The Luxury of Living
Originally uploaded by lorenzodom
The Luxury of Living (Living is a Luxury)
This morning, as I was walking to work, I came upon this behemoth of a building that is being put up on 29th Street. The signs that span across the construction site boast "55 Stories of Luxurious Living."
The irony is that I used to live there—there where there used to be a two-story building with a small apartment above the sacristy, the room where priests dress and prepare the Eucharist for mass.
In the spring of 2005 I moved in for three months and lived in virtual isolation during my first marital separation. The experience was life changing and the primary reason why photography became one of my greatest passions. These three months and subsequent enlightenment, also serve as the basis for my forthcoming book, 25 Lessons , to be published in July by Cyan Books.
Hence, when I came upon this monumental structure gleaming against the deep blue spring sky this morning I couldn't help but pause and reflect upon my stay there exactly two years ago. The fact that I lived in solitude and more frugally than I had ever lived before, was an amusing contrast to what “Sky House” would soon be offering—139 luxury condominium residencies.
The greatest irony for me though was that I actually came to understand the luxury of living in and of itself via these three hermetic months. It was an incredibly beautiful and enriching experience, which I would not trade for all the wealth in the world.
My editor Stephanie and I worked on the book for a few hours last night, so I am getting very excited as we approach the publication date.
Considering the experience of this morning, I would like to share some of my experience from that special time two years ago. Hence, what follows is the tentative text from the preface of 25 Lessons.
Preface, 25 Lessons
In the spring of 2005 my wife and I agreed to separate. It must have been a sign of some significance because for once we agreed on something. We had gone through years of discord, until finally, she asked me to move out.
It was either this or a divorce, and I wasn't ready to accept the latter. But I had nowhere to go. For the first few days I called all the hostels and cheap hotels I could find in New York City, but to no avail. It would just be too expensive to stay anywhere; there was a mortgage and lots of bills to pay. And since my wife stayed at home with our two children and worked part-time on the weekends, we were, for all intensive purposes, a one-income household. In other words, we couldn't afford for me to move out.
Instead, she agreed to let me sleep in the basement of our family home, until I found somewhere to go. It was an uncomfortable alternative, but at least I wasn't homeless.
Out of shame and a stubborn streak of independence, I did not tell anyone that we were separated. Neither family nor friends were aware of my situation. As days passed into weeks, I started to feel more and more alone. I decided that I would seek help and talk to someone, someone who might be understanding and non-judgmental, forgiving perhaps, someone who might ultimately point me in the right direction.
Having grown up Catholic, one of my first thoughts was to go see a priest. They were good, guiding, and spiritually redeeming counselors.
So on one cool spring morning, I walked into a little sanctuary called the Church of the Transfiguration, which was three blocks from my office, and took a seat in one of the back pews to listen to the presiding priest give a sermon. I had passed the church every day on my way to work for the last six years and had long felt the urge to attend one of their spring lunchtime concerts; but I always found myself eating lunch at my desk instead.
The church itself had been around for over 150 years, and for most of its history had served as a refuge for those in need. Its basement served as a safe haven for runaway slaves escaping via the Underground Railway. And during the Civil War, the founder of the church, Dr. George Hendric Houghton, took in African-Americans threatened by enraged immigrants participating in the Draft Riots of 1863, despite warnings from the police that they could not ensure his safety.
In 1870, a gentleman by the name of Joseph Jefferson sought a sanctuary to hold the funeral of his dear friend George Holland, a thespian. Rejected everywhere, Jefferson was near despair when he was led to the Church of the Transfiguration around the corner. Jefferson then responded by exclaiming, "God Bless the Little Church Around the Corner!"
The moniker has stuck for the last 137 years. And ever since, the theater community has frequently viewed the church as their own. In 1923, an actor's guild was formed at the little church, and the partnership between those of the cloth and those of the stage eventually succeeded in turning the church into an historical landmark in 1973.
In this serene place, listening to the priest finish up his sermon, I distilled my emotions and let them spill out. By the time I had a chance to speak with him, I was all choked up and had to excuse myself a few times. I could barely say what I had rehearsed repeatedly while waiting.
In those few moments --- that seemed like an hour --- I was demurely able to make a request for a meeting. He asked that I return at noon.
Seven minutes before noon: I get up from my desk and walk up the block and around the corner. I enter in by the red iron gate, through the small garden, past a spray of pink blossoms, and into the quiet church office where the receptionist asks me to wait in a little room for Father Harry.
When he came in a few minutes later, Father Harry smiled and kindly asked me how he might be of service. I began sheepishly, but soon a deluge of sorrow poured out, and I broke down and wept, just like a man who had been thrown out of his home and had kept it all inside for weeks. Father Harry listened attentively. At one point, he placed his hand atop mine, and I immediately felt a certain peace, perhaps the comfort of God, overcome me.
It didn't matter that I had renounced my faith more than 20 years earlier, as a student at a college prep run by the Jesuit Order. I did, however, continue to believe in some part of what I had been taught through Sunday mass and my saintly mother; I believed strongly in the Christian principles of love, forgiveness, altruism, tolerance, and acceptance, especially in the purest sense as they were originally laid out as allegories in the gospels that recounted important moments in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
After telling Father Harry about my idea of finding a shelter or social service center where I might be able to volunteer, in exchange for a little space on a floor to sleep on and a small hook to hang my suit, he paused and then said, "We actually need a little help here ourselves. And we have an empty apartment where you might be able to stay."
At that moment I couldn't help but feel a bubbling of renewed faith. Father Harry's act of kindness reconnected me to that important spirituality, one that I had nurtured for so long as an easy-going college student in California, but that I had progressively lost hold of over the years.
For I could see in Father Harry's eyes that he believed in me, without any doubt in his heart. That moment made an everlasting impression upon me, one that inspired me to continue looking forward toward making the best out of my situation.
Keeping to his promise, Father Harry informed me two weeks later that the little church indeed had a place for me to stay if I was willing to help around the house (of God). We agreed that I could occupy the studio apartment right above the sacristy, the small room where the sacred ritual vessels and vestments are stored and where the priests get dressed and prepare for mass.
The tacit agreement was that I could stay at least until June, when the apartment would be razed to make way for a 50 story residential tower.
Thus, I found myself living in a little church in the middle of Manhattan, in virtual isolation, for three months. During that tumultuous time, I had a chance to reexamine my life. I expected to catch up on all those books I had been meaning to read, to go to the gym, to meditate on what had happened in my marriage.
What I didn't expect was that I would end up going out every night into the city to take photos, tapping into a well of pent-up creative passion that would change my life. I never expected that viewing the world anew through the lens of the camera would prove to be an incredible journey, reminding me of some important lessons, lessons that I had forgotten somewhere along the way.
Ironically, I had given up on traditional film photography long ago, when, during my first trip to New York City in 1989, I ruined the first 35mm I ever bought by accidentally placing my oily lunch in the same tote bag. Thank God the digital revolution came along to reignite my passion, because my rediscovery of photography helped me to rediscover life itself.
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