Bethesda, Angel Of The Waters
In my fever-dreams, I keep returning to her: Bethesda, the Angel of the Waters.
She is one of my first memories of New York. I was about 13-years-old. It was a perfect fall day: half-sun, changing leaves. I was walking through Central Park with friends, wide-eyed that such beauty could exist in the middle of such a crazed, noisy city.
Years later, my brother and I drove down from Saratoga Springs to see “Angels In America” with my mother. I don’t remember a lot about the play, but I remember being blown away by the seamless transition between fantasy and reality, between waking and sleeping lives. And I remember nearly levitating out of my seat when the angel descended and said, “Millennium approaches!”
The next morning, I struck out with my guitar. It was my first time alone in the city. It was so overwhelming to me then: so big, so fast, so loud. I never felt safe, and I always felt lost. But I was immediately drawn to Bethesda fountain, where I sat and watched the waters fall below her feet for what seemed like hours.
In the spring of my first year as a New Yorker, I spent countless unemployed afternoons sitting on the hill above her, strumming, singing, and thinking.
These days, she is an integral part of my daily run. She is my gateway to the wilds of Central Park. I always approach from the south, where a wide staircase descends the Literary Walk, and frames her in the arches under 72d Street. It is such a magnificent bit of poetic symmetry, that I had to include it in my ‘New York’ music video.
And only recently have I come to understand why she’s there, and what she means. And it strikes me as so synchronous, so meaningful.
According to the Rick Burns’ “New York” documentary, the statue was dedicates in the late 1800s to commemorate Civil War naval dead. Because Central Park was so far uptown, it was out of reach for the proletariat. And the rich, apparently, didn’t care for her. She was too chubby, they said, too common. Both of which, of course, make her more beautiful and meaningful.
I started a song a few weeks ago called “Bethesda,” one I hope to finish for the next CD. It came to me while running:
And she waits by the water
And she waits for her father
And she always waits alone
And she’s always almost home
It is only recently, after watching “Angels In America” in the deep fever of my bronchitis, that I learned who Bethesda is, and how integral she was to the playwright, Tony Kushner, and his work.
Kushner wrote much of “Angels” on the benches around Bethesda Fountain, and ends his two-part play at her feet. The “Angel of the Waters” comes from Chapter five of the Gospel of Saint John. The story tells of an angel who bestows healing powers on the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem.
She is a healer.
And so I can only marvel at the resonance she has with me, with me being here in New York, with my calling New York home. “An angel is a belief,” Hanna (Maryl Streep in “Angels”) says. “With wings and arms that can carry you.”
See, I’m a sucker for symbolism. I especially love when symbols reveal their meaning over time. And so that Bethesda would make her story known to me slowly over all these years is pretty magical.
I came to New York for healing. In so much as healing is a reckoning with one’s past, and an ownership of one’s present. I’ve done that here. “Almost Home” speaks to it. And Bethesda showed me the way, as she apparently has other before me. She ushered me through the process.
She led me home.