In December ten years ago, I happened to be in New York City. Christmas trees cut for sale lined a sidewalk, and the heady fragrance still jolts me back to the wintery walks I had with fascination in my step at all that opened up in front of me. Laid out before me was the backdrop to so many movies I had watched and so many episodes of Jerry Seinfeld. There was more to it, of course – the history in the buildings, the making of the subway, and the human stories that occupied each of those tiny rooms – the city has been a mecca for the downtrodden, downcast, and hopeful souls that embark year after year to make a better life for themselves. The lasting impression of the city’s beauty for me was not in the gaudy lights of Time Square – in fact I hurried away bewildered from that place – but in the collection of people gathering in Central Park one day on December 8, 2010. I followed the familiar tunes the way one would follow the scent of a bakery – hungry for more and comforted by its presence. I was rewarded with the gathering of musicians and fans playing John Lennon’s music on the 30th anniversary of his passing.
A few musicians sat, singing and strumming guitars that were not hooked up to any sophisticated sound system. It was beautiful in its simplicity. The music was reminiscent in my mind of the hippie days of long hair, youthful defiance, ruinous political disappointments, and emboldened hope for the future. A man next to me shook with emotion, sobbing into his hand, and slowly walked away. Another man held up a sign that said, “THE CIA KILLED LENNON” and a woman distributed poems written for the beloved artist. Gratitude for this gathering of people has not left me. Let us remember together. Let us dream, and repent. Not far away from the Strawberry Fields memorial or from where Lennon was shot, his wife and son have carried on with their lives. A younger Yoko Ono with her signature long black hair and knowing eyes had once handed him a card that said invitingly, ‘Breathe.’ He did.
He more than breathed – he sang. In 1969, the year the Beatles performed their final concert on a rooftop in London to the amusement of pedestrians below, he stayed in bed with Yoko Ono during their famous ‘bed-ins’ to remind the rest of the world to make love, not war. A year earlier, the couple had sent acorns to heads of state for them to plant so that large trees would grow, a project that had mixed success. The acorns they planted themselves in England’s Coventry Cathedral were positioned in ‘the east and westerly positions’ on purpose, to symbolize their coming together from the East and West. “We are living proof of East and West getting along together,” she said, combatting racial and political tension with their love for one another.
In our advanced era, we are struggling to gather. We sing in private and listen to musicians who have obligingly shared their music with us through computer screens. We breathe under our masks. We are tired, hopeful, expectant of some grand series of changes to get the world’s economies back up again. Let us remember the simple words of artists who wanted us to respond. ‘Breathe.’
Fifty years ago, the lovers worked on a song for the rest of the world’s listeners to ponder. They asked us to imagine a better world. A good place to start as we put this year to a close. If we take a page out of their book, we might even choose to stay in bed, and enjoy it.