Postcard from New York V: Small Graces

October 16, 2009

Here in New York the nights are drawing in and all of a sudden, an arctic wind has appeared, nails of icy rain, a chill that makes skin raw, and fingers ache and itch when finally warmed. Do you know the Hans Christian Anderson story of the Snow Queen? It's one that's lived in my imagination ever since it was read to me as a child,  and it's strands of story eventually grew into a song of the same title. The tale begins with the Devil thrilled with his new invention: an enchanted looking- glass that has the power to make every good deed look gross and evil, and give the kindest person a hideous and disfigured reflection. He decides to travel with it up to heaven to goad the angels, but he doesn't get so far before their cries of fury cause it to shatter. The mirror breaks into thousands of pieces which come raining down upon the earth. Splinters fall into the eyes of humans, whole shards are lodged in their hearts. Those hit wake to see the world inverted; cruelty appears as rare beauty, madness appears to be sense.   

 

The Snow Queen - Illustrations by Edmund Dulac

The Snow Queen who is devilish in her own way, longs for a royal consort and so she kidnaps a beautiful young boy called Kai whose once good heart has become afflicted with the glass. She casts a spell over him so that he won't leave her side and bewitched, Kai spends his days gazing at blocks of ice, moving them into different patterns, a impossible and senseless jigsaw of 'reason'.  With glass in our eyes and our hearts, life is distorted; it is a constant problem to be solved, rather than a mystery to be lived. Even as our fingers become raw and icy rearranging those lifeless blocks into a picture that is never complete, in the moments that we do awake from the enchantment, might we see that the world is also full of grace? 

 

Disguised graces coming with the wintery weather. Like yesterday, when the cold rain starting filling up my shoes, and soaking my socks, and I had walked the length of 5th avenue trying in vain to find some warm boots, I ducked into a deli to warm up and started chatting to a silver haired lady named...Sylvia. We spoke about where she was from in Italy, and of magical fjords in Norway and how it was when she was young. 'Manipulation means destruction' she said, talking of relationships. I assured her I already knew that (whilst thinking that when you get older, it must be funny to hear younger people so earnest in their conviction that they already know everything).  But the words remained with me in the particular way they do from strange, chance encounters. 

Or like the other day when the sun was still warm, I was sitting in Hanco's Bubble Tea house drinking a Vietnamese coffee (a swamp of sugar and cream) and trying my best to be economical. Coffee will fill me up and repress my appetite, meaning no need for expensive take-out food, I'd decided.  Just then, an elderly man walked in hawking gloves, 'Please madam...I need to buy medication'. He was practically crying, but whether it was an act or not, I couldn't know. Perhaps he had his mind on his next bottle of meths, or bag of brown. (But it is shocking to me to see poverty stricken people rooting through the rubbish here, gathering glass and aluminium to re-sell).  However, if he was desperate enough to walk around cafes at sixty-odd years selling gloves, I decided in reflection he can't be doing so great. Ok, I said, how much? $6. I had $10 and handed it over. Predictably, he made a show of rooting through his pockets. 
- 'But I don't have any change, lady' he cried. Guilt and annoyance did battle, and the annoyance won: I started counter-hunting for one dollar bills to pay him in. The old man suddenly located the elusive change:
- 'There, $2 back, thank you, thank you' he said, cutting a swift departure. 
Curses. A pair of gloves for $8. So much for my eco-drive. And it's still practically summer. 
Turns out when the arctic wind started blowing the very next day, and the heating in my new apartment was broken, I was so happy for those gloves and glad that I'd bought them off the old man, and not from Macy's. (To be fair, he'd probably swiped them from Macy's anyway...).

And last night when I came back find my flat was freezing, I dropped by my cousin's place to borrow some warm blankets and ended up staying for supper. I also read Dr Seuss to his daughter and for the record, the Cat in the Hat tells you it's best to keep your eyes wide open but if you can't manage that, one eye will do just fine. 

As I was leaving, my cousin and his wife were telling me about the number of terrible events that had occurred in their apartment block in the past month; a daughter ('mentally ill') had tried to kill her mother (also 'mentally ill' but 'unmedicated'); a young boy had jumped off a balcony to his death...'all the teenagers here go loopy' which reminded me of a conversation I overheard the other day where a lady was talking about her father ('he won't take his medication...won't admit he's sick'). 

At what point, I wonder, will there be so many 'mentally ill' people in the world that it can no longer be argued that it is an illness, a malfunction to be conveniently corrected by lucrative medications? Aside from the fact that, say, half an apartment block full of 'mentally ill' people versus half apparently 'normal' ones start to make the notion of normality look a little shaky (being in it's very essence to do with status quo, the majority experience...) when might we start to entertain the idea that it could be the way we as humans live, the way we think -  the mind with it's endless wanting and sense of lack, it's resentments and fixations, it's furies and disappointments,  in turn giving rise to a society obsessed with becoming 'someone' over simple 'being', achievement and status over kindness, hoarding over sharing - that create different shades and intensities of the same madness and sadness, splinters and shards of the very same mirror?
 
I will try and keep at least one eye open to catch the grace that I always see falling from the sky when I remember to look up from my puzzle of ice.  


 

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