Many of Marymount Manhattan’s writing courses explore the history, culture, and architecture of New York City.
Recent and current offerings include “Hispanic New York,” “New York City of the 1920s,” “The Brooklyn Bridge,” “Writing Central Park,” and “Autobiography and New York City.” Through reading and writing assignments, these courses ask students to engage directly with the city.
The following excerpts are drawn from students enrolled in Writing 201: Parks and Recreation, taught by Professor Mark Bresnan in Fall 2013. After reading work by David Foster Wallace, Walker Percy, Rebecca Solnit, and other writers, students traveled to parks throughout New York City to observe, analyze and reflect. Their essays put these experiences in conversation with class readings and discussion.
“I am at times overcome with feelings of inadequacy while I sit typing away at one paper or another in the early evening and the sounds of nightlife filter in through the open window—the notion that I have failed somehow, in a manner that I cannot quite place. What kind of New Yorker must I be, to wave away the miracles outside my door in favor of schoolwork, and Kit Kats, and reruns of How I Met Your Mother?
In theory, fun is a wild, breathless thing that cannot be parsed; it is the flurry of color and light and laughter that brings a smile to your own face as you watch it unfold on television or in the movies. In practice, it is a jigsaw puzzle—a grouping of elements that appear unrelated, but upon closer inspection must be pieced together in one very specific and very singular way. When tasked with completing such a puzzle it is your job to see to it that each is accounted for and accorded its proper place; failure to do so in the case of event one piece assures that the product itself is destined to remain an unfinished one.
But can a recreational endeavor truly be unfinished? David Foster Wallace, surely, would urge us to separate ourselves from the immediacy of the moment: to simply close our eyes, and feel the heat of the sun on our closed lids until, though the constant chatter doesn’t cease, it is almost as though we have entered some state of suspended animation. There is a vulnerability inherent in the act of cutting yourself off from the world and all it has to offer; it is foreign and fantastic, to sit in silence, and think of other things.”
“As I stood in the sea of cameras I couldn’t help but wonder: were these people even looking at what was in front of them? I could see their eyes moving over the scene, but were they really choosing to see it? I stood in the same place alone for a while and watched as what seemed like hundreds of people paused and took a photograph of the boat. Was the boat meant to be viewed only after being cropped and filtered? Or was it for real people, with real eyes, who should take this sight in and let themselves be absorbed by it?
These questions recall Walker Percy’s key idea: the struggle of knowing whether we are actually experiencing something or just looking at it. But maybe not all picture takers are the same. After all, what we were witnessing was so beautiful that perhaps it had inspired us to transfer that beauty into ourselves, like a choreographer who is inspired to create a new dance by what they see in nature.”
“In a broader sense, this study of Bryant Park is also a study of being in the moment and living with a widened mindset. As Walker Percy argues in “The Loss of the Creature,” if every experience is compared to a certain standard there will always be a “disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be.” Just because something does not live up to an idea or fulfill a preconceived notion does not mean it does not have anything to offer. Coming into a situation with specific expectations can take away from approaching it with a blank slate. A personal standard for parks, or pleasure, or nature does not have to be justified by others or, to borrow Percy’s phrase, “certified as genuine.” Nature does not have to be beautiful or grandiose or stunningly overwhelming. We authenticate our own meanings. This does not require being inflexible in interpretation and openness, but rather approaching situations with an open mind, forming a personal opinion, and trusting that that opinion does not need to be authenticated by others. It is important to be open to being wrong, of course, but it is equally important to trust in one’s own judgment.”
“Frederick Law Olmsted created areas of recreation meant for liberation. They are “Escape From” parks: the places we venture to when in need of tranquility and the ability to be lost in our imaginations and unconscious influences. The trees, the wide open spaces that relieve our city claustrophobia—they are all positioned to have this effect on us. Then there are the “Escape To” parks: the kind we city dwellers visit to escape solitude and to find a sense of community. The circle around the fountain at Washington Square Park is packed with the community we miss on our island of millions. We look for an escape to company, even in the company of strangers. What the creators of Washington Square Park have given us is a place to slow down and to meet people, to talk, to eat, to be conscious of our experiences and to allow ourselves a break from the loneliness of city life.”