PEN WORLD VOICES - On the High Line:
Diamonds on the Soles of Our Shoes
Editor's Note: This article is part of an ongoing series that has grown out of Wild River Review's coverage of the World Voices Festival. The Karma Chain on the High Line was one of the many memorable events of the 2011 PEN World Voices Festival.
Follow the glass stone…Follow the glass stone…
The Droid from Hell,
If anything exists, it changes.
The closing lines of the Diamond Sutra as interpreted by nearly 300 people who whispered its transmission on the High Line, New York City, April 30, 2011
In the early nineties, when my sister and her husband moved into the Rockrose Development on Horatio Street, the West Village on the edge of the Meat Packing District was a neighborhood in flux. One hundred years before, the area was known as Gansevoort Market. More than 250 slaughterhouses and packing plants supplied New York City and its suburbs with meat, hide, blood, bones, and by-products. By the 1980s, many of the slaughterhouses and butchers had left, and the neighborhood became a magnet for drug dealers, and a growing gay/transexual/S&M culture.
If you stopped in the bodega on the corner of Horatio and Washington for your morning bagel and coffee, you might have found yourself next to a beautiful woman in short skirt and high platform boots baring a six-pack midriff beneath a leather halter top, a hint of beard peaking through her pancake makeup.
Back then, it was hard to imagine in less than twenty years the butcher shop on Washington Street, where split hogs dangled from ropes, would become a boutique owned by a world famous designer. The transsexuals moved on, too.
But everything changes, as was so clearly demonstrated the last Saturday morning in April on one of New York City's great urban renewal projects, the High Line, a former rail line that once bisected the Meat Packing District and "lifted freight 30 feet in the air."
West Side Cowboys rode in front of trains before the High Line was built.
At the Highline’s Gansevoort Street entrance, among dogwoods, grasses, and the last of Spring's daffodils, Executive Editor Kim Nagy and I gathered with young couples and their toddlers, middle aged couples, artists, and the curious. We were about to become part of the first PEN American Center World Voices Festival of World Literature High Line Karma Chain.
The brainchild of World Voices Festival Director, Jakab Orsos and Director of Programming for the Rubin Museum of Art, Tim McHenry, the Karma Chain, based on a favorite childhood party game Whisper Down the Lane, also known as Telephone, brought together a potent combination of literature, philosophy, story-telling, and a beautiful Buddhist teaching about the ephemeral nature of our lives, The Diamond Sutra, part of Orsos's vision to take literature from its ivory tower into the community in an act of collaboration.
The press material on the PEN website had intrigued Kim and me: Karma is the sequence of actions–cause and effect–for which we take individual responsibility...Words are actions: and how they are transmitted from one person to another, and from one generation to another, is explored in the Karma Chain, an experiment in oral communication.
Photo by Joy E. Stocke
We were not told we would share the closing lines of the Diamond Sutra, and I would not find out until later that the Chinese translation of the original Sanskrit text had been discovered in the Bezeklik Caves in the Flaming Mountains in Western China. Printed in 896 CE from woodblock on five strips of paper bound into a scroll, the Diamond Sutra is the oldest surviving printed manuscript.
Wearing jeans and a light blue blazer, Orsos surveyed the crowd, pleased and surprised by the all-age turn out. Nearby, former PEN President and tireless supporter of the PEN World Voices Festival, Salman Rushdie conferred with McHenry and Khenpo Lama Pema Wangdak who would whisper three lines, one at at time, to the first person in the chain who in turn would whisper what they heard to their neighbor, and on down the line until it reached Rushdie who would share the transmission.
Lama Pema, who in 2009, became the first Tibetan to receive the "Ellis Island Medal of Honor," would end the festivities by revealing the words he had whispered into the ear of the first person in line.
How, I wondered would this storytelling experiment turn out?
"As you can imagine, the Karma Chain is not a typical event," said Orsos during a later interview. "When you see all these people willing to whisper something to one another, that they can turn to their neighbor and share a message, it says there is poetry in each of us. An event of this sort can restore our faith in ourselves, can say we are still willing to show up and take a risk."
Photo by Joy E. Stocke
Back on the High Line, from two seven-foot long horns, a deep, mournful tone signaled the crowd to line up. Kim and I found ourselves on a sunny stretch of track with a view of boats plying the Hudson River, she at number 7 and me at 11.
On my left at number 10, stood a girl who had just turned ten and whose mother at number 9 was convinced they were in auspicious spots since they had recently relocated from the south of France. On my right at number 12, a retired teacher from Maryland had driven up for the chance to participate in what she, too, remembered as a "delightful childhood tradition."
Orsos, Rushdie, McHenry, and Lama Pema moved to the front and the transmission began. I bent forward so the the girl could whisper words into my ear. Closing my eyes, I heard: Like a shimmering star, a flickering lamp.
I tried to block out the sound of the wind, the chatter in my head, the play of light on the dogwoods, and shared the line with my neighbor.
The second line was more difficult. I asked the girl to repeat it, and heard: A flaming autumn cloud, a shimmering drop of morning dew.
Again, trying to block out the noise, I closed my eyes and whispered the words to my neighbor.
The third line came through clearly: A phantom, a dream, a bubble, so is all existence to be seen.
Photo by Joy E. Stocke
After we three hundred participants shared our "transmission," we returned to our initial gathering site above Gansevoort, just south of the chic Standard Hotel. With a twinkle in his eyes, Salman Rushdie read the first line:
"Follow the glass stone…Follow the glass stone…," to much laughter.
And the second line to even more laughter: “The Droid from Hell."
The middle line must have been the most difficult for many of us. I thought, since already at number 11 I had turned a flicker into a flame.
"The third part is beautiful in the way it represents what happened in this process," Rushdie mused, and read: "If anything exists, it changes."
Lama Pema Wangdak
Photo by Joy E. Stocke
Lama Pema smiled, "I'd like to thank you for delivering the message and sending it to others. What you shared the last three lines from the Diamond Sutra, which is a meditation on the practice of non-attachment. And slowly he read:
Like a shimmering star, or a flickering lamp
A fleeting autumn cloud, or a shining drop of morning dew
A phantom, a dream, a bubble, so
is all existence to be seen.
"There's a postsript for those of you not familiar with the Buddhist teaching," he added. "A message of this quotation has to do with the sound of impermanence which is conveyed in the Sanskrit language – the whole mark of reality that everything which has existence must pass...The good news is that you got the message. Even though, somehow the language came out different."
He paused, his face softening. “Our postscript is this: Life is short. It’s ephemeral... But the good news is that it’s wonderful. Enjoy. Have a good time. Love one another. Make the best use of it. Be compassionate and kind. That’s the wonder of this life.”
Perhaps, I mused, longing had slipped into my transmission. In the warmth of early spring sunlight, I had mixed the image of a flaming-red autumn maple leaf with the sun setting aflame a fleeting cloud.
As the crowd dispersed, I remembered a woman I saw years ago, a transvestite standing in a doorway just below the old High Line. She was smoking a cigarette and wearing rhinestone platform shoes that glittered in sunlight. The sutra morphed into a song by Paul Simon and I found myself singing:
People think she’s crazy,
She’s got diamonds on the soles of her shoes.
That's one way
to lose these walking blues
Diamonds on the soles of her shoes...
I watched a man walk by with a toddler on his shoulders, a couple kissing on a bench, and Orsos descending the steps of the High Line taking literature into the streets of an ephemeral and beautiful New York afternoon.
Photo by Joy E. Stocke
To support our mission and passion for good storytelling, please make a tax-deductible donation by clicking here: Wild River Donation.