The Red Bicycle

I must have been six or seven years old when my father bought me a bicycle and taught me how to ride it. Despite my expectations and my mother’s pleas, he refused to allow me training wheels, those additional, temporary small wheels that provide balance and stability. Instead, I tumbled over and fell down quite a bit at first. Only today, mid-way through life’s journey, do I understand how fortunate I was that my father had the vision and wisdom to allow me to learn well through difficulty.  Thanks to him and thanks to that red bicycle, to this day I carry within me a wellspring of strength and confidence for difficult moments. I still tumble and fall down at times, but I always rise up again and continue my journey.

It took only a couple of weeks to perfect the skill (riding) and master the tool (the bike), but it felt like ages until I could claim calm control of that extra-small red bicycle, specially ordered by my father for his very short son. (I’m still shorter than my dad!) Once I took my place on the bicycle and set forth on whatever my journey might be, I was fearless — to my parents’ dismay sometimes. But in that small Midwestern town, I was never afraid and never in danger. That place where neighbor looks out for neighbor — where neighbor loves neighbor — stayed in my heart across the years as I made my way through the world.

These days, Dante and I wander the world with that same spirit of purpose in our journey and with abiding love for those we encounter in Harlem, Washington Heights, and the Bronx. And I still think fondly on that extra-small red bike my father taught me to ride with confidence all those years ago.

~BT Waldbillig
April 12, 2017

The Love of a Grandmother

My dad isn’t the touchy-feely type but when he speaks of his mother and says that she was one of the kindest and happiest people he’s ever met, you can tell he means it. Now, I didn’t know Grandma Katie all that well and I was only 14 years old when she died in 1988, but sometimes I still remember her smile and I can still smell the baked ham she would prepare every Easter. Grandma Katie, who was widowed longer than I was alive, sat at the head of the table but hardily ate at all. Instead, she made sure everyone else was taken care of and she herself would return to the kitchen periodically to bring out a new dish or start a new course for the abundant Easter dinner. Grandma Katie left an impression on my life less from my own interaction with her than from the intensity of my father’s regard for her.

As Dante and I take our walks through Washington Heights, Harlem, and the Bronx, we frequently pass mothers and grandmothers taking children to school in the morning or walking them home in the afternoon. In Harlem, they might be from Black families who have lived in the neighborhood for generations. In Washington Heights, it’s Dominican immigrants with extended families. In the Bronx, we see women in head scarves from Central Asia or Africa doing their best to ignore stares and murmurs. But all of these women, just like my own grandmother, are doing their best in challenging circumstances to raise their children to be decent people. They could be single moms, widows, women working two or three jobs for the sake of family — all of them sacrificing themselves for love of their children and grandchildren.

This morning in Highbridge Park, Dante and I saw a woman picking through the rubbish bin, pulling out glass bottles and aluminum cans to trade for a handful of coins. My other grandmother, Grandma Carol, used to collect aluminum cans and glass bottles. She was a factory worker and the extra money she pocketed throughout the year she spent on my sisters and me at Christmas. There was hardly enough room around the Christmas tree for all the presents we received. As children, we had no idea how lucky we were — not for the gifts but for the love of our grandmothers.

Perhaps the woman in the park this morning is saving so she can surprise a child with a rag doll or a racing car. Or maybe she was earning some extra money so that her family might enjoy an abundant Easter dinner in a couple of weeks. This morning in the park Dante and I greeted the woman. She smiled back at us as we continued our walk.

~BT Waldbillig
April 3, 2017

Solidarity in Suffering

This morning on our walk across the High Bridge into the Bronx, Dante and I passed a man practicing martial arts-like exercises next to the nineteenth-century water tower that overlooks both the historic bridge and the majestic Harlem River. It’s quite common to see groups of people engaged in similar exercises on Manhattan’s Lower East Side but rare up here in Washington Heights (at least to my experience), so I couldn’t help but notice. Immediately my mind traveled back to a period of my life that I had largely forgotten: the two years or so in my childhood that I practiced the Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do, which entailed exercises not unlike the ones I saw this morning. Along with the exercises, I had to memorize certain call-and-response sequences (which I’ve forgotten entirely) and also the numbers one through ten in Korean (which I still remember somehow).

A couple of years ago while visiting family in Dubuque, Iowa, my uncle recounted his experience during the Korean War. He served as a cook on a US Navy ship and consequently never engaged in direct fighting. He was thankful for this. Korea is a country of sophisticated, ancient culture that has seen more than its share of suffering. The “mighty” of the world have often assailed and oppressed the Korean people, and yet somehow Koreans have maintained their dignity.

Over the past two years Dante and I have spent a fair bit of time in Manhattan’s East Village, and as we’ve taken our walking meditations through Alphabet City, particularly Avenue D, a very important reality has come home to me. The residents of Avenue D are mostly African American and Caribbean American, and it has been Korean immigrants who have opened businesses like corner shops (bodegas) and laundromats. In recent years, Arab Americans have joined in. For the past 50 years, Korean Americans were often the only people willing to provide necessary services in Black neighborhoods in New York City. In a sense, they stood alone in solidarity with other people who have known more than their share of suffering.

Those of us who have known only comfort and privilege do well to remember this reality and perhaps even meditate on it.

~BT Waldbillig
March 16, 2016

The Wisdom of Avenue D

A few evenings ago, Dante and I were in Manhattan’s East Village to share a pizza with a good friend, and after our meal the dog and I took a stroll down Avenue D.

Now, once upon a time that might not have been a wise choice since that end of Alphabet City was regarded as especially dangerous. My friend, a native New Yorker, shared with me a saying he learned as a youngster:

If you go to Avenue A, you’re adventurous.
If you go to Avenue B, you’re bold.
If you go to Avenue C, you’re courageous.
But if you go to Avenue D, you’re dead.

These days the situation is not nearly so dramatic, though many people still avoid the area altogether. It’s true Avenue D can be sketchy, particularly at night, and there’s likely a certain degree of local gang activity, but I’ve never felt threatened despite the odd looks I sometimes receive. Dante and I will continue to visit Avenue D whenever occasion arises for a simple reason: it is a holy place, consecrated by the hope and kindness that endure in the midst of poverty, violence, marginalization, and suffering.

Only in the last year or so have I come to appreciate that fact, thanks to a number of ordinary events that touched me in a meaningful way: the reading of a meditation on impermanence by the Japanese spiritual teacher Dogen; the particular beauty of the moon and stars in the night sky on several occasions; the unexpected passing by of an asteroid on the birthday of my late grandmother; the grace to perceive simple things, like clouds and trees and birds, with fresh sight. I have shared these things with Dante, who has in turn imparted his own wisdom during our walking meditations down Avenue D, and at Highbridge Park in Washington Heights, and along the High Bridge into the Bronx.

The night sky, a compassionate tree, a loved one’s birthday, the friendship of a dog – these simple things contain all the wisdom one could ever need.

~BT Waldbillig
February 4, 2016