The Sacred and the Transgressive

Fascinating in Leiris’ description of the sacred in everyday life is how comfortably the sacred coexists with the taboo, the forbidden, and the illicit, from the bathroom where he and his brothers shared sexual secrets to the racetrack, the transgressive. In pondering the act of transgression and its relationship to the sacred, must we transgress the rational in order to entertain the world of the sacred? Is the very act of transgression, in the sense of hubristic overstepping, a kind of sacred act, an alchemy that can instantly turn the everyday into the sacred? At very least, transgression and the sacred intertwine in the mundane, sustaining and empowering each other.

Nowhere, for me, is this more present than in a four mile track in Stony Point, NY, a suburb known for, among other things, revolutionary battles, the short-lived home of John Cage and reputable regional theater. Though the smallest town, in the smallest county in New York, I would learn all these facts about Stony Point only after I left Rockland county. Growing up, the town was an isolated suburb, flanked by a strip of grocery stores on one side, and, on the other side, a backwoods of homes where people would raise a farm animal for eventual consumption behind their back porches. By age 14, without a drivers’ license, the isolation could be insufferable, knowing I would have to drag my sole parent out of her daily work routine to transport me across the county to friends.

That was why a stretch of land became so important. It was, I believe, exactly 4.12 miles to my best friend’s, Liam’s, house, who was also a Stony Point native. The path along Willow Grove road led past soccer fields and the Palisades Parkway directly to his house. It was easy to navigate, a twenty-five minute bike ride uphill or as little as a twelve minute ride (that only happened once) from his place to mine. Often, however, Li and I would meet somewhere in the middle, divvying up the travel time alone so we could walk and talk together. A thirty minute trek, unmonitored by parents, was a perfect sort of freedom, oblivious to cars on the highway, unencumbered of obligation and unconscious even of time itself. Hours could be easily lost in these strolls up and down a completely inhospitable stretch of asphalt, devoid of a shoulder or sidewalk, during which we would often argue about whether walking with or against traffic was illegal.

And yet this ritual, this 4.12 mile journey, is very sacred to me. Rather than recalling details of conversation, it is the physical environment that I remember in detail: the flock of Canadian geese that often navigated up and down the hills of Letchworth Village, the large Star of David on the asylum’s temple, the barren and decrepit sports’ fields, which years later would be completely renovated, the shiver I felt passing through an underpass of the Palisades, the little brook near it that fed into the backyards of ramshackle houses/trailers along the street, which eventually wound uphill to a mountain and woods. At that point, I knew I was only minutes from Li’s house. Finally, there was the slope of his potholed driveway, a steep ascent which my mother’s car couldn’t maneuver in the winter. Can the sacred emanate from such places, the journey emerge as ritual, solidified over four years and through puberty, and fuse into my very being?

Or perhaps what gave the excursion such meaning, what changed it from routine to the sacred was a moment of transgression, a single instance that unraveled the experience completely. It must have been two years after we began our walks that Liam directed me from the road to see something. He and his brothers had discovered it while mountain biking around the great hill against which his house was nestled, the very knoll that for me indicated my proximity to Liam’s home. He was convinced it had been left by a group of teenagers who would crisscross the hill on ATVs.

Standing in front of me was an ordinary metal telephone pole, still obviously in use, spanning at least fifty feet into the air. Around its base was scrawled black graffiti, not unusual in my neighborhood. I probably wouldn’t have given it a second glance were it not for the deer bones. Scattered around the pole’s base were hundreds of bone fragments, most around two inches in length, some distinguishable as parts of deer bodies. The sheer number of bones brought attention to the base of the pole and the shocking pronouncements sprayed on it. I couldn’t read everything, but I could see swastikas. For two Jewish boys, in a very Jewish county, the idea of a Neo-Nazi shrine, as Li and I would refer to it, was completely shocking. This loss of innocence and transgression into our childhood, in which the power we had exerted over our four mile trail to visit each other, a route of freedom, which conferred upon us mobility and independence, suddenly rescripted our relationship and exposed the potential dangers of our voyage.

From that moment on, the journey no longer represented the same carefree movement it once had. Through that transgression, it acquired a potent new power, a danger and taboo that didn’t transform the activity, but created a new set of meanings around it. Perhaps this is a kind of vernacular sacred, where everyday rituals and acts remain exactly as they are, but their meanings become sacred, or more sacred, through simple acts of transgression.

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