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Ash Wednesday Counterpoint

February 13, 2013

I left the house early today and got off at Rockefeller Center and headed northeast to the Cathedral. A news van sat outside, awaiting the crowds. But at 8:15 in the morning, it wasn’t that crowded. The Mass had already begun. The cardinal looked small and far away as I stood in a short line before the priest with his tray of ashes. He anointed my forehead, chanted a blessing, I lit some candles, said a prayer, and headed to the office, past the news vans hoping for a story.

It’s a nice way to start the day, a moment’s pause in the middle of the city. I keep thinking of a moment in Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale where compares living in New York City to living inside a machine. It’s exactly what it’s like, a constantly whirring engine in perpetual motion, so that your morning subway commute begins to have the feel of choreography and you start to question the very notion of free will. But inside the church, with its ancient words and garments and traditions, the machine stops. It’s a wrench in the works, a fatal dose of rust.

Back on the street, I put my headphones in and click play. Up cycles Steve Reich’s Tokyo Vermont Counterpoint.

Maybe it’s the influence of Koyaanisqaatsi, but minimalism fits the city like two gears in perfect alignment, turning each other is slow whorls. And strangely, it’s the mechanical nature of the music that frees my head, takes me out of the city maybe, or turns the city momentarily into something else, a basin for meditation.

By the time I get to work, the sun is shining and I am ready to get on with things.

Miraculously, I have not got one meeting today, so I sit down, lay out my work for the day and dive in. Normaly my office is quiet. Very quiet. It was one of the first things I noticed when I was there for my interview. The quietest cube farm I’ve ever been in. But today, there was loud talking and hammering and some guy who was wandering around singing all day. It was loud. I put on my headphones. It was still loud. I was getting very grumpy and was on the verge of asking if I could go work somewhere else when we got the email informing us of the source of all the noise — they’re installing a “noise masking system.” If only the system could mask the noise of its own installation.

By comparison, the evening street is peaceful. The music hums through the wires attached to my ears. My book turns its own pages. And suddenly I’m walking up the dark and silent hill, up the dim and silent stairs into the bright heat of my apartment, leaving me momentarily dazzled and soon longing for silence once more.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2013 10:01 am

    A church with ritual and music always feels like a machine to me, but I’ve never heard the rhythm of a city like you do.

  2. drgeek permalink
    February 28, 2013 4:11 pm

    Ah, Winter’s Tale… this is the time of year when that book used to speak to me the most. Did you hear that they are making it into a movie starring Russell Crowe?

  3. February 28, 2013 6:59 pm

    We saw them filming it– they were all over our neighborhood.

  4. drgeek permalink
    February 28, 2013 7:05 pm

    Interesting. You’re just in the middle of everything, A.-L. :-)

  5. February 28, 2013 7:09 pm

    This city is nuts.

  6. drgeek permalink
    February 28, 2013 8:07 pm

    Yes, it is… but Winter’s Tale puts forward the hope that there is a deeper transcendent aesthetic at work beyond all madness of ordinary New York reality.

    “No choreographer, no architect, engineer, or painter could plan more thoroughly and subtly. Every action and every scene has its purpose. And the less power one has, the closer he is to the great waves that sweep through all things, patiently preparing them for the approach of a future signified not by simple human equity (a child could think of that), but by luminous and surprising connections that we have not imagined, by illustrations terrifying and benevolent — a golden age that will show not what we wish, but some bare awkward truth upon which rests everything that ever was and everything that ever will be. There is justice in the world, Peter Lake, but it cannot be had without mystery.”

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