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.