On my first night in New York, I walk past the hospital and see a sign: “Respect the air we share—this is a smoke-free zone.” And I think, “Good for them.” The next day, I see the doctors smoking on the other side and think, “…Good for them.” In my neighborhood, there are churches and garbage on every corner. Plastic bags float like ghosts on Broadway. I imagine them stuck to the cathedral spires (as legitimate a flag as any). At night, emergency boats just wait under the bridge. Hundreds of feet above, on that impossibly suspended steel structure, headlights flicker like fireflies in February. I shiver in my apartment, in my layers, and I dream of June, knowing that come June, I’ll dream of February.
I see theatre with friends in midtown, go to private concerts in Soho lofts, rub elbows with celebrities. I’m inspired by artists of so many disciplines. I walk obsessively, all the while dreaming and imagining. Listening to voices like Sandy Denny and Harry Nilsson and marveling at their authenticity. I teach an ancient oral tradition on Zoom. I commute to 5 continents at my desk. Have the most exciting meetings of my career at my desk. Battle roaches in the dark at 3AM, stare at the ceiling until dawn, take Tylenol Cold & Flu with every meal like it’s seasoning, pull out my eyelashes watching the news. I get harassed on the subway, and everyone in the car watches me and the guy like it’s a tennis match, the thrill of the volley: Will she move? Will she say anything? And I think, Will they?
“Salvación!” an old man cries out on the corner, holding a posterboard with a crudely penned cross. Sábháil, I whisper to myself under my mask as I walk past, sabháilte, slánú, slán. On the same corner on another day, a young Mormon man in a—the—suit asks me cheerfully if I’d like to come to church. I think of the myriad ways salvation has been advertised for 2,023 years. Salvation for sale. I don’t know, there’s something there.
In March, I watch the owner of a flower shop step out onto the sidewalk with a bouquet and a can of spray paint. No, I think. But he does, he sprays the flowers an unnatural blue. I can hardly believe what I’m witnessing: it’s too perfect, too gorgeous, too hilarious a moment—you couldn’t write it, as they say. We lock eyes. He’s caught [blue-handed]. If I were funnier, bolder, I’d have winked.
I’ve always memorized strangers like there will be a test at the end of all of this. A homeless woman sitting on a mountain of her belongings in the subway is painting her nails. A young boy, about three or four, is nose to nose with a turtle in the park. His mother and a park ranger talk high above them. “I just follow him [the turtle] around all day,” says the ranger. “That sounds like our routine,” says the mom. She swats her son’s hand away every time his finger comes close to the turtle’s shell, but eventually he gets a touch in.
I’m talking less than I ever have and am happier than I’ve ever been. Some days I realize with complete shock that I’ve spoken more in Irish and Spanish than I have in English. There are more hours in the day than there have even been. The blank page is more cryptic than it has ever been. Whereas I used to see it as truly blank, now I sense the words are already there in invisible ink. I don’t know which is scarier to face.
The world makes the least sense it ever has. What are personal successes worth when the country is banning essential books, erasing history, erasing important voices? The world is on fire. It’s 90 degrees in April. In Ukraine, ordinary people are still volunteering to be soldiers for the defense, while I leave my desk to do laps in the park and have ‘thoughts’. In college, I had a writing professor who theorized that maybe it’s when we are walking alone in New York City and letting our thoughts wander, that we are our truest selves.
On a warm, spring day in the park, an after-school program led by rangers has children running, laughing, shrieking, while their parents and grandparents watch adoringly. The rest of us in the park smile as if the children are ours too. They have spent so much of their young lives in isolation, and now here they are together, imitating animals, playing old-fashioned games in the sun.
Another group of kids have Canons and Nikons hanging from their necks—a photography club. They are led by their instructor through the park, learning how to choose what to set their eye on, what to capture. They excitedly point their lenses at all the new blooms. They direct my eye to things I might’ve otherwise overlooked—what children and artists do best: see this, see this.
I notice purple wildflowers growing impossibly between two stones. There’s that seanfhocal knocking on my brain like Irish does at random times throughout my days. Tá an ghrian ag scaoilteadh na gcloch. The sun is splitting the stones. Tá na bláthanna fiáine ag scaoilteadh na gcloch, I say aloud, because why not? The wildflowers are splitting the stones. Tá na bláthanna fiáine ag scaoilteadh…tá na bláthanna fiáine—that long, narrow A-fada sound, the sound I’m always telling my Sean-nós students to go further on. At any given hour, you can hear me at my desk repeating it like an invocation: awe, awe, awe.
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