The Bird Lady of Union Square Park

Hola mi Gente,

A consequence of my mediation practice has been a tendency to move away from “autopilot” living. In other words, I pay attention in ways I never did before I started my daily sitting meditation practice. In some ways, this attentional shift brings gifts in ways I never imagined. The following is an example.

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03-19-06_ Bird Lady

The Offering/ La Ofrenda

What you think you are is a belief to be undone.

 

This is part of my non-official, Real New York series.

What is the real New York? It’s all real, actually. But the core question here is: where does one get the genuine stink of authenticity, where does one find the essential essence of The City? Of course, the answer depends on who you are. Perhaps the real New York is the attractive alcoholic woman, obviously going downhill fast, who stands by the entrance to my subway stop some mornings asking for spare change — and who flirts with me (“Damn, you look hawt today, papi!”) whether or not I give her a dollar. Sometimes weeks roll by and she’s nowhere to be seen and I wonder. Then one morning, she’s there again, asking for change, that undeniable intelligence in her eyes, her fading beauty still there, a tattered paperback peering out of the plastic Chanel bag that serves as her purse.

Or perhaps it’s the bird lady of Union Square Park…

One day, a couple of years ago, I played hookie from work. It was one of those early spring days and though it started with rain, a recalcitrant sun eventually vied with obstinate clouds for control of the day. It was lunchtime in one of my favorite reading spots in The City in Union Square Park. There’s a life-sized statue of Gandhi there and people sometimes put fresh cut flowers in its hands.

I have done this many times. I have several “power spots” throughout the city where I go read, observe, and contemplate, alone yet surrounded — I like the feeling of stillness surrounded by frantic activity. On that day, no sooner than I had settled on a bench, a woman with long white, wiry, wild hair came shuffling toward me. I was hoping she wouldn’t sit next to me; I didn’t want to smell yet another homeless person (such is the way people become invisible). Perhaps reading me, she sat down rigidly across from me. I wanted to get back to my reading. But she stared at me intensely. Then slowly, reflectively, as if following some unknown anointment ritual, she emptied a bag of birdseed on her shoulders. It was a strange sight even for La Gran Manzana — the capital of weirdness. I noticed how the seeds clung to her hair and clothes, pooled onto her lap, into the folds of her worn clothes, and scattered over her soiled sneakers. Then she leaned back and, after fixing me once more with that intense gaze, she stretched her arms and closed her eyes.

A brief moment passed and first one pigeon flew to her and then several more, and then a dozen or more. They congregated on her arms, pecking at the seeds and one another as they fed greedily. Soon the edges of her body were blurred in a flutter of wings. I sat there transfixed thinking this was an act of madness — clearly this woman was crazy; it seemed as if the birds were devouring her. But paradoxically, the act took on an aura of magic. All the while she was disappearing into this chaotic mass of feathers, she was whispering an incantation in a language I couldn’t make out. I sat there hypnotized, my open book now forgotten.

I noticed that others were staring also. People glanced up from their paper bag lunches or from reading their tabloid newspapers and gasped. Young mothers pushing strollers stopped and gawked. It was a gesture of such tremendous force that it took us out of our little protective shells, the cocoons of fearful lives, and we forgot ourselves for that brief moment. We were her audience — witnesses to what was clearly her offering — and we came together for that brief moment and we were connected somehow. It was as if her act served to break down the walls between us.

In a few minutes, the birds had their fill and one by one, flew away, and the woman calmly grabbed her bag and shuffled away.

Such was the power of her act that for hours afterward I felt as if in a dream and the streets of The City seemed to me new again.

And such is life in The City — if we stay here long enough, we become immune and lose our sense of awe and forget even that we once possessed it. Then something happens to shatter the routine: a blizzard, or a blackout, even a terrorist act and for a few miraculous hours, we come together as our lives are upended and we notice each other’s presence and come into the awareness of the possibilities of human connection. Strangers reach out to one another; aid is offered without condition, hearts are opened. In a sense, this awareness, this presence, is, at least for me, a form of meditation-in-action.

I guess part of the reason I live here because the challenge of The City is to figure if this experience of openness can be cultivated and made to last.

My Name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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