What We Talk About When We Talk About God

Depending on the angle, if you were to throw a stone from our house in Brooklyn, chances are that you would hit some type of house of worship. We have the International Baptist Church on one corner, the Pentecostal Calvary Cathedral of Praise on the other, the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the other direction and the Flatbush Shaare Torah Center just beyond that. We hear a nightly call to prayer from our local mosque and live between Boro Park and Crown Heights, two Hasidic neighborhoods with a lot of cross traffic. We have women in full naqib at the playground. Needless to say, we are surrounded by invitations to get to know God and examples of people who have.

Walking around with an observant and supercurious four year old has presented me with an interesting conundrum: As a non-believer, how to objectively explain the concept of a godhead? How to explain faith? How to tell the foundational beliefs of the world’s major religions to a mind that still believes in Santa Claus? How to differentiate Jack and the Beanstalk from Jonah in the Belly of the Whale?

I didn’t grow up in a religious setting, or even a spiritual one. Yet in no way was I ever discouraged in my curiosity: in the third grade, I decided I wanted to be Jewish, so my mom set me up with the one Jewish family in my school. The one time I went to Sunday school, it was at a Unitarian Church and there was a field trip to a Buddhist Temple. In college, I did the joyful romps at Krishna dinners and quiet romps at Zen retreats. I read the Vedas and chanted with Gurumayi. I even tried the step dance with a Higher Power.

Maybe it was a control issue, but I only really felt massive anxiety and not much freedom in the concept of giving away my will. I am, if labels are needed, pretty much secular humanist(ish). I just wasn’t cut out for leaps of faith. I am often jealous of the community of believers; the love, support and comfort they find in their faiths and with their flock, whomever they have chosen as their shepherd. But I know I am just not able to be one of them. I tried, but it wasn’t right.

I want my son to make his own decisions regarding the role of spiritual faith in his life, and I am trying to answer his questions as objectively as I can and provide him with resources for those questions I can’t really answer. The other day we were passing by the aforementioned Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, and he asked what it looked like inside. So we parked his bike in the lobby and sat in the rear pews. He asked why people were kneeling, so I told him about praying, which led to questions of to whom and why. I tried to explain that some people feel that God is like a special friend that they can talk to but can’t really see. At which point he said, “I see God! Over there!” and pointed to the almost-hidden 80-year-old lady practicing on the organ. He has also decided that he wants one of the “little hats with the bobby pins” (yarmulke) and a “Church Hat” (the broad-rimmed hats the Lubavitch wear). We still have a ways to go with the concepts of the sacred and the profane.

But I will feel as if I have done a good job if he feels confident in his right to choose for himself but also to respect others’ choices, not only in terms of faith, but with life’s other big (and small) questions.


208. A Noiseless Patient Spider

A NOISELESS, patient spider,   
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;   
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,   
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;   
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.            
And you, O my Soul, where you stand,   
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,   
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;   
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;   
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.   

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

 Tom├ís Saraceno, 14 Billions (Working Title), 2010


Fousehi Sedibe

MAURITANIA. Nouadhibou. 2008. 
Fousehi SEDIBE. 
He came to Noudibou to work and save enough 
money to hire a trafficker to help him get to Europe.


Forgotten Buildings, Forgotton Souls

A patient ward in Buffalo State Hospital, closed in 1974.
 copyright, Christopher Payne 

Photographs by Christopher Payne with an essay by Oliver Sacks
(The MIT Press, 209 pages, $39.95)
“Before I began this project in the summer of 2002,” writes Christopher Payne in his extraordinary and extraordinarily moving book of photographs, “I had never visited a state mental hospital.”

“A friend,” he explains, “who knew my interest in forgotten architecture and industrial archeology, told me about one on Long Island he thought might interest me. It was Pilgrim State, the largest facility of its kind in the world when it was built in the 1930s. I drove there and was immediately astounded by its size and dumbfounded by its desolation. . . . I wondered how a place so big, easily larger than any number of towns or major universities, could be so forsaken.”

Between 2002 and 2008, Payne ’90CC visited more than 70 hospitals in 30 states. The vividly exacting and brilliantly selective photographs he made for Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals chill by their very beauty and haunt by what is absent: We do not see a single picture of a living human being.

Oliver Sacks provides a splendidly informative and acutely sobering introductory essay to the book. “The first state hospitals,” he tells us, ”were often palatial buildings, with high ceilings, lofty windows, and spacious grounds, providing abundant light, space, and fresh air, along with exercise and a varied diet.”

“Most asylums,” writes Sacks, “were largely self-supporting and grew or raised most of their own food. Patients would work in the fields and dairies, work being considered a central form of therapy for them. . . . Community and companionship, too, were central — indeed vital — for patients who would otherwise be isolated in their obsessions or hallucinations.” 

 Patient Toothbrushes, Hudson River State Hospital
 copyright, Christopher Payne 

These hospitals, invariably built far from populated areas, also offered literal asylum by providing “control and protection for patients, both from their own (perhaps suicidal or homicidal) impulses and from the ridicule, isolation, aggression, or abuse so often visited upon them in the outside world.” By the end of the 19th century, writes Sacks, who is Columbia University Artist and professor of neurology and psychology, state mental facilities had “become bywords for squalor and negligence, and were often run by inept, corrupt, or sadistic bureaucrats.” 

Payne grew up in Boston, and on childhood trips along Interstate 95, he saw Danvers State Hospital “looming in the distance, high on top of a hill. It looked like an ancient, far-away castle, with towers poking above the trees, forming a long string of peaks that hinted of its monumental size.”

There is for Payne, as for Sacks, something utopian about these self-sufficient communities that ultimately, alas, devolved into dystopian dumping grounds. Through his luminous photographs, in both vibrant color and limpid black-and-white, Payne evokes the grandeur of the hospitals, and also their sadness, deterioration, and death. Judicious use of shadow and light, along with a shrewd mix of camera angles that, by turns, induce wonder, awe, claustrophobia, and vertigo, enable us to sense what can no longer be seen: what daily life might have been like in these places for patients, the majority of whom, once they arrived, never left.

Unclaimed Cremation Urns, Oregon State Hospital, OR
copyright, Christopher Payne 
Payne guides us from the majestic, decaying facades of asylums to their innards — from grounds, buildings, and farms to staircases, lobbies, and wards. The ward, he writes, was “the center of patient life . . . the space that best typifies the mental hospitals. 

“The view down the corridor, with its rigid symmetry and procession of identical bedroom doorways, speaks to the monotony of institutional life. In all the hospitals, the wards were fundamentally the same, sharing a plan driven by the need for efficiency and organization. On their own, they are just hallways, but together they are symbols of a closed and isolated world.”
He takes us from rooms where people slept, to the coffinlike tubs in which they bathed; from the bakeries and kitchens where they worked, to the surgical suites where lobotomies and autopsies were performed. We see shoemaking and dressmaking shops, laundries, auditoriums, gymnasiums, baseball fields, beauty salons, TV studios, and bowling alleys, along with subterranean tunnels, heating ducts, and exhaust flues. We travel from asylums that seem, in colorful period postcards, luxurious vacation resorts, to still-life compositions of individual rooms, chairs, beds, and articles of clothing that startle by their stark, serene simplicity. 

Payne selects and arranges tenderly: multicolored straitjackets displayed as if for sale at an elegant boutique; a single hanging straitjacket — crisp, clean, and eerily divorced from its function; a plain wooden box, much like a Joseph Cornell construction, in which dozens of toothbrushes with brightly colored handles hang neatly. A small stack of dirty paper cups on a shelf, stray toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, and cracked, peeling paint on the wall behind the box remind us that these brushes, paste, and cups once touched the teeth, mouths, and tongues of people we used to call lunatics. 

 Bowling Shoes, Rockland State Hospital, NY

From photos of exteriors that make these institutional complexes seem enchanted worlds, we move to the more and more personal (work, food, clothing), and, at the end of the book, to morgues, stone grave markers (stacked and numbered for future use), cemeteries, and to a storage area filled with floor-to-ceiling shelves of what appear to be glossy, orange-colored cans of paint. We learn, however, that they are unclaimed cremation urns containing the remains of patients.

Payne’s photos evoke the tangible textures of lost worlds and the lost souls who inhabited them — places now inhabited, when inhabited at all, mostly by ghosts. He enables us to see what was too often denied or lost by inspiring us to imagine the individuality and complexity of the people who lived in these places, while also helping us to imagine the helplessness, hope, pain, confusion, and isolation that marked the lives of people for whom such places, whatever else they may have been, were home.


The Gowanus Canal: Putting the FUN in SuperFund!

Kentile Sign from the 3rd Street Bridge 2006

I have such fondness for the Gowanus, the wee little waterway lacing through Brooklyn's industrial dreck. When I cross the canal, I think of skipping stones and feeding ducks on its banks and get all wistful like Wordsworth on the Wye. And then I inhale.

Like Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, the Gowanus gave us everything we asked of it: At the beginning, food and water, then passageways inland for commerce, run offs for our sewage and industrial waste; we, all the while taking and taking until the sweet Gowanus could give us no more.

Except gonorrhea. Cholera, typhoid, and typhus are also in there. After a rain storms and the sewers become flooded, the Canal's waters turn from its usual dark gray to greenish because of algae feeding on the human waste. Last dredged in 1975, there is at least 25 feet of "black mayonnaise" sediment hosting god knows what at the bottom. There is also s thick white glop along the bottom that scientists are adapting for medicinal purposes, due to its wicked immunity to bacteria.

But the Gowanus has also inspired some very cool projects, serving as a muse in a way. That long cauldron of goo has been an incubator for all kinds of cool creativity. Music, video, photography, painting, not to mention some pretty great parties.  Much of the old factory and warehouse space has been converted into studio and performance space, like the fabulous Bell House. The warehouses make for great gallery space as well, like the Observatory Room and Proteus Gowanus.

Before the SuperFund designation, there were grand plans for a "sponge" park and esplanade and fancy development to revitalize the the now underutilized canal area. There are two camps on the SuperFund designation: those that feel the designation will forever malign the area and thus prevent growth and development (and keep property values down) and those that feel a federal commitment to actually clean the waterway will only enhance the area (and property values) in the long run. No one disagrees on the fact the a SuperFund clean up could take years, perhaps more than a decade to ultimately litigate and clean. The former camp just had a bit of reality as a major developer just pulled out of Gowanus development and the future of the Sponge park is uncertain. Yet the SuperFund clean up might just give the Gowanus Canal the renaissance it deserves. Isn't that the least we could do after all it has given us?