I can’t quite do justice to how happy I feel right now at Pier A Park in Hoboken, plopped at Alessio’s metallic blue tables, looking at one of the most spectacular views on Earth. This day holds magic in its ordinariness. Few people. Shimmering water. Geese dotting the lush green grass. The Freedom Tower and all it represents.
The cynic would focus on the geese pooping all over the grass. Or the noisy buzz from guys landscaping the fringes of the park. Or the coffee I’m sipping that’s so bracing it evoked a “wow” and an eyebrow raise.
But a few homeless people here seem to get it. The glory of it. One of them is playing a soundtrack that seems chosen for me – Boston, The Cars. I recall the Anna Quindlen story of the homeless man she talks to in Coney Island; when she asks why he’s there and not at a shelter, he says, “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.”
Some of us appreciate the view in life. The moments. This is what I’ve learned in the last few decades. You can’t teach it or force it. If I bring two people to the Hoboken waterfront, one will inevitably treat it like a discovery, a wonder. Another will hear my offer to linger and drink it in, but politely decline. There are people who live in this town who aren’t drawn to the water.
We are different.
And so it is in this frame that I try to view much of life. With a dangerous, vast divide in our nation and a pandemic wrestling us to the ground, it is more and more vital that we keep appreciating the moments. I am also focused on how to live meaningfully, which extends to having empathy or at least trying to get where other humans are coming from. What is their lens on the world?
As a person who believes in God and likes to examine the spirituality in things, I stop and ponder the mindsets of others who put that belief at the center of their lives and see the role of the divine in way that differs from mine. Lately one thing has been lingering on this front.
Recently our landlord from our vacation rental, a delightful woman, texted me (as part of a group) with a positive update on her husband’s cancer surgery. I had seen her fear up close and was so pleased to read the note. The happy texts started pouring in – “Praise Jesus.” One after another.
That gave me pause. What if this update had been that her husband had died? Would Jesus have been mentioned? Or does he only get the high fives? It feels like an incomplete spiritual picture to me.
Does that mean I’m the cynic in this scenario? No, I don’t think so. More like a supreme questioner. I like to try to understand the master moves of the Great Creator and, like deciphering a big puzzle, conjecture on the whys. I revel in moments when I feel like I get it, when it all makes sense.
This is all part of the perspective I bring to the art installation at the National Mall called In America: Remember. It is a soothing feeling to see the 600,000-plus white flags waving in the breeze in videos and photos, the Washington Monument as their backdrop. Each represents an American who died of COVID-19 and I am pleased to have put my father’s name on one of the flags. I’m so moved that I am going to Washington, D.C. this week to see it myself.
Just a week ago I saw this as large-scale art, a cultural phenomenon that anyone would get behind. It’s beautiful. It’s simple. It’s powerful. It honors our dead.
I was wholly unprepared for some of the responses to it that I’m seeing:
“Who’s paying for it?”
“Why aren’t they honoring cancer victims?”
“They’re exploiting the dead.”
Like gut punches, each one.
Out of curiosity, I went to the Fox News website and tried to find an article or segment showing the grandeur of Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s exhibition. It didn’t come up in any searches. Then it occurred to me that showing the vastness of death in this pandemic doesn’t serve their skewed narrative. It makes the harshness of COVID too stark for the audience they’ve cultivated.
They are targeting, in large part, the segment of our population that would prefer to dwell on the geese poop rather than the sun making glitter of the river on a divinely inspired day.