In poetry and prose, as in preaching, I have insisted that if the sacred is present in our midst, then it has to be as perceptible in the forest of concrete and the smudged ordinary of urban life as it is in the awesome splendor of mountains and glacial lakes. That insistence was driven by thirty years of living in the urban entanglement of rust and flesh.
Prior to the pandemic and again just now, I spent time visiting some cities that are bursting at the seams with growth and development: Portland (Or), Seattle, Columbus (O), Indianapolis, even Detroit. It has been eight years since I left urban life behind.The sheer quantity of human activity, angst, pain, and rubble crashing in waves of stimulation and intensity on people living in a city, takes a toll on perception. I know from experience that shades and filters form to protect the beholder from a profound “too much.” Incrementally, without notice, cataracts form to soften the relentless breakers of stimulation. Inevitably less penetrates the layers of protection.
Until I began living a smaller, quieter, less intense life – first in Vermont now in the Finger Lakes – I had no clue that my senses had been dulled and hardened. I am not so arrogant as to dismiss a clarity of vision for all urban dwellers, but outside that human milieu the background can become the foreground.
For me, the change from urban to rural broke the seal and peeled a wrapper away. I could literally hear and recognize more and smaller sounds around me because loud was suddenly measured by honking geese rather than jackhammers and sirens. I found myself looking at everything. My daily diet now includes listening to insects, birds, water, and wind, and in such sessions whispers of the spirit – both human and sacred – can often be heard.
The transition pushed me to learn new languages: the songs of robins, finches, and jays. Also, heron, osprey, redwing blackbirds, and eagles became new seasonal friends. In Vermont it was even more dramatic than in Geneva. There the night sky is filled with light, not human nor dimmed by human light, and coyotes can be heard calling to one another in the dark. They can also be seen in early dawn on the foggy lake ice seeking scraps around scores of ice fishing holes.
All of this softened me, opening windows of receptivity along with an awareness of the film which had formed, and was now evaporating. Perhaps that is also possible amidst urban intensity and I had simply become inured of it. But I think it is more likely that there are just different joys and beauties to absorb in each milieu. Geneva, “uniquely urban,” nestled by vineyards and dairies on the lip of Seneca Lake, is something in between.
The small, intimate colors, textures, and sounds of nature or the loud, angular, and ragged chaos of the city? For those with eyes to see, or a tender heart to apprehend, it may not make any difference what surrounds us. All I know is that being back in the city renewed my gratitude for the sweet whispers I hear all around me along the lake in Geneva.