One Christmas morning, I was running across the Brooklyn Bridge on the way to Lower Manhattan, and I heard the sound of silence. It was 5 am and there were no cars, no delivery trucks, and no cabs in sight. I stopped in the middle of the bridge and listened to the flow of the East River and it offered no more than a murmur. Other than a few specks of cars going north on the FDR Drive, I could detect no movement. For a moment, I felt blessed, nourished and at peace. This ritualistic run would never be the same after 9/11.
My mother frequently told the story of her being bombed out of seven North London apartments during World War II. My father was a London cop at this time and saw more death than he wanted to remember. Throughout her long life, my mother escaped to the garden for her peace. During his short life, my father generally escaped to the pub.
My two brothers and I grew up under the psychological overhang of the London bombings and my family’s displacement. As an adult, I have wondered whether my parents suffered from PTSD. My father in particular seemed to feel most deeply the postwar pain, penury, and shame. The slightest nose would set him off, whether it was our boyish romps or a bicycle bell from the nearly Broadway. We escaped to America but never completely got out from underneath that shadow of war and eruption.
During my early years, the Catholic Church offered that place of silence and repose and a refuge from my domestic unease. Even the thunderous sounds of Father Bede, who did his evangelical best to scare us with his version of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” couldn’t really disrupt the peace and silence associated with a boy who felt he was in the presence of something holy.
Such moments seem to be much more infrequent as an adult. I recall being at sea with the US Navy and battling a typhoon in the South China Sea for more than three days. I was on a clunky, single rudder, single screw ammunition ship that had little maneuverability, speed or power to break away from the typhoon’s churn. The 2,000-pound bombs were rolling around below deck. I was on the navigation bridge and could see that the ship’s pitching and movement to port and starboard far exceeded manufacturer’s expectations. We kept fighting the storm even while listening to the skipper offer over the PA system some mournful prayers and what sounded last words.
I have tried to explain since my college Freshman English class the peace, joy, and thankfulness I felt when calm settled over the ocean on that Sunday morning and the sun came up. I tried to get to the horror and joy of this experience in my novel, “Bunker Kills: A Sea Story.” I don’t think I have been ever been able to fully explain the peace and silence of that morning in the South China Sea. It was like being on the sunny side of a dangerous creation story.
Over the years before the Christmas season, I have run off to some monastery in New Hampshire or to Monticello in the Catskills to write poetry, letters and occasionally fiction for my family and friends to celebrate the non-commercial side of the holidays with language, love and understatement. One year, I noticed that these creations remained at the bottom of my children’s Christmas haul long after they worked their way through piles of electronics, video games and the occasional sock. My fiction seemed to rest uneasily under the Christmas table, unannounced, unread and appropriately ignored. What kind of sacred mission was I on anyway? What sea was I holding back with my puny shoulder?
Outside my window is a dying tulip tree. The more the tree dies, the more life it attracts. At this writing, I see a red-bellied woodpecker working its way up the trunk and limbs searching for grubs and insects. I time this bird. He feasts on the dead and dying for more than five minutes. It’s as if the bird is dutifully walking up a flagpole. I am tempted to salute.
Squirrels park themselves on the tulip limbs, getting some sun and rest outside the reach of hawks that feed on this population. The gray of the squirrels is even grayer in the winter. The tulip trees collects life and character as noisy blue jays dominate the upper branches while cardinals, dark-eyed juncos and catbirds settle in the ground cover pecking at the sunflowers, corn and peanuts strewn about.
Christmas has gone and I’m still looking for pockets of contentment outside the usually boisterous anthems. I think of the poet William Blake, who wrote much to the dismay of the 18th century establishment that we have forgotten that all deities reside in the human heart. This amazing visionary spent a lifetime expressing that belief in language and art.
Blake referred to Jesus as the Imagination, not in a narrow, doctrinal sense, but as an expression of soul, endless creativity and rebirth. The narrative serves as a sematic parable: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. Psychologist Carl Jung would echo this thought, writing emphatically that “Soul is Imagination.”
William Blake spoke about seeing “the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower.”
This is where the poet found both his anguish and his peace.
Many of his London friends thought he was mad. But how would they know? William Blake had seen an angel at the dawn of his birth and that belief gave him wings.