Notes, Continued, On Not Living In New York

It often happens, and is thus often remarked, that the wisdom people give you doesn’t resonate until long after it’s given.

So it happened that yesterday, I walked the streets in Park Slope, felt fond feelings toward the brownstone and tree-lined streets (quiet, as they blessedly, rarely were), and remembered something a colleague once said to me about five years ago, as she and I strolled the University of New Mexico campus.

“New York,” she said, “is a great place to visit.”

I (and likely, you) know that my attitudes toward this city have swung and swung like a cheap amusement park ride for the duration of the thirteen (golly!) years since I left for college: consistently, quickly, and not rarely inducing nausea.

So that when she said that to me, my gut reaction was something along the lines of: sure, that’s fine for you, you being a person who did not grow up in New York and therefore can feel adequate without living there. Or, to put it another way, that’s fine for you, you being an inferior person.

Flash forward: today, and all of the last days that I have spent in this city (outside those moments when I have been cursing crowds or humidity and clutching my niece like the world depended on it) I have thought to myself—that woman was right.

Friends, feel free to feel proud. Because I am pretty sure this trip marks the very first time that I have come to New York with zero desire to move back, and zero guilt about that feeling.

Okay. Obviously that’s not totally true. If it were totally true, than I wouldn’t feel compelled to qualify. Which, of course, I do.

So: I still would like to think that there will come a time in the relatively near future when New York will feel, both financially and emotionally, like a plausible and appealing option.

But, among the levels of clarity that have recently, thankfully emerged, one is this: New York is not the place for me right now.

This clarity, honestly, has emerged over time. Driving it along have been a couple of other pearls from writerly types: the editor who, over lunch in the West Village, hurriedly advised that she tells all young writers to get out of the city—until, she said, they become Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. (Moments, I’m sure.) Too much going on, she said, and too easy for the competition to psych you out. And the grad school professor who, over coffee in Albuquerque, nodded his head and cautiously observed that I might have a choice: between being a writer and living in New York.

At the time I let his words sink in about as much as a suntan. I was having fun in New York. Also, I didn’t know where else to go.


“I don’t know how people do it.”

I was chatting with an acquaintance this past weekend at a Greenpoint wedding (one that managed to be equal parts rustic, Jewish and awesome): a woman who grew up in Chicago, and as of recently, resides, happily, in Brooklyn.

We were commiserating about the hardship of living in the place you’re from: how you can’t seem to escape the weight of those adolescent insecurities, those unshakeable family roles. She shared how she always makes a point of keeping a bit of cash on her at all times, but when she goes home, it somehow disappears.

I told her how despite being the most reliably punctual person I know, I managed to be late the last time I was dispatched to pick up my niece from school (imagine me + 5th Avenue in Park Slope + running like an escaped wildcat): for both of us, just as we were trying to prove to our relatives that we are not the flakey, incapable youngest children we know they think we are, we managed to mess up.

“Maybe someday we’ll be able to handle it,” I said to her as we took a pause from the dance party and leaned against a wood pillar.

“No,” she shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

It doesn’t matter how our families see us, or the people we went to high school with, or anyone else we associate with these sites of our upbringing. What matters is how yoked we are to the way we think they do—and how deeply it penetrates the way we see ourselves.

It’s a handicap that may, someday, be worth working against. But for now, I am content to accept it. And to enjoy coming to New York, as that grad school colleague suggested, as a great place to visit.

Which, in case you didn’t know, is awesome! (Probably it would be more awesome if I didn’t have to cram in time with twelve close relatives and about as many close friends…) But anyway. Still! There are reasons  reasons I probably don’t need to tell you (Just in case: The energy! The art! The brilliant, ambitious, attractive people!), why people put up with the crowds and the lines and the walkups and the astronomical rents.

Things, I must tell you, that I find much easier to enjoy these days in small doses that I have no (present) intention of making big.

Somebody, Please, Find Me a Home

Here are some sentences, in no particular order, that have come out of my mouth during the past, oh, two weeks:

  • “I’m pretty definitely moving back to DC.”
  • “St. Louis is really great and has a lot of stoops. I think I should move there.”
  • “Probably, I should just go back to Minneapolis. Will you guys have an extra room when you buy that house?”

And some things people have said to me:

  • “Actually, I’ve always pictured you in Philly.”
  • “Come on. You’re totally gonna end up in New York.”
  • “You know, everyone’s moving to Portland.”
  • “Didn’t you hate DC?”

Welcome to the late 20s: when absolutely nothing is certain, beginning with the time zone in which you’re supposed to live.

As of less than nine months from now (short of extending my MFA, which I reserve the right to do thankyouverymuch) I have no idea how I’m going to make a living. And, at almost-twenty-eight, about as many candidates for My Husband as I did when I was eighteen (you know, roughly half of none).

But for some reason, the fact that I still don’t know where I want to be seems like the most daunting decision that looms. Perhaps if I knew anything about those other two Big Things–what I want to do and who I want to be with–it would be less so. But, oh yeah, I don’t.

And of all the things in the world to be outraged about–nuclear weapons, the cost of a tooth cleaning, wheelie sneakers–this is what outrages me most: that so many people I love are spread out in so many godforsaken places.

I really, really, really appreciate having lived in three states plus a federal district in my life thus far. Each of those places–New York, St. Paul, DC and Albuquerque–feels so essential to my worldview. And I imagine, I hope, that each of them will always be a part of my life.

And were I so lucky that the friends I’ve made in those places had the courtesy to stay there. But of course, like me, they didn’t. Like me, they’ve felt the need to explore and make homes for themselves elsewhere. Leaving me with dear ones spread out in the above cities as well as everywhere from Seattle to Los Angeles to St. Louis to Chicago.

And, accordingly, completely confused.

I’ve been saying for a while that I’m done with going someplace completely new: it is exhausting, not to mention extremely time consuming, to put down roots and find community in a place. I’m just over it: I feel ready to be settled, and unwilling to start that process from scratch.

But as my friend E–who only has nine years on me but, rather absurdly, literally tens more states under her belt–put it when we talked about this last week, it’s hard to go back.

I know exactly what she means: my resistance to going back to New York is so bound up in the deep associations I have from growing up there. (Also, in the fact that the B train is perpetually out of service and it’s impossible to get concert tickets before they sell out.)

And my resistance to Minnesota and DC is, partially, that they seem so essentially connected to the periods of my life when I was there.

Not because those periods were toxic, or even bad. But because we tend to think of ourselves, especially at this stage of life, as on some sort of ascending path: to maturity, to being more settled, to finding our true occupation, our true passion, our true happiness.

And it’s hard not to fathom returning to a place you’ve already been without imagining that you will somehow slide backwards on that proverbial path: that you will revert to an older, lesser version of yourself–rather than continue growing into some future, more realized, thinner and prettier version.

I realize that whole, better future self thing is mostly false, and at the very least an idealization: I know that whenever I picture myself in the future, I am always about two inches taller and have much smoother hair–modifications I have still yet to achieve.

But there’s a lot to be said for the mindset with which you approach a place, and whether or not that mindset is logical, it’s bound to have an impact.Which means I might have as much reason to go back someplace as I’ve got to start someplace new.

And, thankfully, a lot can happen in nine months. Perhaps in March all my friends will band together and start a peach farm in New Jersey. Perhaps I’ll meet my future husband in January and he’ll tell me all about his inherited estate in Virginia. Stranger things have happened.

And, honestly, let’s hope something happens. Because right now, I haven’t got a clue.