Solidarity in Suffering

This morning on our walk across the High Bridge into the Bronx, Dante and I passed a man practicing martial arts-like exercises next to the nineteenth-century water tower that overlooks both the historic bridge and the majestic Harlem River. It’s quite common to see groups of people engaged in similar exercises on Manhattan’s Lower East Side but rare up here in Washington Heights (at least to my experience), so I couldn’t help but notice. Immediately my mind traveled back to a period of my life that I had largely forgotten: the two years or so in my childhood that I practiced the Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do, which entailed exercises not unlike the ones I saw this morning. Along with the exercises, I had to memorize certain call-and-response sequences (which I’ve forgotten entirely) and also the numbers one through ten in Korean (which I still remember somehow).

A couple of years ago while visiting family in Dubuque, Iowa, my uncle recounted his experience during the Korean War. He served as a cook on a US Navy ship and consequently never engaged in direct fighting. He was thankful for this. Korea is a country of sophisticated, ancient culture that has seen more than its share of suffering. The “mighty” of the world have often assailed and oppressed the Korean people, and yet somehow Koreans have maintained their dignity.

Over the past two years Dante and I have spent a fair bit of time in Manhattan’s East Village, and as we’ve taken our walking meditations through Alphabet City, particularly Avenue D, a very important reality has come home to me. The residents of Avenue D are mostly African American and Caribbean American, and it has been Korean immigrants who have opened businesses like corner shops (bodegas) and laundromats. In recent years, Arab Americans have joined in. For the past 50 years, Korean Americans were often the only people willing to provide necessary services in Black neighborhoods in New York City. In a sense, they stood alone in solidarity with other people who have known more than their share of suffering.

Those of us who have known only comfort and privilege do well to remember this reality and perhaps even meditate on it.

~BT Waldbillig
March 16, 2016

The Wisdom of Avenue D

A few evenings ago, Dante and I were in Manhattan’s East Village to share a pizza with a good friend, and after our meal the dog and I took a stroll down Avenue D.

Now, once upon a time that might not have been a wise choice since that end of Alphabet City was regarded as especially dangerous. My friend, a native New Yorker, shared with me a saying he learned as a youngster:

If you go to Avenue A, you’re adventurous.
If you go to Avenue B, you’re bold.
If you go to Avenue C, you’re courageous.
But if you go to Avenue D, you’re dead.

These days the situation is not nearly so dramatic, though many people still avoid the area altogether. It’s true Avenue D can be sketchy, particularly at night, and there’s likely a certain degree of local gang activity, but I’ve never felt threatened despite the odd looks I sometimes receive. Dante and I will continue to visit Avenue D whenever occasion arises for a simple reason: it is a holy place, consecrated by the hope and kindness that endure in the midst of poverty, violence, marginalization, and suffering.

Only in the last year or so have I come to appreciate that fact, thanks to a number of ordinary events that touched me in a meaningful way: the reading of a meditation on impermanence by the Japanese spiritual teacher Dogen; the particular beauty of the moon and stars in the night sky on several occasions; the unexpected passing by of an asteroid on the birthday of my late grandmother; the grace to perceive simple things, like clouds and trees and birds, with fresh sight. I have shared these things with Dante, who has in turn imparted his own wisdom during our walking meditations down Avenue D, and at Highbridge Park in Washington Heights, and along the High Bridge into the Bronx.

The night sky, a compassionate tree, a loved one’s birthday, the friendship of a dog – these simple things contain all the wisdom one could ever need.

~BT Waldbillig
February 4, 2016