Two Views of Spring in New York

This is my fourth spring in New York City.  Since I moved here, every season has seemed momentous, a new opportunity to notice changes in my environment, a different feeling in my neighborhood, and a chance to explore my community.

Seeing with new eyes doesn't always mean wearing rose-colored glasses though.  Looking back, I would like to include two essays from my blog - one from Spring 2012 and one from this season coming upon us now, Spring 2014.  I think what I notice in my surrounding points to the different person I am becoming - not just a seasoned New Yorker, but a changing vision of the world.  

Here they are:

Spring Fever (April 2012)

It is spring again, the equinox less than a week away, about midway between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, a time my Hispanic neighborhood celebrates in solemnity and reverence and joy, days when I will see little girls in white dresses in the street, decorated with ash, holding palms or crosses or baskets.  I know that story, a story of death and resurrection and salvation in the name of Jesus Christ, of the grave and holy rituals of mass and communion and benediction, the Virgin and the saints, a harmonic and appealing combination of austerity and hope.  I know that story and I know some others too, other ways of celebrating rebirth of fertile seasons, of dividing the year by solstices and equinoxes as I learned in my college astronomy class, other ways, mathematical and spiritual, of finding hope in the change of seasons. 

I know other spring stories, decidedly more secular, but my stories just the same.  I know the budding of trees and the search for the first ones to bloom their delicate pink and white flowers; I know the daffodils shooting up in long vibrant patches by the side of the highway; I know children’s slow eager wait for the temperature to climb to sixty degrees – finally! – so we could shed our coats for outdoor recess and go out in short sleeve shirts.  It’s the same feeling my students have now as they get restless in class, peeking at the clock as though if I don’t let them out now the sun will disappear forever before they get the chance.  “I can’t help it,” one boy told me, “I have spring fever.”

            “I know,” I told him.  “Me too. We’ve all got it.”  And now I know the story of spring here in New York, which is part of my story too.  I know the sun struggling to peer over the top of city buildings for just another hour, the lightness of shedding dour winter gear and the brightness of the days as they stretch out longer in the streets and playgrounds and parks where students and workers come out in the middle of the day to sit in the warm patches of sunlight.  I know where to look for the first flowers, in sidewalk planters and pushing tentatively up in the dirty grass next to the subway station.  I know it when spring clothing sales and Easter candy are as unavoidable as the Mr. Softy truck parked on the curb when I stepped out of work last week, the first one of the season.  I know it when I open my window wide at night and hear the same ice-cream truck patrolling the street chirping its barely recognizable version of “Do Your Ears Hang Low?”  And I sit out on my fire escape for the first time this year knowing that the days are getting longer and the nights are getting livelier.

           Spring fever – it sounds like a fun disease, a heated excitation, a return to life and warmth.  My kids know this, the pagans knew it, their replacements know it, and the poets have always known it.  Spring isn’t a weather phenomenon; it’s an arousal, an opportunity to see the world again, yet anew, to be in awe of its living poetry.  In Riverside Park, an hour before work begins, I feel a part of a landscape infused with possibilities. I pause under pink magnolia buds still closed on the verge of bursting, still holding all their energy inside, waiting, anticipating, like stumbling upon a miracle just about to happen.  I have seen a pregnant woman pass by, a toddler pushing himself along in his rolling walker while his young father followed, a couple holding hands, children on a field trip congregating around an ice-cream cart, and sitting here on a ledge overlooking the Hudson River I watch boys practicing on the baseball field below.  I sit absorbed in the clack-clang strike of the aluminum bat, the fluid grace of kids sliding along the bases painted white against green turf, the excitement of spring training.  In this luminous stolen hour before I resume my own routine, I find myself thinking that every time and place has its own cycles, its own circularity, its own spiritual concreteness.   

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Neighborhood Walk - Harlem and Morningside Park (March 2014)

Still snow on the ground, either black slush almost gone on the sidewalk or the deep stacks with the oldest snow layered on the bottom and cigarette butts and dogshit and litter encrusted along the sides. Took the bus with Amrita down to 125th street, walked past the school where I work, gates closed, grateful I didn't have to go in today. We walked down the stairs into Morningside Park and I said I wondered if I was going to run into any of my students. It can be awkward, but I wasn't all that worried - let them see what Miss Hannah does on a Saturday.

The air was crisp but somehow fifty degrees felt damn near balmy at the tail end of a winter that never seemed to end. The sun was out and we were wearing light jackets and there were so many kids in the park - parents with toddlers at the playground, older kids hanging out on the swings, teenagers on the basketball court. By the smell of it, someone was definitely smoking pot, maybe tucked away on one of the paths meandering up the side of the hill. There were large patches of snow everywhere - covering the grass, melting over the sidewalk and crunching beneath my sneakers. There were no buds on the trees yet, but the kids were all so happy to be outside - bicycles, skateboards, scooters skidding along the concrete paths. I never saw so many people holding hands - parents and children, couples young and old, all mismatched heights but all so glad to be outside, to be able to go for a walk in the park.

Amrita kept looking at the dogs and smiling. She was also looking at the brownstones along the edge of the park and telling me that she loved Harlem, that everyone she knew wanted to move to Brooklyn, but she wasn't going anywhere. I agreed, even though my reality of Harlem isn't always so pleasant, like the nights I wait for the bus by the housing projects next to where I work, listening to people argue and throw food at each other in the street.

We walked down the path to the pond, where I hadn't been in years. There were slushy sheets of ice stretched over surface and the ducks were walking across them with their bright orange feet to get to the patches of water where they could paddle around in circles. It was actually one of the most charming things I had ever seen, and I didn't even let myself wonder if those boys hurling hard chunks of snow into the pond were trying to hit the ducks. I noticed a white cat with a black tail hovering along the edge picking his way across the rocks. I pointed him out to Amrita and told her about the family of cats that lived in the park, that I had seen them along the edge of the other side as I walked to work, that someone left cat food in aluminum pie plates out for them.

We walked up the hill out the south end of the park, where Morningside Drive turned into Columbus Avenue, and I told Amrita that I used to work six blocks down that way at a community center. And as we turned to walk west toward Amsterdam and Columbia University, where the streets became far more gentrified and we could see students carrying takeout lunches and tourists with maps heading toward the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, I told her that I guess I was lucky to have always worked so close to where I live, right here in Harlem, dirty and beautiful and home.