Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Red Flower

When I was a child, my next-door neighbors had a poster on the wall, a stark image that showed a swathe of black earth silhouetted against a white sky. A single fiery-red flower pushed up out of the black soil. I told the mother of this family that I thought the poster was beautiful, but she, the daughter of Eastern European Jewish refugees, told me that she found it disturbing herself. To her, the lone red flower seemed to be blooming out of troubled soil, in earth that had perhaps been ravaged by war and watered with blood.

If you go to school in New York State, you learn New York State history in third grade, and this was a subject that I particularly loved. It confirmed my suspicion that the ground beneath my feet was not inert, but was, rather, alive, fertilized by the hopes and prayers of hearts that had not long since ceased beating. It also brought home the truth that the soil of the city had itself been watered with blood. I lived across the street from the very spot where Peter Minuit bought Manhattan island from the Lenape Indians; later, I lived on Fort Washington Avenue, which had been a Revolutionary War fort, as had Fort Tryon Park up the street and Fort Lee across the Hudson River in New Jersey. The blood of soldiers watered that ground; the lordly Hudson once bristled with warships. The infamous Draft Riots of 1863 added the blood of lynched black New Yorkers to the soil around what is now Grand Central Station. In school we learned, too, about the digging of the Erie Canal, which opened the American West and joined it to New York and to the rest of the world, and about the Underground Railroad, which branched out through upstate New York to places like Elmira, Ithaca, and Rochester, where Frederick Douglass published his newspaper, The North Star. We learned about the great waves of immigration, about peoples exiled and displaced, fleeing from danger and persecution. And we learned about the men who had died digging the subways, building the bridges, and connecting the reservoirs of upstate Delaware and Sullivan Counties to the municipal water lines of New York City. While New York cannot, without some hyperbole, be called a war-torn land, there’s no denying that all kinds of blood flows figuratively through its history.

I started thinking about the the red flower growing in barren soil at Sunday Mass when the Gospel about Christ going into the desert was read. I felt sharply my painful absence from that place, watered with blood, that is my temporal Not-Exile, and I imagined what the Israelites might have felt, wandering around and around in an unfamiliar wasteland, on the way to something promised but as yet unknown and unrevealed. Compared with my beautiful land of Not-Exile, the place where I now live is a kind of epistemological desert, too.  When I moved from Manhattan to the Bronx, an old friend of mine observed that he didn’t know that anyone ever moved there willingly, except to be buried; when I told him, later, I was moving here, he was stumped for a reply. 

And it must be admitted that it’s a strange feeling to go from a place where, among other advantages, things function smoothly on a massive scale – a place where things work – to a place that is a relative desert. Not only is my new town dogged by social dysfunction -- a dearth of jobs, an aging population, and a disappearing middle-class -- it also has few consolations to offer in the way of culture, comfort, or aesthetic niceties, and I suppose this is no paradox. The commercial functionality of life in New York is so well–oiled that, if you’re sick in bed and can’t drag yourself to the pharmacy to get a prescription filled, they will deliver; if you’re hungry or thirsty at 3 AM and facing a bare refrigerator, you can go down the corner to an all-night diner or a Korean deli/salad bar and eat your fill. This kind of high-functioning service economy assumes, of course, that you have cash (or credit) in pocket to pay for it. There’s no sense of “come, all you who have no money, and eat your fill”; even the neo-back-to-the-landers who have marched on the borough of Brooklyn, establishing indie slaughterhouses and artisanal pickle-fermenting joints there, put out product that only people with a certain amount of disposable income can afford to buy. A service economy designed for those who can afford it is one of the reasons there’s been an underground exodus of the urban poor from New York to towns like mine in northern Appalachia, where the assumption is, correctly, that here you can get more for less. 

Fortunately, I can drive now; I don’t need the drugstore to deliver. But it took me a long time after we moved here to shake the sinking feeling that would come over me in the middle of the day, when I was either stuck at home with my preschooler or hitting a wall in one of the wide-ranging editing or translating projects I’ve worked on in the past year, and I would realize that I couldn’t just get up and stroll out for a cup of coffee.  To be able to do that is just, for want of a better word, nice. It’s something that makes an appreciable difference in the flow of one’s quotidian life, something that truly adds, to use an overused phrase, to the quality of that life. For one thing, it brings you into contact with other people, which doesn't often happen here, nor, I suspect, in a lot of other semi-suburban communities.

In New York, everything has already been done for you. Someone else opened the twenty-four hour drugstore; someone else, either a neo-back-to-the-lander Brooklynite or Starbucks, roasted that coffee and put it in a cup for you, provided a soft chair for you to sit and drink it in, and even set out a few well-worn kids’ books to keep your little ones amused while you snatch some private time in a public place. And this snatching of private time in public is, itself, a really special thing, which I didn’t realize until I moved to a place where people stay in their houses and shop in suburban shopping malls. The shared and public aspects of urban life help to forge and bond a community.

Yes, in New York, to quote Elizabeth Bishop, “somebody loves us all.” In my new home town, no one loves nobody. Though not, as far as I know, by blood, my own little place here has been well-watered with my tears.  Here, I understand nothing; I don't speak the language; I don't know which way to go. I feel as if I'm in a place without maps. The days are long and bleak. Nonetheless, as difficult, frustrating, and ego-bashing as my own small exile is, I believe quite strongly that it is necessary; as lonely and opaque as this place is to me, I believe that God wants me to be here, and I pray that I will be able to bring forth some sort of blossom out of this rocky earth. In fact, I believe that's what I have to do. Perhaps removing me from my home and chipping away at my loves and attachments is actually a demonstration, somehow, of God's mercy.


MrsDarwin said...

Here, I understand nothing; I don't speak the language; I don't know which way to go. I feel as if I'm in a place without maps. The days are long and bleak. ... Perhaps removing me from my home and chipping away at my loves and attachments is actually a demonstration of God's mercy.

God has certainly positioned you to be able to understand what little Jude will be feeling in his new home. Perhaps that is his mercy being demonstrated for Jude.

Not much longer now!

Pentimento said...

That is so true, Mrs. Darwin. Thank you for your great insight.

Anonymous said...

I check your blog especially to read your NY commentary; as a life-long Noo Yawka, your pain is palpable to me! And for all the craziness that comes with the territory, your posts remind me how much we do have, all the time.

Plan a visit; your heart needs it.


Pentimento said...

Thanks, NYa. Everyone else is probably sick of my bawling, but you know how it is!

I'm going to try to get back there while my husband is getting our son in China . . . have to figure out the logistics.

ex-new yorker said...

I never valued coming into contact with other people about New York. I valued the greater ability I had to feel unseen, which probably wasn't all that healthy for me. But even that less convenient area of NYC I lived in had so much available or at least relatively nearby, so many hours of the day. I definitely felt deprived of that when I first arrived here, even though this of course is also one of the more convenient places to live in the U.S. "Back to the land" is something I would never have associated with Brooklyn... but I think every part of Brooklyn, it seemed down to each block, had its own personality... and I guess they change pretty often. Mine changed while I was still living there.

About everyone having done everything for you already: yeah. I never even bothered thinking about how things were made or got done. It was almost always somebody else's job to have it ready and waiting for everybody else. That's why I loved our first, modestly successful vegetable garden so much. It was almost like a surprise to me to see the evidence that any old people really could plant seeds in dirt, and with water, sun, and time, with some reliability, edible food would grow.

Pentimento said...

The Brooklyn back-to-the-landism is mostly around the Gowanus Canal (a Superfund site, go figure) and Williamsburg/Greenpoint, Ex-New Yorker. In other words, hip neighborhoods, which, no offense, yours wasn't.

Funny enough, the best tomatoes I've ever had were grown by my husband in our tiny yard in Woodlawn, Bronx. The landlord was annoyed because they grew so lushly that they blocked the electric meter, making it hard for the ConEd guy.

ex-new yorker said...

Ours was a proudly unhip neighborhood -- or at least the people who have mostly left it seem to feel that way about it now. People from there don't recognize "hip" of that sort as authentically Brooklyn :) No offense! (Sincerely... I'm not meaning to be snarky to people who actually identify with those neighborhoods. I think my mother's neighborhood, where she grew up in unlovely circumstances previously described, might be one of those hip neighborhoods now. She just called it "Downtown Brooklyn." )

Even the name ConEd makes me a tad nostalgic.

Mrs C said...

This is beautifully written Pentimento. Mr C and I are now contemplating a move away from the Bronx. I'm tired of the grind, bustle and lack-of-loveliness. I long for something more like where I came from - sunny and spacious. Not necessarily hip. But not ugly either. But we're also terrified of leaving behind what we know. It's a big move.

Pentimento said...

Mrs. C, there's a beautiful house for sale across the street from us. : )

Rodak said...

I feel your pain.

JMB said...

I do so wish you would indulge a curious reader and disclose (at the least) what state you moved to?
When I was 14 I visited my cousins in Anchorage for the summer. We camped in Denali and visited friends in Fairbanks and Circle. We took this cool train from Fairbanks to Anchorage. I should have been having the time of my life. Instead, I was homesick. I could barely function. To this day I get depressed when I drive through areas where there are lots of pine trees (RT 80 through PA). I hate them.

To me, to be civilized is to be around people, or "society" as Jane Austin would say. Any chance you will return?

Pentimento said...

These are questions I can't answer, JMB. As to the first, the state I live in is one of the many details that I obscure here in order to maintain my pseudonymity (which I only wish to maintain in order to cause as little harm as possible in the world). Return? Well, anything could happen, who knows? : )

By the way, I completely and totally know what you mean about those pine trees. I have always felt that way. But I've started to get used to it. Being able to drive helps.