Skip to main content

Refractions 37: From Ground Zero to Fujimura Farm

When I left for an exhibit in Tokyo in early December of 2011, I left my loft on Murray Street that I lived in for the past fifteen years, three blocks away from where the World Trade Towers stood, never to return again as a resident of Ground Zero.

It was a move that slowly and gently approached me for about five years. I was a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church with Dr. Timothy Keller, part of a movement that chose to love the city and raise our children here. When we moved into TriBeCa in the early 90’s, my wife and I committed ourselves to the call to stay in the city at least until our youngest daughter graduated from high school.

Every significant life stage brings challenges for a marriage: the first move, a new job, the first child born, when that child begins school. The “firsts” define our family lives and our decisions about where we live. Each celebration is a kind of death, too, and as a couple we need to recognize that. My wife, a psychotherapist, speaks to her clients about the importance of creating and weaving the “Our Story” of their relationships, guiding them toward the future. So as we approached the stage of becoming empty nesters, perhaps one of the greatest challenges in the journey of our marriage, we began to ponder and pray about what lay ahead.

*

For us, “loving the city” meant to first move to TriBeCa in 1996, right next to Dan Flaven’s studio on 7 Worth Street a few years before he passed away. A significant contemporary artist, he used fluorescent light tubes to create minimalistic installations. After 9/11, a “T-shaped” neon light glowed in the entryway to his studio and almost looked like a crucifix to me. Tiffany Bell, his foremost expert, critic and curator, worked there, and I got to know her when her daughter and my second son were on the same baseball team. When we moved into the neighborhood in 1994, TriBeCa was not yet family friendly, with only a few markets in walking distance and only one public grade school (a very good one, P.S. 234). The city was on the cusp, though, of the “tipping point” of Giuliani’s administration. It was, one sociologist noted, the greatest documented cultural change that a city has ever witnessed.

There is a store called “The Balloon Saloon” right around the corner from 7 Worth. The Balloon Saloon had many, as one might guess, balloon toys for children outside the shop, but I told my children to look the other way as we walked by them. Inside the store was full of sex toys. There were also a magazine shop to the other side of the loft that displayed pornographic magazines in the front. When Judy complained to the owner of the shop, a middle-eastern man, he stared back, “Which ones are objectionable to you? They all seem dirty to me.” Judy began to explain the difference between pornographic magazines and fashion magazines, and she realized the problem was that coming from a Muslim culture, any western images may seem pornographic to him. How do you distinguish these magazines? Maybe our pre-supposed definition of what is acceptable for our children may not make perfect sense, after all.

There were regular reports of gang violence in the west side of TriBeCa, and I used to avoid walking on some of the streets surrounding my studio, just south of Canal Street, about ten blocks north from 7 Worth St. There was broken glass everywhere and one could not walk at dusk because of the rats.

The Worth St. loft was on the ground floor. It lead to the back section where the owner told us that it had a nice garden. The “garden” turned out to be a mold-filled lot full of weeds with beer bottles scattered about. In the fall, we left the back sliding door open, and a squirrel bit through the screen and ended up in my studio, scurried about to the opposite end of the loft, and hid in between the stretchers and wood that I had gotten for framing. When we called for the exterminator, they sent Jose, a friendly, young man who seemed rather excited to find mice trails. He treated the loft for mice, but when my wife inquired about the squirrel he said, “Nothin' I can do about that ma'am. They are protected.” It turned out that New York City does indeed protect these furry creatures, but then he added, “I can put some rat poison around and if he happens to eat that, there’s nothing I can do about that either.” He smiled and left a some rat poison, and we trained our children to ignore both the squirrel and the mice, and definitely not to eat the poison.

A few years later, when we had an opportunity to purchase a loft on Murray St. for a very reasonable price, Judy mentioned this mice experience to the board of the coop. The board president then, Gene*, a radio producer for NPR, took note of this, advocating for us that we would indeed contribute a positive vibe to the coop. I convinced my brother, a successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, to invest in half of the loft. We had never bought a house before, let alone a loft in TriBeCa. A few years later, our real estate agent, the father of a friend of our second son, would point to our loft and tell his clients, “That was the last bargain in TriBeCa.” When we sold the loft last December, the price had tripled. My brother was impressed. “You can't imagine doing that well in the stock market!” Indeed not, certainly not in 2011.

Quite recently, I was invited to speak at a Salon in downtown. I did not notice the address until I was ready to leave my farmhouse. Incredibly, it was at 7 Worth Street. The upstairs neighbors had sold the loft to a friend of a friend. That loft has access to a rooftop of the garage, where they had infamous concerts in the 70’s. Unknown new bands would play, hosted by the artist/gallerist couple there. One night they had a noise complaint, the salon host told the group before I spoke. It was a record producer neighbor who heard the band playing and wanted to know what the band was. The band’s name was U2.

**

I wanted to stay for the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Judy did not. We often tell people that Judy and I have the kind of marriage in which we rarely agree on anything. But we have earned a kind of love that perseveres through our vast differences. We have different cultural backgrounds, different temperaments. She likes potatoes, I eat rice. I am Presbyterian, she is Catholic. She likes to watch Antiques Roadshow, even if there is an important baseball playoff game on.

We did agree, though, that she was right, as a psychotherapist, to suggest that we need a new journey after being “empty nesters.” If our next step was to weave “our story,” we needed to find a common place of journey.

So we began to dream. We made our dream list:

Judy: an older house with enough land for a gardening Mako: an ecosystem in our backyard!? Judy: a portion of the house should be renovated to create a combination of old and new Mako: convenient enough to go to NYC, but far away enough for a high introvert Judy: an ideal place to set up her psychotherapy practice (i.e., where many families live) Judy: a place of nurture and safety; and a possibility of a butler’s kitchen Mako: a place with a barn to create and write

It took several people’s timely advice, aside from my wife’s considerable influence on my psyche, for me to begin pondering moving out of the city, the city that I had indeed come to love. One was Steve C, a friend from London, who often travels just to encourage leaders in the arts. He will come to IAM’s conferences, and have lunch with me, and tell me, “I came so I can have lunch with you.” It was about five years ago that he sat down in one of these lunches and began to speak into my life. “Mako…I have seen many leaders get on these circuits and burn out. I think you need to consider moving out of the city. Jesus, too, retreated in order to be more effective.” I had just finished giving an exhortation at my church encouraging families to consider staying in the city using Jeremiah 29 as the key passage. I don't know what my response to Steve was then. I probably shrugged it off politely, thanking him for his input, but internally thinking, “He has no idea what I am trying to do here.”

***

It was several years later, that Karen Miller pushed me over, and a Northern Perula. Perula is a rare warbler, the smallest warbler in New Jersey. Karen is former attorney and law professor, who lives in Princeton and suffers from MS. When she is well and can see you, there is, it seems, no time wasted. So when we visited her last May, we sat down with her and her husband, David. David, a long-time friend of mine, teaches at Princeton University. She looked at me and said, “You need to move to Princeton. Here’s a number to call.”

The number belonged her physical therapist. A muscular African American man stood in the fields of Belle Mead where he and his family owned a vineyard. He stood next to the compound where wine bottles used to be stored and told us how much David and Karen had taught him about life, faith and marriage. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he spoke, and as he did, in a hot sun for May, a mosquito landed on his shaved head. Swatting it away, he said, “Whatever I have, it’s nothing compared to what David has. The way he loves his wife is a revelation to me.” I knew that, and I've seen first hand how much Karen struggles daily. How do you live with debilitating circumstances and keep the faith and marriage? Can we swat that away as well?

We looked at a house he had put on sale. It was a loft-like space, and open. We liked it, but did not feel quite right about it. We thanked him and decided to take a walk in the preserves opposite the vineyard.

Montgomery preserves is, indeed, an ecosystem. It is situated in a pocket of preserves, surrounded by 71 acres, and not far from the Duke Preserves recently reopened to the public, to Raritan Canal area that totals some 12,000 acres. That day, Judy and I choose to walk on a path that diverges into multiple directions for miles. But that particular path that we took, made the journey quite miraculous.

For it was on that path we took that day, I heard a warbler I've never heard before.

In college, I studied ecology rather avidly. In between art classes and literature classes, I took Biology and ornithology classes. I ended up with a degree in Animal Behavior, but it could have been ornithology, if they had offered that. I carried around Aldo Leopold, one of the early land ethic advocates in book called “Sand County Almanac.” I did not know, until now as I research into writing this essay, that he taught at University of Wisconsin at Madison, a place where Dr. Calvin DeWitt took Leopold’s torch, and began to speak of Creation Care. I had invitedDr. Calvin DeWitt for last year’s IAM conference. Dr. Dewitt spoke on estuary, and our thought was to carry that idea into culture, for IAM’s main purpose is to create a microcosm, an cultural estuary, and take a lead in Culture Care values. We need to learn from Creation Care principles and apply them to the ecosystem of culture. We need to pay attention to the small signs of life, then, that affect the estuaries.

The Hudson is one of the largest estuaries in the world. And estuaries do attract all sorts of migratory birds.

A little over a year after 9/11, I took a walk to P.S. 234. It was an unusually cold day for October, and I noticed a little commotion in the maple tree. This was one of the small trees that C.J., my second son, helped to plant, a tree that was scorched by the “fire ball” that incinerated cars after the towers fell. The leaves were all but gone. The bird was easy to spot. It was a small olive bird, with a bright red patch on its forehead. I later identified it as a Ruby Crowned Kinglet. I had never seen a Kinglet in Tribeca.

Perhaps, I reasoned, the migrant birds cannot navigate now that the two big “trees” that we called World Trade Towers are gone. I noticed that the air current had definitely changed. The colder winds blowing off the coast came through directly on the north side of where the towers used to stand.

The vermillion markings flashed in between the remaining maple leaves, their veins now turning blood orange: a flash of stigmata, darting in and out of a small ground zero garden, leaving indelible marks in my mind.

****

I write this now in a red horse barn, a horse barn that two horses lived in it until a year ago. The barn has been converted to a studio. I look over the three acres of land that Judy and I manage now. There are indistinct and diverse low tree forms beyond the wooden fences. The wooden fences are old and have cracks in them and I notice wasps go in and out, to chew on wood materials for their nests. Once in a while, a red tailed hawk or, on occasion, a sharp-shinned hawk swoops by or lands on the edge of the barn roof, surveying the field for voles. There is a woodchuck living in the pile of wood and debris that came from the renovation of the barn, and a large garter snake lives in the well behind the barn. He comes slithering out in between the rocks to catch the voles as well. Recently, my wife spotted a Bobcat.

My delight is to see the family of bluebirds lined up on one of the low fences, diving into the fields to catch insects. I put boxes out in early spring to see if I could attract a couple to nest. After reading that they prefer to chose from two boxes several feet apart, I placed them next to the old apple tree and waited.

A pair of chickadees came right away and began to nest. I noticed several bluebirds check out the empty boxes, but chickadees would complain and attack them. I moved the boxes further apart, and seeing no results, decided to add another one, forming a triangle surrounding the apple tree.

In college, I did a field study on the “Optimal Foraging Theory of Chickadees.” Chickadees, especially in winter, reserve their energy to travel the minimal distances to feed. Often traveling with titmice and nuthatches, they are a regular, diligent group to your sunflower seeds. One morning in the winter months, soon after we moved to the farmhouse, I realized that their visit to the bird feeder came at exactly the same time that the parents in the Cul-de-sac homes across our street dropped off their children to be picked up by school buses. I thought then of thousands of commuters, waking up to a new day, surrounded by their likes, headed to work. We, too, optimally feed and survive our winters.

But this chickadee pair, especially the male, was quite aggressive. As I was putting up the third box, I heard a commotion in the apple tree. I was surrounded by chickadees checking out this new box, and then a pair of tree swallows joined them, dancing in and out of the azure March sky. As soon as the box was set, the swallows swooped in to claim it.

It was a few weeks until a pair of bluebirds, the male with vibrant blue and a female with mottled, duller colors regularly came to the remaining box, in between the chickadees and the tree swallows. The swallows would attack the female bluebird first, in spectacular aerial battles with both of their iridescent feathers scattering. The bluebird would dart back to rest on top of the empty box, but then the chickadees mercilessly harassed her. As I pondered what to do next, whether to intervene in this territorial skirmish or not, I noticed that the male bluebird left once to a large maple across the field, jaunted in again, and was confidently sitting on top of the chickadee box!

After sitting there for a while, the male enduring chickadees attacks, the female bluebird went into the box that they were originally aiming to inhabit.

That, I told Judy later, is the bluebird method of negotiation. Instead of compromising, or giving up entirely, you transgress, invade the other’s territory. If you are going to endure attacks, it might as well be to expand your territory. Very impressive.

Bluebirds created intricate nests with hay and pine needles from the farm acres, weaving them in a circular cup. Three chicks hatched, at first very indistinct in black, white and grey. They nestes in a tight box, neatly fitted to each other with the middle bird’s head turned the tails of the other two, a perfect threesome packaged in nature’s efficiency.

When they left the nest, all of the sudden one June morning, Judy found me quite melancholy. There were no flight lessons, as I was expecting, like one might assume for a teen’s driver’s license. They just took off on a straight path to the big ole' maple across the yard. And then suddenly they were gone. When she inquired about it, I found myself saying “It’s hard to see beauty leaving us.”

*****

It was 2005 that Lydia graduated from P.S. 234. For her birthday, which was also in June, I wanted to get her balloons. When I walked into Balloon Saloon with a friend, the Balloon Saloon was full of, well, balloons. The sex toys were gathering dust in the back. I turned to my friend and quipped, “Now this is cultural renewal!”

A culture is renewed when a balloon shop returns to what was it was originally intended to be. We, too, are renewed when we recover who we were originally intended to be. Part of the dysfunctions of our lives is that we have forgotten who we are meant to be. In Eden, we were once splendid creatures, gardeners of the Garden. Our post-Edenic journey continues, where even children’s balloons can turn into sex toys. But these balloons represented not just a recovery; they represented a generative growth of a city. Families had moved into downtown Manhattan, increasing the need for balloons in the renewed Balloon Saloon. That day, the Balloon Saloon was full of purple balloons with logos for P.S. 234. And behind that logo, and the person being honored that day, is a whole miracle of 9/11.

After 9/11 many predicted a doomsday scenario for downtown Manhattan. They thought all the families would move out. We did not. Why?

The answer to that question, like all sociological and life questions, is complex. But I know personally why we did not move out. It was to remember our call, of the reason why we felt we should raise our children in the city. In addition, by this time, the children had their say as well. There was not a day in my post-9/11 fog that went by that I did not think of moving out of the city. Many Christians told us to. But most of the parents of our children’s friends concluded what we concluded: we want to see the restoration happen and experience that with our children.

Those were purple balloons that had 234 on them. They were for Anna Switzer, the feisty principle of P.S. 234 who became infamous for her high standards. Like a good captain of a ship, Anna was the last to leave the school on 9/11, and a newspaper photographer from Minneapolis took a photo of CJ and Tadashi*, his Japanese buddy, running with the smoke filled Ground Zero area. Tadashi was from Kobe and was present for both the earthquake in 1995 and five years later experienced 9/11. His mother, who could not speak English that well, were forced to evacuate, guided to get on the ferry, and could not reach her son. He waited overnight with a teacher until they could find each other in the dark, chaotic night of 9/11. Lydia was one of the youngest at the school, and therefore one of the first to evacuate, and to reach the evacuation site at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village. By the time she reached there, Anna was already waiting for them. Thus Anna was the last to leave the school, and the first to arrive at the evacuation site. To this day, I do not know how she covered those two miles so quickly. But such is the story of people of New York, where the extraordinary is quite ordinary. (Thanks to Tim Keller for this extraordinary quote.)

As P.S. 234 went, so did downtown Manhattan. When the parents and children stayed, that contributed to the renewal downtown. It did help that the parents were powerful financiers and lawyers and the president of the PTA was an ex-marine. We could lobby to have the entire school equipped with air filters and positive air flow. We were determined to stay, and stay we did.

******

Ten years later, one summer day in 2011, Lydia and I decided to walk home. The streets of SoHo were brimming with tourists on a late August afternoon. I had just taken Lydia to walk around, to see her favorite fashion shops. This would be the last day in New York City for her before she headed to college.

SoHo is only a mile and a half away from Murray Street. For Lydia, these streets are her home, and even in the Nineties she frequented SoHo, where Dillon Gallery, a gallery that represents my art, was on West Broadway before it moved to Chelsea. We headed to Hudson St. and turned south toward home, and I suddenly realized this was the same path I took on 9/11. Lydia walked beside me, her long, black hair caressing my elbow as she walked, and she locked her arm with mine.

I remember, on 9/11, looking at the smoke billowing into the vast sky toward Brooklyn as I stood on the corner of Canal St. and Hudson. I did not know if my family survived.

Now, instead of the smoke, I see the shiny towers, with the Freedom Tower now the tallest, a bit higher than the new Number 7. Now, walking briskly right next to me, is a young lady, confident, as tall as me.

I remember in the dark days of my post-9/11 fog, walking toward Ground Zero, as I was today, and holding eigth-year-old Lydia by hand, and sighing, “Lydia, do you think that we will ever feel normal again?”

“Of course we will,” she said looking up to me, “Of course, Daddy.”

Of course. God granted my feeble, weak prayers as I rushed back toward home on 9/11, stopping by at the studio on Greenwich below Canal St. ten blocks north of my Murray Street loft. We were walking past the building now, where I rented my studio for over ten years. I looked over to the building, remembering my relief to get my wife’s telephone message she left that morning on the studio landline as she avoided the debris of the falling towers, that the kids had evacuated safely, and that she would meet me there.

I looked over again at my daughter, now slightly ahead of me, walking our path toward Ground Zero. That would be our last walk home together as Ground Zero residents.

*******

When we walked on that path in Montgomery preserves, it was a Northern Perula that stopped me. I saw glimpse of it, a small warbler darting in and out of pine branches with a distinct call. I am not positive of the sighting, but I knew that it was a warbler I had never seen before. Taking note of the bird’s markings and call, we walked past the pine trees. Beyond the clearing was a farmhouse with a red barn and a large expanse of land. We both sighed and said, “Now wouldn't that be nice?”

The farmhouse, as it turned out, only has had two previous owners. First it belonged to Mr. Galick who owned 120 acres of land. He kept three acres, and donated the rest to the county as a nature preserve. When Judy and I inquired about the property, we were told that the second owners, a husband and a wife who owned two horses, bought the property directly from Mr. Galick. There was a graffiti in the barn from 1921.

Judy and I drove up to the front of the farmhouse one day, and we prayed that this property, if it was meant for us, would not sell until our Murray Street loft could be sold.

********

An invitation came from Redeemer Presbyterian Church, from Kathy Keller herself, for me to give a short testimony on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Judy left to go see a friend in Connecticut. I accepted, and left on the morning of 9/11, around the time I was in the subway trying to get home on that day ten years ago. Tom Jennings, the music director and a friend, greeted me. Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” began, solemnly, and in between the rafters of the New York Ethical Society building, I could sense the weight of that bright day imposing upon us. An actor sat next to me to read the scriptures. When we introduced each other on stage, I realized that I knew him. He reminded me that the last time we saw each other was the morning of 9/11/2001 at a prayer gathering for creatives at All Angel’s Church.

I stumbled through my testimony. Throughout, I kept on thinking that it was a fitting end to my time as a resident of Ground Zero. Tim Keller preached after I spoke, and I remembered the first time I visited this church, then of about 200 people, now attracting over 4,500 people each Sunday.

Exactly ten years ago, this exact hour, I was trapped in the number 3 subway underneath the Chambers Street Station as the horrific events of 9/11 took place above me. I was trying to get home after organizing a prayer meeting for creatives in a building on the Westside. By the time the subway back-tracked to 14th St., 45 minutes later, the towers were gone.

My wife had just dropped off our two youngest children at PS 234 only two blocks from the towers. It was their first day of school. As I ran back toward home, brushing against business folks covered in the white ashes, I realized that our loft may not be standing. Instead, I decided to go to my studio below Canal St, ten blocks from the towers, where my wife, thankfully, left a telephone message saying that the children had been evacuated safely, and that she would meet me at the studio. Even at that point, I had no idea what really happened. Soon after, my wife’s ghostly face told me enough: she had met Death face to face and survived.

We have been involved in the Redeemer movement since 1992. Tim’s admonition to the leaders to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jeremiah 29) meant considering to raise our children in the heart of this city. We followed Jesus' leading to do so, but we did not realize that in doing so, we would become Ground Zero residents.

As an artist, I have spent the last decade searching for a visual language to capture the terrors of our days, but using the medium of art to transcend fears, to infuse hope, and to walk through the fires of life to find the sanctifying fire of God waiting for us. International Arts Movement, a non profit arts organization I founded, made a radical effort to co-create in the midst of the chaos by providing an opportunity for downtown artists to grieve. I am grateful for Redeemer Church to have supported this effort, called TriBeCa Temporary, as we were able to give voices to many artists who were outsiders to churches. Art mediates such dark journeys, and even artists who were not cognizant of God’s grace appreciated being part of a project that allowed them to hope, to create, and to re-humanize.

After 9/11, Judy and I, as parents, had to decide whether to stay or leave. We decided to stay and to commit to raising our children here. Our children learned to invest their creative energies into this broken city. As our youngest daughter heads off to college now, we are indeed grateful that all of them have grown to love this city, to gain empathy for the suffering of others, and to dare to create in the midst of the chaos. Our children are the visible reminder of Jeremiah 29’s promises being fulfilled, even through our uncertain, feeble prayers uttered on the morning of 9/11/2001.

The loft sold two months later. We scrambled to contact our real estate agent to see if the Galick Farm was still available. It was.

*********

It turned out that the real estate agent who showed us the house liked us so much that she showed the property to only a few other people.

The first time we officially met the previous owners of the Galick farm, the wife came bounding out of the house, excitedly and shook my hand. “It’s such an honor to meet you. Do I have a story for you!”

The “story” was that over the summer, her Jewish friend kept on insisting that they go see an exhibit in New York City “about the Bible” advertised in NPR radio ads. “I had no interest in the Bible,” she told her friend, but they went nevertheless.

She stood in the Museum of Biblical Art, taking in “On the Wings of Eagles: 400th Anniversary of King James.” She perused the Bibles, and then looked up to see the bright colored paintings on the walls surrounding the Bibles. “When I found out that those paintings were yours, I screamed, 'This is the artist who wants to purchase our farmhouse!”

A Northern Perula seems to be an incarnation fluttering in and out of my sight into the fingerprints of God’s Presence. A small bird can lead one into mystery. And such a mystery can open up through a winding path to a red barn. This was the path that Judy and I took out of Ground Zero; a path that lead us to our farmhouse.

**********

Thus I landed at Newark Airport on Christmas Eve. I had not been inside the farmhouse, except one time to see the house and to speak to the real estate agent. Judy had diligently arranged for the move, bought a car (Subaru), and my children had all gathered. My eldest, Ty, and his wife Priscilla had a baby boy, Theo, in the summer months. We all slept on air mattresses among the boxes on Christmas Eve in Belle Mead.

The next morn, we awoke to the morning sun rays beaming in from our northern windows. At our home, we celebrate Christmas by first reading Luke 2. When we gathered, I suggested that we all go out in the barn and read, using the Four Holy Gospels book.

The barn, similar in size to the famed Jackson Pollock barn in the Hamptons, smelled of fresh hay and the pungent remains of horses. Horses named Bunny and Harley lived there only a week ago before their owners took them to Vermont. Bunny was a white horse, very frail and old, and rarely came out of the barn. But apparently the day they moved, she came out and walked about the acres, dragging her bad leg around the cold, hardened soil of winter.

Lydia, our youngest, opened the Four Holy Gospels Bible to read from Luke 2. Priscilla had wrapped Theo, as it was very cold in the barn. “This is what our Lord entered into our world, a cold, dark place full of horse manure,” I said before we prayed. Theo cooed. We prayed to thank God for taking us here, for all of our journeys of grace. Like Bunny, we carry wounds from the past, visible or not. A few months later, I would be painting large paintings for a new series of works intuiting those wounds into the world. In a painting, these painful markers can be integrated into the whole of nature and turned into a glimpse of a Christmas morning miracle. Yes, I said to myself, we are empty nesters, but children, like the bluebirds, return once in the while to survey the field of the farmland. And in those moments, I do see a glimpse of the whole, woven like the bluebird nests, a vision of iridescent splendor refracting in a new home that we call Fuji farm.

*many of the names are changed to protect the identity of our friends