Friday, December 5, 2014


Everything’s possible – Dare to dream

Everything’s possible I thought on that gorgeous morning in July 1996. I was sitting outside by Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, enjoying breakfast from a paper bag, like a real New Yorker: a toasted roll with egg and cheese, and coffee from a paper cup with the friendly inscription Have a nice Day. The roll was a tiny bit soppy, but I didn’t care. I was completely happy with my first breakfast in New York, purchased from one of those popular carts, where mobile vendors sell all sorts of edible goodies.  

Breakfast Cart

This was my first morning in Manhattan, and I was infinitely proud that I had managed to walk a few blocks from my hotel to Fifth Avenue without being robbed, mugged or shot to death. It seemed like a small miracle considering the terrible things you always hear in the news.

Everything’s possible – twenty-five years after my first encounter with the United States I was finally back. During my year as an exchange student in the 1970’s I only got to know life in the rural Midwest. The feeling remained that my image of America had a hole, exactly in the place where the map locates New York City.

         I had plans to come back much sooner and fill the hole, but life played out differently. I met my future husband shortly before I graduated from high school in Germany. We traveled a lot, but the US was a part of the world that didn’t interest him. So, my encounter with New York remained a dream. It was the first dream I fulfilled for myself after my husband and I divorced.

Statue of Liberty
         Of course I wanted to see the sites all tourists are headed for: Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, the Empire State Building and so forth. But to begin with, I simply drifted along with the crowd on the busy sidewalks. The buildings on both sides of the avenues are reaching for the sky, same as the people who arrive from every country in the world, from every culture and background. You feel that energy. The tempo is Allegro, the dynamics are in the forte-range. Occasionally there is some tension, but overall you’re part of a peaceful concert. The fact that a place like Manhattan is possible fills me with hope for mankind. 
         People watched me with astonishment when I stopped at red traffic lights. It took a while until I found the courage to follow those who simply cross the street when there’s no traffic. To this day, I sometimes stop out of habit. It will probably take the rest of my life to rid myself of the reflex to hesitate in front of imaginary obstacles.

         Everywhere, I encountered every day miracles that seemed unthinkable in Germany.
         Businessmen in elegant suits were holding lunch break in Bryant Park, a small area of trees and green, surrounded by skyscrapers in the center of Manhattan. The men were sitting on folding chairs, their stocking feet resting on an extra chair, shoes parked in the grass, ties thrown back across their shoulders. Their faces bore a blissful expression as they enjoyed the light of the midday sun.

         I discovered the largest bookstore I’d ever seen. It had three floors and it was open from 10am until midnight. People were sitting on the floor between the shelves, working their way through stacks of books. The shop assistants seemed to consider that completely normal. Securely and without complaints they stepped across the human obstacles while doing their work. Germany came to mind, where someone would came running as soon as they caught you reading the text on the dust cover, with a sharp reminder that the right to read was bound to the obligation to buy.

         The small café on the third floor had a view of Broadway. It was fine to sit there with a cup of coffee and browse through books for hours. By German standards, coffee and books you don’t own are a completely incompatible combination.
         “Cafes are New York’s public living room,” one of my friends in New York would tell me a few years later, “especially for all the people whose apartments are so tiny, all they can accommodate is a bed and a closet.”

         High school kids and college students spend hours in the cafes with their laptops. It’s a meeting place for friends; business partners negotiate contracts. I don’t know any other city where so much of personal life is shared in public. Once, I absorbed a complete lecture on inheritance law in the state of New York from the people at the next table. I felt enriched, even though I didn’t have any immediate use for the information.   
Central Park, the lake

         If you need a break from the quick pulse of the city, Central Park allows you to switch to a slower pace. The park is a green island in the heart of Manhattan. You see skyscrapers rising up above the treetops, but they stay outside. The paths in the park are as crooked as the streets in Midtown Manhattan are straight. I wonder if they were designed with the principle of Japanese crooked bridges in mind: the bad spirit can’t get across, because it can only move straight ahead.
         By the time I leave the park, I‘ve usually forgotten what it was that troubled my mind when I entered. I’m surrounded by nature. My steps slow down, and I take a deep breath.
         Before the park gets really quiet, you have to cross the “Loop”, though. The only road in the park is closed for traffic, and reserved for those who like to keep up a certain tempo even when they are relaxing: bikers, horse carriages, bike rikshas and the runners who are training for the next New York City Marathon. Different organizations sponsor running events on many Sunday mornings, and the loop becomes as busy as a highway. In spite of the tempo the gesture of containment remains, because the loop doesn’t lead anywhere – it’s a loop, after all. People run for the sake of running, the goal is to stay in the moment, rather than arrive anywhere.

Kid's marathon

         Those who’ve come to spend the day spread out blankets and picnic baskets on sheep meadow.
Central Park, Sheep Meadow

 Supposedly it did host a flock of sheep in days gone by.

 A painter sets up an easel under the trees.
Painter in Central Park

 Dogs befriend each other, while their owners enjoy a snack in the café. 
The latest in canine fashion is always a reason to take out the camera.

 Musicians feel drawn to the square by Bethesda Fountain. 

Bethesda Fountain

Jazz and four-part madrigals blend with the sound of the fountain’s rushing water and create a symphony.

         A famous site in Central Park is Strawberry Fields, with the memorial for John Lennon. It is a sanctuary for anyone who still feels the uplifting spirit of the 1960’s. IMAGINE, reads the inscription. Everything is possible. Dare to dream. I had a feeling it might be addressed to me, when I stood there for the first time.

         Strawberry Fields is on the edge of the park, on the Upper Westside. The small, tree-lined streets that cross the Avenues from East to West lead into a different world. The cozy, richly decorated brownstones tell stories about the people who live there. On my first visit to New York, I had no idea that in one of them lived the teacher, who would teach me everything that I’d been searching for as a pianist as long as I could think.

         Many hours at the piano and on planes across the Atlantic would pass between the first encounter with him the following summer, and my emigration to the United States in 2001. The decision to fly to New York for piano lessons a couple of times every year changed my view of the world and my priorities. Imagine says John Lennon, Dare to Dream.

         In 1999/2000 I spent the entire winter in New York. Once a week I saw my teacher for a lesson. Outside of that, I mostly saw practice rooms and pianos. The city remained outside, but I could feel its energy, as a force that kept me moving, as a living reality of possibilities. Before I returned to Germany, I played a solo recital for the first time in more than twenty years.

         My first job in the United States got me a work permit, and, eventually, a Green Card. Unfortunately, the job was not in New York. For seven years, I taught at a community music school in a small town in New England, surrounded by woods, mountains, and stifling silence. The only thing that conveyed a sense of motion was the music.
Winter in New Hampshire

The Concord Community Music School - A place of motion in New Hampshire

         Conferences, master classes, a few visits to friends took me to different places across the US. New York City remained the place where the motions of life and music flowed together. A friend of mine called it my soul home.   

         The heart of New York City is Manhattan, and Manhattan is an island, a long stretch of land between the Harlem River, the Hudson, and the East River, that merge at the southern tip of Manhattan. Some time passed before I realized that. At some point, I began to ask myself why every trip to the city ended in a traffic jam, crossing a bridge or passing through a tunnel. A glance at the map revealed the geographical situation.

         A solid piece of land, surrounded by three rivers. The encounter of motion and stillness. A solid foundation within myself, surrounded by the motion of life, open for the changes that come along with it – that’s something I wish for, an image where I can find myself.

On the way to my lesson with my teacher I sometimes visit John Lennon in Central Park. Performing has become a regular part of my life by now. Seventeen years ago, when I stood at the memorial for the first time, I had only just started to become serious about practicing again. Back then, I could barely imagine what has become possible in the meantime. Today, I find it hard to imagine that it’s ever been different.

Imagine – everything is possible – dare to dream.

John Lennon Memorial

This article was translated from the original German and posted. with kind permission by Edition Forsbach. It has been published in the volume "Inselgeschichten - Von Fehmarn bis Manhattan" (Island Stories), ISBN 978-3-943134-26-1 and is available through Amazon