Last week, Valentine’s Day fell on the same day as Ash Wednesday. The former was really just a blip on my radar until the night before when coming home late at night on the subway, I spotted several men with hands full of balloons and flowers. It was a surprising reminder of Americans’ unique fervor in celebrating really any holiday – the French certainly never really seemed to care much for it. I mean, sure, the bakeries will add some heart-shaped pastries to their usual line up of mouthwatering, buttery treats for a few days. But that’s about it. Whereas Americans seem eager to get behind a day marketed to them to celebrate love, the French are more apt to turn their noses up and say, yeah, we don’t need your holiday, we’ll do our own thing. Their stubbornness and free spirits lend themselves to celebrating love in different ways throughout the year.
In New York, the day ushered itself in with another one of those brilliantly blue winter skies, something I do not take for granted after three years living under clouds for most of the year. Overnight, I’d again forgotten about the holiday, readying myself for a busy day of work and class. But the short walk to my subway stop surprised me once again – more balloons and bouquets of flowers tucked in the elbow crevices of bundled up arms; an older woman selling Valentine’s gift baskets on the corner, wishing everyone who passed by a good day. Ok, but this is Brooklyn, I thought. People are just nicer here, it’s like a neighborhood.
As I climbed the stairs leading up to the bustling, rousing space of Manhattan, though, I quickly learned I was wrong. Despite the lingering winter chill in the air, there was a warmth in people’s faces as they tilted their faces up to meet the sun and to follow the bobbing of balloons floating above the many bodies that crowd the streets of Midtown on a daily basis. Everywhere I turned, I spotted bundles of flowers and other cheesy gifts pertaining to the holiday. People rushing out on their coffee break, business people walking swiftly with their phone glued to their ear, tourists milling about – the usual Manhattan mid-week scene pressed on, just with these sweet accessories in tow. Call it reverse culture shock if you want, but I found these small gestures in the midst of the tornado of life that sweeps pell-mell across the city to be endearing.
Equal to this astonishment was the prevalence of the cross marked in ashes on foreheads of every shade, age, and profession. Again, it was just something I’d never seen before – when you live in the suburbs and drive everywhere, parts of your life remain very separate from the rest. The sliver of the population you come into contact with is narrow. Then, in Paris, where religious markings of any kind in the public sphere are wrapped up in a long history of tension and resentment, such an overt declaration of contemporary Christian faith is pretty absent. But it was an unexpected and meaningful representation to me of just how wide the net of Christ’s love is, and how even in the busiest places, people are drawn to what is greater than themselves.
On this island where people come from all over the world, we all struggle through this life to different and varying degrees against limitations beyond our control, hungry to find and live within our purpose. People work so hard here and with a conviction that it’s worth it, in a way that is more visible than anywhere I’ve ever lived, everyone chasing something while grasping onto what little space, air, energy, time, and ideas they have left for themselves. In New York, you don’t have to pretend for the sake of social graces that you don’t want something out of life. And yet, that sometimes gruff at best, no-time-to-catch-your-breath pace of life, and toughness that encompasses what it means to survive in New York runs only skin deep, it would seem. This tough exterior protects from the stinging disappointments of life, the exhausting antics of city living. But even so, there is always time for love, from its smallest gestures in the form of a holiday to what is far beyond our realm of comprehension. New Yorkers know to grasp on to its many forms in order to survive.