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Sacred Spaces

April 11, 2011

The Back Fence.

The floor was strewn with something that looked like sawdust, brown scuffs and gentle piles of it drifting around the room.  It reminded me of a stable, in a sort of nice, clean way.  We sat down at a table near the small set up stage and microphone stand.  “The Back Fence,” I said, admiring the painted guitar on the wall, and the miniature trains spelling the bar’s name strung on a line from the ceiling.  A waitress came over and took our drink orders.  She placed a bowl of peanuts on the table, and suddenly the mini mystery of the brown dust on the floor was explained.  We began to make neat piles of our peanut shells on the table as we cracked the nuts.  The waitress laughed and told us, not unkindly, “Honeys, you ain’t at home.  Go ahead and make a mess.”  We dropped the shells to the floor and took a childish delight in stomping on them with ked covered feet.

The singer started his set a few minutes later.  He was a chubby, genial looking man, with brown floppy hair that reminded me of Marty McFly from Back to the Future.  He teased the audience, made fun of Hannah for wearing a straw hat, which caused her to hide her face and giggle.  A couple of Who, Stones, Tom Petty and Simon and Garfunkel songs later, the audience was happy and relaxed.  The singer crooned ‘Sweet Caroline’ to a girl named Leslie living in Dallas on a blonde’s speaker phone, and dedicated a passable version of ‘Dust in the Wind’ to me for putting up with Matt and Hannah, who were being, it must be confessed, almost too cute.

In short, we were fed, watered, entertained, comfortable and happy.  The Back Fence wasn’t just a bar.  For that one moment in time, it crystallized into epitomizing comfort and safety.  A home outside a home.  It was a sacred space, if you will.

Sacred, like of most the best words out there, has many layers of definition.  Its first denotation is purely religious in nature.  “Connected with God (or the gods) or dedicated to a those deserving veneration.”  But sacred can also mean hallowed or sacrosanct, and it is through these connotations that the word gains its power for me.  In this way sacred become connected to the idea of safety, growth and stability.

Here’s an example.  Remember when you were a kid, and played tag?  (If not, shame on you!)  Remember how that rock or that scarred tree or the teacher’s assistant became a base, somewhere where you could rest and regain your breath, somewhere where the tagger couldn’t touch you?  How you would race for the stable safe spot in the middle of the exciting and yet exhausting game, and for a few crucial moments leave the game, be given that gift of recovery?  I see sacred spaces like those bases in that game of tag long ago; a place that allows one to recover, rest and be given a moment’s grace from the tensions of the real world.

It is important to have a space that functions like this outside the home.  The home has so many layers of meaning due to the amount of memories that are formed there; a home is sacred, to be sure, but it also is a site of bickering, work, sleep, over-familiarity and disconnect from belonging to society.  Having a site that exists as a halfway point between home and the outside community, somewhere one can belong without the dirty dishes and the overdue rent is essential.

I look for sacred spaces wherever I go.  They can be bars or coffee shops, museums or even gardens.  In New York, I found the Back Fence.  Also in New York, Hannah told me that sometimes she just goes to the Museum of Natural History to sit and think, knowing that she can just exist, beholden to no-one as long as she likes.

In Chicago, my friend Spencer goes to this jazz club when he wants to restore his faith in humanity and his own strength and convictions.

In New Orleans, a recipe book and record store (go figure on that combination!) owner, after chatting with my brother Billy and I for twenty minutes, invited us to a gumbo night at his house with his wife and friends.  He explained that he loved inviting friendly strangers into his home, because they never stayed strangers long.

In Cape Town, I found a synagogue that welcomed me with open arms, food and wine, and asked no questions, reassured that just because I was Jewish and polite, I was welcome.  In a completely foreign city in an even stranger country, this little bit of acceptance, unearned grace, was a balm to my soul and a comfort to my befuddled American in Africa mind.
In London, it was Hampstead Heath in summer that served as my sacred space, swimming naked in the ladies bathing pond, drying in the sun, reading books in the grass of the rolling green hills which were so incongruous with being in the largest city in England.

I am now in DC.  I look for my sacred space here, I nose around Busboys and Poets, Bruce’s Variety, Dolchezza, Dos Gringos, Tryst.  I walk around, looking for a friendly face, a welcoming smile, a community that wants to accept me, let me stay a while.

I haven’t yet found my sacred space here.  Too many Starbucks, not enough Mom and Pops, I suppose.  But I remain hopeful that one day, I will find it.  And for a crystallized moment, be able to say to the world, I have reached the base.

Tag.  You’re it.

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