I baked in Hell’s Kitchen yesterday. Felt my skin seared in the summer sun as I trudged up the long Big City blocks along 42nd Street from 12th Avenue to Fifth Avenue. City blocks are short where I live Downtown, but as you move further uptown in Manhattan the blocks running east to west gradually grow to impossible lengths. When I could manage it, I dipped under the shadows cast by tall buildings or walked under awnings. I was pushing a blind man in a wheelchair. When he felt a jolt shudder through the frame of the wheelchair from a familiar rut on a certain street corner he said suddenly, “That’s the street I work on.” I was simultaneously impressed by his ability to locate himself and depressed that the sidewalk could remain so inhospitable that its pockmarks had become a familiar fixture in his world.
You want to bathe yourself in sunlight in this land of tall buildings. See the sun as a redeemer. We live in a corner apartment in a 22-story building with a sliver of a view of the Hudson River to the west. You can see the river from every room in the apartment. You have to crane your neck a bit to see it from some windows. But it can be done. The tall building we live in and others behind it cast a shadow on the city streetscape below. So the first evidence of morning we get is the light reflected off the Hudson River two short blocks away. During the long dark winter, I got crabby and moody like a rat in a crowded cave on the days when the sun just failed to materialize some days or made only a very faint impression inside the apartment. An embittered ingrate, I asked unhelpful questions with obvious answers. Why is our apartment so small? Who stole the sun? When is it coming back? Answers: It’s actually large by Manhattan standards. No one. In a few months.
In an unnatural city landscape, you have to make peace with the natural rhythms of days growing longer and shorter through the year. Bask in sunlight in the days it appears. I’m not one to sunbathe, but I see my fellow city dwellers throwing down towels and soaking in rays at every opportunity on well-preserved and protected patches of grass. (Like the limited quantity of sunlight, you really notice these patches of grass in the city and appreciate them so much more than you do when living in the rural countryside.)
I can’t imagine what a permanent midnight would feel like. When I think about living in the total darkness, it just terrifies me. But people I know quite well have managed to work that out. People with bright good humor. Brave as giants. Hearts as large as the sun.
Artificial light makes total darkness unlikely anywhere in the city for those with sight. The only total darkness I’ve experienced in Manhattan was during Hurricane Sandy when the unnatural absence of light was truly disturbing. We had evacuated from our own apartment building which lost power and water when the basement flooded and fled to a friend’s apartment in Tribeca. When the lights went out in that apartment building as the southern half of Manhattan lost power due to the storm, we walked up and down 15 flights of stairs by candlelight or flashlight. Figures approached like ghosts on the staircase. Were illuminated briefly as we passed. Then receded in the darkness. You could hear their footsteps clumping away in the distance.
You can’t dwell in the darkness even when it’s all around you. You have to celebrate the light. Today thousands of people will be doing yoga in Times Square from sunrise to sundown. Others will be spritzed with holy water by an urban shaman in a ritual celebrating Mother Earth in the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens. I’m so down for that.
Seasons come and go. The sun burns down on us like an unblinking eye on some days, scorching and withering. Shadows fall on others, cloaking us in inky black. We come and go through it all. The natural cycle endlessly repeating. It’s not easy to make peace with the darkness. But it’s a part of life too. In dark times, we take what sunlight we have inside us and make the most of that.