One of the things that I love best about New York in the summer is the many wonderful outdoor activities that the city provides. It might come as a surprise to folks – who might not equate the “concrete metropolis” with “outdoorsy” stuff – but depending on the weather, the city can indeed offer a respite to folks tired of the long, hot, dog days of summer. Whether it’s a stroll down the cool shady path of Literary Walk in Central Park, or taking in a bright orange and crimson sunset along the Hudson – the outdoor venues of the city offer a little something to suit everyone’s tastes. A particular favorite of mine is taking in the free movies shown at various sites throughout the city under the starry night sky. Whether its in the beautiful park behind the New York Public Library in midtown, or shown against a giant screen set up along the Hudson with the Palisades as a backdrop, I’ve seen several over the years: “Airplane” (still as funny as when I first saw it), “Star Wars” (quite a site on the big screen), but I think my favorite was watching Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “The Birds” last year at one of the parks along the river on the Upper West Side. The movie, of course, was as good as I had ever remembered – but let me tell you, the fear factor was ramped up exponentially by viewing it with no cover overhead…..many of us spent as much time warily eying the pigeons who sat on the fence surrounding the park awaiting eating leftover popcorn (or us!!!) as we did watching the movie on the big screen!
A couple of weeks ago – through the great generosity of good friend – I had the opportunity to attend another great New York summertime activity – a rock concert in an outdoor venue. Even better – this one was held in a place that I have been dying to go to for a long time, but haven’t yet had the opportunity (or the cash on hand) to go: Yankee Stadium – the new one… if perhaps no longer literally the “House that Ruth Built”, the new “House that Jeter Sustains” is certainly impressive! The concert was one given by former Pink Floyd founder and front man Roger Waters who performed his opus, the rock opera: “The Wall”, which originally debuted in 1979. “The Wall” itself centers on the life of a character named “Pink” – who Waters molded after himself and a former band mate in “Pink Floyd” named Syd Barrett – who suffers a series of losses in childhood and early adulthood (death of a father in combat in World War II, ridicule at school, an overbearing overprotective mother, and dissolution of his marriage) that causes him to methodically, over time, build up a metaphorical “wall” – which includes drug and alcohol abuse – to keep the world out and protect his vulnerable inner self from the vicissitudes of modern life, until finally, in the end, his “Wall” is torn down and Pink is exposed for who he really is to the outside world.
The concert at Yankee Stadium itself was incredible – perhaps one of the best I have ever seen. Over the years since 1979, the world has changed much – and Mr. Water’s metaphor of “The Wall” has proven a durable image for projecting not only the personal loneliness and isolation experienced by many people today, but also for the many political upheavals that have rocked our world both here and abroad since before Ronald Reagan became President; and Waters – in putting on this most recent production of his opus – uses the metaphor of “The Wall” quite effectively during his stadium show. As the musical performance continues over two plus hours, brick by brick an immense white wall (similar to the 1979 album cover of my memory) was built across the expanse of the outfield of the entire stadium reaching up a height of about 40 feet. Waters then used the white expanse as a massive video screen to project stark images of people: those killed in wars, terrorism and acts of state violence as well as those suffering from extreme poverty. He also uses “The Wall” as a kind of enormous billboard to flash saying of famous writers and statesmen – like George Orwell and Dwight Eisenhower – who were suspicious of unchecked government power, as well as pithy quotations critical of predatory capitalism, ceaseless war and dire poverty. At the close of the show – as the crowd shouts out “tear down the Wall” – the massive white expanse seems to turn blood red and crumble from within from the top down – the video element showing collapsing bricks and pyrotechnic explosions – all to an incredible effect!
As I took in the concert, I must admit that I found myself to be very moved – while I have always enjoyed the music of Pink Floyd, and the songs of “The Wall” were familiar to me – I had never before taken in the album in its entirety – and certainly not this way! Water’s addition of adding the images of the contemporary victims of political violence, terrorism, and poverty to his the album’s main themes of personal isolation and abandonment was compelling to me; and I thought his message resonated well with both the music and the audience. This of course was not the first time that “The Wall” was staged in a political context. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, on July 21, 1990, Waters performed his rock opus in the vacant terrain between the Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to a crowd of almost a half million people – one of the largest and most elaborate rock concerts in history. Waters undoubtedly used much that he learned putting on that performance in the current show – and all to great effect.
Another element that I enjoyed were the “messages” that were projected onto the wall during the concert: some were funny – and some unprintable on this blog – but one in particular stood out to me and stayed with me throughout the concert and well beyond; it was a simple statement really – only three words, but powerful. In broad graffiti strokes – across the expanse of the wall – was projected these words: FEAR BUILDS WALLS!
As I sat after the concert and pondered these words, I reflected on what they meant to me – personally and professionally, as well as for my life as a Christian and Catholic. Now its funny that this concert, put on by a man who I believe is an avowed atheist, would get me thinking of subjects like this – but I am a firm believer that God writes strait on crooked lines. I thought of those words, pondered them and came to realize how true they really are…fear indeed does build walls: in our personal lives as well as our collective lives together. Walls separate us one from another – perhaps protecting, but also isolating us – and even as our world becomes more and more connected through technology and economy – the walls in our lives seem to be growing ever higher.
As I further contemplated this, my thoughts turned to someone who knew a little something about living behind walls – or if not walls, certainly “curtains”: the iron kind. Blessed John Paul II knew from his experiences the tremendous cost that isolation behind walls imposed on people; that’s why I think it is so compelling that upon his election to the Papacy, the first public words he uttered to an anxious world was “Be not afraid!” Three small words – just like “fear builds walls”…but much more powerful! If fear indeed does build walls, it seems to me that Blessed John Paul II was telling the world that he would be about the business of tearing walls down…and that’s exactly what he did. And I think those words still have a message here for us today – I think that is exactly what we should be about as well. As Catholics, we should be “tearing down the walls”: of isolation to be a friend to the lonely, of alienation to be support for the hurting, of poverty to be a help to those who lack resources, of misunderstanding to bring war and terrorism to an end, of violence to protect those who are vulnerable, of a perfectionism that leaves no room in our society for those on the margins of life.
We better get busy now, because I’m pretty sure in the Kingdom come there will be no walls….