Monday, June 11, 2012

That Building Across the Street

My view of the city has been obstructed and the sunlight has been blocked. Ever since they built that building across the street. Without anyone even telling me, I might add. One long summer, I just watched that building go up, up, up, and slowly block off my rooms with a view, where I could once get a glimpse of the river, the church spires, the tops of brownhouses and even their rooftop gardens, where I could see some colorful flowers and a bit of green. As the building rose, the sunlight slowly eclipsed. It was not long before I found myself in plunged into a world of shadows, into one of the deep dark canyons of the city. I could no longer see the light of day.

The first thing I did was blame myself. I should have known, I told myself, back when I moved into a co-op on the sixth floor and saw the empty space right across the street. In this ever-more-crowded city where every small patch of land provides an opportunity for development, new buildings suddently appear, it seems, almost overnight. Back then, though, it was the thought of living in a high rise apartment that filled me with apprehension, the thought of having to live high above the ground, like some sort of a Jack-on-the-Beanstalk amid the clouds and early city mist, almost in the sky. Even the thought of looking down from a terrace made me dizzy. I liked the feeling of living closer to the ground, of being grounded, I should say, not dwelling way up up up there at the mercy of slow elevators that are always stuck on some remote floor and keep you stranded and trapped, waiting for eons, slowing you down, when all you want to do is run and just get out and go outside. I liked being able to use the steps, savored my freedom to come and go as I pleased.

The following fall, I watched the buildings' new inhabitants move into their tiny apartments. Then at night, I would see them through their wide open picture windows without blinds, their silhouettes lit up against the bright artificial light. I would observe them going about their lone rituals, watching television, typing on their computers, eating dinner alone at a table, or even in their most intimate moments, their isolation evoking Edward Hopper's portraits of ennui and alienation and bleak loneliness and even despair. They too could see straight across the narrow street into my apartment through my large windows. I got even more irritated at this city that invades my private space, got some blinds that I then kept shut, and even less light permeated through.

Edward Hopper's "Summer Interior"

I was then plunged into darkness and gloom, into a place where there is no sunlight, and into a place where plants would not grow. My apartment became a dark space, a cave, and I a cave-dweller living deep down in the shadows cast by the city. No longer did I experience the early morning dawn, the brightness of noon, the glow of the sunset. I had the lights turned on all day. In truth, on some dark and gloomy winter days, I could not tell whether it was day or night. I found myself bumping into things in the small cramped interior of my apartment, even found myself trying to grapple with my words in the dark.... I began lose sight of the constant day-to-day promise of living in this ever-changing city -- with its energy and excitement and its everyday opportunities for renewal -- and of its innumerable surprises that beckon from every street corner, and appear on every block....

Then I slowly began to realize something..... That it is only normal to feel oppressed by the dark.... That it is quite natural to want to seek the light.... "We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark, said Plato. " The real tragedy is when men are afraid of the light."

In this city known for its relentlessness, I know it is not fashionable to talk about being vulnerable, about things that go bump in the night. Yet, I do believe we are compelled to talk about the darkness, despite all the risks that this entails. Speaking the truth may not always be easy or convenient, but it is not nearly as difficult as staying silent. And so I found that I can write my way though the darkness and into a place where there is light.

And I threw open the blinds.

Then one early June morning, due the positioning of the sun, I saw a ray of light penetrate the shadows, partially light up my living room through a small side window, and I broke into a smile. "There is a crack in everything," Leonard Cohen, the poet and songwriter once said. "That's how the light gets in.”

So now, I find myself writing this on an early June morning, close to the longest day of the year -- the summer solstice --amid the glimmer of morning rays of sunlight bursting in -- an unexpected gift from the city, reminding me of its ability to surprise and to enchant and to illuminate and enrich life in most unexpected ways.\