For those 23 months I lived in New York City, I often found myself walking, enjoying the various parts and seeable sights that Manhattan had to offer. I had several favorite places to go. Washington Square Park was an obvious and easy destination; just a block and a half from our apartment, I could just take little stroll and be there instantly.
During the summers, there were two street performers there who were there at least three afternoons a week. They were called Tic and Tac; identical twin brothers from Harlem, the only way you could tell them apart was one of them always wore an American flag bandanna on his head. They often finished each other’s sentences, though I’m pretty sure that was just a script. They did a mostly acrobatic show with lots of audience participation, and witty repartee was a huge part of their act.
Rockefeller Center was another common destination. Besides loving the architecture and design of the outside and the spectacle of the shops, there was the TODAY Show. I had started watching Matt, Meredith, Ann and Al in the mornings on TV shortly after arriving in New York, and once I got my bearings in the city (and the willingness to get my carcass out of bed, dressed and up to 48th St.), I watched the show live on the plaza many times. I even appeared on camera once; it was raining that day, so I got to be right behind where the hosts film the 8:30 segment. Meredith even recognized me when I came back, probably because I proudly wore my Red Sox hat in enemy territory (Meredith is a huge Sox fan). I’ll admit it – I fanboyed a little.
But without question, my favorite spot in Manhattan is a park bench in Central Park, on the east side at the 72nd St. entrance. There’s a circular flagstone mosaic on the ground flanked by several park benches; it simply says IMAGINE in the middle. This is Strawberry Fields, a memorial to John Lennon, right across the street from the Dakota, the posh apartment building where he lived for the last part of his life, and where he was murdered.
I went there on Lennon’s birthday, and on the anniversary of his death, but I would also just go there, just because. I found myself drawn there sometimes. Some magnetic force compelled me. It could have been Lennon’s spirit, but I think it was something bigger – music in general , maybe.
I have great respect for John Lennon, perhaps more than any other rock star. Even the term “rock star” conjures up images that Lennon seems somehow above. He lived his life as a warrior for peace and a living example of the power of love. His zeitgeist is one of enduring hope for millions of people.
That is not to say I agree with everything he said, or even match up with him in thought and deed. He is someone I greatly admire and respect, but not someone I seek to emulate. His life was filled with turmoil, and he spent most of it hurting the people closest to him. For a long time, he allowed the demons of his past to affect his present, thus determining his future. He broke away from his demons when he married Yoko Ono, but in that he proved himself even more un-emulation worthy by cheating on his wife.
The biggest bone I have with his mindset is expressed in the title song of his 1971 solo album, Imagine. It’s the most popular and iconic song of his solo career, and it has become a totem and a symbol for anyone who seeks to create harmony out of discord. My own experience with it has been different, though, and my perception of “Imagine” comes a little out of left field.
I first heard the song when I was about 7 years old. I was not supposed to be watching MTV (my parents had disallowed it for me and my sister) when I saw the music video. Besides what I instantly thought was an excessively pretty piano riff at the beginning, the first lyric is “Imagine there’s no heaven.” As a 7 year-old Christian with Christian parents, I couldn’t imagine there not being a heaven. When he followed with “It’s easy if you try,” I did actually try. And you know what? It bummed me out. If there was no heaven, there was no God. Even my immature brain could make that connection. And to my young mind, an existence without God was no existence at all. That’s still true for me.
Now that I’m a grown-up (whatever that means…), I understand that the heart of John’s message in “Imagine” is tearing down all the walls that divide people and eliminating all the things people use as weapons against each other. In order to have peace, we must no longer think in a singular way, but instead have the best interests of all people at the forefront of our minds. Things like religion, country and possessions force us to focus on what is only our own and not care about anyone else. We can also use those things for purposes they weren’t intended for, to hurt one another.
So John’s approach is this: if those things cause us to be like that, then why don’t we just get rid of them? What would happen if we did get rid of them? Can you just imagine??? That, in and of itself, is a pretty positive message.
I’ve taken quite some time to come to this, but my own approach is different. John wants to get rid of those things, but I think they’re essential parts of who we are. In particular, religion is woven into our human fabric; it’s our way of understanding God. There can’t be God without there being religion, because he would have no way of talking to us, and that’s not the kind of God he is. We can’t get rid of religion anymore than we can get rid of oxygen.
So what, then? Are we doomed to a selfish, destructive cycle we can’t break out of, repeating the same mistakes over and over? Well, no. Evil things have been done by people in the name of religion, but that doesn’t make religion evil – it makes the people evil. But even people can’t be truly and completely evil. They still have a God spark somewhere inside them, and that gives hope to each one of us.