On Saint Marks Place in the East Village, a voice:
“Overcome the pain. Push yourself to be stronger because you can. You know that it will pass.”
During a Vinyasa yoga class, the squatting chair pose makes muscles sear, sends fire up the thighs right to the buttocks. Pain. We move through the physical anguish because we know it will make us stronger; exercise — the edification of a stronger core. With a breath, everyone in the yoga class collapses over their knees. Sighs of relief. One man howls with all his might. Tomorrow, the aches may feel worse throughout the day: not just the momentary throbbing of the chair pose. Perhaps the following day, it may feel even worse: the stiffness, the tenderness, the inability to squat down or even swipe your subway card. It’s all worth it, we know, because the muscle fibers first must break down before they grow back stronger. Toned.
After yoga one night, I returned home to my rent-stabilized apartment and looked out my window at a symbol of strength and stability that has been with me over the last year. Gleaming in her glory, boastful and boxy: The Empire State Building. Every evening, I bid her goodnight thankful for her steadfast character built on a strong, and what feels permanent, foundation. As we all know, however, even the most monumental towers in this town can collapse when some unstoppable juggernaut causes their breakdown. Tragic loss and the ashes after cloud our hope for growth and new beginnings. Loss just feels this way.
The architects of our own lives, we make plans for how the foundation will be reset, follow the blue prints, move through the exercises, build, and emerge feeling impregnable, flexing our biceps at ourselves in the mirror. But what about emotional pain? The heart being a muscle you’d assume that when it breaks, it too would grow stronger. When we lose people we love, or endure other forms of great tragedy, we suffer tremendously so much so that it can feel like building a new life.
Buildings can be resurrected; the structure that once was comes back as something new, something stronger. Collapse, reconstruction, strength, new beginnings. The people who slipped away, however, are irreplaceable and the grieving of their disappearance breaks us down.
In New York City, as in most parts of the world, we reinvent our identities everyday. Break down, reconstruction, strength, new beginnings. The lonely man on Wall Street seeks new love; the waiter auditions for a lead role in a musical; the immigrant Sri Lankan woman sells saris in Jackson Heights, Queens to support her family. The writer prays, amidst the rubble of a life quaked by death and heartbreak, to be stronger than the pain of loss or at least to come back as so. She wants to be remembered as steadfast as the Empire State Building but as unflappable as the Freedom Tower, which rose again.
These are the things we don’t know about each other. In the streets of the City you are not, to the common stranger, a girl who lost her father. You are simply, as someone recently put it … “in my way!” Here we are together as individuals hustling, sitting side by side with our struggles and triumphs on alphabetical and numeric trains that take us in all directions. Some of us have money, others of us dreams of grandeur. We are all trying to get by. We are all, by basic construct, the same, but by lifestyle and circumstance and a million other ways, different.
Gripping the same pole for balance, we stand together on the uptown six train: the Wall Street man with a broken heart, the Sri Lankan woman with a family to feed, the waiter with dreams, and the writer with a life to rebuild. We are all going somewhere together, even if we part at different stops. We are all stronger than the times in our lives when we collapsed. Or at least, we hope we will be.
Now onward to Saint Marks Place where in a crowded room with side-by-side rubber mats we challenge the foundation on which we stand.