saturday morning, from time to time we read battle scenes, where God’s people are enjoined to slay them all (all the near competitors) lest their pagan ways prove contagious. If the Israelites were to fall back into idol worship, the whole demonstration of God’s sovereignty — over the empire of Egypt, over the sea and desert wilderness, and the scenes where divine power brings the moral basics down from Mt. Sinai and sets apart this people as the test case of His partnering with human beings in history – the whole long story recorded in the Pentateuch would come to nothing.

Whenever we come upon these battle scenes, my co-religionists express discomfort and unease. Are we content to say that my co-religionists are nicer than God? Or that God used to be rather brutal but that He’s gotten nicer? Or that none of this is true, that it’s a fable? If it’s a fable, and an unedifying fable at that, why are we reading it?

Were these ancient Israelites rather brutish while Jesus at least was much nicer? Jesus confined his ministry to the parts of the land where Jews lived. Judea had been reconquered by the Maccabees in some rather bloody engagements. And the Maccabees, or their descendants who ruled the reconquered land of Judea until the Roman takeover, were not particularly nice.

What is really going on here? If we attribute the emergence of complex cultures to the annihilation of their near rivals — or if we partly credit the emergence of states in the New World to the epidemics that accompanied European migration — it begins to look as if the “war of all against all” is the default position for the human race. The reasons may vary: defending a well, a territory, a culture, but violence seems to be the constant.

Hebrew Scripture suggests that God’s people would (at least temporarily) lose their Promised Land if they disobeyed the divine commandments. If, on the other hand, they had only followed God’s original blueprint, they would never have left their land. Theirs would be the oldest case of continuous occupation of a territory on record. Especially a territory with no natural borders, not mountainous like Switzerland nor an island like Great Britain!

(Here I think the rabbis would typically say, He offered it — the Chosen People-hood — to the Swiss and the Brits, but they didn’t want it!)

Be that as it may, even if the Israelites kept bungling their assignment, what did the indigenous peoples of New World do to merit smallpox and the other European diseases? And what did our hominid competitors do to deserve coming in second in the race for evolutionary survival?

What, to cite Homer, did the Trojans do to deserve to perish, with their Bronze Age city?

To broaden the question: Are the Darwinians right? Can we think of world history on any terms other than survival of the strong and conquest of the weak? Those are the terms that the Nazis used, but likewise many “advanced” thinkers of our own day, who echo Darwin or Nietzsche in scanning the human scene and finding there only variations on the will to power.

Rather inconsistently, some of these latter-day Nietzscheans and Darwinians, who claim to see the human being as just another species of predator, red of tooth and claw, are to be found wallowing in a sea of self-lacerating guilt!

“We built our country on the backs of slaves and the burial grounds of Native Americans … “ they repeat, like an incantation. “We are boundlessly guilty! guilty! guilty! We must begin to face it. We must begin to atone. We can only do penance. Did you hear me? We are infinitely undeserving. Getting to the bottom of our foulness would be an impossible dig!”

Their penitence is quite fetching. It’s a luxury wrap. They get to enfold themselves in the opportunities and goods they most desire and in their moral posturing too! Nice work if you can get it.

I don’t have a political theory wide enough to cover all these cases. Any political theory I know of sheds some light but leaves other features in shadow.

In my personal life, however, I have a somewhat surer sense of the terrain. I’ve seen people falsely accuse me with the aim of playing on a sensitive conscience in order to gain interpersonal power that they then misused. At first, agreeing to their accusations seemed the path of least resistance for me. But it left me open to abuse and tempted my accusers to become worse people than they were before I agreed to be as “guilty” as they claimed I was. Furthermore, my surrender wasn’t sincere. My trouble was that their accusations shocked me, numbing my natural defenses so that I could no longer find the words to fend off their condemnations. In light of that experience, I don’t send other people on a trip I would not take again myself.

So what about world history? So help me, I can’t get to the bottom of it and I don’t know anyone who can. It’s all we can do to untangle the threads that belong to our own lifelines and the plotlines of those whose lives become enthreaded with ours.

We don’t begin our lives at the beginning of world history. 

We begin where we are,

in the middle of it all.

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Death, Dying, and Heroes

L.B. Martin
1921-2017

Death, Dying, and Heroes

Nowadays it’s not uncommon to hear people say that they’re not afraid of death, just of dying. I think this is heard more frequently than it used to be. The news that consciousness does survive the destruction of the organism that houses the brain, and survives the brain’s demise, has spilled into public awareness. The last ones to get the news will be the professional opinion-shapers: the philosophers, theologians, social scientists, academics in the humanities and writers of reviews.

The rest of us have got the news: in death we leave the body, go through a tunnel toward the Light or, in the less desirable cases, toward the nether regions with clusters of demons nipping at our disembodied heels. So, for ordinary people, there’s less fear of death than there used to be in earlier eras — the “heavier” eras — as I call them.

So, if death is ordinarily not that bad – a big relief, even – why the dread of dying?

Ah, that’s another matter. When, some years ago, I was told I had cancer, I was not – so far as I could tell – afraid of death; I was mortally afraid of doctors. In retrospect, though I didn’t die, I was right about what to fear.

My father-in-law died September 16, 2017. Yesterday, as of this writing. The time he spent dying, like the time he put into living, was the biggest success of its kind I know of. Only my own father’s dying matches it, in my experience.

L.B. Martin was a man whose words didn’t outreach his actions, whose aims didn’t outreach his efforts to achieve them, whose hopes matched his resources. Jerry tells his father’s story and I won’t try to match a son’s recollections. The girl he first loved at age 19 is the one of whom he said, “We were married 67 years and it was not nearly long enough!” People seldom fooled him and he didn’t try to fool them either. He had the picturesque speech of his Texas youth: intelligent, wry and unembellished.   A good teller of stories with a beat to them, he didn’t try to know less than he could or more than he needed to.

When the love of his life died, he went into as deep a depression as he was capable of, but did not take offers of hospitality and cheering-up from people he deemed “her friends.” Bit by bit he formed his own more modest network, of people he walked with or met at tai chi class. He was gracious to people who helped him in the retirement facility and became popular with the staff. He resisted more intrusive care as long as he could, but was genuinely fond of and grateful to most of the care-givers on which he came to depend.

We don’t sing of the heroism required for navigating old age. Unlike the courage of which we do sometimes sing, it’s not a tale of powers won but of powers lost, little by little, till the losses start to cascade. The men and women who keep their balance on an ever-shrinking terrain have learned to respect natural force – not just as it surges but also as it ebbs. What subtle realism is mastered there!

Last week, we were getting word from his care-givers of a succession of bodily disfunctions that finally came to call for hospitalization for L. B. Was the trouble in the gall bladder? An infection that could be drained? A stone that could be cut out? Was it in the lungs? Was it in the heart?

The trouble was not in any of those organs. As Tolstoy wrote about Ivan Ilyich, the trouble was Death. Fortunately, Americans have learned, with hospice care, to allow nature to take its course.

We flew out on Friday the 15th, his first full day of hospice care in his room in the retirement facility. What happens with hospice care is that the struggles of a dying system are eased, so that one doesn’t fight despairingly for breath, or choke on bodily fluids or wait miserably for hygienic helps that wound the dignity. The care arrives in rhythm with the needs.

Saturday morning one of the care-givers said that the dying will hang on till something they are waiting to hear is said or someone they wait for arrives. So, she advised, say what you haven’t said or tell him that all is well. Then he can let go and pass away.

We tried that sort of thing for a while, but it did not seem to fit the case before us. He was not waiting for any word or sign from outside. He was an athlete who knew his body well and had the patience to allow it to take the time it needed to shut down.

He lay there, in unreserved surrender, all the cares of householder, provider, husband and father washed from his face.

He looked like he really was,

a young prince.

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September 11, A Week Later

This post, written the week after September 11, 2011, is dedicated to Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz. Starting at the 88th floor on the North Tower, they went from floor to floor calling out to people who crouched in debris and darkness, without a clue as to what to do or where to go. “Is anybody there?” they called, gathering and shepherding people to hold on to each other and make their way down the stairs to the street below before the building fell. They are said to have saved 77 lives and inspired others to do the same. Their bodies were never found.

September 11, 2001, A Week Later

Since vacating my East Side studio apartment in June 2001, I’d visited the City almost weekly, but had not got to town last week. The initial numbness of the week of September 11 had eventually given way to tears that seemed to have no natural term. But on Tuesday the 18th I was able to get into the City, and would like to tell what I saw.

I arrived in Penn Station around 11:30 in the morning. Exiting the New Jersey train, I felt immediately that I was in a locality of Fear. It was not so much that people looked fearful or acted furtive. It was more a striking sense of collective vulnerability, of noticing things around one, beyond a New Yorker’s street smarts. No One Smiled. By the same token, no one was rowdy or obnoxious. People kept a space between themselves and other people. In fact, as I went up to the concourse, emptier by far than usual, and watched the walkers, what was striking to me was the return of a talent for walking intelligently, with the radar out, so as not to obtrude into the next person’s walking space, the gifted urbanity whose loss I had lamented in recent decades. The smart walkers of New York were back in motion.

I hadn’t planned to go downtown; it seemed voyeuristic. I’d thought just to do some errands, talk to a few people, and then stop at my Museum (the Met) and my Japanese tea house. But once I was on the asphalt, it seemed imperative to go down there, and get my bearings from the changed New York reality.

Wasn’t sure how to get downtown on the Lexington Avenue subway from Penn Station, but I asked a middle-aged, portly Irish cop behind a wooden enclosure on my way to the 7th Avenue escalators. He gave me his hypothesis (it was only roughly right), but gave it with such a direct look of kindness — like a warm gust, close and family-like.

Out on the street, heavy sadness in the air. New York of late has come to seem to me an inner place, more than the site of its artefacts — more than the artefact it itself IS. In the sad, sober, realistic faces of my City, in the snappily dressed young businessman on 34th and Park, directing me to the Downtown local, “Be careful of that corner with construction; it’s tricky,” with that same direct look of human kindness and care, there was love-laden sorrow.

On every street lamp and bus shelter the posted notices, with photographs and descriptions of the “missing” — missing one now knows, for the remainder of our lives.

The train was rather empty, its passengers disciplined and self-contained. The #6 local goes only as far as Brooklyn Bridge. One has to change there for the express. The express now skips Wall Street but stops at Fulton Street. Stepping onto the express, I asked a woman whether this train stopped at Fulton. New Yorkers are notoriously inaccurate or vague when answering such queries. But she said it did, enunciating clearly and quickly. My intention had been to walk around Wall Street. I supposed that, if the brokers could go to work, those streets at least would be accessible and I could get some feeling of how the streets had changed, closer to the crisis center.

Stepping onto the platform at Fulton Street, that expectation faltered. The air was acrid, even inside the station. At least half the people I saw had suddenly equipped themselves with paper masks to filter the polluted air. “Where did you get the mask?” I asked a young black girl. “At the hospital,” she said, puzzlingly. I didn’t think she was a nurse. They couldn’t all be nurses. It must be part of the urban equipment now. One had the sense that it was dangerous even to be in that vicinity. Air that thick and scratchy shouldn’t be allowed into one’s lungs.

Outside, crowds blocked the approach to Wall Street where I’d thought to go, streets were cordoned off (though you could elbow your way through if you had business, for example, if you had to do the trading on the floor of the bourse), National Guardsmen in fatigues and cops directed the massed crowds back to sidewalks to let the great trucks through. Their faces were young, objective, washed clean with sorrow. I was clearly in the way; and there was no place to walk. This was a danger zone. The men who are doing the heavy work there must take deep breaths, and often they work (as we see on TV) without masks. Each breath is an evident risk. The subway headed North carried people out of a war zone. As when Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms, writes, “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.”

Uptown in my neighborhood, I stopped at the “Allure” lingerie shop to pick up some camisoles. Janice, who owns the shop, said that her sister-in-law had begged her to spend some nights at her home in Connecticut, out of this scene. But Janice feels that to leave town is to betray our City. She couldn’t leave.

I stopped at my old building on 90th Street to talk to the doormen. Marcos was there and kissed me (now that our relations are no longer professional and I’m “Abigail,” not Mrs. Martin or “Doctor”). They’ve seen nothing, he and Manuel. They’ve been on duty at our door. But Marcos lives downtown in Brooklyn where there is a great view of lower Manhattan. Now he doesn’t like to look at the view. He said we have nothing to do but keep going, keep on with our lives. I asked him to give my fond greetings to Manuel.

Stopped in to Food Liberation, my health food store and social club. John Miklatek, the young owner, was there and said he’d often thought about me this week. He asked what I thought of these events, and I told him, more or less. That I had not been able to pray or find guidance in meditation all week. There’d been only tears. That I had to be here. That I felt a tremendous spirit in the town. That I felt God was not above, not a transcendent Being in this story, not mere Spirit. That God was in the rubble, broken but unimpaired, in it. Not in the pure air, but in the acrid air — not where people have no cause to fear, but here where they have cause. Where they rightly fear. He said the spirit of the City has been tremendously upgraded. He felt this a defining event for his generation, and that it would lead either to World War III or perhaps a better world. I said, a little of both. We kissed hello and goodbye.

Very hungry by then, I thought I’d taxi to the Met and have lunch there. Flagged a cab with a driver with an Islamic name, the cab flying two small flags at half staff. But then I remembered that I’d wanted to stop at the local fire station with a donation, so I paid the driver and got out at 86th Street. Walked to 85th between Lex and Third with a hundred dollar check in hand made out to Engine 22 / Ladder 13 Firefighter Family Fund. The sidewalk round the fire station was forested with flowers. Not simple bouquets that you can pick up for $6.50 at a neighborhood grocer and lay against the wall, but flower pots of some size, expensive floral and garden offerings from the wall to the curb, and on the wall papers hung with messages of the God bless America and You Are Our Heroes kind. The fireman who took my check when it came my turn in the queue waited till my hand was free, then took the time to shake it warmly in personal thanks. I said nothing, just looked at him and nodded, but felt another gust of kindness.

The Met was as empty as it used to be in my teens, as I’d often wished it to be since, but somehow the emptiness seemed ominous, as if the presence of milling throngs had protected the art, which now stood naked to its enemies.

I know several waiters in the café. Alfonso told me the restaurant had been even emptier on Sunday, the people fearing that any prominent building could be a target. On September 11th, parents had been phoned to come pick up their children, but no public transportation moved on the streets, only emergency vehicles. Alfonso had walked from the Bronx to midtown Manhattan to pick up his daughter on her first day in high school, 93 blocks there with heart in mouth, and 93 blocks back. 186 blocks or eight and a half miles. On the way back, he and his daughter had stopped a few times for sodas.

“What will these kids think?” he asked. He spoke of six-year-olds who now talk of “bad men who destroy buildings” — having to absorb concepts like “bad men.” He said that psychologists advise parents to talk to their children and not let them watch too much TV.

I said, “Your daughter will never forget that day, September 11th, her first day of high school. But she will never forget that her father walked 186 blocks to get her.” I added, “Your wife must have been so worried while you were gone,” picturing a young Latin wife with apron tied in back, desperate in a small kitchen.

“Yes she worried while I was gone,” Alfonso said. “She’s a dispatcher for the Transit Police. These days she works 16 hour shifts at the crisis center.”

I looked at some of the art, all the same. There is a crucifix at the entrance to the medieval hall that legend ascribed to a sculptor who’d been an eyewitness. One sees why. It’s Byzantine in style, maybe 10th century (I don’t quite recall), open-eyed, “triumphal” rather than historical. But very much eyewitnessed, it seemed to me; on target, on location, and “with it.”

The stone Shiva upstairs too, of course, with its profoundly unsentimental teaching: God is in the carnage as much as in the formed civil orders — in the carnage not as Kali, mere destructive energy, but as the pity in it.

The growth of the spirit necessarily traverses the darkest of trials. The thing that I greatly feared has come upon me, Job said.

Noted on the Fifth Avenue bus going downtown: Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany — no displays, only flags. Brooks Brothers, a huge flag. All the stores, flags at half mast. St. Patrick’s, some diocesan flag, also the flag, both at half staff. Saks: 14 flags at full staff, plus two large ones on an upper story at half staff. “With Sadness,” in darkened windows. Lord & Taylor the same. With what look like giant white shades pulled down, flags hung in front of the white shades.

On the crosstown at 34th Street the bus driver greets a young National Guardsman climbing aboard like a colleague. Turns out the bus driver works with FEMA in the rescue effort. I saw a fire truck pass on 34th Street. Thought I’d look away. These guys must be overwhelmed with adulation. One starts to get jaded, I imagined. But then I looked, and no. Their faces were illumined with sorrow.

So much for my day in the Big City.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Cities, Contradictions, Cool, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Ethics, Evil, Faith, Freedom, Friendship, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Heroes, History, history of ideas, Ideality, Ideology, Idolatry, Institutional Power, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Memoir, non-violence, Peace, Political, Political Movements, Power, Psychology, relationships, Religion, Roles, Spirituality, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, Theism, Time, twentieth century, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

September 11, A Week Later –

This post, written the week after September 11, 2011, is dedicated to Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz. Starting at the 88th floor on the North Tower, they went from floor to floor calling out to people who crouched in debris and darkness, without a clue as to what to do or where to go. “Is anybody there?” they called, gathering and shepherding people to hold on to each other and make their way down the stairs to the street below before the building fell. They are said to have saved 77 lives and inspired others to do the same. Their bodies were never found.

September 11, 2001, A Week Later

Since vacating my East Side studio apartment in June 2001, I’d visited the City almost weekly, but had not got to town last week. The initial numbness of the week of September 11 had eventually given way to tears that seemed to have no natural term. But on Tuesday the 18th I was able to get into the City, and would like to tell what I saw.

I arrived in Penn Station around 11:30 in the morning. Exiting the New Jersey train, I felt immediately that I was in a locality of Fear. It was not so much that people looked fearful or acted furtive. It was more a striking sense of collective vulnerability, of noticing things around one, beyond a New Yorker’s street smarts. No One Smiled. By the same token, no one was rowdy or obnoxious. People kept a space between themselves and other people. In fact, as I went up to the concourse, emptier by far than usual, and watched the walkers, what was striking to me was the return of a talent for walking intelligently, with the radar out, so as not to obtrude into the next person’s walking space, the gifted urbanity whose loss I had lamented in recent decades. The smart walkers of New York were back in motion.

I hadn’t planned to go downtown; it seemed voyeuristic. I’d thought just to do some errands, talk to a few people, and then stop at my Museum (the Met) and my Japanese tea house. But once I was on the asphalt, it seemed imperative to go down there, and get my bearings from the changed New York reality.

Wasn’t sure how to get downtown on the Lexington Avenue subway from Penn Station, but I asked a middle-aged, portly Irish cop behind a wooden enclosure on my way to the 7th Avenue escalators. He gave me his hypothesis (it was only roughly right), but gave it with such a direct look of kindness — like a warm gust, close and family-like.

Out on the street, heavy sadness in the air. New York of late has come to seem to me an inner place, more than the site of its artefacts — more than the artefact it itself IS. In the sad, sober, realistic faces of my City, in the snappily dressed young businessman on 34th and Park, directing me to the Downtown local, “Be careful of that corner with construction; it’s tricky,” with that same direct look of human kindness and care, there was love-laden sorrow.

On every street lamp and bus shelter the posted notices, with photographs and descriptions of the “missing” — missing one now knows, for the remainder of our lives.

The train was rather empty, its passengers disciplined and self-contained. The #6 local goes only as far as Brooklyn Bridge. One has to change there for the express. The express now skips Wall Street but stops at Fulton Street. Stepping onto the express, I asked a woman whether this train stopped at Fulton. New Yorkers are notoriously inaccurate or vague when answering such queries. But she said it did, enunciating clearly and quickly. My intention had been to walk around Wall Street. I supposed that, if the brokers could go to work, those streets at least would be accessible and I could get some feeling of how the streets had changed, closer to the crisis center.

Stepping onto the platform at Fulton Street, that expectation faltered. The air was acrid, even inside the station. At least half the people I saw had suddenly equipped themselves with paper masks to filter the polluted air. “Where did you get the mask?” I asked a young black girl. “At the hospital,” she said, puzzlingly. I didn’t think she was a nurse. They couldn’t all be nurses. It must be part of the urban equipment now. One had the sense that it was dangerous even to be in that vicinity. Air that thick and scratchy shouldn’t be allowed into one’s lungs.

Outside, crowds blocked the approach to Wall Street where I’d thought to go, streets were cordoned off (though you could elbow your way through if you had business, for example, if you had to do the trading on the floor of the bourse), National Guardsmen in fatigues and cops directed the massed crowds back to sidewalks to let the great trucks through. Their faces were young, objective, washed clean with sorrow. I was clearly in the way; and there was no place to walk. This was a danger zone. The men who are doing the heavy work there must take deep breaths, and often they work (as we see on TV) without masks. Each breath is an evident risk. The subway headed North carried people out of a war zone. As when Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms, writes, “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.”

Uptown in my neighborhood, I stopped at the “Allure” lingerie shop to pick up some camisoles. Janice, who owns the shop, said that her sister-in-law had begged her to spend some nights at her home in Connecticut, out of this scene. But Janice feels that to leave town is to betray our City. She couldn’t leave.

I stopped at my old building on 90th Street to talk to the doormen. Marcos was there and kissed me (now that our relations are no longer professional and I’m “Abigail,” not Mrs. Martin or “Doctor”). They’ve seen nothing, he and Manuel. They’ve been on duty at our door. But Marcos lives downtown in Brooklyn where there is a great view of lower Manhattan. Now he doesn’t like to look at the view. He said we have nothing to do but keep going, keep on with our lives. I asked him to give my fond greetings to Manuel.

Stopped in to Food Liberation, my health food store and social club. John Miklatek, the young owner, was there and said he’d often thought about me this week. He asked what I thought of these events, and I told him, more or less. That I had not been able to pray or find guidance in meditation all week. There’d been only tears. That I had to be here. That I felt a tremendous spirit in the town. That I felt God was not above, not a transcendent Being in this story, not mere Spirit. That God was in the rubble, broken but unimpaired, in it. Not in the pure air, but in the acrid air — not where people have no cause to fear, but here where they have cause. Where they rightly fear. He said the spirit of the City has been tremendously upgraded. He felt this a defining event for his generation, and that it would lead either to World War III or perhaps a better world. I said, a little of both. We kissed hello and goodbye.

Very hungry by then, I thought I’d taxi to the Met and have lunch there. Flagged a cab with a driver with an Islamic name, the cab flying two small flags at half staff. But then I remembered that I’d wanted to stop at the local fire station with a donation, so I paid the driver and got out at 86th Street. Walked to 85th between Lex and Third with a hundred dollar check in hand made out to Engine 22 / Ladder 13 Firefighter Family Fund. The sidewalk round the fire station was forested with flowers. Not simple bouquets that you can pick up for $6.50 at a neighborhood grocer and lay against the wall, but flower pots of some size, expensive floral and garden offerings from the wall to the curb, and on the wall papers hung with messages of the God bless America and You Are Our Heroes kind. The fireman who took my check when it came my turn in the queue waited till my hand was free, then took the time to shake it warmly in personal thanks. I said nothing, just looked at him and nodded, but felt another gust of kindness.

The Met was as empty as it used to be in my teens, as I’d often wished it to be since, but somehow the emptiness seemed ominous, as if the presence of milling throngs had protected the art, which now stood naked to its enemies.

I know several waiters in the café. Alfonso told me the restaurant had been even emptier on Sunday, the people fearing that any prominent building could be a target. On September 11th, parents had been phoned to come pick up their children, but no public transportation moved on the streets, only emergency vehicles. Alfonso had walked from the Bronx to midtown Manhattan to pick up his daughter on her first day in high school, 93 blocks there with heart in mouth, and 93 blocks back. 186 blocks or eight and a half miles. On the way back, he and his daughter had stopped a few times for sodas.

“What will these kids think?” he asked. He spoke of six-year-olds who now talk of “bad men who destroy buildings” — having to absorb concepts like “bad men.” He said that psychologists advise parents to talk to their children and not let them watch too much TV.

I said, “Your daughter will never forget that day, September 11th, her first day of high school. But she will never forget that her father walked 186 blocks to get her.” I added, “Your wife must have been so worried while you were gone,” picturing a young Latin wife with apron tied in back, desperate in a small kitchen.

“Yes she worried while I was gone,” Alfonso said. “She’s a dispatcher for the Transit Police. These days she works 16 hour shifts at the crisis center.”

I looked at some of the art, all the same. There is a crucifix at the entrance to the medieval hall that legend ascribed to a sculptor who’d been an eyewitness. One sees why. It’s Byzantine in style, maybe 10th century (I don’t quite recall), open-eyed, “triumphal” rather than historical. But very much eyewitnessed, it seemed to me; on target, on location, and “with it.”

The stone Shiva upstairs too, of course, with its profoundly unsentimental teaching: God is in the carnage as much as in the formed civil orders — in the carnage not as Kali, mere destructive energy, but as the pity in it.

The growth of the spirit necessarily traverses the darkest of trials. The thing that I greatly feared has come upon me, Job said.

Noted on the Fifth Avenue bus going downtown: Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany — no displays, only flags. Brooks Brothers, a huge flag. All the stores, flags at half mast. St. Patrick’s, some diocesan flag, also the flag, both at half staff. Saks: 14 flags at full staff, plus two large ones on an upper story at half staff. “With Sadness,” in darkened windows. Lord & Taylor the same. With what look like giant white shades pulled down, flags hung in front of the white shades.

On the crosstown at 34th Street the bus driver greets a young National Guardsman climbing aboard like a colleague. Turns out the bus driver works with FEMA in the rescue effort. I saw a fire truck pass on 34th Street. Thought I’d look away. These guys must be overwhelmed with adulation. One starts to get jaded, I imagined. But then I looked, and no. Their faces were illumined with sorrow.

So much for my day in the Big City.

 

 

 

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Action, Alienation, Art, Cities, Contradictions, Cool, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Ethics, Evil, Faith, Freedom, Friendship, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Heroes, History, history of ideas, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Institutional Power, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Memoir, non-violence, Peace, Political, Political Movements, Power, Psychology, relationships, Religion, Roles, Spirituality, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, Theism, Time, twenty-first century, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments