Saturday, March 24, 2012

Epiphany in NYC

My Glass is Already Broken © Jean Stimmell 2012

“In swearing by what he saw, the author stands behind the notion 
that bearing witness, if only for a second, can alter one’s life...[i]

We traveled to the city in deep sadness to attend a Friday evening memorial service for a dear friend.  While I expected it to be a moving experience, I never expected to have an epiphany – but I did.

No doubt I was predisposed to have such an out-of-body experience grieving Josh’s death and reminiscing with his many friends at the memorial about how remarkable he was.  Looking back on it, the events that lead up to my revelation fit the definition of what Carl Jung called synchronicity which, according to him, occurs when separate events reveal an underlying pattern – beyond the realm of time and western scientific understanding.[ii]

My tale starts next morning after the memorial, waking up at our bed and breakfast to a splendid, warm and sunny, spring day. Reading the NYT’s Book Review with breakfast, I happened across an essay, Convergences, by Douglas Coupland about recent cultural shifts he attributed to the rise of the Internet.

 Coupland cited fashion as one example of such a change. It used to be that, as a society, most of us followed the fashion trend of the day, whether it was crew cuts or perms. But now, every style is in fashion at once – and continues to stay in fashion – from bald to hirsute, bare feet to high heels, formal to the absurd.

Another example of this new reality is what he considers a new genre of literature: novels that “cross history without being historical” and “span geography without changing psychic place;” novels that collapse time and space. According to Coupland, these convergences point to a major societal shift: “we appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once – a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet. [iii]

While I found Coupland’s observations about the nature of our new postmodern world interesting, I felt assured that I had fully digested his thoughts with my bagel and was done with the topic of “atemporality” for the day.

After breakfast, we set out on a walking tour to explore the Chelsea District of Manhattan before returning home. We soon found ourselves engulfed in a sea of art galleries. Out of 200 possible choices, we randomly entered the Gallerie Richard, featuring the Spanish artist, Dionisio Gonzalez, who constructs spatially and socially complex worlds that, according to the gallery, “challenge the histories of photography and architecture.”[iv]

From Dionisio Gonzalez’s current NYC exhibit:
 ‘Favela’ Photographs Reimagine at the Gallerie Richard
Using Photoshop, Gonzalez interweaves imaginary elements of modern and contemporary architecture into straight photographs of Brazilian shantytowns. The effect is both disturbing and disorienting.

I felt some unseen presence permeating my brain. What was it that felt so strange? Then it came to me: atemporality was rearing its head once again, a fact that was confirmed when I read the exhibit flyer: “These photographs are heavily processed accumulations of time and information, condensed seamlessly into a single moment.”

What are the chances, I mused, of going directly from reading Coupland’s essay on atemporality to becoming lost in Gonzalez’s shantytown collapse of time.

I found myself falling under Gonzalez’s sway as if hypnotized, moving from image to image, studying each intently as if in a trance. As I did, the hard crust of my mind – and all I thought I knew – softened like the earth after a gentle rain.  Feeling dizzy and needing a break, I headed up the nearby stairs to get some fresh air on the High Line.

The High Line, for those that don’t know, was originally built as an elevated railroad spur line to move freight traffic 30 feet in the air, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s largest industrial district.  After the spur line was abandoned by the railroad, it was redesigned and planted as an aerial greenway, running from the Meatpacking district up through the neighborhood of Chelsea to the West Side Yard.
J. Stimmell: photos from the High Line 3/10/12
Stepping out onto the High Line, I had a brief moment of respite as I mingled with the ornamental grasses and flowering shrubs; that is, until I gazed out over the city and was stunned by what I saw: rather than relief for my overstressed brain, I discovered an uncanny recapitulation in brick and mortar of what Dionisio Gonzalez had created on his computer screen:
J. Stimmell: photos from the High Line 3/10/12
A profusion of atemporality in real time: warehouses, factories, row houses and tenements in different stages of decay, like strata from an archeology dig of NYC’s storied past, all in the process of being overwritten by space age buildings of stainless steel, asymmetrical geometric shapes, or draped facades like a Christo sculpture.[v]

J. Stimmell: photos from the High Line 3/10/12
The further I walked down the High Line, the more disoriented I became. Feeling like I was being sucked into an alternative universe, I escaped the Hi Line down the next stairway. This is crazy making, I thought.  I’ve had enough postmodernity for one day.
J. Stimmell: photos from the High Line 3/10/12
Spotting the old landmark diner at 10th Avenue and 22nd Street, I sought refuge inside, hoping to step back into a more traditional time and place.  Instead, I found to my dismay that it had been transformed into a crowded, hip food joint, vibrating with myriad conversations and blaring music so loud, I lost all ability to concentrate, even to remember my name. 

Something snapped. This final assault on my normal, everyday reality was too much!
Time slowed down.  The frenzied clatter of the diner faded away. Suddenly I was gone.

Like a thunderclap under a clear blue sky, I was jolted beyond all time and space by a sudden Satori-like moment.  Mesmerized by a kaleidoscope of reflections competing with reality through the diner window, I became transfixed by an old man who was clearly me, very feeble but serene, looking out of place in the fast-paced bustle, trusting his caregiver to guide him expertly into a beat-up Honda, shoehorned between an Audi Quattro and a Cadillac Escalade. Then the caregiver got in and slowly drove away until I disappeared up 22nd street.

I shook my head. What was happening to me? I knew that, according to Jung, the universal archetypes we all carry in our collective unconscious have no sense of time.  Could it be that being subjected to this succession of atemporal earthquakes had triggered a tsunami wave that demolished my cozy linear world of modernity, freeing my unconscious mind to surge into my waking life, melding past and future as one in the present moment?

While some might call my experience a psychotic break, I choose to imagine Josh was communicating with me from another dimension, revealing his secret on how to live life to the fullest.

In this brief moment of enlightenment, Josh was teaching me the true meaning of impermanence, the same lesson taught in the classic Buddhist teaching story where the master says:

 “‘Someone gave me this glass, and I really like it. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.’”[vi]

So it is with me. Thanks to Josh I now see clearly that my glass is already broken, so I am going to enjoy it incredibly. 

XXX (1283 words)

[i]Jennifer Wallace, (The Mastery of Non-Mastery, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3/30/12) comments on anthropologist, Michael Taussig’s methodology in his new book, I Swear I saw this.
[ii] The concept of synchronicity was a big deal to Jung, providing persuasive evidence to support his belief that all of us share a common, collective unconscious that underlies our entire human history.  Synchronicity, Carl Jung (1952)
[iii] Convergences, Douglas Coupland. NYT Book Review, 3/11/12. Page 1
[v] To see my photographs of this unusual melting pot of architecture, go to:

[vi]  Achaan Chah Subato, Thai Buddhist Master
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