April 22, 2013 § 1 Comment
I’d forgotten how beautiful the tulips and the cherry blossoms are in Washington Square Park. They’re even more beautiful than an upside down marmalade cat, or dark chocolate in tin foil leaning against a stack of novels.
Today was Earth Day and I walked in the early evening sunlight, the almost-full moon visible in the pale blue sky, remembering the first Earth Day in 1970—how my mother let me go to my first rally because it wasn’t an antiwar protest and she thought it was safe.
Over a million people showed up in New York that day. Mayor Lindsay stopped traffic on Fifth Avenue and lent Central Park to the Earth lovers. I don’t remember anything that was said, or even if I could hear it; just the feeling of standing there in my blue jeans, 15 years old, experiencing the first political emotion that came from my gut. I was against the war, but the war wasn’t real to me the way fouled rivers and dead animals were. I knew that, in the long run, it was a bigger story than the war.
Not that I would have believed that if I had a brother in Vietnam. But I didn’t. My brother, from whose lips I first heard the word “Vietnam,” when I was nine and had no idea our country was attempting a Colonial-style smackdown, was already dead. I was almost used to it after five years. I was worried about the Earth.
I still am. I’m not obsessing about the way I was this fall. It’s just there, the knowledge, the sadness. I don’t like thinking about the children except as they are now, healthy and loved and still oblivious. Jaden and Jack, Daniel, Hannah and Myles and William. Six inquisitive minds, six varieties of imagination, thoughtfulness, kindness. I hope they grow up as strong as these big tulips in the half-light of a Monday afternoon.
We went to Union Square earlier today, looking for what was supposed to be an Earth Day event. Nothing was there but the usual: the farmer’s market, street music, flowers, a couple of people sleeping. “It looks like Earth to me,” said Charles.” We bought four carrots and a rutabaga.
Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
–William Butler Yeats
April 10, 2012 § 3 Comments
The park was indescribably beautiful tonight. Or this evening, rather, before the light was gone—when it was going, but not in a blue swoon or the slow filtering in of black ink; no, the light was going green, lima bean green, the green of sick on a face, the green of sage. The green of new life lifted from the walked-upon grass, from the curving branches of the old trees, from the in-bending wire and wooden fences. There was green in all of those things, and that green lifted up like a curtain rising from below to make the evening apparent, to remind us that there is no beauty more terrible than the beauty of endings, though beauty numbs the terror and you only feel it later. The earth knows secrets that are so far beyond our puny human self-importance that all fears of harming the “biosphere” recede as I remember how it harms us by being, by leaving, by making us leave, by taking what we have, little by little.
On the way home, with milk, chocolate cookies and catfood, I look at the absurdly big tulips that are everywhere in the city now, their heads the size of eggs: hard yellow, Easter purple, a clear red edged in delicately curling white. The reds take the light the best; I stare at them for minutes. I want to eat them. I want to fold my body inside those red cups, then roll around like a stoned 15-year-old.
The white fringe, on the other hand, is too easy; it reminds me of Bolo’s white feathers as she incessantly groomed herself or preened, tilting her flirty head. Bolo was my friend John’s cockatoo who sat on his shoulder, who pecked little bird-holes in his arms and torso at night—“I have scars all over my body,” he said cheerfully—who was the love of his life.
John was murdered not long ago by a human being, so now, of course, he’s the one I want to spend the evening with, though we were neighbors more than friends and had a meal alone together maybe three times in 20 years.
But I’m not only thinking of melancholy things (okay, maybe I am. Go Twitter if you’d rather). I’m grateful at how open I was to the beauty, which is not always the case anymore. When I was young, beauty flung itself in my face every day; I had to fend if off; I never imagined a time when it wouldn’t be pursing me with insistent seduction, trying to take me to that invisible barrier it hides behind, rubbing my face in the fact that I couldn’t have it. Now weeks can pass when I don’t see beauty as more than a postcard. It’s a lovely day; wish you were here. Oh, I’ll get there sometime.
That green haze in the park, the escape of evening from the earth, which happens exactly as the sun goes down (but who can really say the sun has anything to do with it?) doesn’t ask me to surrender as beauty used to do. I suppose I’m too old. My vitality is gone; there’s nothing for the otherworldly ones to steal, no lover to vanquish.
Lisa said the other night that we must always remember we’ll die, die and be forgotten. I was trying to enjoy my duck with pears. But she wanted to talk about this—she very often wants to talk about it—so we did. There’s something she can’t explain to me; something I can’t explain to her.
Because I know I’m dying, know it as I know what sunlight feels like. I’m not the 9 year old who stared into the mirror the morning after her brother was killed, seeing for the first time the million million cells ablaze with life, feeling all the tender parts of being and was greedy for it, that dance of life and self. She’s gone, that child; I’m dying. Today, tomorrow. Life is hard; death is easy. Thinking about death is hard; others’ deaths are hard; that’s life.
Lisa said that when she’s in bed she stares at a photograph on the wall of a great aunt, childless, and thinks she’ll be like that and I’ll be like that: no claim to the young crawling up the forked paths in the genealogy forest, saying Great-Great-Grandmother, who were you, what was your world like?
But the famed writers and warriors, explorers, philosophers—the spiritual, the daring, the craven, the mad—have left us their books, letters, diaries, grocery lists; and I don’t think I know what their world was like. They adorn my world. They are mine absolutely, and yours absolutely; they are not themselves.
Once I wanted to be famous, “immortal,” as they say (and the earth laughs, knowing that Shakespeare and Homer are like the black ants on my porch in upstate New York, one evening 20 years ago; do I remember the special ones?) Now, alive, it makes no difference if people are thinking of me; if I imagine they’re thinking of me. I’ve had some practice imagining this, trying to wring pleasure or comfort from it, but it makes no difference. What makes a difference is if someone speaks, if someone touches me.
So I’ll be forgotten. I only mourn that I won’t keep forgetting. This is a poem I once knew by heart.
A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
May 20, 2009 § 3 Comments
“She ordered a cup of tea, which proved excessively bad, and this gave her a sense that she was suffering in a romantic cause.”~Henry James, Washington Square
I went to Washington Square Park yesterday, to witness its grand re-opening. It was a perfect spring day: warm and cool, blue and sunny, with a little breeze. There were lots of people in the park at 6 p.m. Mothers with strollers and young men with guitars, tourists and NYU summer-school students and neighborhood folk. Everyone seemed to agree that the park looked beautiful, though a few old-Village types smiled ironically and wouldn’t stop for comment. It wasn’t the kind of day or crowd where you even wanted to say, It sucks.
Little children played in the fountain. People took pictures. They sat on the benches and on the grass, and though this is New York and people mingled with strangers only at the kid magnets and in front of the performers, there was a general mood of goodwill. Nobody was screaming about a wasted 27 million.
Most of the park was closed for two years for renovation, the most controversial part of which was realigning the stone fountain so it was centered with the arch (erected out of wood and plaster when Washington was elected President; in the 19th century redone in marble as a copy of the Arc de Triomphe). The renovation designer is George Vellonakis, who, according to The New York Times, envisioned “viewing corridors” and “great, clean lines.”
Lots of us thought the park and the fountain was fine the way it was. Off-center: so what? I’d never noticed and when it was pointed out to me, I realized it was part of the charm, tacit notice that you were not in Rockefeller Center or on the Champs-Elysees. Just in case you forgot. You were in Greenwich Village, which has its own history, much of which involves the off-center. The park was originally a cemetery for the indigent and victims of yellow fever, and then a military parade ground. More recently, artists and writers created the culture of the 20th century in the surrounding streets, while destroying marriages, neglecting their kids, driving their friends to distraction and dying of drink.
How often have you stumbled home profoundly intoxicated by one substance or another and been unable to make the world line up as it should? It doesn’t matter whether your answer is never, all the time, or only in my lost, glorious youth. The old fountain embodied it for you. It said: here be geniuses and crackpots. Check your compass. Hold onto your date and your wallet.
The park has gentrified almost beyond recognition since I first saw it in the late 1960’s. For years it’s been green and lush, full of flowers, carefully planned and tended to. When I used to prowl it at 14, smoking joints or drinking Mateus under a tree with my cousin Faxy, the grass was dingy and matted with dogshit, there was lots of trash, and I don’t remember any flowers. Of course it was always night when we went there, so I might not have noticed flowers.
My park was mutilated in 1970 when the grass was ripped out for a cement “playground” with humps in it like what you’d expect if a few visiting camels fell into the mixer. The humps were supposed to inspire childish play: they were good for skateboarding, which I had outgrown. I preferred dim greenery where I could swig cheap wine and wait for my prince to come.
Park planners were surprised that the humps were taken over by minority kids practicing difficult moves on jazzed up boards. I guess they’d expected Caucasian 8-year-olds to run up and down playing tag, exercising their chubby little legs.
I left the Village for a couple of decades, moving back in time for the crack years. My stepson could tell you more about that; he spent the summer of ’86 hanging in the park every night, selling my antique silver jewelry for drugs. Crack? I have no idea.
In those days you never walked through the park unless you wanted to be hounded by guys muttering, “smoke, smoke, smoke,” all the way. I sent my husband out to buy me pot one night (after my stepson had absconded for Florida). The cops nabbed him and wanted him to finger the dealer, of whom there were several in the vicinity, youngish black guys in sweats and sneakers. He didn’t want to do that, so, thinking fast, said, “I don’t know. All those guys look alike.” The cops let him go in disgust.
In the 90’s, the dealers were thinned out when locally-hated monster NYU stepped up its gorging on neighborhood real estate. (One of the more deeply held conspiracy theories is that NYU paid under the table for the current renovation in exchange for unspecified park-eating privileges.)
Yes, the park is beautiful and later I’ll go check it out in the less crowded daytime, but I miss the way it was last year. I miss the way it was when I was 14. A little squalor never hurt anybody. Well, yeah, it did, but life does that anyway. I never felt in serious danger there. The dodgiest thing that happened to us was when a charming young man who called himself J.C. talked us into panhandling to help support his pregnant wife and pregnant girlfriend. We did it for an hour or so, made him a few bucks. I don’t know about my cousin, but I was hoping for a kiss. (No more than that. I was 14, and not totally stupid.)
Guys didn’t talk to us often. We were too young and we didn’t wear make up, jewelry, girl shoes or sexy tops. Our posture was defensive and we never smiled if we could smirk.
The evening would end with the 10-cent Italian ices from the guy on 6th Avenue whom I can’t think of away from his cart anymore than I can think of Sancho Panza off a donkey. The ice came in little white paper cups, perfectly packed and mounded. And like every sentimentalist from the beginning of time, I’ll say it: no artisanal goat cheese and fennel gelato can beat those raspberry ices.
Still, I’m happy to have my park back.