I work a block away from the big Macy's, you know, the one they show every year during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. the closest public outdoor space is Harold Square, a concrete triangle of tree-lined metal chairs and tables wedged between Sixth Avenue and Broadway. It is hot. It is loud. It is full of tourists. So today, seeking some actual grass and a little peace and quiet with my sun, I wandered down to Madison Square Park, which is quieter, shadier, breezier, nannies pushing strollers and toddlers drunk-stumbling into the paths of texting business people. I had an entire bench to myself, and so spread out in the shade to read Annie Dillard's "The Maytrees." If you haven't read it, please do. It is a beautifully simple love story set on the beach in Rhode Island and currently has me contemplating giving up the city life. Seriously. I don't know how Annie does it, but her ratio of words to the vividity of the picture she paints is ridiculous, as in, zero words = 100% clarity. She is magic.
I read for an hour and got up in a lovely contemplative, zen-like dream state to walk back to work. I turned up Fifth Avenue, and then turned left on 31st Street, my daily route to work because there is a church on the corner with yellow ribbons tied to its fence, and churches make me feel peaceful. I pass at least 3 of them every day on my way to work. It was about 1:45 pm and I saw in front of me two lines of people on the sidewalk, facing north toward some shops, heads bowed, silent. I thought perhaps it was a small vigil of some sort, as the church was on the corner. As I approached, I saw the small carpets and pages of newsprint, the bare feet and empty shoes, the occassional cell phone on the ground. No one looked at me as I passed between the two lines of men, in various dress, many shades of brown. Almost as I came to the end of the line, someone behind me yelled a command and they all at once shifted. Again came the call, and they knelt on their mats like a reverse wave. I felt strange, briefly, as they bowed as I passed. I wondered why they faced north, instead of east. I wondered why this street, out of many. I wondered why at 1:45. I wondered whether the rest of us couldn't use a moment every day to gather with like-minded people to pray, or reflect, or take our thoughts off ourselves and put them onto a higher being or purpose.
It was the same feeling, walking between the rows of praying men, that i have walking past the sleeping Christian churches. Which is interesting because I was raised to believe that the former is evil and latter is good.