Friday, November 25, 2011

Keeping it Clean

It's not what I'm expecting. The flash sparkle of many white lights in the tower above me dazzles. Naomi and I look up. This is one of the new towers being built in lower Manhattan's World Trade Center. The view at night is markedly different than by day. With construction continuing even at this hour, I'm disoriented by the simultaneous presence of stillness and pulsing flow.

We move, cellphone cameras in hand, past signs for the newly opened 9/11 Memorial, past a church, past subway stations and folks heading home from what I imagine to be long workdays. They look tired. Tourists and construction laborers activate the scene as we continue to walk. A large hotel seems strangely out of place.

Two weeks earlier, riding a BART train from Berkeley to San Francisco, I'm heading to to an exhibit at SFMOMA, a collection of drawings by sculptor Richard Serra. En route, around 10am, I decide to stop in Oakland to see the "Occupy Oakland" encampment in Frank Ogawa Plaza. Exiting the BART station, I'm looking around in an attempt to orient myself.

A tall middle-aged man, African American, says to me, "you don't want to go over there." I ask why. He says, "the cops are there. They shut it down early this morning." He tells me of moving to Oakland from Louisiana years ago and that, "things are different here." Not inclined to join the "Occupy" scene, he tells me, "It's complicated. The Black market, the drugs, they're controlling the underground economy. It's killing our young people. No one's talking about it and that's where the problem is." As we're speaking, I'm aware of his skin color and mine, of his experience and mine, what distinguishes us, and what brings us together.

I ask him why he stopped me. He smiles and says, "you look like a traveller." I say, "takes one to spot one." We laugh. I assure him, "I'll be careful," and add, "though need to see for myself." He says, "ok, just keep your distance." Walking one block further, I cross the street to the plaza and am stunned to see a line of police wearing helmets with plastic face shields.

My body flinches to a moment a decade earlier when I see a line of police in so-called "riot gear." Standing in a plaza in Seattle during the "summit" meeting of the World Trade Organization, I suddenly begin to choke as tear gas floods my senses and sends me running for a way out. I am here to witness and explore the possibility of dialogue.

Today in Oakland, I arrive with a similar intention and am encouraged to see several police officers talking calmly with "civilians," people standing at a distance of perhaps 30 feet, mostly young people. This is striking particularly because of the volume of voice needed to be heard across that distance. Some of the conversation revolves around boundaries in place following the dismantling of the encampment. I attune, mostly to tone of voice. The sharings are sincere while the "positions" of those standing here are very different.

In the distance, I see a wire fence and what appear to be remnants of the "occupation" piled up. The place is clearly off limits. At the same time, what remains is a sense of people occupying space while not knowing what to do next. A surprising quality of spaciousness offers an opportunity for connection. For me, the line of police shifts from a perception (based in part on past experience) of what it represents to simply attuning to the posture of bodies and tone of voices. The "civilian" people hanging out seem equally caught off guard. I see glimpses of individuals interacting in community, each with a story bringing them here now. Including myself.

I turn and head for BART. An hour later, standing in the museum, I'm with a group in the Serra exhibition as the guide shows us several abstract pieces, huge white canvases with layers of thick, black, tar-like paint caked over the surface. Serra uses a "paintstick," which is like a crayon.

Emerging from two (slightly different sized) black rectangles is a triangular sliver of blank canvas, which reveals white space. It feels like a crack of light piercing through. I glance at the small card below to see what Serra names this. I am shocked to read, "The United States Government Destroys Art, 1989."

Our guide tells us that Serra made several pieces as a response to the U.S. government's decision to remove his outdoor sculpture, "Tilted Arc," that same year. Ten years earlier, the government commissions the sculpture as a permanent work for the its Federal Plaza. Ten years later, officials say Tilted Arc obstructs the flow of foot traffic in a busy section of town.

In an article entitled, Controversy in Public Art, Vera van der Meij writes,

"Tilted Arc", a massive, wall-like steel sculpture that responded to the commercialization of art by grounding the sculptural object irrevocably in the center of a geography of a rich, diverse, and busy area of lower New York City, was removed after years of trial and public debate. It was due to be moved, but as Serra claimed to have made it specifically for that site, relating to architecture and the size and other aspects of the Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, on which it was placed, "to move it was destroying it."

Curious to read more from the artist, I locate Serra's "On Art and Censorship":

"I am interested in a behavioral space in which the viewer interacts with the sculpture in its context. . . Space becomes the sum of successive perceptions of the place. The viewer becomes the subject."

and in Notes on Drawings, he writes:

"The preoccupation with site and context was paralleled in drawing, in that my drawings began to take on a place within the space of the wall. I did not want to accept architectural space as a limiting container. I wanted it understood as a site in which to establish and structure disjunctive, contradictory spaces."

A week or so after returning to New York City, I pause from a busy day and go on Facebook. A friend, Brock Brereton, posts a link concerning financial instability in Greece, with this to say about it, "Greece is about to blow!" to which multiple friends "comment." The conversation includes people who seem highly informed about the details of economic policy making and issues. They make connections, revealing a bigger picture, bringing in Italy's and Spain's economic difficulties.

It's the first comment though, that captures my attention. A friend of this friend writes, "my give a damn broke."

This guy's statement is not simplistic apathy. He is speaking to something more complex. As he continues, I relate to how honest and direct he is in naming his experience. I notice that to stay open, I have to attune to what his feelings might be, maybe overwhelmed. I can feel this in my body as I read more of what he shares. "Who cares? just be thankful we live where we do and keep on keepin on." At this point, a friend, Mike Mathog (who holds a Masters in Public Policy from Georgetown U.), posts, "a euro collapse will have huge "care" because there's a chance of loss of real wealth and real living standards."

I am drawn to this conversation. It is thoughtful. These guys are not agreeing. They are challenging one another. At the same time, it's a compassionate conversation, which does not shy away from complexity. Brock responds, "nobody is talking about it because few are aware of the threat because 'nobody cares' ".

These words and the way he strings them together stop me. Two words reverberate: "aware" and "care." I post about this, then ask, "What is preoccupying attention? And how might that shift?" to which Brock responds, "J, your question is all important. What will it take to make anyone aware, not to mention care..."

Mike responds, calling attention to tangible issues, "people on the right tend to see 'free market capitalism' as an end in itself. (I use the scare quotes because such a thing doesn't exist. capitalism has many forms, the right is just referring to one form.) me? I love (a certain type of regulated, taxed, publicly invested) capitalism. however, I love it because I see it as one excellent means to building a super decent, high living standard society. It's not a moral imperative to me, it's just a mechanical system."

Brock responds, "Yes, I like that vision!"

I suddenly get why I like this exchange. There's a flow, a spark of imagination, which invites visioning. It emerges from partnership in process rooted in a strong commitment to be both "aware" and to "care." Even the fellow who on the surface asks, "who cares?" elaborates that his concerns are focussed on local action. The interaction is unspokenly dignified. The issues being intricately interwoven, each brings his own expertise while taking time to consider and respond to the other's point of view. "Moral imperative" drives this dialogue without stifling diversity in its expression.

It feels like an answer to an unspoken question that's been gnawing at me since the whole "Occupy" movement begins. That question centers on "how?" How do I respond authentically? How do I respond to the stuckness in me, a mix of confusion and angst? Now it's happening, it's shifting into something I can only name as "possibility." I'm encouraged and open while not knowing how to respond next. Yet what has shifted is my capacity to trust this flow of "not knowing." For me, trust is the moral imperative.

A few days later, I meet Naomi Namba, an artist friend in SensingWonder, for dinner. We are considering when to visit OWS when she asks with a sparkle in her eyes, "want to go down there tonight?" Trusting the moment, I say, "yes!" Within minutes, we're on a train heading to the last stop, "World Trade Center."

As we arrive at Zucotti Park on election night, moving along the sidewalk beside the encampment, I see a sign attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It says, "Capitalism forgets life is social." This is my first time here since a month earlier when I visit the park during daytime. The scene at night is markedly different. We wander by a food vendor. Coffee seems to be a popular item. As we round the corner, I spot a table with a sign saying, "Nobody 2012." Nearby I spot a familiar face.

"Jeff!" I exclaim, delighted to see a friend whom haven't seen in over a year. He responds with equal delight, "Hey Judy!" We hug and catch up. Jeff tells me he's on the night shift here 2x/week. Jeff Thompson is a Caucasian-American NYPD detective in the "Community Affairs Bureau." He also is a professional mediator who "practices" in the tradition of Zen teacher and humanitarian Thich Nhat Hahn.

Jeff's face lights up as he tells me about playing soccer with his 6 year old son. Then the conversation shifts. I ask him about the night scene at OWS. Jeff says, "actually, there are a lot of scenes within the scene here, as you might have noticed walking around. Over here it's the quietist, people talking casually." He points towards the interior of the park, "you can enter there, Main St." I notice what appears to be an entryway and path. He says, "the NVC ['Non-Violent Communication'] people have a table in there, teaching people."

Just then, I see a man walking nearby, African American, middle aged, and stocky build. He stops and looks out towards the park like he's surveying the scene. I walk over and introduce myself and SensingWonder's purpose in coming here tonight. He shakes my hand and smiles with a mix of surprise and relief for a moment of genuine acceptance and connection. He says, "this is my first time here." He continues, "I feel for these young people. I used to work down here as a dispatcher, then got laid off. Now I work in telecommunications." I ask him about his new job. He says in a less than enthusiastic tone, "it's alright." I wish him well as he continues on his way.

Just then, I turn and see Jeff talking with a man. I walk over and learn the man is Murdock, a Caucasian-American "occupier." He and Jeff are talking football as I join them. I ask how they met. Murdock says with gusto, "I'm with the sanitation dept." I surmise he means he's with the cleanup crew of OWS. He continues with a twinkle in his eye and a big smile, "You know, we can't change the world if we can't keep it clean."

Naomi snaps a photo of the three of us. Here we are, people with different perspectives, different roles, positions within the "system," and each one drawn to serve, following an inner compass, a "moral imperative." I feel inspired and grateful to be here now, open to the possibility of continuing dialogue.

As Naomi and I continue to move beside and through the park, I'm drawn to the quality of this night scene with news cameras mostly gone and signs by and large resting on the ground. People are gathered in small numbers. And yet, there is tension and a palpable sense of a "matter of time" until something must shift. I snap many photos. A few days later, I add them to an ongoing Facebook album called, "Occupying." Each photo is accompanied by a caption telling a story.

Curious about the quote on a sign attributed to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I search for it online and find the complete quote:

"Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both."

One week later, I wake up to a headline, Police Oust Occupy Wall Street Protesters in Zuccotti Park. The reporter writes,

“New York City is the city where you can come and express yourself,” the mayor said. “What was happening in Zuccotti Park was not that.” He said the protesters had taken over the park, “making it unavailable to anyone else.” Mr. Bloomberg said the city had planned to reopen the park on Tuesday morning after the protesters’ tents and tarps had been removed and the stone steps had been cleaned.

I close the browser, pause with a deep breath, then get up from where I'm sitting and head to work. Getting off at 72nd St. and Central Park West, I cross the street and enter the park at Strawberry Fields to begin my brisk walk crosstown. I stop at the Imagine Circle as a group of Italians snaps photos. Soon I'm walking on a paved path beside a large field with lots of fallen leaves all over the path and field. I hear a loud whhrrr sound and smell what makes me begin to cough. I look up and see a man holding a leaf blower. Dozens of leaves in a cloud of dusty dirt are being blown onto the field. I shiver in the chill of the morning, and something else. I stop.

I stand still listening to the rustle of remaining leaves on nearby tree branches. I look out across the field and drink in an awesome array of colors, varying shades of yellow, coppery-orange, and brown. My feet follow impulse and step off the path. The crunch of autumn leaves underfoot is as soothing as it is energizing.

I arrive to work a few minutes late. Nobody including me cares. As I enter the office, a colleague says cheerfully, "Good morning. How are you?" I tell her I'm not sure. She senses the mix of emotion in me. We spend the next several minutes talking about what's going on. We share our feelings. I get a cup of tea, she a cup of coffee. A few more colleagues arrive in our small office. Soon we're all talking about what's going on. The conversation is enlivening. I feel the easing of tension in my body and suddenly find myself laughing. Someone just said something hilarious. And without anyone voicing it, somehow we shift into the next thing.