Last weekend, Jack and I took a boat ride along the Hudson after the sun set. Manhattan’s gradations of white and golden lights glowed distinctly against the ink-black sky. Jack, who loves sailing, asked that we stand at the bow of the boat.
I normally hesitate from anything remotely physically risky. I hate the sensation of falling, and I am clumsy. I regularly trip into the doorframes of our apartment and have too many random bruises to identify along my arms and legs. I regularly shout, “Oww! Shit!!” from the other room. To which Jack now replies, when rushing towards me, “Oh no, what did you run into?” Since it was his birthday, I agreed and inched slowly towards the front until the railing was within reach. We stood there and watched the dark water move like a seamless sheet of black silk. I felt the warm air move softly over my face. I am often the personified mix of cautiousness and anxiety, yet as I stood just a few feet above the water with the boat moving steadily beneath us, I felt free.
The city’s pulse quieted the farther we retreated from shore. It looked smaller, more intimate, like a miniature village staged in a Christmas shop. It looked nearly still from afar, as though the wind was moving down the avenues and hushing the usual bustle. I exhaled. It seemed as though it would all be fine, all be held, until we returned.
Since we moved to New York, I have often felt gripped by the minutiae of the city…the unclean sidewalks, egregiously loud sirens, crowded subways, open conflict between people on the street, chaotic grocery stores, long lines at the coffee shop, din of traffic, and incessant rushing. I armor up to walk around the city. Through experience, I’ve learned that you do not know what you will find around the next corner of your usual route. New York, home to ambition and possibility, grief and inequality, is a microcosm for all the rest of this country at its best and worst. New York is regularly overwhelming.
This year was, one could argue, a poor time to move to Manhattan. The excess stimulation, noise, and concrete leave little room to reflect. The state of affairs in our country, arguably now more than ever, requires the physical space that makes mental space possible.
Our leadership is dismal, plagued by corruption and injustice. Our politics are tumultuous and myopic, reflected in the equally shortsighted and reactive 24-hour news cycle. Our popular culture is now constructed by fascination with celebrities like the Kardashians whose wealth and relevance are exploitative and inane. We are simultaneously concerned with the future of our democracy, preserving the world order, and raising the next generation to have integrity. All seem to hang in the balance. Each requires our attention and implores our responsibility.
Living in this world – this chaotic world in which the people at the helm are the least wise among us—as an awake and empathic human is challenging. To say otherwise would be careless and shallow. As protection, we might resort to either/or thinking that pits one group against another or shout over people we decide are against us. But here’s the thing: no matter how much we want to find a simpler way to read the world, the world will remain complex. We will have to find a way to live within the ambiguity wisely, to still treat all human beings with respect and fight for justice.
This means we need to rest. Even if just for a few minutes a day, we need to take space away from culture, from noise, from the turning insanity. We need to breathe and remember that we are human, messy by nature, and living in the mess of it all.
On the boat, watching the city from a distance gave me the physical space I needed to breathe deeply. Away from the busyness and confusion of ordinary life, I felt calmed, renewed. I was reminded that stillness unearths peace. When we first still the body, the inner noise of the mind will swell in resistance. Then, as we breathe, if we are still with the chatter long enough, the warmth of grace will settle in. We will settle, too.
A dear professor said in class this week, “We have to work to see that the world is indeed good.” It is work to see into the life of Things when there is so much evidence to the contrary. There is so much harshness embedded in nature and biology. Life in its ordinariness is already hard and painful enough. All the awful extra stuff—the power politics, bigotry, injustice, violence, and evil—are not part of the intended human experience. In our truest expression, we were not hardwired to hold all of the above and call it normal. We have to work to see the goodness, and work requires rest and space.