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City Psalm

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The killings continue, each second/ pain and misfortune extend themselves/ in the genetic chain, injustice is done knowingly, and the air/ bears the dust of decayed hopes,/ yet breathing those fumes,/ walking the thronged/ pavements among crippled lives, jackhammers/ raging, a parking lot painfully agleam/ in the May sun, I have seen/ not behind but within, within the/ dull grief, blown grit, hideous/ concrete facades, another grief, a gleam/ as of dew, an abode of mercy,/ have heard not behind but within noise a humming that drifted into a quiet smile./ Nothing was changed, all was revealed otherwise;/ not that horror was not, not that the killings did/ not continue, not that I thought there was to be no more despair,/ but that as if transparent all disclosed/ an otherness that was blessed, that was bliss./ I saw Paradise in the dust of the street.

City Psalm by Denise Levertov

As a suburban preteen I often dreamed of being a successful twenty-something in New York, maybe even Paris. In any City. This future self could walk miles of pavement in three-inch heels. She had season tickets to the opera and the symphony, and she knew all the recent gallery and restaurant openings. The glamour of my home in the metropolis was an essential component in the dreams of my very hip, very important future self.

I sort of chuckle when I revisit this image of the Older Urban Me. Now that I am a twenty-something I do feel most at home in the city, but on such different terms. First off, real life just ain’t Sex and the City: I refuse to even attempt a stroll in anything higher than a 1½ inch heel. I treasure my student discount card because it is the only way I can possibly afford those precious and too infrequent trips to the symphony, ballet, theater and opera that I love so much; I’m still decades from season tickets. I appreciate creative art and food more than ever, but I do not indulge them nearly as much as I dreamed I would as a young girl.

And second, what I love about the city today is not the superficial Hollywood quality of my former dreams, but the quite the opposite, really. I love the dirt and the humanity and the difference of the city. When I’m in the raw metropolis I am in the world unprotected from the shock and risk of its reality: too many people are poor, and I am quite rich. And I live next to these people. I sit with them on the bus. We talk. People here look a thousand different ways, and most often unlike what Society tells us is Beautiful. Strange, beautiful people are always rising from “the dust of the street,” as Levertov puts it. The city is busy and lonely all at the same time because the bustling crowds remind me that so much of life goes on without me. That makes me feel so mortal. And that makes me feel alive. Whenever a stranger strikes up a conversation in a coffee shop I’m reminded that there are as many ways to live life as there are people. I walk away thinking about how I’ve got to own the way I choose to live the one I’ve got.

And amid the toughness of the city, all the goodness of people jumps out in a different way than in other environments. I’m not expecting it amid all the “dull grief, blown grit, hideous concrete facades, another grief.” It can be overlooked easily, but when I see it, I see it. Like at Mass. More weekdays than not I go to the noon Mass at Seattle University. Their chapel is urban and strikingly simple. Breathtakingly simple, really. I don’t exchange many words with the people who gather for Mass with me day in and day out. I’m just not a chatty person I guess. When we enter the sacred space from the cement sidewalks and loud streets, we hold the door for one another. We smile at each other during the service. People nod and wait patiently as I move into the Communion line for my seat. These strangers, these city-dwellers, are good to me so many small ways, and I am always thankful that. That space so often brings moments when “Nothing was changed, all was revealed otherwise.”

The City is a synecdoche for life, really. In this single space I see how all of the world really is: messy and frightening and beautiful. I much prefer that to the glossy dream of what I thought it would be.

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