Wednesday, May 30, 2012


We have now moved into the west of Ireland, by way of a motor coach journey yesterday that took us from our friends in Wexford all the way across County Tipperary, through Limerick, up into the wondrous landscape of Clare (more on that later), and now to the north shores of Galway Bay.

And I do mean shores. Bearna Parish, where we sang Tuesday evening, has no stained glass on the southern exposure of her church, perhaps all the better to see the marvelous beauty immediately across the road.

But the most enchanting thing about where we now are is that we have now moved into the Gaeltacht, that unique part of Ireland where an ancient language still lives, as a rather uncomfortable cousin, to the dominant English language.

So tonight, part of the liturgy (in Irish, Mass is called Aifreann) was actually done in Irish. Here are the words of the Lord's Prayer in their language:
Ár n-Athair atá ar neamh,
Go naofar d'ainim,
Go dtagfadh do ríocht,
Go ndéantar do thoil ar an talamh
mar a dhéantar ar neamh.
Ár n-arán laethúil tabhair dúinn inniu,
agus maith dúinn ár bhfiacha
mar a mhaithimidne dár bhféichiúna féin.

As with all our travels, we are meeting the people where they are, with their own concerns. Tonight, this particular parish, like many in Ireland, see their young people facing Leaving Certificate exams, a time of extraordinary pressure for these young people. The mass we sang today was for all these young people and for their scholarly success – something that our Notre Dame students could easily enter into.

Today, we move deep into the heart of Connemara, to Kylemore Abbey, and a first for any Notre Dame entity – a visit to the birthplace of Father Patrick Peyton, c.s.c.

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Location:Án Spideál, County Galway, Ireland

Monday, May 28, 2012

What We See When We Sing

This is the view from the loft of the Cathedral Church of the Diocese of Ferns, in Enniscorthy. I'm posting it today, not only to give a picturesque view of the stunning place within which we were welcomed last night, but as a bit of an icon, a threshold to many, many other gatherings and landscapes we've encountered over this past week of travels in the East of Ireland.

All of our students have been staying with host families these past five days, and during that time, we've been able to hear the stories and take in the radical changes in landscape that have affected the Irish church over the past two generations. Even today, as I was having coffee with a fellow Irish musician, she commented to me upon the gathering you see above. "Steve," she said, "even ten years ago we would've had double the number of people in the cathedral that you saw last night. The drop-off has been that radical in participation in our church."

The picture above is from the Diocesan Send-Off for the International Eucharistic Congress, to be held in Dublin the second week in June, after we leave. We were honored to lend our voices and support to a diocese that has hosted us so cordially throughout the years, and Bishop Denis Brennan, ever eloquent, gave a magnificent reflection on just what this gathering means at this point in the history of Irish Catholicism. It is a time of profound challenge.

What we see when we sing from a loft is far more than stained glass. We are walking, not just as a journeying choir, but as people who have made the Irish our companions on the way.

Tomorrow, our travels take on an even more interesting twist, as we head deep into the West of Ireland, into Connemara and the Gaeltacht.

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Location:St. Aidan's Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Ireland

Lessons from an Island

Here's the Irish joke of the day:
Q: How do you define summer in Ireland?
A: Two consecutive days of sunshine!

If this is the case, the Americans in the Folk Choir have brought the French Riviera to the Republic of Ireland. Or, at least that's what they're saying about us. We've had five days of jaw-dropping sunshine.

On Saturday, the Vigil of Pentecost, the Choir had a full day: a music workshop for the diocese in the morning, followed by a mini retreat experience, a pilgrim's rosary, on Our Lady's Island, Oileán Mhuire.

We had been working hard those first few days. On Tuesday and Wednesday, our first days overseas, we performed for two Catholic grade schools, Dublin's National Concert Hall, and a parish concert. The whole week was one of great giving, and much patience was demanded of the ensemble.

But Saturday we had time for ourselves, and we walked this sacred pilgrim's way, in groups of a half-dozen or so. Along the way, you could hear small collections of our singers praying the rosary, offering up intentions for those back home, talking about things close to the heart.

It was a much needed respite on the eve of Pentecost.

Sometimes, the best way to straighten things out inside you is to go around in circles — whether it be the repetitive prayer of the rosary, or the holy ground of a peninsula that has been witnessing the prayers of people like us for centuries.

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Location:Our Lady's Island, County Wexford, Ireland

Sunday, May 27, 2012

In Medias Res

There is a beloved groundskeeper in Clonard Parish, who goes by the name of Joe. He's just under five feet tall on a windy day, and is a tireless supporter of the House of Brigid; he would also put any subway alum of Notre Dame to shame, given his enthusiasm for and knowledge of our football team.

I received instructions from one of our Teach Bhríde members to bring along a Notre Dame flag before we left, so Michele dutifully picked one up at the bookstore as we were heading off. Below, you can see what Joe has done with said flag:

Yesterday, Joe told me that the ND flag would fly throughout the time that we were being hosted by the parish. Now he wants an ND leprechaun flag as well — which I am concerned about, because he might just bump the stars and stripes!

We are now just about at the midpoint of our journey, in the middle of this pilgrim narrative. We're battling a few coughs and scratchy throats at the moment, something that demands proactive trips to the chemist (the Irish terms for a pharmacist). But our students continue to astound me by their witness.

There have been little moments along the way, like yesterday at Our Lady's Island, (Oileán Mhuire in Irish)when the parish priest, V. Rev. Brendan Nolan, spoke from the pulpit about how a choir evangelizes. He spoke eloquently, quoting Basil the Great, musing on the work of the Holy Spirit. And he brought the work and creative efforts of our ensemble into sharp focus... this, on the splendid feast of Pentecost.

Earlier in the day, we led a diocesan music workshop, hosted by Bunclody Parish at the northern end of the Diocese of Ferns. And this same parish priest was there, preparing for our visit by seeing what we do. At the tea break (there must be tea breaks), he took me aside and looked straight into me. "Do ye have any idea of just how much your choir's music has affected this corner of Ireland?" he asked me. "Your life, Steven," he said, "has not been in vain."

It was the turn of the phrase that caught me off guard. Yet in his gentility and earnest delivery, the effect was like someone throwing cold water on my face: I've never considered my life being anything but intentional, yet to hear someone put it right out there cut me to the quick. Ah, Ireland! You know how to fashion your phrases! And you know, equally well, how to humble a pilgrim.

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Location:Enniscorthy Cathedral, County Wexford, Ireland

Mary of the Gaels

May, of course, is the month of Mary. But when we came to Clonard Parish, the home of the House of Brigid, we had another surprise waiting for us: the parochial staff had planned a special celebration, Naomh Bhríde, Mary of the Gaels, a fusion of Irish imagery, traditional music, history and prayers, all associated with the saint from Kildare.

It is safe to say that we've never experienced a liturgy quite like this before: the combination of God's forces of nature — the air, water, earth and flame — all woven together with ancient stories of St. Brigid; these, intermingled with the songs and psalms we've researched and performed over the years, gave us all a deep and true insight into what is really the taproot of "Celtic spirituality".

Some people throw around this term, Celtic spirituality, in a loose and reckless way, and what they are really hinting at is a watered-down, secular, new-age brand of piety, something that has no deep regard for the Gospels or for Christian sacrifice. But working in tandem with the Irish priests, musicians and lay people that we do, we are not about to be lured into such a compromise. The liturgy we experienced last night was rich in Christian imagery: the primal baptismal waters, the honoring with incense, the ancient songs that endured centuries of persecution. The Brigid celebration caught us up in this breathtaking amalgam of story, song and Scripture; in short, it was creative Irish Catholic devotion at its very best.

For who could resist being brought into the blessing of the hearth, the praises of poetry and scholars, the thanksgiving for the beauty and bounty of the earth? All this, woven around the yearning, lyrical, soulful melodies of the Irish people.

Often over these last few days, it's been hard to sort out the giving and the receiving: for all we offer by way of song, the Irish give back, with open doors and warm embraces and laughter and their own ingenious expressions. The Bhríde celebration was just one more instance of how, as pilgrims with gifts to bring, we found those very gifts laid before our own feet.

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Location:Clonard, County Wexford, Ireland

Friday, May 25, 2012

Heaven and Earth, in little space

I could attach a video clip, but I will not.
I could attach a sound file, but it would be useless.
Let me explain what I mean.

For years, on our Irish pilgrimages, the choir has traveled to the sacred monastic ruins of Glendalough. Glendalough, from the Irish gleann dá loch, "the valley of the two lakes". In my mind, it's rather like stepping into a Christian time machine.

In America, we think of things being old when we visit Colonial Williamsburg. That would be, the 17th century.

But Glendalough is in an entirely different league. It is the foundation of St. Kevin, founded in the sixth century.

Over the years, we'd bring the ensemble here and do the less expensive route, skipping the guided tour. But this time we actually participated in the tour, and in doing so were brought into a tiny little chapel, no bigger than a pair of living rooms, a stone fortress of a building that had been weathering the ravages of humanity for more than a thousand years.

"We should sing something," came the whisper from the back of the choir. And so we did: it was that beautiful text, set to music by our Trappist mentor, Father Chrysogonus Waddell:
There is no rose of such virtue,
As is the rose that bare Jésu: Alleluia!
For in that Rose containéd was,
Heaven and earth, in little space: Res miranda!

So we sang. My eyes were closed, and though I was conducting, we barely needed it, standing in the near-darkness of that bastion of early faith. But as we moved through the song, measure by measure, I swear to God I heard ancient voices gathering around us, and I felt the granite sinews and stoney bones of that tiny chapel flex themselves in rapt attention.

Even as I tap out this chronicle on an iPad, I am acutely aware of the fact that there are some things mere machines cannot embrace; this was one of those moments. I wouldn't even dare to try capturing the sanctity of this experience with a mechanical recording. I must do my best with that most ancient of gifts, the gift of language.

Heaven and earth, indeed, were caught up in that little space. And if ever I wonder why we do this, why we expend all this time and energy and resources on such a pilgrimage, I was dealt the swift blow of an answer standing in that dark space, surrounded by the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses of the Notre Dame Folk Choir. When we finished, it was as if the whole valley paused, intent and hushed, listening to this little song about the Virgin.

Later, I ran into the tour guide, a scrappy young man, swift of wit and sharp of tongue. "I shan't forget that," he said, with the Irish dripping from his accent.
"Then," I said, "we have sung well today."

Sometimes heaven and earth are crowded into the womb of a woman; sometimes, they nestle in an ancient church, long devoid of the musical praises of God. And sometimes, heaven and earth can even reach out to us in unsuspecting ways — like the heartfelt appreciation of a man of history. And when that happens, we'd best be listening closely, lest, in our modern haste, we pass over the miracle of a quiet valley.
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Location:Glendalough, County Wicklow, Ireland

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dublin's Fair, Fair City

The Folk Choir usually travels to Ireland every four years (though this year will be a double-dip; we'll be back for the football game with the Naval Academy in September). And the spin among our Irish friends is that we always bring the good weather with us.

I'm almost reluctant to post this, because there are still many days left to our journey. But I could not imagine a fairer day in Dublin than what we encountered yesterday. Brilliant sunshine, a steady breeze, temperatures about 70° — enough to bring any Dubliner out of their digs and bask on St. Stephen's Green. Which they did.

So yesterday, in the midst of two presentations (both to Catholic schools; one in the morning, in Blanchardstown, and the other in the evening, at St. Louis High School) — yesterday, the choir took to the streets of Dublin. The city was overflowing with light and activity, and the ensemble took full opportunity to jump into their surroundings. From Parnell Square to the Newman Church, from buskers on Grafton Street to letting loose on a huge rendition of "Hallelujah, Pelo tsa Rona" at Wagamamas —they drank up the joy of the city.

Above is the Newman Chapel, and below, Parnell Square at the head of O'Connell Street.

Today we bid farewell to Dublin's fair city, after having spent exceptional days with Kevin Whelan and Anne Kearney and Joe Stranix and all the great staff of the Keough-Naughton Centre. We head south now, to the Wicklow Mountains, to Gorey and Clonard, and soon, to that mystic tapestry of Holy Brigid, beckoning us to walk among her people still.

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Location:St Stephen's Green,Dublin,Ireland

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

In the Great Hall

It is easy, at times, to test the mettle of a choir: put them on a Trans-Atlantic flight, essentially dealing everyone an all-nighter, keep them up the day they arrive by singing for hundreds of Catholic schoolchildren, then, in the evening, put them into an extraordinary concert venue, packed with prestigious musicians and academicians from around Dublin's fair city.

This is the front of the National Concert Hall, Ireland's crown jewel of performance, where the Folk Choir sang on Tuesday evening. And I don't know a time that I've been prouder of this great group of musicians.

"You will run, but not grow weary, for your God will be your strength". Perhaps, more aptly put, you will sing and not grow weary — for when the Folk Choir sings, they shake off their weariness like laughter.

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Location:Earlsfort Terrace,Dublin,Ireland

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Dia is Mhuire is Bhríde

Today, fifty-six members of the Notre Dame Folk Choir will join together, working their itineraries out over the next 36 hours so that we all converge, on Tuesday morning, at the Aeroport Baile Atha Cliath – Dublin's International Airport. Some will be coming from Europe or Africa and meeting us there; most will depart from Notre Dame's Coleman Morse Campus Ministry Center. For all of us departing from campus, the trip would not be complete without taking a few minutes, just before boarding the bus, to ask for God's blessing.
A few months ago, then-director of Campus Ministry, Fr. Joe Carey, c.s.c., requested that a service be created to bless our musical pilgrims as they went out in various directions. That blessing service was first spoken over the Handbell and Celebration Choir as they made their way to the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal, back in March. Shortly thereafter, the same words were used for the Liturgical Choir before they made their way to Rome.

Now it is our turn. With Fr. Joe presiding, we gathered in the room where all of our music has been rehearsed these past years.

And we've been the recipient of benedictions, via email, from all the country — one endearing blessing from fellow composer Carolyn Pirtle (whose wishes were in Irish) to our friends in Scotland, champing on the bit for our arrival.
And then, there came the parting blessing of Chris Labadie, former member of Teach Bhríde and now a Holy Cross seminarian: "Dia is Mhuire is Bhríd duit!" "God and Mary and Brigid go with ye!" The best of companions, these three.

Fraction, Part I: 800 Candles

We all knew this time will come, though very little was ever said about it.

When you sing and laugh, walk a journey of years, watch each other grow up, pray for each others' family members, lead people in prayer even though you're new to it – when you do all these things, there is an unspeakable bond that transcends the normal bounds of "friendship."

On Thursday night of Senior Week at the University of Notre Dame, a Fraction Liturgy took place: something was broken into many pieces. It was not a vessel, at least not the kind made of clay or glass. What began to be broken apart was the community of the Folk Choir, as we begin this yearly, agonizing process of saying good-bye to those we have grown to love.

The awful and amazing thing: this breaking is precipitated by the mere turning of a calendar page.

Thursday night we celebrated a uniquely Notre Dame event: the Last Visit to the Grotto and Basilica of the Sacred Heart. More than 800 seniors packed themselves, like sardines, into the Basilica. There they shared Scripture, sang to one another, laughed (a lot) over the antics of the past four years, apologized to Fr. Jenkins and Fr. Doyle for making their lives a bit crazy. And when this was all over, they links hands and arms, this mass of talent and promise, this class of 2012, and they sang together, one last time, the "Notre Dame Lord's Prayer."

We, in the choir, watched all this take place from the loft. We, in the choir, held on, too. And at the end, when the last song to be sung was Newman's text, "Lead, Kindly Light," we approached each one of our Seniors in the choir, blessed them on their foreheads, and tearfully dispatched them from the loft.

The fraction has begun. These dozen singers, now beginning the breaking-apart from those of us left behind, left our presence as we sang over them. They will go on pilgrimage with us to Ireland and Scotland, but we know well that a breaking is transpiring before us.

But here is the difference from the "break-ups" of the world. This fraction does not lead to hearts that are broken. We are broken, rather, that others may be fed. What left that loft a couple of nights ago will travel out from our campus. And where that yeast lands, good things will come from it. Three of them are going to Wexford, to help build up the church. One of them will go on to organ study. Another into a Master's of Divinity degree. Others will go to the marketplace, where they, too, will bring their song among the merchants and captains of industry of this world. Two of them will stay behind and become interns in the Office of Campus Ministry.

No, this is not a fraction that renders our hearts broken. In that most profound of mysteries, this breaking apart leads to wholeness.

Eight hundred candles graced the Grotto that tranquil May night. Class rings were blessed. Charges were laid upon the graduates, charges to be good stewards of what they had been given.

And for us in the loft, who have sung the "Lamb of God" through the fraction rite at Mass every week, tearing apart took on yet other meanings, meanings that, in the gloom of evening, spoke of wholeness, of being fed, of stability and purpose.

Let the breaking begin.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Library Carnage: T-minus Five Days

Less than a week to go, and logistics have kicked in for the 2012 Ireland•Scotland pilgrimage of the Notre Dame Folk Choir. Never, in all our years of traveling, have we brought along so much music on our overseas adventures!

Here's a short list of our events, each of which has its own, unique list of songs:
- Catholic school presentation repertoire
(we're doing five of these; two in Dublin, two in Wexford,
one in Edinburgh)

- Touring repertoire for 2012 concerts
- Mary of the Gaels, Naomh Bhríde concert repertoire
(for Clonard Parish)
- Workshop repertoire for the church year
(one for Ireland: Our Lady's Island, Diocese of Ferns;
the other for Scotland, in the Archdiocese of Edinburgh)

- Mass repertoire for the Feast of Pentecost (Vigil)
- Mass repertoire for Pentecost (Mass for the Day)
(Sunday morning, including first communion)
- Votive mass for successful final exams (County Galway)
- workshop repertoire, Edinburgh, Scotland
- Wedding mass repertoire (yes, we're singing at a wedding in Scotland!)
- Trinity Sunday Mass repertoire
- Archdiocese of Edinburgh Ecumenical Program
(Presbyterian and Catholic combined repertoire,
with Cardinal O'Brien co-presiding)

This is, of course, a snapshot. Each church will have its own acoustics, its own organ (or lack thereof, sometimes just a Clavinova or acoustic keyboard). We will have few precious minutes, every time we arrive at a parish, to assess just how and where to sing.

The great blessing in preparing all of this is that the Folk Choir has champion librarians! Once we hit the bus on Monday afternoon there is no turning back for forgotten scores: we'll need to have all our choral music, flute, violin, guitar, accompanist, director arrangements – all of these securely organized and readily available.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Epic Love

A learned colleague once said to me, "the liturgy of the church never ceases; we just step into it and join in when we can."

This has been so evident over the past month! After Holy Week, Easter, and Ordinations, we've had four weddings over the past four weekends. It is true: the liturgy of the Church never stops. So if you intend to be part of this scene, you better be ready for the feasting!

In each of the weddings we've sung for over this past month, there has been an "abundance of acclamation —" capped off by that most American of acclamations, the sound of applause. But one thing that has been most remarkable, at every one of these nuptial gatherings, is the way this accolade has unfolded: it started out like a gentle rainfall, and turned, dramatically, into a downpour of affirmation.

There's something very deliberate that takes place when an assembly behaves like this. They are saying something in their applause. Listen closely to the cascading chaos, and you might hear the words: "Love has the final say!" "Even sadness and death and failure cannot prevail!"

Yesterday, two cherished friends, Susan Bigelow and Drew Reynolds, committed themselves to a life of vowed fidelity. Their liturgy, like those of the couples from weeks before, was a triumph of grace, of saying "yes" to vows in the face of a culture that simply cannot fathom such a stance.

Love is, indeed Lord of heaven and earth.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

T-minus ten days

The countdown has begun; in ten days, 56 members of the Notre Dame Folk Choir will be traveling across the Atlantic, visiting Ireland and Scotland. This year, we celebrate 25 years of international touring – hundreds of thousands of miles, countless parishes and a mosaic of supportive families and friends.

This year, we are bringing more music with us than ever before; we're singing in Catholic schools, hosting workshops in both Ireland and Scotland, singing masses for the Feasts of Pentecost (in County Wexford) and Trinity Sunday (in Edinburgh), bringing together the Presbyterian and Catholic communities of Edinburgh in a wonderful celebration of ecumenical witness.

In ways great and small, it is hard to describe the enormity of such a pilgrimage. Just about every night, our students will be staying with host families throughout the Irish and Scottish countryside. They'll see the face of the church in all these open homes. They'll gain an intimate picture of parish life in these two countries. They'll also see some of the tragedy of how the Catholic Church has been slowly dismantled by forces – both within and outside its confines – over the past several generations.

This is also the first time that we'll be traveling to these two countries since the establishment of the House of Brigid, Teach Bhríde, ably led this year by my dear colleague Jessica Mannen. The House has been preparing for our arrival in Clonard, County Wexford, for the past year; you can find out more about this amazing project by clicking here.

For all of you who wish to follow the choir day-to-day, our itinerary is up on the Folk Choir's website in full. You can reach it by clicking here.

I am so grateful to be traveling with these marvelous student ambassadors of the University of Notre Dame. Their joy, their sense of palpable faith, their camaraderie and mutual support – all of these qualities that I've seen growing over the past year will be greatly tested as we travel. Our first day, we arrive in Dublin at 8:30AM Irish Time (3:30AM EDT); during the course of that first day, we'll sing for a Catholic grade school, then move to the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a formal concert of sacred music.

For those of you who follow this blog, please pass along the link to others, that you might all pray for safe journeys for our ensemble! As I have said before, these excursions have a specific label: they are not tours, they are pilgrimages. And what we call them determines what we see. Call it a tour – and you will see the sights. Call it a pilgrimage – and, Deo volente, you will see the face of Christ.

Saint Columba, patron of pilgrims, pray for our band of sacred singers!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Drexel's Stomping grounds

Today, still trying to keep up with my son, Nathan... And lay some foundational work for next year's Folk Choir tour to Northern New Jersey, NYC, Connecticut and the Hudson river valley.

Nathan has worked for years at a special school and church in Harlem — St. Mark's Catholic. And it was founded by one of the great saints of our American heritage: St. Katherine Drexel. We're hoping to sing at this marvelous place a year from now.

Over the years, we've explored the richness of African-American music as our journeys have taken us from Detroit to LA. And our repertoire has been all the richer for it!

Next year in Harlem!
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Location:W 139th St,New York,United States

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Memories, falling like rain

Yesterday, today and tomorrow I am in the Big Apple, spending time with my eldest son, Nathan. It's the last time we will have some father and son time together before he gets married late this summer, so these are special days indeed. And on this blustery spring day, we decided to make a memorial pilgrimage, taking the 1 train down to Chambers Street.

We decided to make pilgrimage to Ground Zero.

The World Trade Center plaza is hardly a quiet place at present; the antiphons of industry are echoing up and around, fed by cranes and cement trucks and hoisting apparatus. But even this creative chaos was inspiring — in the midst of this small plot of land that gave witness to so much horror, creation itself, and not destruction, continues to have the last word.
If you're reading this, then you know of one remarkable thing we all shared about the morning of September 11th, 2001. Not only do we remember when and how we heard of the attack. We also remember the seconds, minutes, and hours that followed. Strange details still remain in my mind — the incredulous, vacant look on the face of our administrative assistant when she told me of a rumored plane flying into the World Trade Center; where I was standing in the lobby of the Campus Ministry Center when I witnessed the collapse of the South Tower; the eerie clarity of the September sky that afternoon, when the whole University celebrated mass on the South Quad. Every one of these moments is etched in my memory.

None of these remarks are different than any of your own observations, more than likely. But what has made me take pause today is our simple yet utterly fundamental need to remember — to look back, to survey our common ground, and walk it again.

Three thousand names surround this cascading pool, and each one carries with them years of memories, accomplishments, joys and failures. Today, I stepped over the security threshold and into this waiting solemnity.
The purveyors of pop culture will tell you that, while you're in the Big Apple, you'd do well to surround yourself with the non-stop activities of Gotham. But my heart tells me not so; sometimes it is best to stand quietly, and take in the memories, memories that fall like rain, memories that cleanse us back to profound consciousness.

Location:W 87th St,,United States