Subway Ride to the Bronx
by Keith Bellamy
I recently undertook one of those seminal transformative acts that not only changes one’s life, but continues to reverberate through one’s whole being even after the actual event is a distant memory. No this wasn’t a silent retreat, nor an ecstatic dance weekend, nor an exquisite deep tissue massage, nor participation in a sweat lodge—I’ve done all of those, and rewarding they were, too. The act that has had such a major impact on me is far more mundane and one that many are undertaking in response to the current economic environment. I moved home.
Now I am the proverbial wandering Jew and have had somewhere in the region of 15 or more homes throughout my life. Moving is not a new experience for me. The big difference this time was that I entered the process consciously. In the midst of the biggest downturn in property values for 30 years, my wife and I consciously prepared our house for sale; we cleared out 23 years of memorabilia (I am banned from calling it junk) from the basement and the attic. Each item was remembered lovingly and let go. Much was beyond redemption; the remainder was disposed of in meaningful and loving ways.
We were warned when we finally put the house up for sale that there was no activity in the market and that we should be prepared to cut our price dramatically. Yet on the first weekend that the house was put up for show we had in excess of 25% of the traffic of house-hunters in our community looking at our house. By the end of three weeks we had two offers for the house, one of which met our lowest accepting price, and was from a young family who would continue the tradition of using the house as a center of love to raise their children. All of the “professionals” involved in the transaction just stood with chins dropped in awe.
Both my wife and I are sub-urbanites and would happily have continued that way. Yet as part of this conscious process we sat and meditated on where we wanted to live. In one of those acts of synchronicity bordering on farcical, we both came to the same conclusion, but were fearful of upsetting the other by sharing our thoughts. Eventually, my wife broke the barrier by jokingly suggesting, “Maybe we should go and ‘play’ in the city for a bit?” To which I responded, “Sure! Why not?” As I picked her up off of the floor, I am sure I heard here mumble, “What planet are you from Shape-Shifter and what have you done with my Husband?”
There was, however, one element of the whole process where we managed to get in our own way for a time, and consequently managed to twist ourselves into pretzel shapes without even thinking about it. As we both do not believe that the switchback ride that we call the economy has finished providing us with a thrill a minute with unexpected twists and turns, we decided to rent rather than buy. This gave us the added protection of being able to easily extricate ourselves should we find the experience of the big city too much to bear. However, instead of being in tune with the process, we tried to manipulate it with dire consequences. It was only when we managed to let go, that everything started to fall into place and we found ourselves a wonderful space right in the middle of the neighborhood we were hoping for.
There was, of course, one casualty of the process—my failure to submit my column for the last issue of ILR. But under the circumstances, I hope that you will appreciate why this space was vacant last October.
So now I sit in the heart of what is probably the most exciting and integrating city in the world. And coming from somebody who has spent 90% or more of his life in close proximity to London that is a big admission. We are living in the heart of the big Apple and loving every minute of it. Furthermore, we have drastically cut down our direct carbon footprint as a result of the move, which provides anecdotal evidence to support the claims by leading environmentalists like Stewart Brand that large cities are more eco-friendly than homesteads dispersed randomly around the countryside.
We are slowly getting used to our new lifestyle. We are down to a single car, which my wife uses to get to her office. Interestingly, even though we are now 3 times the distance from her office in Westchester County, it only takes her 20% longer to get there and the cost of gas is slightly less due to being able to drive at a constant 55mph rather than stop-starting due to traffic congestion. Personally, I am walking a hell of a lot more instead of jumping in the car to go round the corner to pick up a quart of milk. The subway system with its express trains means that I can get to any part of Manhattan in probably under half an hour.
For many reasons, we have chosen to live in a “funky” neighborhood on the Upper West Side. Gentrification hasn’t quite reached here just yet, which means if you listen to the voices on the street, you will hear a dozen different languages being spoken at any moment in time. It is a real melting pot of a community, which just acts to amplify the intrinsic value of diversity. A few blocks to the North we have Columbia University; to the South the buildings with the mega-apartments of the well-to-do. To the West spreading to the Hudson is “middle-class land” and to the East all the way to Central Park are projects, schools and ethnic diversity by the bucketload. Yet it all spills out on Broadway where it is most definitely “integrating” if not “integral.”
Last week, for reasons I shall not relate here, I found myself for the first time in my life on a subway car heading north of 110th street, passing through Harlem on its way to the Bronx. As I entered the car at 96th street, the mix of humanity reflected what I have become accustomed to over the past 2-months. However, once we crossed 125th Street, the ambience of the carriage changed considerably. By 135th Street it felt decidedly cooler in the carriage and once we crossed the Harlem River into the Bronx it was as if I had warped into another dimension. I was now the only white face on the subway, and although reasonably comfortable with myself, couldn’t help but allow the myths perpetrated through the years and woven into the fabric of our culture and society to run through my head.
When the recorded notice advised to keep all belongings and valuables safe, I started to push my i-phone so deep into my pocket that it almost created a hole at the bottom. As I looked around at my fellow travelers for the next 13 stops to 219th Street, I was hit by one of those blinding glimpses of the obvious. “What,” I pondered, “is or has Integral Theory offered to the 1.4M people living in the Northern Borough of New York City? How is our discussion and debate about quadrants, lines, states and types made one iota of difference to the in excess of a half million households that make up the community known lovingly as ‘Da Bronx’? How can all of these words explaining wonderful ideas and thoughts mean anything to a population where the first language isn’t English and sometimes there is no second language?”
Sitting on that train heading towards pastures unknown I became uncomfortably aware that Integral only exists in cosy cabals of WASJBs (White Anglo Saxon Jew-Bu’s) taking place in safe protected ghettos far removed from the suffering of the vast majority of the population. How many participants from the Bronx wend their ways at weekends to silent retreats, or to spiritual gatherings? Is one’s ability to have an Integral Life Practice dependent upon one’s Zip Code?
If Integral Theory is to make a difference, can we afford to keep it cloistered away in 21st century ivory towers. Is there not a need to take Integral out into the real world and start focussing on how we can use it to raise up our brothers and sisters in the Bronx and the thousands of similar communities around the country and across the globe? Because until we start truly moving out of our comfort zones, and embracing the collective responsibility that comes with the privilege to explore these potential life transforming ideas, we run the risk of being seen as self-centered and irrelevant.
The moral of it all? Take trips into strange neighborhoods, it has the potential to widen your worldview far more than sitting comfortably on a pillow for hours on end.