Friday, May 14, 2010

Future gaga

I'm hoofing it through Central Park, heading east from Columbus Circle. I pass by the colorful Carousel, its cheery music drawing me closer. Captivated by the swirl of horses, I suddenly notice a couple of kids laughing as they whirl by. The boy is grabbing on to a pole as it bobs up and down while the girl holds on to her horse's reigns. They look like they're having a grand time.

This cross-park jaunt is part of my mid-week routine, going from early morning math tutoring at Heschel High School to chaplaincy work at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In both settings, optimism permeates and tends to translate into movement. Stepping onto one of the hospital floors a few days earlier, I smile towards a patient and his wife as he makes "the loop" of one time around the floor. He returns the smile, encouraged while wheeling a pole from which hangs a clear plastic bag of "meds," as he refers to it, connected to the I.V. in his hand.

Most folks here move with great determination into an uncertain future.

Earlier this morning, working with a student in the high school library, I remind him to "use the three column method," an approach I developed though there might be many versions of the basic principle. He pulls out a sheet of paper and writes "Known" then with some space writes "Unknown." He then draws an arrow from the first to the second. I say to him, "remember what goes under the arrow?" Sliding his finger across the page, he says, "what it takes to get from here to there." We grin in mutual acknowledgement. He turns back to the page and starts to write.

Days earlier, Saturday night, to be precise, I'm riding on the #1 train, heading north from its first stop at South Ferry. As the train moves uptown, it becomes increasingly filled with activity. Around 14th Street, a bunch of college students get on, mostly women, dressed in fanciful costumes. A young man about the same age, wearing a Fedora-style hat, looks eager to make contact. He introduces himself to one of the women and asks about the group's plans. I sense his nervously excited vibe even as he tries to play it cool. He asks, "hey, where are you all going?" The woman, delighted for this attention, says, "we're going to a party where the theme is the future." She pauses, gauging his response. He is silent yet his face indicates curiosity as if to say, "tell me more." She continues, "We took future to mean gaga rave" and points to her audacious outfit, a mix of silver and black satin. She lifts her eyes to meets his. He gazes towards her with a mix of longing and curiosity.

They stand there a bit awkwardly, tension building, each holding the pole loosely as the train keeps moving.

I think to myself, "when to make a move?. . ."

Soon enough, the train pulls to a stop and the group quickly heads for the door. The young fellow still smiling towards the young lady , shifts his stance. She glances in his direction. He hesitates. She keeps going. She passes through the door. He watches, frozen. The doors close.

In the minutes that follow, standing by the pole, he looks a bit lost. He slowly sits down, across from me, clutching his knapsack, and looks down.

The subway train continues uptown. I settle into my seat as the thunderous roar of the wheels meeting the tracks reminds me to put in my earplugs. By the time I get home, all I want to do is go to sleep.

A week earlier, on May 2, friends converge east of Times Square as they complete their 700-mile, two-month duration "Walk for a Nuclear-Free Future" and join a larger peace walk to call attention to the United Nations' five-year review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The longer walk is sponsored by Grafton Peace Pagoda community in upstate NY. I remember walking with them the previous September through Harlem (see "Walk the Line" blog posting). This time around, their walk begins in the territories of the Six Nations near Buffalo, NY, where nuclear waste and nuclear weapons have been important concerns. The poster for the walk states, "think outside the bomb."

This same May evening in Times Square, a car containing a bomb is discovered, causing the evacuation of streets surrounding the area and thousands of tourists. The NYPD Bomb Squad is called in and is able to break into the smoke-filled Pathfinder and defuse the bomb without any injuries. They respond swiftly and without hesitation. It is their job.

I'm reminded of a scene from the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, in which the devil comes to Moscow and wreaks havoc. The novel challenges notions of good and evil and lifts up the power of redemption amidst a suffocatingly bureaucratic social order.

One of the final scenes, presented with apocalyptic allusions, has the devil, named Woland, a "foreigner," as he's described in the first chapter, announcing:

"Then like the blast of a trumpet the terrible voice of Woland rang out over the hills :

'It is time!'

As an echo came a piercing laugh and a whistle from Behemoth. The horses leaped into the air and the riders rose with them as they galloped upwards. Margarita could feel her fierce horse biting and tugging at the bit. Woland's cloak billowed out over the heads of the cavalcade and as evening drew on, his cloak began to cover the whole vault of the sky. When the black veil blew aside for a moment, Margarita turned round in flight and saw that not only the many-coloured towers but the whole city had long vanished from sight, swallowed by the earth, leaving only mist and smoke where it had been."

Earlier in the novel, the devil states his position,

"But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and living beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light?

My thoughts swirl with no easy answers. Then, I remember something Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said,

"Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge."

Days later, I'm riding the train to work. A Subway preacher gets on. With fierceness in his voice, he puts out his message, asking in a loud tone so everyone can hear:

"Do you know who you are?"

"Do you know where you're going?"

Most folks are looking down, doing their best to cope with such questions while still waking up. He continues,

"I say to all the women: You are the gateway of life. Set up a good standard for all of us to follow. And you men, remember: A woman made you so treat her with sensitivity."

He pauses, then adds:

"Open up your heart.

May you be blessed."

As the train pulls into the station and begins to jerk to a stop, he approaches the door, then turns around and adds:

"I hope somebody heard something."

He gets off. The train keeps going, I reflect on what's been said but my heart feels filled beyond capacity. When I finally get out into the air and soft sunshine, I am relieved just to walk. Walking soothes me.

Days later, I bump into a friend from high school, David. We're both on our way to work, reconnecting as we head down to the Subway. He tells me about his family, happy to share that their twin girls are now age four. Then he says that he and a friend have started a new "green" business, Urban Prairie NY.

Their website states,

"We represent those products that support living plants in our environment. These products are intended to improve and beautify the urban environment and ultimately better the health of our cities and the quality of life for its inhabitants."

As David and I chat on the train, his passionate commitment to this vision and good cheer inspire me. We exchange ideas and contact info. Before you know it, the train arrives at Columbus Circle. He gets off. The train keeps going. The conductor announces, "Times Square." The doors open. Now it's my turn.

I head for the open door.


  1. really liked this one Seicho.
    Have had moment like this with Subway preachers-
    that suddenly it touches you in an unexpected place.
    and that awkward moment of suspense-
    can I make that move
    "Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge."
    keep writing dharma sister

  2. love the way you're able to capture the impressions of each moment as they crowd in so fast one on top of another and distill from them the essential drop of wise knowing served up as a wondrous, delicious brew

    thanks for being so generous!