Thursday, September 30, 2010

Looking Up

Two lights, sparking blue, shine up into the sky. The sight along Battery Park City Esplanade is breathtaking and at the same time, an eerie reminder of time passing.

The complexity of the legacy that has become a codeword points to what matters most. The code is simple: 9/11.

Gazing up, I see clouds drifting through. Along the riverbank, soft blue lights dot the wooden fencing where boats dock and people sit to enjoy the cool night air.

The nip of autumn is palpable.

I'm heading home after participating in an annual, "9/11 Memorial Floating Lantern Ceremony" on Pier 40 by Houston Street. Members of the New York Kayak Club launch hundreds of paper lanterns with messages inscribed and/or painted by those who have gathered. Each lantern's flicker contributes to a beautiful image. People walk in small groups, ten or so, holding their lanterns and the light wooden plank to which they are attached. Carefully, each group slowly walks down an inclined wooden platform to the water's edge.

The river is choppy and so they stumble as they walk. Standing slightly below them on a small floating platform, I greet them and say, "If we can hold onto one another like we're holding on to these lanterns, none of us is likely to fall." Several people smile. A woman holds her hand out to me for support.

Nearly two weeks later, autumnal equinox arrives, marking the official change of season with remarkably unseasonable warm (80 degrees) weather. As evening falls, I am captivated by the cheerfully fast-paced activity in Manhattan's Chinatown. This night is the Chinese Moon Festival as well as the first night of the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

Known as the "festival of booths" (or makeshift shelters), Sukkot commemorates a journey through desert wilderness in which fragility informs every action. It also marks a later time when during the fall harvest, people are living in the fields in booths with open thatched "roofs".

Passing by streams of people on the active streets, I am keenly aware of so many living all too close to this experience. The need to celebrate in the midst of complexity and uncertainty seems fitting.

Both holidays place emphasis on the importance of family and community.

The Chinese tradition is for family and friends to gather, gaze up at the full moon, and then enjoy "mooncakes" and tea.

I arrive for tea with my friend Cindy, a longtime transplant from Hong Kong and mother of four. She offers me lotus seed-filled mooncake, boiled peanuts, and steamed taro root. They pair well with my tea. She tells me the taro represents the many generations of family and points to two different kinds: one sliced from a very large root and the other being quite small. These tiny taros looks like a rougher version of a potato with a dark, scruffy outer skin.

She says, "many sizes, many people."

Then adds, "when you eat food, knowing the story is important."

Later that night, I read from The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook by Roberta Kalechofsky and Rosa Rasiel:

"The sukkah is not intended as a permanent structure. Its beauty comes from the decorations inside, the company, the songs, and the food. . . we should try to eat some meals there and make them full of all the best of our local harvest. Stuffed foods, as symbols of abundance, are traditional."

Several days later, I am watching a film, The Mistress of Spices.

In one scene, a grandfather and recent immigrant from India, arrives at a magical spice shop, in distress. The young proprietress, dressed in a pale-colored Sari (traditional dress), listens attentively. He tells her the story of his family's conflict. New and old traditions clash as his grandaughter announces her choice in marriage.

The spice mistress crushes almonds and something called "keser" with repeated rolling of a heavy stone. She instructs the grandfather to boil the powder with milk, cautioning, "the whole family must drink it, to sweeten your words and remember the love buried underneath the anger."

Days later, I'm riding the A train and sitting next to a little girl wearing black-framed glasses and a wild, green-pink print dress. She is moving about in her seat and to my surprise, is diligently sucking her thumb. A nearby passenger begins to shift uncomfortably in her seat, then scolds, "Stop fidgeting. Sit still."

Instinctively drawn in, I say to the girl, "hey, I like your dress!" She flashes me a big broad grin and says, "Yeah, they're flowers" while pointing to several different kinds on the dress.

Then she asks, "want to play Rock, Paper, Scissors?"

The nearby woman seems relieved. The train is packed with passengers. 8am. I say, "Sure! but you might have to remind me how to play it."

She says loudly above the train's roar, "you have to sing, 'rock paper scissors, shoo." I laugh and pointing to my feet, a bit baffled, ask, "shoe?" She shrugs her shoulders, laughs, and says even louder, "shoo, shoo." I look around helplessly to fellow passengers standing above us. I catch a glimpse of a few folks giggling softly. Finally, someone takes pity on me.

"Shoot," she says, enunciating the "t". "Rock, paper, scissors - shoot!" She gestures with her hand the signal for putting out your choice.

"Oh. . .," I reply, nodding my head in thanks.

I turn back to my young friend and we begin. We both "shoot" rocks.

We then shoot each other curious looks. What to do? I turn my closed fist towards hers and say, "hey, know this?" and show her how to "bump" fists. She laughs. I say, "we're doing it like the presidents and. . ." (I pause to find the words) "mrs. president."

Somehow, "first lady" is not in mind.

At this point, a woman seated nearby calls to the girl by name. I say hello. She tells me the girl is her daughter. I wonder who is the woman previously scolding the girl. Before I'm able to turn to this woman, the girl's mom asks, "Are you a teacher? You're very good with her."

I smile. "Sometimes."

My little friend is eager to continue the game. She shoots rock and I scissors. She "breaks" my scissors with her fist. I ask, "where do all the broken scissors go?" She says, as if it were the most obvious fact, "on the floor. they go on the floor."

"Oh, I see," I remark, looking down. "Well, we'd better be careful where we step when we get up." She looks down and around, then back to her hand.

Rock (me)
Paper (her)

She wraps her hand around mine. Paper "takes" rock.


Scissors (kid)
Paper (yours truly)

I ask as she cuts my paper in two, "where does all the paper go?" She looks at me and points down, "there, on the floor."

"Wow, could get messy down there."

By this point, looking around, I notice several passengers chuckling quietly and imagine that a good number of these are parents.

As the train pulls into Columbus Circle, I give the girl's mom a smiley-hearted "Sensing Wonder" card. "Hey, you might enjoy the continuing story of our Potluck Tea Party where everybody's welcome."

Her mom thanks me and says they will. The girl waves goodbye.

As I head for the door, a whole lot of fellow passengers meet me in a smile.

That night, I scribble down a short poem:

The moon shines clear in a dark sky.

Friends gather with cakes and tea.

Smiles spread in ten directions,

following all who look up
and in that instant,

delight in what they see. . .

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