Hello my friends, or rather my brothers and sisters, which I’ll explain later. This is going to be one of those long pieces, so park it and come back later, or make some coffee and settle in.
Our thought for today: This is the age of miracles and wonders, and of signs and symbols too.
I am experiencing a change of temperament, if that is the word. I have mostly gone through life as a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist, but now I find, and perhaps it’s only temporary, that I am increasingly a short-term optimist and a long-term pessimist. That’s not quite right. I am certain there is a heaven, which is not a pessimistic belief. But my long-term thoughts about the world are not as sunny as once they were.
And yet I am happy each day and enjoy my life.
While I am worried about the future in a way I cannot shake.
* * *
The first e-mail I opened this morning was from a friend who said this: Peggy, the government fears a nuke has been smuggled into the U.S., the Mideast is boiling, the weather is roiling, the church is reeling from sexual corruption in the clergy, and last night came a report that a statue of Padre Pio in Sicily is weeping blood. “I’m feeling very apocalyptic, and I’m serious,” he wrote. He’s sane, sound, not usually excitable. He reminded me of Andrew Sullivan, who wrote Wednesday on his blog that for the first time since Sept. 11 he is having nightmares. The next day he posted Senate testimony that a dirty bomb would render Manhattan uninhabitable for decades.
So many of us, at least so many of my New York friends, are experiencing a Second Great Wave of anxiety. Maybe it is connected to or heightened by the approaching milestone, six months after Sept. 11, maybe it is that and other things.
The friend who had e’d me followed up with news that the Chinese are creating dozens of cloned embryos in their labs. The British medical journal New Scientist has reported a Chinese team “based at Shanghai No. 2 Medical University” says it has “derived stem cells from hybrid embryos composed of human cells and rabbit eggs.” The journal said scientists throughout the world fear similar research in the US and UK has been “bogged down” by “ethical concerns.”
Ah, those pesky ethical concerns. They slow you up just when you could be creating in a Petri dish the recipe for Rabbit Man. And then of course you could grow him, bring him into being, for all but dunces know that what man can do he will do. And then perhaps once you’ve grown him you can have Rabbit Man for dinner.
My friend sent the story because once, in conversation, I had told him I feared cloning was the key, that the big headline I feared is “First Cloned Human Being Born: ‘We Call Him Adam!’ Says Scientist.” I had told my friend I thought there would be few happy headlines after that one. Because, as the bible says and Sam Ervin quoted, God is not mocked.
And so today, after the morning mail, I thought again as I often do these days of Langston Hughes. “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / Said, ‘No more water, the fire next time.’ ” If it comes, I feel we will have to thank, among so many others, the good men and women of Shanghai No. 2 Medical University.
* * *
I found the Padre Pio story on a Catholic Web site and didn’t know what to make of it. As Kevin Orlin Johnson, the great writer on Catholic mysticism, has said, there are few stories the church dislikes more than levitating housewives and bleeding statues. And yet. The BBC report, based on an Italian news-agency story, said that thousands of people flocked earlier this week to the city of Messina, in Sicily, after reports that a statue of the Catholic mystic had begun to weep blood. The seven-foot-tall bronze statue stands across the square from Our Lady of Pompei Church in Messina. Tuesday night a passerby looked up and saw that it seemed to be weeping. A local priest was called. The BBC said he tried to wipe away “a red substance leaking from the eyes” of the statue.
Padre Pio, who died in 1968, bore the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, an extremely unusual mystical phenomenon in spite of what Hollywood movies suggest. There have been only a handful of such men and women in all of human history. Padre Pio was a great man, a gifted confessor, an ascetic, a mystic, a saint; he has quite a following in the church, and is to be canonized in Rome in June by Pope John Paul II, who knew the padre when he was a young cardinal from Poland.
The weeping statue was reported on Tuesday. On Wednesday John Paul, who is suffering among other things from persistent pain in his knees, which has no doubt been made worse by his continued habit of kneeling and praying, greeted a Vatican audience from his papal study. He spoke on Psalm 64: “Hear my voice, O God in my prayer: reserve my life from fear of the enemy. Hide me from the secret counsel of the evil-doers.”
The pope told the audience, in his commentary: “In the Bible, creation is the seat of humanity and sin is an attack on the order and perfection of the world. Conversion and forgiveness, therefore, restore integrity and harmony to the cosmos.” It is amazing that this 82-year-old man who suffers from Parkinson’s, who has lived an arduous, effortful, searing life, who was born during war, who endured Nazism and communism, who is fighting now materialism and fatalism, who has been shot, who suffers, is still with us, and occasionally with a startling vitality.
It is interesting to me too that so many Catholics, at least ones I know, seem to feel that while he is alive they are safe. It will be hard when he leaves. Although I must say Catholics can be merry even about that. A few months ago I was talking with a priest about the prophecies of St. Malachy, a mystic who, 1,000 years ago, wrote a line of prophecy about each future pope. The next one, the priest told me, is described by Malachy as “the joy of the olive.” I didn’t know that, and asked him what he thought it might suggest. He said, “It suggests we should keep our eye on Cardinal Martini.”
When I told another friend he laughed and added, “But the olive tree is also the symbol of Israel. It may mean the next Pope will be a son of Israel.” Such as the retired Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, a convert from Judaism.
* * *
But back to my subject, which may be the six-month mark since Sept. 11. The papers in New York have been carrying reports that the emotional aftershocks of trauma tends to be most intense six to 12 months after the event. Which would possibly explain both my friends’ apocalyptic jitters and what I’ve been seeing on the subway.
I notice that people on the subway in just the past few days have been—well, I am seeing less beauty in our subways, after months of finding them the best place to be.
I love my darling subway and feel great tenderness toward the people crowded into it. We’re all together in the noise and clamor and crowdedness, with lights flickering on and off and the public-address system hissing inadequately and the train jerking to a stop in the middle of the tunnel. I sit there—I almost always get a seat—and say the rosary and am happy. How could I not be? I have progressed in my prayer life from praying for myself and my loved ones to praying for others. This took a solid 12 years. Twelve years to learn to pray consistently for others! (This is, I know, an amazingly personal thing to say, but I don’t imagine it can harm anyone, and this is not a time for reticence in such matters.) I now pray for strangers, happily. I am so proud of this, and relieved. The subway gives me constant new people to pray for.
It’s like the Canterbury Tales down there, like the great procession, so many different kinds of people doing different things, thinking fabulous things, on their way to different places, living different lives. It’s like a Broadway show. I wish people would stand and share their reveries, or sing whatever song is in their heads. On the No. 4 train there is the man with no legs. He pushes himself along on a little roller-blade sort of rig, pushing himself through the cars with a paper cup, saying nothing. He looks like Porgy in “Porgy and Bess.” The tall white men almost uniformly ignore him, the shorter darker people, especially the women, give him quarters and dollars. The ones who have least give quickest, and most.
Last week a woman was walking car to car as the train rushed along. She was in her 40s, black, heavy, with a little white wool hat on her head. She was preaching Christ and him crucified. You looked at her and you really couldn’t tell if she was filled with the Holy Spirit or off her meds. You didn’t know if she was in the full sway of evangelical fervor or in full psychotic break. But there was a lovely tolerance with which everyone looked up, observed, listened and then went back to their papers or back to sleep.
There are crazy people who won’t harm you, and friendly old people, and kids. There is an Asian woman whom I’ve seen a few times, dead asleep, with her two children, each under 10, sleeping soundly next to her.
I sit and pray and feel my prayers bring greater peace wherever I am. And lately this is good, for in just the past few days, as we approach the sixth-month point, things are getting snarkier in our underground. There is more disturbance down there in the dark, more tension than in December and January and February. Or so it seems to me.
Yesterday a man was haranguing a young stranger in a loud voice, verbally harassing her on the need for friendliness between people who don’t know each other. He was aggressive, hectoring. The poor young woman just nodded, smiled and tried to placate. I prayed on him, and he got off the train.
Earlier this week there was a more dramatic moment. A woman—hyper, in her 20s, tall, strong, Jamaican accent, tight black pants, high boots—got into an argument with a young Asian woman. I couldn’t make out what it was about, but the Jamaican woman was very angry. Then she turned her anger on a young man, who intervened for the Asian woman. In a loud and dominating voice she called him “rude” and “inappropriate” and “incapable of facing” his own lack of manners. She was very articulate and quite forceful, and she seemed on the edge of out of control.
Finally, pale with anger, the man snapped, “You’d be a lot better off if you’d lay off the heroin. I’m a doctor, and I know what I’m talking about.”
She became enraged, stood and yelled, “What do you know? You’re a doctor? I’ll show you my needle-pocked arm as I knock your block off!” And she went toward him. And ever so smoothly, ever so massively, a young black man wearing earphones blocked her way, as if by accident.
“Yes, my sister, he is rude, ignore him. I know you’re not on H. He has no idea the charge he’s making.”
She looked at him. She pleaded her case to him. She started to simmer down. He said soothing words.
She was utterly unconscious of her own aggression, and experienced herself as a person under siege, forced to stand up for her own humanity. She couldn’t see that she was pushing people around.
But he understood, and befriended her. And now they stood talking, finally chuckling, as we bumped along from station to station through the darkness. She got off at 33rd Street. We all let out sighs of relief. The man who’d helped her moved to get off at the next stop.
I patted his arm. “My friend,” I said.
He removed his ear phones and looks at me.
“You are a diplomat,” I said. He shook his head in the noise. “You are a born diplomat,” I said louder.
His face broke into a smile. Now the man sitting next to me joined in. “Did good, man,” he said. He looked like a cop.
The diplomat smiled, nodded, shrugged. “All just tryin’ get home, man. Just doin’ our best.”
I switched trains at 14th Street, stood a few stops. A seat opened up and a man who was drinking from a bottle in a brown paper bag gestured to me to take it. I smiled my thanks, and a few stops later the seat next to me opened and I moved over and he sat down. When I got to my stop I asked him if he wanted my paper and he said no, and then yes, and thanked me with a sweet smile. I said, “Goodbye, my brother,” and he said goodnight.
The man on HBO’s “Oz” who is the leader of the prison Muslims gets to call those who share his faith “my brother.” I always like the way he says it, with such dignity and respect. My faith is one whose adherents include all races and ethnic groups, and I never know who my brothers and sisters are. So I’ve decided they’re everyone. I have taken to calling strangers with whom I interact “my brother” and “my sister.” It surprises people but no one seems to dislike it, and almost everyone smiles. There is a great liberation to age. You are allowed to say anything when you are a middle-aged woman, for no one is eager to be offended by you. You’re harmless, and probably well-meaning. I can’t wait till I’m old. I will call strangers “my beloved little darling.”
But the point, and there really was one a few score paragraphs ago: New Yorkers are getting jittery again, and the subways are getting tenser, or so it seems to me.
* * *
I have been on the subway so much because I’ve been going into town to witness and be part of various events. One was a screening of the CBS documentary on 9/11, which airs next week. CBS was nervous about it, though it’s hard to see why. It is a respectful and affectionate look at Lucky 7, the FDNY Ladder company downtown that was among the first, if not the first, company to respond that terrible day. All of its members survived because, paradoxically, they got to the scene early. They went to the first tower that was hit, which was the second tower to fall. They milled around in the lobby. There’s nothing gruesome in the documentary, no falling bodies, no people on fire. The story is told through the eyes of a “probie,” a probationary fireman newly assigned to the company, and through the lens of two Frenchmen, brothers who were doing a documentary on the NYFD.
The film captures the ghost-town quality of downtown that day, with everything covered in Pompeii-like ash. It captures the lostness of the firemen massed in the lobby of the first tower, as lost as a platoon on D-Day overwhelmed with heavy fire and not knowing where anyone is or what to do. It captures one of the great strangenesses of the catastrophe, and of modern life in general. And that is that the men on the scene, in the lobby of the tower, knew less about what was going on that day than did a casual viewer of television half a world away in Taiwan. The Taiwanese anchorman had the wires, live pictures, live reports. The firemen on the scene had nothing but dead radios in their hands. They had no idea what was happening, and didn’t know what to do.
It is amazing when this happens, when people a world away know what’s happening 200 yards from you and you don’t. But it happens in our modern, fully wired and utterly fragile world. Wires, wires everywhere, and yet when the catastrophe comes the firemen have dead radios and can’t get word on what’s happening.
* * *
I went to a lunch at the home of Tina Brown, whose Talk Books is publishing a memoir by a young Afghan woman who defied the Taliban and started a school for women in her home. She is young, in her early 20s, and shy. She does not speak English and seems overwhelmed, understandably so. I asked her something I have not heard fully answered. It is: What is in young men in your homeland that makes them want to join a movement as destructive of culture and violent toward women, toward their sisters and mothers, as the Taliban? But the question-and-answer became lost in translation, and I did not learn what I hoped to learn.
The women invited to meet the writer were a slice of Manhattan life—other writers and editors, publishers, media people, political people. It was a ladies’ lunch, all women. In a dozen years in New York I had met many of them before, but now I see them less, and in a way I saw them anew. Erica Jong, the novelist, was there, warm and full of conversation. She told me she is hoping to be principal for a day soon at a local high school. An old friend from CBS was there, wry and funny.
I saw a woman I used to know sitting at one of the small white round tables, went to say hello and halfway there thought without thinking: Don’t. I wondered afterward what had stopped me. On one level she seemed like a handsome lady at lunch. On another she was . . . like a snorting animal pawing the ground. She was glowering. In fact observing her made me think of a Lewis Carroll poem about spending Christmas Day with his extended family. “I thought I saw a buffalo upon the chimney piece / I looked and saw instead it was my sister’s husband’s niece.”
She was a buffalo ready to charge. Later conversation with others at her table revealed that she’s still smoking with rage at the failed presidency of Bill Clinton, who is her close friend of many years. “Why does Bush get good press?” she demanded of her table mates.
I don’t understand the bitterness of New York Clinton folk. They had their eight years; some of them did their best; it ended with its derelictions; we had 9/11; now it’s over. You’d think they’d keep their counsel, choose a new man to back for president and back him, help him, tout him, fund him.
Instead they waste their time simmering, resenting, as if Clinton had been their only shot. If he was, they’re in worse trouble than I thought.
And there was a woman who was once my friend, who backed and worked for the Clintons and who thought being loyal to them meant we must no longer be friends after I wrote so much against them. She approached me, kissed me hello and kept walking. When I first met her 10 years ago she was humorous, modest, hopeful. Now she is sharp featured and tough. No, hard. She is hard.
The odd thing about these people is that they have everything. They are rich, accomplished, healthy; they have marriages, children, love; they don’t have to be up nights worrying about paying the rent or the electric bill. And they are not really happy.
They have been lucky so long they don’t even know they’re lucky anymore. That’s the bad thing that can happen to you when you’ve been lucky too long: You start to think it’s not luck, it’s what you deserve. And instead of being grateful you get a bitter-tinged sense of entitlement. You start to think you deserve it, you made the right choices. You’re smarter than the dumb people, or more accomplished than the lazy people.
When the truth is you’re lucky and blessed and should be on your knees saying thank you for your good fortune, and giving out 20s on the subway.
Instead they have a sense of being cheated. Why isn’t my life perfect? Why don’t we have $2 billion instead of $1 billion? Why isn’t Al Gore president? Why can’t everyone love Bill, he deserves it!
* * *
But back to the topic of this piece, which appears at one point to have been that we’re coming up on six months after Sept. 11.
I think the untold, unmentioned story about New York right now, as I wrote in a British newspaper earlier this week, is the disjunction between what we truly think and how we act.
Each day we re-enact normality. We re-enact life before Sept. 11. That woman hurrying along Fifth Avenue in the coat with the mink collar, rushing with shopping bags from Barneys and Saks into the place where they do your nails. She thinks a nuke may go off in midtown this afternoon. But she also knows she needs a manicure.
She gets her nails done and muses on what will happen when the big thunderclap comes, and the sky fills with light and the wind begins to whip.
I don’t think the world fully appreciates how targeted we feel in New York, but then I don’t think we fully appreciate it either. But it occurs to us now and then, as we rush through the streets in our busy, distracted way, that we’ve got a target on our backs. You can walk along Madison Avenue, or First, and look and see: Nothing has changed since Sept 10. We’re all still hurrying along, walking briskly through the world with our distractions and our plans. And yet every one of us knows it’s quite possible—oh, it’s quite likely—that we’ll be hit again, and worse next time than last.
It is odd and interesting that everyone thinks it will be midtown next time, not downtown or uptown. Times Square, or Broadway, or 50th and Fifth.
* * *
If we think this, why don’t we leave?
You’d think we’d always be asking each other this question. We’re not. We don’t talk about it much at all. We keep our thoughts to ourselves. We don’t want to be the morbid person at the lunch, or the downer at dinner. We maintain our cheerfulness. And it isn’t even a mindless good cheer, it’s something else.
There is no really good answer to why we don’t leave, but there are a million understandable ones. “My life is here.” “My job is here.” “The kids are in school here.” A friend told me she doesn’t want to live in a world without New York; she’ll go down with the ship.
And, “We don’t know anyone in Topeka, Laramie, Tuscaloosa.” We only know people here.
The people who lived at the bottom of Vesuvius didn’t leave Pompeii while the volcano simmered and smoked. How could they? They didn’t know anyone in Messina, or Rome. They had their lives in Pompeii, their ties in Pompeii.
But there’s another thing New Yorkers are thinking. It’s that deep in their hearts they don’t really think there is a safe place. They don’t think there’s any safety anymore. They only think there’s time, right now, this second. So they have their nails done, and do their work, and go to the lunch, and file the story, and argue the case. There’s a gallantry, a cool courage, to New Yorkers now, and I wonder if they see it, if they appreciate it in themselves. I do. It’s part of why I want to call them my brother, and my sister.