Alice irritates me. I should amend that; Disney’s Alice irritates me. Tim Burton’s Alice is much more provocative. But in the first version that I witnessed as a child, even at age seven, her decisions were ridiculous and she cried so much that it ruined any admiration I originally had for her spunk. But Wonderland . . . Well now, that captured my imagination.
On an especially dreary winter morning, the rain and sleet slipped through a crack in my umbrella, surprising my unsuspecting head with every shocking drop. The slush on the street was unusually deep and threatening to overflow into the top of my sturdy boots. People bumped into me as I clambered down the slimy, steep steps into the subway. I slid my MetroCard through the swiper and burst through the turnstile with an argumentative briefcase, awkward umbrella, and heavy coat that was now beginning to stifle me with the heat of the subway.
And then . . . And then I heard a violin, guitar, bass, and the vocal line, “It’s the bittersweet symphony of life . . . ” by The Verve. The violin was exceptional and the music made all of us bemused travelers look at each other and try out some tenuous smiles. Suddenly the ironic moment hit me: the bothersome weather and being smashed in with a bunch of wet strangers, combined with beautiful music and the lyrics of the sweet symphony of life. Bittersweet. Perfection.
Hulbert Footner, author of the 1937 nonfiction travel book New York: City of Cities wrote about New York as an exceptionally amazing place because you could look at something 99 times and on the hundredth be completely arrested by its magnificence. After a decade of living in New York City, I still find that to be true. Over and over I am astonished at something breathtaking that I thought had become familiar and average.
This past December I took a new route to Bryant Park, taking the 7 train in Manhattan one stop west. I was going to a meeting but left early so I could visit the outdoor holiday bazaar in the park. I climbed the subway stairs, unsure of where exactly I would pop out. It was already dark and as I came to the top step and sprung out of the dark subway stairway, the scene that I had been expecting had altered, transforming into a panorama worthy of Wonderland.
The trees in the park managed to keep most of their leaves and, remarkably, were still green. They formed a lacy green canopy over the park, lit from underneath by an unearthly white glow coming from the skating rink. The backdrop was the velvet black of the night and the whole scene was encircled by the sparkling mountains of the midtown skyscrapers. Filling the air was the cheerful din of skating music and merrymakers. I walked to the west side of the park and was met by a scene out of Dickens. The beer garden restaurant was open with its Adirondack chairs sprinkled about, yellow fairy lights above, and makeshift fire pits here and there where people warmed their hands, roasted chestnuts and marshmallows, and drank their frothy beers. It was tantalizing to all the senses — a stolen moment of awareness.
Later that winter I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve been there a hundred times. Well, maybe it had only been 99 times and this was that magical hundredth. On Friday and Saturday nights, the museum is open late and I had never been there in the evening. I walked in and was surprised to be greeted with live classical music floating down through the grand entryway. The music made my eyes look up and around to appreciate that majestic entrance in a completely new way. The skylights that are all over that massive museum were a glossy black and the lighting gave the familiar paintings and sculptures new tones, new textures. Components to the pieces leapt out in fresh new angles and came to life.
The Egyptian Room was extraordinary with its fifty foot wall of glass overlooking Central Park. The snow glittered in the moonlight and the lamplight glowed along the paths. In the room itself, there was a waterway mimicking the Nile and in the absence of daylight, the yellow lights made the surface of the water shimmer and the Temple of Dendur shone a warm golden. I longed to stay and write in there for hours. At the back of the museum was a wine bar with a live jazz band that blended nicely with my Chardonnay, cheese, and olives. Finally, as I walked out of the museum, the fountains flanking each side of the museum misted and glowed in the nighttime air. Enchanting.
I don’t know where the magic comes from or what exactly makes that hundredth time so special. I’m quite partial to New York City and think the city really does have an energy all its own. But everywhere there are unseen, exceptional moments to be had. Perhaps it’s about taking a new approach: visiting somewhere during a different part of the day, finding a new angle, going with a new friend.
Author H. Jackson Brown, Jr. says, “Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye.” Maybe it’s a perspective of heart, of openness. Watching and waiting for those stolen moments. But, I think, it is also about risk and not dithering around so much that you never make any choices, nor experience anything new at all. Being aware — actually creating the time to hear the bittersweet symphony of life. To find the small bits of Wonderland left to us.
Alright. I grudgingly admit it: perhaps Alice isn’t so irritating after all.
“Alice” by Shel Silverstein
She drank from a bottle that said DRINK ME
And up she grew so tall,
She ate from a plate called TASTE ME
And down she shrank so small.
And so she changed, while other folks
Never tried nothin’ at all.