Sunday, February 22, 2009

Remembering The Gates - A Visual Kirtan in Central Park

In February of 2005 an extraordinary event took place in New York City. The internationally acclaimed artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, presented a 16-day art installation in Central Park called The Gates, Project for Central Park, New York, 1979-2005. The 1979-2005 time frame refers to the period when the project was first proposed to the City of New York until the time that the City granted permission to the artists. The project was financed entirely by the artists (who do not accept sponsorships), and provided employment for hundreds of New York City residents, hired to assemble, install, maintain and remove the installation. After removal, most of the materials were recycled. This generous gift was free of charge to the public. It consisted of 7,500 16 foot high “gates” adorned with saffron-colored fabric panels. These gates were placed along 23 miles of pedestrian paths throughout the park.[1]

I do not have any of my own pictures to post, since I did not own a digital camera or a cell phone with a camera at the time. However, I would like to share the following piece I was inspired to write.

Sunday, February 13, 2005: Since I don’t live within easy walking distance of Central Park and I’m not particularly interested in the news, I haven’t heard much about The Gates. But somehow, I happen to look at today’s Sunday New York Times, and open to full-color pictures of this unprecedented spectacle. The article is entitled “In a Saffron Ribbon, a Billowy Gift to the City[2], by Michael Kimmelman, and I am captivated by his beautiful, heartfelt and poetic writing.

I happen to see an artist friend in the evening and ask her if she's seen The Gates. She has - in fact, was there bright and early for the opening "unfurling" ceremony, and is glad to share a wonderful experience indeed.

Friday, February 18, 2005: I am unexpectedly working the day shift today, not too far from Central Park, so I decide to take a walk there on my lunch hour. The sun is shining and I can feel people’s excitement as I enter the park and glimpse the triumphant Gates. What an awe-inspiring feat – I feel a whooping sense of joy at the sight of it! And, after the more than 25 years of negotiating with the City of New York for permission to do such a thing, what a lesson in perseverance!

But after a few minutes, it is already time for me to rush away in order to buy some food and get back to work on time.

Monday, February 21, 2005: There has been a big snowstorm in New York City with about 18 inches of accumulation in Central Park (unusual for Manhattan). It is a holiday too – Presidents’ Day, so I don’t have to go to work. My friend, Gloria, suggests we go see The Gates in the snow. It is cloudy and quite cold, but the white snow and the orange gates provide a happy contrast to the grayness of the day. A friend joins us briefly, but decides to go shopping instead. Gloria and I take a long walk across the park. She is very busy with her video camera and agenda. We pass two Asian wedding parties near the Angel Fountain, the brides in red embroidered silk. My feet are freezing as we make our way up towards the back of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

February 24, 2005: My friend Dorothy, on Long Island, is on the phone. We talk a bit about The Gates, which she has heard about but not seen, and also about the “Kirtan” event she is planning.
What is Kirtan? [kéer tùn] Kirtan is a form of devotional singing of mantras (sound vibrations or names of God) in the ancient, sacred language of Sanskrit. Emerging from Hindu traditions in India, it is the primary devotional practice of millions of people. In recent years, pioneering musicians and seekers have brought this magical tradition to the West, nourishing souls with its rich tradition of musical prayer. The repetitive chanting of these mantras brings one to deep stillness, bliss, and to a profound sense of oneness with All. It is soulful and peace-evoking, yet energetic and rousing. No experience is necessary! Come and sing or watch and enjoy.[3]
It occurs to me that there is something similar about The Gates and Kirtan. The 7,500 gates are like a mantra chanted over and over for 23 miles, the equivalent of a visual kirtan!

Sunday, February 27, 2005: I wouldn’t be in the Park today if it wasn’t the last day. It is 5:00 pm. I was hoping to get here earlier when the sun was higher, since that seems to show The Gates off best, and now the sun is much lower.

The view from where I am standing would make a great photo, and I am kicking myself for not having brought a camera. How frustrating!! But not being able to take a picture gets me to pay closer attention to what I am seeing and experiencing. At last, I must be present in the moment! And I notice that even though the sun is going down, there is still plenty of light for a while – and that it’s a surprising light. The Gates are a softer, more subtle orange, lit but not on fire. It is a quiet and a still time of day. How beautiful, this way too! I get it now – there are so many different times of day and light, changing weather, changing life forms, so many views and angles in all the miles of Gates, that one cannot possibly see it all. No photos or books can capture what each individual at a particular moment sees. What an awesome event! I don’t have to buy anything and don’t have to try to capture a particular experience. These Gates are divine – because they are nearly as vast as – dare I say it - God!! And indeed, God is here in these strange orange visitors, as well as in the park and the weather and in the light and the dark that is all around us, in ourselves, in each other...
People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me it's quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors.[4]
As I continue walking under The Gates, thoughts and feelings float overhead. Some hang, some move along, some are carried on a saffron billow. Underneath, stillness and busyness, resting and rushing by. This is a walking meditation where, as I notice my mind wandering, I can choose to bring my attention back to The Gates.
May we be blessed as we go on our way.[6]
The Gates bring many images to mind: shower curtains; a pasture of giant orange cows contentedly chewing their cud; processions of soldiers marching across the landscape; bird-like creatures; dancing skirts; or a long and winding hallowed hall in the Cathedral of the Trees…
[Kirtan] is a means of finding our way back to the core of our being, to our heart, and to our connection to each other. . . . Truly, kirtan [curtain!] is for everyone--there are no prerequisites, no religious beliefs or cultural backgrounds that are needed to experience and participate in kirtan.[5]
The Gates loom large and close together in this section of the Park, blowing peacefully in a gentle breeze. As I walk beneath one saffron curtain after another, they begin to seem like meditation bells ringing overhead. And then I feel the presence of Divine Grace sending blessings over me and whispers of unconditional love... I feel held in the tender embrace of the radiant Gates.

Who would have thought that orange fabric hung on a bunch of metal frames could bring so much joy, lighten heavy hearts, and even make one feel loved?

These Gates are saffron angels.

The sun drops even lower, and as my path turns, there is Tavern on the Green on my right, with its fairy lights winking at The Gates ;-)
Tenderly, I now touch all things, knowing one day we will part.[7]
Saturday, March 5, 2005: Lucky me – after nearly a week of dismantling, there are still plenty of Gates in the southern half of the park! I knew that, because yesterday afternoon I actually left my apartment early enough to stop at the Park before going to my evening job. This isn’t like me. I usually sleep late and take a long time getting ready, plagued with worry over what I must eat and what I’ll need in order to feel good enough to face the world. The Gates are changing me. I want to get up early and take advantage of another opportunity to see them before they are completely gone. To my amazement, I am up and out in record time, even holding off having breakfast until I am in the park with The Gates. A hot dog with steaming sauerkraut – something I haven’t eaten in ages – warms me in the cold fresh air while, in the sunshine, The Gates glow. I am being healed by The Gates. I don’t normally go to the Park. There’s always an excuse – too much to do, too bogged down with clutter, there’s no time, it’s too far, I’m too out of control, etc., etc. But I feel an urgency with these impermanent Gates – I’m willing to drop everything in order to run out and see them another time. After all, which is more important – my to-do list, or this precious day that God hath made? Leaving everything and everyone behind in order to have one more visit while I have the chance becomes my very own personal decision, as if The Gates are my beloved – and indeed they are – a golden path leading home . . .
May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way home.[8]
On these last two visits, my recently acquired cell phone has rung – another new occurrence. Both times, I am pleasantly surprised by friends calling who are in need of comfort. I patiently spend time with them, while the Gates patiently spend time with me. Later, I also speak to strangers along the way. Perhaps I am not totally selfish, after all...

It has rained, and a puddle on one of the paths reflects The Gates perfectly – like a mirror – at this unique moment of daylight. It is startlingly beautiful. I stand in awe and then disbelief because my disposable camera has just run out of film. Someone else gets to take that picture and then another with her friend standing next to it. I want to ask them to send me a copy. It seems like a reasonable request, and being connected to people through The Gates is one of its marvelous by-products. But fearful excuses well up in me. Do I really want to get involved with these people and give them my personal info? I hesitate and, in my discomfort, go with fear rather than love, inadvertently choosing a missed opportunity instead. Frustrated, I also realize that even if I go to buy more film, by the time I get back the light will have changed. No new friends, no photo. I’m in the same old rut. The Gates dim, as a cloud passes in front of the sun. There is nothing to do – just be...
Your billows have gone over me.[9]
The Gates are blooming and bearing fruit. There will be so many photos, no two exactly alike, thousands more than the 7,500 gates themselves. I cannot have and see them all. The Gates will soon be gone, but photos and shared experiences will be among the abundant harvest that we can’t even fathom yet. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s wish will come true: people will say, “Once upon a time, there were ‘The Gates’ in Central Park.”
The joy of chanting unfurls the inner world.[10]
A piece of God, the peace of God, is in The Gates. The Gates are giving me back my life. The space and light and vastness in this sea of love make my problems seem smaller. Help me, God, to find the stillness of The Gates in myself. It seems I am endlessly grappling with clutter, debt, apartment and relationship issues; compulsively comforting myself with material temptations and answers found outside myself. The Gates are stable and grounded, serene and present in the moment, just being themselves like the trees and animals and sky and snow. The Gates are teaching me how to live. As I begin to unwind, thoughts like, I’m a loser, I’m not okay the way I am, I'm ashamed and embarrassed, what is wrong with me? all fall into the Grace of The Gates, bringing me home to Source . . .
The vibrations emanating from repeating the names of God or chanting sacred Sanskrit texts have a tangible effect on our own inner being. The sweetness of chanting stills the mind, dissolves worries, and opens the heart. The saints describe chanting as a way of becoming saturated with God’s love.[11]
Soon the last of the winter snow will melt, all The Gates will be dismantled and taken away, and Spring will be here. I feel more inclined to make sure I get out to see this year’s Spring while it’s on . . .

The fleeting Gates, in their final breaths, like a parade of prayer flags, remind us to be warm saffron lights to each other on this walk of life and death.
When a friend of mine returned from Tibet, he shared his experiences with me. It seemed to him that the mantras were so pervasive, and had been chanted for so many centuries continually, that the entire Tibetan town – indeed, even the mountains and trees – seemed to vibrate with it. He said at high elevations, it seemed that even the wind was chanting “Om mani padme hum.” This story stayed with me for many months. What would it sound like if the wind were chanting this mantra? In Tibet and other parts of the world, many practitioners hang prayer flags outside, letting the wind chant the prayers written on them, as if the wind were the breath of all sentient beings ... [12]
I find myself noticing blue sky, bare tree branches, and reflections of sunlight in my usual daily activities, where I wasn’t paying attention before, just because they remind me of the Park and The Gates. My love of The Gates inspires me to explore unchartered territory, to begin allowing fears and doubts to melt into love and trust. The essence and beauty of The Gates become even more grand in my imagination as I close my eyes and am flooded with saffron gates, dancing before my mind’s eyes like all the buckets in Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Then, as I lay still, they turn to a blue color . . . The Gates have become part of me . . . I am in The Gates and The Gates are in me . . . We are One . . .
When chant music stops…an audible silence reverberates through the room…The silence is not merely sound’s absence, but a mysterious presence, the immense nothingness that is our origin and our home.[13]

The effect lasts longer than the actual work of art. Years after every physical trace has been removed and the materials recycled, original visitors can still see and feel them in their minds when they return to the sites of the artworks.[14]
What we are told as children is that people, when they walk on the land, leave their breath wherever they go. So wherever we walk, that particular spot on the earth never forgets us, and when we go back to these places, we know that the people who have lived there are in some way still there, and that we can actually partake of their breath and of their spirit.[15]

Good-bye, Gates!!
All glories to the Holy Name of the Lord which cleanses the heart of all the dust accumulated for millions of years . . .[16]
Thank you so much, Christo and Jeanne-Claude for this amazing gift!!!
May the entire universe be filled with peace and joy, love and light.[17]


__________________
[1] www.nyc.gov/html/thegates
[2] Michael Kimmelman, “In a Saffron Ribbon, a Billowy Gift to the City”, The New York Times, February 13, 2005.
[3] Adapted from two kirtan workshop descriptions, one from Princeton Yoga Center, one from Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, Inc.
[4] Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
[5] Ragani (from www.raganiworld.com/kirtan.html).
[6] Opening line of Debbie Freidman’s song, “T’filat Haderech: A Prayer for the Road.”
[7] St. John of the Cross.
[8] English translation of a Sufi chant (thanks to www.selfasinstrument.com).
[9] Psalm 42.
[10] Gurumayi Chidvilasandanda, from Courage and Contentment (thanks to www.siddhayoga.org).
[11] From www.siddhayoga.org/practices/chanting/chanting.html.
[12] Wah! (in her liner notes to “Om mani padme hum” on the Jai Jai Jai album).
[13] David Stendl-Rast (Benedictine monk).
[14] Jok Church (www.christojeanneclaude.net/faq.html)
[15] Rena Swentbell, a contemporary Santa Clara Pueblo Indian artist
[16] http://www.kirtan.org/ home page, ©2000 Per Sinclair.
[17] English translation of a peace chant (thanks to Integral Yoga Institute).