Saturday, December 1, 2018

broken ink

There is one plaintive bench in the 110th Street Cathedral Parkway train station on the corner of the Park—a sleek, empty plaintiff, voicing her complaint of loneliness—a suit with no defendant and no judge to hear it.

Her slender, shaved-away shape smites my heart with the sort of sadness wine accentuates. Modern upholstery seems to encourage this. Plush Victorian sofas or even curling wrought-iron benches contain a world unto themselves—to sit on them is to be ensconced in an embrace of an objective reality outside of yourself, one that you are welcomed into. Existence isn't a project you are doing on your own: there are rituals and systems, patterns and materials that usher you into their own vision. But sitting on a slick faux-Nordic bench reminds you: you're all you've got. This world is fundamentally individual, limited to what you can make of it—and you can't make much of it, can you? it whispers evenly: pretty slim pickin's, ain't they?

I am surprised and slightly offended by the intrusion that this sad little bench has brought, and it strikes me that I have been betrayed by this environment for the first time. I have never been broken-hearted by this city before. This place—its trains, its parks and corner stores, stoops and parks—have always been mine. I have never shared this place with someone else, there have never been spaces stamped with the force of another's memory.

I resent this rebellion of the place against me. I resent this a lot, suddenly. I think of the ink on my back that traces out the city skyline as it falls into the choppy, pointed waves of a heartbeat monitor. I think of the small ink heart, added by the artist, that I didn't want.

This city was holy, because it was a monastery, a novitiate, a space for me and God. There were other monks that orbited nearby, sure. But this was a sacred space because no one had hurt me here. Sure, I was sad sometimes. There were loves and falling out of them, anger and the slow work of its healing. But none of these bumps and bruises or loves and hopes happened in this place. No one held me in their arms on the 6 train or laughed with me late at night in Tompkins Square Park. The trade-off of that is no fights broke out on my favorite bench in the Conservatory Garden, and no hurtful words or catty lies were exchanged on the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 151st. Each significant spot was made so not by pain but by sweetness.

Memories of love and hurt are so embedded not just in the person who you share them with, but the place that you shared together. Walter Brueggemann says that the Hebrew Bible is the history of God with God's people in the land. The Bible is the history not just of a people, but of a people in a place, because that is how relationships work. They do not take place in the ether of Skype call: they happen in the mess of sharing a space together.

Maybe this is how you make a land holy—by building a life in the here-and-now with God. A land is not a temple or a monastery: it is not a space set-apart from the world. A land is where the business of human living is conducted: the whole damn blessed range of it. Land is where you war—with neighboring tribes, with your neighbors, your lover, and yourself. Where you crack your heart on others' until they break open, bleeding. Where the soil is soaked with that blood, where the air is thick with it, and it stains commonplace subway benches like sacrament.

Lands that are holy are cities not just of Joy but of disaster—of train wrecks caused by wounded egos colliding—the slow disfiguring of loves you do not have the heart to kill. Holy cities are those that include a heart, even if you would rather not include the pain that will always follow hearts in your sanctuary, the pain of other people is not supposed to trespass on your hallowed ground.

The holy is supposed to save us from pain—it is supposed to be the remedy for our ills that are incurable. But those dreams we had of a palliative deity died the day we nailed him to a cross and called it Salvation. That God broke brokenness to reveal a new sort of living: a life that is more real than the world of matter that roars with the emptiness of yawning vacuums within atoms. No, the God brought a life more substantial than our daydreams built of dust and magnets. But, to our dismay, even that life is marked with wounds. There might be balm in Gilead, but there is none here.

God is not space set-apart from this terrible universe, God is not our escape route, there is no deliverance from his risen body with his open wounds.

Was it horror or awe that swept over Thomas' face, as he put is hand into the open side? If Christ's wounds live on in resurrection, then where will ours go? The happy fruits of Incarnation—that God is here among us—become, for a moment, terrible when you realize we have exchanged our omnipotent imaginary—the God who made the heavens and earth, and could save us from both—for a baby.
A baby—a fragile, fleshy human—who not only could potentially be crushed by the world that he created but was.

What sort of God is this? Who can reverse death but not the marks death made upon his body? What sort of comfort can he offer us if he will not even do himself the favor of making himself whole again? If I were Thomas, my face would flush with anger upon seeing those wounds—divine physician, heal thyself.

Are you not even upset when things get ruined, broken or marred? Do you want there to be sorrow flavoring our perfect joy? And what good is your sorrow, God, if you won't even mend that which you transparently have the power to?

Because if you can not even heal yourself, how can you heal me?

The subway bench rings with chardonnay-fringed sorrow. And the spotless white tiles that surround it shine an antiseptic sadness into the city that may be holy but is not joy.

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