I'm back in New York for April, and am experiencing the full throttle of "home" confusion. Familiar to any international student or diplomat children, I'm asking all the usual questions... Have I gone back home? Or do I have a new home? Where do I belong? But as my lovely friend Hannah Owens once said, I'm confused about my earthly home, but not my eternal one. But maybe my various earthly homes have something to say about the eternal one. In fact, I've been thinking a lot about why I love city-life, so here are some things that living in cities (both New York and London) have taught me about Heaven. In fear for making any specific theological claims about what Heaven physically (or spiritually is), I'll give you my basic thoughts and leave a lot open for interpretation.
One: Humans were created to live in community
As I get ready to leave my house for the day, I close the door behind me and am met with scenes from my childhood. I see me and my block friends, young and full of energy, running through the street to catch a baseball, riding our bicycles with one of the girls enforcing traffic, towering umbrellas over each other in the rain for a tent safe from the storm. Across the street from my house, a group of middle-aged men and women sit on one of the porches, drinking beer around a small barbecue. They’re loud, but we don’t mind. Their volume enables our own. The teenagers are walking down the block, on their way to practice for their Green Day cover band. My older brother walks to the end of the block to visit Angie and Rose, an elderly pair of sisters with whom he had become close.
I step out onto the sidewalk and walk to Metropolitan Avenue, the main street in this New York neighborhood that stretches across Brooklyn and Queens. I have my earbuds in (listening to some rockin' Chance the Rapper) but keep having to take them out when someone greets me with a hello. My friend Lisa’s dad Richard, he knows everyone in town. He’s surprised to see me, I guess Lisa didn’t tell him I was back for Easter. We have a short conversation, he updates me on the situation of the Queens’ drivers getting increasingly crazy, tells me to be careful on my way to the subway. I nod smiling, and continue my way. I barely have time to put back in my earbuds before I get a quick shout from the UPS driver. He pulls up next to me and drives slowly (annoying the other drivers on this busy road). Roland has been our UPS delivery guy for the longest time. He’s lived in New York for over a decade but still retains a strong German accent. He’s heard I went to Berlin while studying in England. He asks me how I liked it, asks me if I speak German now, and tells me to learn it if I can (will do Roland :) ). The drivers behind him are getting upset now, so he lets me along on my way. I’ll surely see him tomorrow when he delivers our amazon packages.
People have this picture of a busy New York. Surely it’s too busy and crowded to know anyone. People move here and leave with the impression that it’s a lonely place, but that’s mostly because they’re moving into a new place they didn’t grow up in. The real New York, or at least the one I grew up in, is basically a collection of real people in real neighbourhoods. People who are living densely on each other’s doorsteps. We know all of our neighbours for good or for worse. The walls are thin, if someone has a fight, we all know. This isn’t the hidden, private life of the suburbs, or even that perhaps of the Upper East Side. It’s real people living together, with access to people of all ages and backgrounds, living life together.
I live in a neighborhood, not a house. My room is where I sleep, but we play outside. Central Park is the backyard for everyone and the Greek diner down the road is the dining room. My life is not my own, and although I retain a lot of my own self and individuality, that individuality seeks ultimately to enhance the community around me. There’s a picture in a block party- all of our different interests and gifts coming together for something more. One family does a presentation in Mixed Martial Arts, another shows everyone how to salsa dance. The Green Day cover band does a live concert, the 5th graders show everyone how to do the East Coast Swing.
"In that way, the parts of the body will not takes sides. All of them will take care of one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part shares in its joy. You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it." - 1 Corinthians 12:25-27
Two: Culture flows naturally out of creation
The first time recently 18-year old friend Katie ordered a beer, we went to Wetherspoons (of course we did). If you don't live in England, Wetherspoons (or just Spoons) is a chain of pubs throughout the country known for being relatively inexpensive. As we walked in, it was about 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon. I looked around. Gathered around tables were businessmen and construction worker alike; brokers on their break and students doing revision for exams. Everyone comes to the pub for a beer at the end of a hard day of work.
Art movements and ideological revolution alike all started in a similar place. This is where ideas flourish, this is where art is made. At the queue for the bar, everyone becomes equal in the fair exchange of ideas. It's where you can put forth your ideas, wait for someone to argue with them, and start cultural revolutions.
It doesn't matter where you live, humans were created to create. That creation will naturally come out no matter rural, suburb, or urban life. But there's something to be said for a group of densely populated individuals that creates an environment for the exchange of ideas and influence of people to become something greater than a Tuesday afternoon. In moments of communion, we realise what makes our minds different than the person next to us. We can build off each other and see what is missing from life. And we can create it, for the glory of something greater than our own selves.
"For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." - Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)
Three: The Good things of this life are only a small picture of the one to Come
But, I’m reminded that as much as I loved my childhood in New York and as much as I cherish my time in London, this life we live in and thus the cities we live in are inherently flawed. This isn't hard to see, so I'll keep the illustration short. Walking around New York or London can really feel like a Tale of Two Cities. Next to big buildings of enterprise, the homeless hope for enough for a place to stay for the night. You can walk from the Google Building to the Bowery Mission. On the streets of the Strand, the hungry line up for groceries near the embassy. If the idea of a perfect city is one where everyone is taken care of, we have failed, and I think we know this.
But in the good news of Christ is the knowledge and assurance that this life is only a small part of eternity. All of the good things of this life are merely shadows of the one to come; so we can look at Queens neighbourhoods and London pubs and rejoice in what they show about God and his Kingdom, but all of those earthly institutions are at least in part, corrupted by the greed and selfishness of man. The British broker may not listen to what the construction worker has to say, and as much as block parties are fun, the next day I still might hear neighbours fight through the thin walls of our home. Cities are great. But the Kingdom of God is a place the mind can only dream of.
Heaven is going to be awesome. There will be people living in wondrous community. There will be art being made and a continuation of perfect culture. But the most amazing thing about Heaven will be that we get to live in the presence of God himself, in his perfect loving kindness and grace.
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look, God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."" - Revelations 21:1-4
For further reading:
Sidewalks in the Kingdom (Eric Jacobsen)
Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life (Makoto Fujimura)
The Book of Revelation (The Bible LOL)
"Oh, you're from New York? You must be LOVING the tube!"
The amount of times I've heard this in the month that I've been living in London is unbelievable. And most of the time from Californians (might I remind them, L.A. barely has a transportation system, but I digress).
But is there any truth to it? In a battle of metro/subway systems, who comes out on top?
Here's my hot take.
*A quick sidenote, this has to do all with the actual experience of taking the train, rather than an analysis of the routes and effectiveness of the system. If you're looking for that, I'm sure it's somewhere online with loads of statistics.
1. The Tube has a shorter learning curve once you're underground.
I've lived in New York City for most of my life, and I still sometimes don't know where I'm supposed to go. But the Tube's signage is outstanding- there's always information for where each line takes you as you're waiting for the train, always signs telling you the "way out," where to catch another line, etc. There's the ease of contactless payment that avoids the awkward watching-tourists-swipe-twelve-times-in-a-row thing, and the speakers even tell you what side of the train (left/right) the next station will be on! (Although counterpoint, transfers may take longer because of the extensive corridors you may have to go through.)
That being said, the tube better have good signage, because
2. The Tube doesn't have Wifi or service in most stations and that is FRUSTRATING.
It's the 21st Century. We are more than capable in creating underground service. And yet, in London, unless you're on a line that operates in stations above ground, you probably won't ever have service.
Now, service on the subway in NYC is spotty and not perfect, but in recent years, I've had the assurance that at some point on my train ride, I'll have service at various points. So, I'm not usually stressed out about how to get to where I'm going because I can look it up again once I get closer. Ah, the wonders of Citimapper alerting me to get up before my stop.
3. They're both? Kind of? Gross?
The key point that most of these aforementioned people have queue'ed me in on, was that the subway is disgusting. I can't fully argue with this. Although I think Europeans take the pizza rat meme too seriously, there's a point to the image of a hairy rodent sliming along the stairway of a global cities' streets.
That having been said, the Tube isn't so great either. I will say, generally, I've found the NYC traincars to be cleaner. Most of them are fairly new, and made out of metal/plastic, which is easily cleaned. On the other hand, the tube's trains really depend on which line you're on. The Circle and District Lines are pretty clean, while the Picadally and Jubilee Line sort of break down. They're also pretty cramped and have fabric-lined seats, which I can't imagine are harsh to incoming germs in the area.
On the other hand, the tube's stations are much cleaner. It also depends where you are in London, but I haven't witnessed anything close to the unadulterated stench of the Lexington Avenue and 53rd street station.
4. The Subway is such a cultural experience.
There's a simultaineous annoyance and endurance about the street performers who enter the trains. I usually roll my eyes at the dancers flinging themselves over the metal bars, but there's a few singing groups on the F train I really appreciate and even take off my ear buds for. I've seen a few performers in the stations of London, but nothing close to the amount of performers in the NYC subway. Entering Union Square will surely have you in awe at the level of talent that is so clearly apparant in this city.
Some of you may see this as a negative, but I love it. Point to NYC for me.
5. The Subway is FLOODED with delays.
You knew this. I knew this. Bill DeBlasio knows this (or has at least, been told). And yes, the Brits seem to be on strike every few days, which causes more crowds on the working trains, but that only turns into a slighly longer commute than usual. One time in New York delays turned a 20 minute journey into an hour one. That's miserable (I'm looking at you, 1 train).
So, which one's better?
In terms of getting you where you need to go, I might have to go with the Tube. It's seemingly more reliable and gets the job done. (I'm not even including double decker buses in this analysis, those are really where it's at, excitement-wise).
But NYC is my home, and there's a certain weight of culture and iconicity that would seem to boost up the subway's rep. If you're in for an experience, the subway's music and access to wifi might be a better option
So, I guess the anwer is it depends. Do you prize a metro-system for its effectiveness or its other more 'fun' qualities. Or do you just care about how clean it is? In that case, which one is 'less-worse' may actually be a better question.
And here's an extra flick of me on the subway with my bestie just for fun.
I imagined the Dalai Lama amidst the winds of a meadow, seated in an upright, lotus flower position as hummingbirds sing through the trees. But it’s possible he’s in the driver’s seat in front of me, taking me across Midtown Manhattan to Queens under surging Uber prices.
December 30: Over the winter break, I read “The Art Of Happiness,” a narrative-style book delving into the thoughts and meditations of the fourteenth Dalai Lama Lhamo Dondrub through interviews with Dr. Howard Cutler, MD. And although I can admit to not being fully on board with his array of pre-suppositions, evaluations, and conclusions, I found myself gleaming much from his insights into human nature, the meaning of life, and the causes of suffering. The Dalai Lama posited a life of pure compassion and reflection. By reflecting on one’s self and considering the backgrounds of the people around oneself, true compassion and therefore true happiness could be in store. True happiness was not about one’s situation in life, nor the big hinderances or accomplishments, but in the small moments, and the ways in which one deals with those small everyday moments. In fact, after my reading was complete, I could not help but sit in silence for a few minutes to consider the seeming wisdom of the man in his clearly explained methods for achieving a life of compassion, joy, and presence. But I hadn’t met Antonio yet.
January 1: As I hustled my way through the crowd of tuxes and fur coats leaving the Metropolitan Opera House, I glimpsed down at my phone. The car would arrive in 3 minutes on Columbus Avenue and 63rd St. I shivered in the cold, anxious to get into a warm car and arrive home to get some sleep before the early day I had the next morning. “Alexandra?” I nodded, shoving my bags into the car and sitting abruptly as I shut the door. I small-talked, remarking about the weather and my hopes for the cold to not be so cold. When he asked me what I did, I replied student, instantly fabricating a story slightly in order to avoid the fact of my minor/high school self and instead spoke of being on break from university, studying what I hope to study, philosophy and theology.
“Really?” He offered, excitedly. “I too am a philosopher!” I smiled. Everyone thinks they are a philosopher I guess. He continued. “Do you have a life philosophy?” I rambled for a bit, explaining my core beliefs and whatnot, and then allowed for a small gap of silence as he considered my speech.
“I have a life philosophy.” He replied, “Enjoy life.” Thoughts of that Bobby McFerrin song “Don’t Worry Be Happy” immediately came to mind as he explained in his rich, milk and honey Caribbean accent how happiness was found not in the big situations of life but in the small things of the present, and how one reacts to them. He said we must have an awareness of the self and be rooted in something in order to learn how to improve aspects of one’s life and relationships and be truly happy. Huh I thought to myself. This sounds remarkably familiar.
We give a lot of power to figureheads. Their words can sell millions of books and be quoted at weddings, funerals, and everything in between. My respect for the Dalai Lama and his words is great, but in some sense my Uber driver Antonio’s words spoke more powerfully. His evaluation life, as he explained to me, of work and reflection, music and art, rang true to me in a way that made the Dalai Lama, in his daily schedule of speaking events and meditation, just could not. On the half an hour ride back home, we discussed whether humans could really achieve this sort of happiness on their own, what God’s role should be in our life, the relationship between the intellectual side of humanity and the creative side; we remarked at the serendipity of us meeting and being able to discuss such things on a Monday night car ride. He questioned me and my beliefs and I always went back to God, using the CS Lewis quote about believing in God like the sun in order to see the world more clearly, claiming that I was not able to do this sort of thoughtful meditation and evaluation of myself by myself. “I like that you have an anchor,” he said to my answer. “Before I said I was a philosopher because I like diving into the dive, but sometimes if you dive too deeply you get lost without an anchor”. “And the ocean is deep,” I offered.
And when he pulled up to the middle of my block he left me with one thing. “There is a saying in my language, in Creole, ‘deye mon, gen mon,’ which means, ‘beyond mountains, there are more mountains.’” Indeed, I smiled. And probably more mountains behind those ones. I stepped out of the car. We think people like the Dalai Lama are in the heavens, on top of the mountain, looking down upon us in the Valleys. But maybe they’re also in the valleys, looking up at the stars just like us, and wondering what might be.
- Alexandra G. Kytka
“They say the streets of heaven are paved with gold. But they’ve forgotten to pave the sidewalks at all.”
Any New Yorker knows that there are distinctly different types of concrete comprising the sidewalks of the city. Of course you have the basic, white, slabs stationed all the way from Williamsburg to the Upper East Side, but the closer you get to Bushwick the more dark gum spots stain the floor beneath and the dirt from your shoes seem to have permanently sunk into the pavement. I mean yes, the Vanderbilt's could transport the yellow brick road from Oz itself if they really wanted to and I’m sure the Rothschild’s have purchased the London Bridge at some point, but when you step out of the subway onto Park Avenue the dichotomy is almost as clear as the marble.
Take a walk downtown and you’ll see how the early rockers carved their names into the streets by its resemblance to the alleys of Europe. Cobblestone, bricks, and pebbles lead the way to Electric Lady Studios on West 8th. Abbey Road is in Camden but it could just as well be in Greenwich Village. Until NYU moved into town, at which point much of the original cobble dripping with pigeon droppings was replaced with new cobble, cobble made somewhere in China as a red-carpet for the piles of Midwestern kids moving in to discover their inner Clapton.
If you can bear to be on the train for so long, take the E and transfer to the M into middle of nowhere Middle Village, Queens, where you’ll be greeted by a roller coaster of stone, brown rocky-mountain slush-turned concrete placed in squares too small for their size.
And when you can’t take it anymore, when you want uniformity and less disparity, you’re perfectly free to take a PATH or LIRR train out of the city. Go to New Jersey or Long Island and you won’t have any more problems. Complete neighborhoods have selected their ground in a zoning meeting somewhere and so everywhere it’s the same. Or maybe there is no sidewalk at all- after all, why walk past the homeless man and be forced into making eye contact with him when you can drive by the mall on your way to soccer practice? In New York, even the Vanderbilt's have to step out onto the pavement on their way to the Opera.
- Alexandra G. Kytka