A quiet yearning

I sit at my desk on a Tuesday afternoon, and I hear some hip hop music playing faintly in the background. Voices talking, yelling, laughing. On my screen there’s a headline that reads “North Korea warns ‘more gift packages’ are on the way as Donald Trump arms Japan, South Korea.”

I walk down the street on a Monday evening, and it is silent, save for the wind cruising through the trees in Jackie Robinson park (and my footsteps, of course). I see a child selling lemonade with the sign “For Houston.”

I slowly open my eyes as I lay in bed on a Sunday morning, and a muted sound of worship music reaches my ears. It is singing that rises high and rings. It feels far away. I look at my phone, and read an article written by the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He signed the recent Nashville Statement and called it “an expression of love for same-sex attracted people.”

Sigh.

I don’t hear the word “yearning” thrown around too much these days. Yearning is a feeling of intense longing, a hunger, an ache. Do millennials yearn? (Sorry, the last thing we need is another article about what’s wrong with millennials…) A Marina and the Diamonds lyric feels particularly apt here: “TV taught me how to feel / Now real life has no appeal.”

I’m thinking of a specific kind of yearning. A yearning for something more than the day-to-day drudgery. The dating, the drinking, the social media, the news headlines, the seemingly impending doom of violence, war, and destruction that marks the average day in 2017. Something beyond the conservative, beyond the liberal.

Something true. Does it exist?

After several Sundays I realized the singing I heard from my room was coming from a church in the courtyard directly behind my apartment building. Definitely not as far away as I thought it was. Was that there the whole time?

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Magdalen de Pazzi Roman Catholic Church – Flemington, NJ

The music is not as solemn as the hymns at St. Magdalen de Pazzi, the Roman Catholic Church I attended on Easter Sunday with my brother’s family in New Jersey. The sanctuary was large and hexagonal in shape. High red oak ceilings separated us from the morning sky. Hundreds of pews emanated from the central, circular platform that held the altar in the center and the pulpit to the left. Assortments of flowers and ferns flanked either side: yellow, white, pink, blue, orange, and violet. A cross hung above the altar, bearing a crucified Jesus and the lights that shone on Him created three distinct shadows on the white bricks behind. On the back wall, behind the altar and the pulpit, was the crowning jewel–a grand copper pipe organ that beautifully framed a circular spirit window that brought in light from the outside.

In the past eight years or so, I can count on one and a half hands how many times I’ve been to church. I’ve been twice in the past seven months, first at a collegiate church in Washington Heights and second at the aforementioned St. Magdalen. I attended the latter because it was Easter and I was with my family (my brother and sister-and-law are Catholic). I attended the former for less obvious reasons.

The church in WaHi (“Washington Heights” for the uninitiated), is called Fort Washington Collegiate Church. Like St. Madalen, it had wooden pews, but these pews were in a more traditional style: two main sections facing the front of the church. The sanctuary was rectangular, and again had high ceilings, but these ceilings had a distinctive gothic feel with dark, heavy wooden beams. Stained glass windows lined the walls on either side showing various scenes from Jesus’ life: the Passover, His baptism, as well as Him sitting and teaching among children (of many different colors.) A golden cross was centered behind the chorus on maroon panels. The blue Bibles on the back of the pews were NRSV–the translation I have.

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Fort Washington Collegiate Church – New York, NY

Before the sermon, there was a “Passing of the Peace” where everybody in the congregation went around greeting one another. “The peace of Christ is with you!” “And also with you!” I was shy, but everybody was friendly. There were people of all types: gay, straight, black, white. Everybody was trying to greet everybody else in the small time they had, with some members trying to greet every single person. Towards the end of the time allotted the interactions simply became “Peace!” “Peace!”

The music was uplifting. There were hymns new and old, but they were not solemn. They were fun and alive. The choir wore bright red robes with white stoles. My favorite hymn was from South Africa called “Ewe Thina/We Walk His Way.” The first verse simply states: We walk for justice, kindness, love and peace: We walk His way. The chorus: Ewe Thina, Ewe Thina / We walk His way, We walk His way.

It’s hard to believe I stopped attending my family’s independent evangelical church eight years ago. I had been active in the junior high ministry, gone on two missions trips to Memphis, Tennessee to evangelize with Calvary Rescue Mission (and to sightsee). I had a “born again” experience on the first trip, in 7th grade. I re-affirmed my commitment to the Lord on the second trip in 8th grade. After coming out in high school, however, I stopped going with my parents on Sunday mornings. It’s the story of many LGBT individuals.

Despite feelings of isolation, shame, and anger in response to how my church views sexuality outside of one man and one woman, and despite the length of time I have spent away from its influence, I still have this feeling, this yearning. It’s been quietly with me every step to where I am today–in a committed relationship with a man and living in New York City.

It was a lightbulb in my head when my boyfriend told me he believes in God shortly after we first met. It was a nudge when one of my committed Christian friends in college affirmed my relationship and my sexuality. It was a bit of a slap in the face when I met an openly gay man attending seminary in the city.

It led me to take a step into St. Magdalen de Pazzi Roman Catholic Church, to shed a tear during the service at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, to fully “own” where I am today–straddling a desire to love myself and others unconditionally, but also to find truth.

It is a soft sung voice that seemed far away, but has really been with me all along. I hope it can guide me forward, still.

Thinking about ontology

There’s a tree outside of my bedroom window in my new Harlem apartment. I’m not quite sure what type of tree it is. Its leaves will change colors come fall (sometime soon, fingers crossed). I counted eighteen leaves on one offshoot; there are several offshoots on one branch. The leaves are a middling green, perhaps a Kelly green. The sun shines through the leaves, a mixture of sun and shadow. I like watching it sway in the wind. I love the tree. It just–is. It is itself. Perfectly.

This tree was once a seed that I could’ve balanced on the tip of my finger, probably before I was alive. Now it’s taller than my pre-war apartment building. How many residents have stared at it just like I have? My guess would be many, since Manhattanites are moving ceaselessly, in and out, up and down.

I can’t help thinking about if this tree caught fire. It would be horrible, obviously. And it would make me question–how is it possible? That something older than I am (not saying much), that has sprouted from the tiniest of seeds, that has grown as tall as a five-story building, could disappear just like “that,” into ash?

I’ve been living in New York a little over a year now after graduating college. Many things are going well: my relationship is growing every day into a better and better foundation that I couldn’t be more thankful for, I have two stable jobs that pay the rent, and I have a solid group of friends that make me smile. I am lucky.

This past year has also brought with it anxiety and growing pains. The city is a place of constant change. The country is in political turmoil. The world seems unsafe and disconnected. And here I am, barely knowing how to do my taxes. For being a self-proclaimed “writer,” I’ve barely written anything in over six months. I don’t really know anything, just inklings of something here or there. My future has often felt like an open void, like I’m constantly stepping off a cliff into the unknown.

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My bedroom window

Death, for most of my young life a far-off dream, has become more of a reality for me. People die young. By accident. Or on purpose. You never know when all your life will simply just… stop. And when it does, just like “that,” you cease to be. There’s no trace of you left besides a corpse or a pile of dust.

I’m not trying to be heavy-handed or pessimistic. I swear!

But I’m reminded of the words of one of my beloved writing and spiritual gurus, Madeleine L’Engle. In her book A Circle of Quiet, she talks about “ontology,” a word about the essence of things, the word about “being”–our “is-ness.” It’s a hard thing to grasp. But she uses the example of the burning bush from Exodus in the Bible: the burning bush was alive with flame but was not consumed, the bush was perfect, it was, it was exactly as a bush is meant to be.

That strikes me. Something could burn, but not die?

I think that the part of us that has to be burned away is something like the deadwood on the bush; it has to go, to be burned in the terrible fire of reality, until there is nothing left but our ontological selves; what we are meant to be.

Madeleine (we’re on a first name basis) likens our “prickliness, selfishness, jealousy, in-turnedness” to parts of us that are consumed in the “fire of reality”–they are not who we are, they do not define us.

All I feel lately is prickliness, jealousy, and in-turnedness. I feel like I have to figure out myself, what I want, and who I am right now, otherwise I will die unknown and lost. I have trouble letting myself have fun, laugh, be and exist in the moment. My mind is always two steps ahead. I don’t fathom or enjoy the present moment. What does my existence mean? If I burn, will there be anything left?

I tend to ask more questions than state answers. I know we’ve been told that time and time again–that the answers do not exist. Or at least we cannot understand them. And to that: I frown, I grimace, I cry. I don’t want my life to be meaningless.

However, and perhaps paradoxically, since I spend so much time worrying about having an “important” life and losing my self in abstract longings, I forget to go outside. Talk to people. Laugh. Be. Some of my coworkers probably think I’m a bit “off,” because I become so overwhelmed by my thoughts and feelings, that I lash out or act antithetical to my values and how I view myself.

I love the tree outside of my bedroom because it just is. It is a beautiful thing simply by its very nature. It takes up space. It soaks up sunlight. It exists, joyfully. It will one day perish, either by an ax, a strike of lightning, or some other freak accident. But it will still exist in my mind. I will have seen it and appreciated it for being what it was.

Perhaps I should take a leaf out of its book.

Leaning into it (Gotham ode)

marathonWelcome to New York (It’s been waiting for you!)
Welcome to New York
Welcome to New York

This (T) Swiftian greeting blared out of the speakers at the conclusion of the New York City Marathon’s opening ceremony Friday night to an amped-up fireworks show. The bleachers along either side of the closed-off Central Park street were filled with friends and family of the 50,000+ runners, waving their country’s flag or the mini-pennants with the TCS Marathon logo printed on them. Beanies, mittens, and fleece coats were aplenty.

The street itself was filled with runners, all bundled up for the cooler (thank god) fall temps as well, wearing their country’s colors or even traditional patriotic garb, with many holding their own flags. They had just done a small parade down the street (this is where the finish line would be for today’s race), and were now dancing and cheering, all intermingled, watching the lights and explosions in the sky. American red-white-and-blue, German black-red-yellow, Swedish blue and yellow, Brazilian green and yellow (with some blue), all mixed together.

I was working the event as my first assignment for a temp agency I recently joined called Mustard Lane. The people I was working with were beautifully friendly, easy to talk to, and silly. We danced and gyrated in our neon-yellow traffic vests, branded as “United Airlines Runway Crew,” or something to that effect. Our responsibilities ranged from exciting the crowd with t-shirt throwing (sadly without cannons), and controlling parade traffic.

bookbookEarlier in the week, things were running slowly at Bookbook, the small bookstore I work for part-time in the West Village. I was sitting behind the counter munching on the ham-honey mustard sandwich I had made for lunch and Joanna, our neighbor and friend, came in to swap stories with my coworker Frank about nights-gone-wrong in shows they’ve seen over the years. Joanna had her small pup Leo with her, blind in one eye, and waiting complacently for the special treats marked just for him behind the counter.

One of Frank’s stories was about an early preview of Beauty and the Beast when they were still working out some technical glitches. The angry mob had their battering ram-tree trunk and were trying to break down the front door of Beast’s Castle. They tried and they tried, but to no avail. Silence descended. Suddenly, a voice rang out “Let’s go around the back!” and the curtain closed to an announcement of “technical difficulties.”

Joanna had seen Equus’ original 1974 production on Broadway starring Anthony Hopkins, of whom she was/is a big fan. It was 10-15 minutes into the beginning of the show, and the ushers were still seating late patrons in the first couple rows of the audience. Joanna and audience members around her (who had arrived on time), were grumbling in annoyance. After it had happened more than a few times, Mr. Hopkins himself, on stage at the time, stopped what he was doing, looked out into the audience, distraught, and apologized for the annoyance. The crowd cheered. He then asked the audience where in the scene they’d like him to go back to. People were shouting lines at him. He picked one, and then he and his scene partner effortlessly began the scene anew at the chosen line. She said it was one of the most incredible things she’s ever seen. What’s more, she ran into him afterwards at a bar across the street, and he profusely apologized to her about the intrusion.

frank-pumpkinOne week ago, on my 23rd birthday, I was surprised by a secret trip to Coney Island with my boyfriend. It was a beautiful morning, and the temperature surprisingly went up into the low-70s, but I didn’t mind since we were at a beach (it’s allowed to be warm near the beach). The sky was clear, and crystal blue. It was the last day for the amusement park’s fall festival, and there were kids running around in costumes along with their parents and park workers. I paid for a pass to go into a small corn maze and pick out a pumpkin, on which I then attempted to paint a Frankenstein (it didn’t go over so well).

The sun was shining bright, and warm, and the breeze was filled with salty goodness. I was blind without my sunglasses, but that was okay. Nicholas saw some french bulldogs that made him squeal, I ate a corn dog that made me squeal. We shared a dish of fried Oreos covered in white powdered sugar that he spilled all over my pants. I felt relaxed, and I think the happiest I’d been since I’ve moved to the city.

E.B. White wrote a famous essay called “Here is New York,” and in it he describes New York’s ability to “bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy… for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail.” New York “can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him” and no one should come here “unless he is willing to be lucky.”

New York “blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.”

New York “carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings.”

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without a doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”

city-views

The car horn blares on an off outside my apartment window as I type this, and the sunset colors the sky in shades of pink, peach, and purple. Tall “project” apartment buildings loom close, built over the highway that extends from the George Washington bridge. It is cool and our sheer white curtains billow softly from the breeze. Nick is rambling about this impending doom of an election for his YouTube video in our room, door closed. Kathryn just returned from a date, and her/our black feline Azula roams around, staring at me with her bright green eyes as if to say “get the hell off the couch, bum.”

It’s been two months and two weeks since I’ve arrived in this curious city. It feels smaller than when I arrived, and more personal despite its obvious largeness. It’s warm at times, and paranoid at others. I feel distant, and lonely, but I think I’m on the path to finding a nook to crawl into, with people to call friends.

Don’t forget to breathe, and take this all in.