A glimpse. A reminder. A prayer. A temple. A god. There are places in the city that orient us, that are our compass, our anchors, our reassurance, spots in the city that connect us to it, ground us, earth us, make us feel we can keep living here, that we will not get lost. A park, a river, a monument, a street, a building – whatever it takes to create an internal map of the city, the boundaries that make the place manageable. Clissold Park has always been a landmark on my London map, and the Thames, especially that stretch from Tate Modern to the London Eye. If I don’t see the park or the river for a few days, I start to feel disoriented. Recently, The Shard has become one of those reassuring landmarks. But reassuring is the wrong word; it’s deeper than that, more spiritual. The Shard has become my steeple in London.
When I lived in Tel Aviv the sea was a place to orient myself by. It calmed me. Being there, even just a quick peek at it, was a connection to something beyond what is human, beyond people, a glimpse of creation, atavistic, the way at some point in history my people must have pitched up regularly at the synagogue to pray shacharit, mincha, arvit. And even though there has been no god in our family for at least three generations, hundreds of years of religion still run in our veins. Why did we pray three times a day, day after day. Was it a way to give thanks? For what? Was it also a way to keep us safe and separate from the gentiles, the goyim who would rather have seen us dead. When the threat of death – real or imagined – is no longer near and present, what is the point of a god? But death is everywhere, no? and we need constant reassurance. So we find ways to pray, again and again, saying the same things, over and over.
Repetition reminds us that we’re here, that we’re alive. Repetition is the heart beating. Repetition is breath. Like the pumping of blood through our veins. The repetition outside of us echoes the thump-thump inside of us. Without repetition there is no life. Without repetition we are nothing.
I have to see the Park on a regular basis and I have to see the River. Sometimes I forget and I’ll be feeling disoriented, wondering what I’m doing in this city, working and teaching and planning and rushing from one place to the next, scheming, devising, meeting… a kind of manic squirrel-mindedness that London colludes in. And then I’ll remember, or I’ll find myself compelled to stop on Waterloo Bridge, to pause and look down and across at the water, the force of the current, the movement that has nothing to do with us, or a day like the one only recently when I kept walking after I’d left the gym and headed for the Park, to be part of something bigger than me, to put aside the busy-ness, to commune, to pray, to give thanks, and then, reassured, to return home.