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Did Socrates say "Know Thyself", or was he misunderstood, as all are. Show Thyself is all we can do. The knowing is unknowable.  

I am filled with joy.  It can't be helped.  

Became a Farmer, Builder, Musician, Tank Commander, Librarian, Lawyer and Minister. I have failed at many things. And now retired.  Filled, just filled, with Joy. 

Saturday, December 27, 2008

New York City

I spent a year in New York City one month during a summer between classes. In the late 60's I shared an elegant flat with two female scholars and a wealthy Iraqi potter who despised Americans. One afternoon I recall having some time on my hands -- this is a vague feeling I almost always have -- and we all took the ferry to Ellis Island. The others took the immediate return boat back to Manhattan, but I felt I had stepped on the hallowed ground of Liberty and wanted to ascend the Lady. In the next hour, I was seduced by joyful strangers, conversationed by memoirists on their Hajj, and back in Manhattan, assaulted by a quartet of robbers.
The seductions went so far as kissing. Foreplay by two delightful older women who simply understood the richness of soft words. Without explanation, they took me into their company as familiars with New York, spending an hour with an obvious country boy. They were filled with puns and the names of food and places. And their lips wandered up and down my face, gently exploring the places in between emotions, between the gift and the longing of lips. Each of them boldly brought kisses--many of them--directly to my mouth. There was joy and sadness, there was the certainty we would not meet again, and that we would never forget the introduction. I learned that kissing can change one's hole idea of the mouth, of breathing, and eating. There are resuscitations of breath shared in the kindness of kisses offered without a hidden pudenda. As they left me, returning to their cruise, we spoke of remembering, and I do.
Half-way up the Lady-- a bronze spiral staircase, an Indian-file passage of simple intimacy -- the line stopped. Years now, looking back, I cannot remember why the processional was delayed, but I do remember that it was unexplicable at the time and disturbed me. As it happens, the elderly fellow behind me was an affable Hungarian who had married an Irish lady. Perhaps only because I was feeling trapped in a long line going nowhere, I asked this couple how they met. They took the "liberty" to tell me their entire life stories--growing up in the motherland, coming to America, and meeting each other. They were obvious characters. Again, my memory banks were overflowing.
As I boarded the ferry returning to Manhattan Island, two young beautiful Californian girls stood next to me. Being from California myself, we struck up a conversation and next thing you know, more kissing.
Finally, as I was returning to the flat later that night, and having been delayed by my own love of the Statue and the crowds and the kisses and the stories, the streets and neighborhoods did not appear to be "safe". I began singing DIES IRAE to myself, transporting my spirit to a place of midieval comforts:
Dies iræ! dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla
Teste David cum Sibylla!
{Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets' warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!
As David bore witness with the Sibyll}

Quantus tremor est futurus,
quando judex est venturus,
cuncta stricte discussurus!
{Oh what fear man's bosom rendeth,
when from heaven the Judge descendeth,
on whose sentence all dependeth.}
Tuba mirum spargens sonum
per sepulchra regionum,
coget omnes ante thronum.
{Wondrous tone/sound the trumpet sounds/; flingeth;
through earth's sepulchers it rounds/; ringeth;
all before the throne it crowns;/ bringeth.}

My whispered missal probably did not attract the four assailants who come upon me in the half-lit avenue coming up to our flat. However, my slight form and obvious indifference to their profiles was at least an invitation to break the tedium of their lives with predation. The four blocked my way, but I saw no weapons. I nodded to one of them who was speaking, then whirled and fired a fist into the solar plexus of the biggest one standing slightly behind me and broke through their ring. I sprinted away into the middle of the street. Frankly I thought they had a "back up" or a leader hidden somewhere nearby and did not want to run into him. I was pretty certain I could outrun any assailant and did not believe they would shoot me even if they were armed. Or at least not without more provocation.

One or two may have started to give chase, but I was well away, running low and straight, then leaping into high gear. I did not even slow down for six blocks, and then I made two corners, cutting off possible visibility. I ducked into an attended valet station and stood smiling at the car jockeys, panting. They looked at me with amazement and waited for me to catch my breath. They were noticably nervous because I kept looking back from where I had come.

The boys standing at the valet station never asked, and I never told them, what I was running from. I will always be grateful, however, for the feeling of protection they quietly offered.

These memories seem to come to mind now on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Manhattan Island by Henry Hudson in 1609. The present inhabitants may not have the specific details, but they share a general sense that NYC is a marvelous and important place in this universe. For some of us, it is simply a crown jewel of tidal estuaries and urbanity, at the deep-water head of a river system that drains from Minnesota, and then merges and quiets the Atlantic, that mariner's road to the rest of the world. There is no more archetypal city on the planet, and none built so quickly. I never knew what "wall street" referred to until I gazed at its walled streets.

I hope that NYC celebrates its 400th. Without more provocation.