How often have you wandered outside of your office or some all-day appointment with a lunch bag and sat down on a concrete ledge or park bench to sit and eat, alone perhaps, trying to imagine yourself in nature even though this iteration of it was only some boring hedges and a few trees next to a glass and steel building full of people who didn’t know each other, not really, next to a parking lot that smelled of heat and exhaust next to a street that was loud?
Mike Alexander, another mainstay of Houston’s poetry scene, reminds me of this in his poem “Holy Places of the World,” which I love.
And now I want to tell you another story, a lunch downtown story. Half my son’s life ago (literally — he was seven), I took him to the medical center for an all-day appointment. For those who have never seen the Texas Medical Center (the largest in the world, if I’m not mistaken), it is many city blocks populated by very large buildings and decently sized sidewalks. There’s a light rail that goes along the street and a lot of both car and pedestrian traffic. There aren’t really any green spaces between the buildings themselves — only parking garages and more buildings — and not even any piazzas to speak of, but a few of the buildings do have stone or cement steps leading up to their front doors.
On his lunch break, I took my son and our lunch boxes down the street to one of these cement staircases leading up to another official-looking building. We were outdoors, at least. It was a pleasant spring day, about this time of year. I knew my son had, at that time, a phobia of the wide-open sky, but since there were so many tall buildings, it didn’t seem like the sky would be much of a problem today. Plus he had a hoodie, and wearing a hood or a hat was always a good antidote to that particular phobia. As we walked along the sidewalk, and he plastered himself to my side and wanted me to walk with my arm around him and my hand covering his head, it became clear his dislike of tall buildings was not just about architecture.
Over lunch he articulated something new about his phobia to me.
“The problem, I think,” he said around a mouthful of ham sandwich, “is the word skyscraper. I don’t like that word.”
“Oh, that’s interesting,” I said. “What about the word bothers you?”
“Well, are the buildings going to poke holes in the sky? Because I know that behind the sky is space, and I really don’t want that falling on me.”
He was afraid the skyscrapers would scrape tears across the sky, and then the enormous infinity of space (another thing that terrified him — and OMG why wouldn’t it??) would come hurtling at his head.
Fortunately, this was a really helpful and logical explanation, and I’m pleased to say that with a fair amount of loving support from his family and school, he has overcome his phobia.
He still wears hoodies, though. (Just like nearly every other teenager we know.)
A city park, the sky and space beyond it, even a cement staircase in front of a nondescript building downtown in a huge city — these can all be holy places in the world.
HOLY PLACES OF THE WORLD
You take lunch outside the bank.
It’s not the hanging gardens of Babylon,
but at least it’s out of the sun.
A chlorine sting washes the sculpture
garden, emerges from pre-fab waterfall.
You get used to the smell, the no smell,
the no taste to the egg-salad sandwich
you make yourself chew. You swallow
artificial air. Watch the long shadows crawl
from one end of the hour to the other.
Do you wish yourself elsewhere?
An architect worked late into the night
to give this corner an anchoring holiness.
In a poster outside the travel agency, a woman
walks a suntanned Mecca, nearly naked.
Wading into a postcard of the Aegean, snorkeling
the great coral reef? Ruins of unnatural blue
shimmer in your vision. Okay,
so it’s not the wailing wall.
Can’t you at least pretend to pray?
Mike Alexander came to Houston in 1996.
Everything here is so extraordinary, it’s hard to define the ordinary. Nevertheless, he contemplates the quotidian every day.