NYC vs. NYM: A Comparative Glance

If I told you that there was a town in rural, Northwest Minnesota called New York Mills with a population of about 1,200, one liquor store (also a bar), one grocery (open til 8, 6 on weekends) and one diner (closes at 3), I suspect you’d assume that place to share nothing–besides half a name–with New York City.

You would be almost right.

Indeed, after two thirds a lifetime in New York City and five weeks in my new, second home of New York Mills (don’t worry, I’ve, for now, returned), I can attest to significant cultural differences–as well as some unexpected parallels.

Many of the general gaps are obvious–diversity, population, incidence of subways and snow-ploughs. And it is with great affection that I offer a few more specifics:

  1. Minnesota Nice. NYC-ers may or may not be familiar with this phrase: a catch-all for the manner most Minnesotans, especially rural ones, assume–particularly with one another, and, after staring at you as though you have dyed red hair, which you may or may not have, or as though they’ve never seen you before, which they probably haven’t, you as well. This often manifests as a folksy comment distributed while waddling out of a booth at Eagles Cafe, post Rib Special: “Oh ya, don’t study too hard!” (Arm pump). Or, say, if it’s May and blizzard-ing for the third time that week, “Hey, snow enough for ya?”
  2. Purpose of Exercise. After my first NYM Zumba class–taught in the “Facility Room” of the local Elementary School and focused on the study of choreography and town gossip, rather than the object of sweating, I explained to my dancemates how Zumba, and exercise classes in general, tend to be different in NYC: “You see,” I explained. “Unlike here, in New York you have to be skinny.” They nodded, a mix of interest and horror. ”Like, if you can breathe between songs, people get pissed.” We happily shimmied on. A few weeks (and, I must admit, several accumulated pounds of Donut Weight) later I went to another NYM class, this one in the lobby of a Lutheran Church: we did neck rolls and side planks to the faint sounds of piano music; between sets, an assortment of eighty-somethings discussed nominees for Church President. En route to the pews for some leisurely tricep dips, I overheard the instructor: “Geez, I think I’m sweatin,” she said. “I guess that’s a good thing.”
  3. Thoughts on Procreation. Growing up in NYC, I’m not sure I realized that women under thirty-five were biologically capable of bearing children. Still, it was a bit startling to discover that most femaled my age in New York Mills had already birthed at least three. In NYC, the family-size question one most often overhears is whether to have a second baby; in NYM, it’s whether to have a fourth. (The answer, it seems, is most often yes.)
  4. Types of Dudes who Drink PBR. In NYC, we tend to associate the iconic beer can with a certain breed of underfed hipster who rides a fixed gear and rarely bathes. In NYM, it’s more popular among beer-bellied, football-watching Dads who drive oversized trucks and consume a lot of processed meat. Sometimes I like to imagine the two groups convened; patronizing, alternately, a Lions Club meeting in Mills and warehouse band practice in Bushwick.
  5. People Who Speak Finnish. Probably, there’s some remote pocket of Queens with a population larger than all of NYM and its’ surrounding Otter Tail County. Honestly, I could never quite sort out what distinguishes Finns from  similarly blond and hard-drinking Midwestern types of Other Scandinavian descent; then again, perhaps they would feel similarly pressed to sort out the Jews from the Italians from the Otherwise Swarthy in Park Slope.

Of course, that’s just scratching the surface. And while the differences may be vast, in my estimation Mills and NYC do share more than a couple of common traits; okay, three:

  1. Central Park. NYM’s is about the size of a standard East Village studio, which, considering the spatial surroundings is not without irony–but hey: it’s not a competition.
  2. Greenwood Cemetary. Both got em–kid you not.
  3. A Concentration of Dark-Haired, Under Forty Women Jewish Writers Who Wear Glasses and Write Memoir. Yes, during the five weeks that I was the Visiting Artist at the New York Mills Cutural Center, there were–to my great surprise–two of us. Among my many unexpected discoveries upon arriving in NYM was a voicemail from The Other, a talented singer songwriter named Elisa Korenne who, during her own Cultural Center residency several years ago, got set up (by the same woman who, I must tell you, also had someone for me–stay tuned) with the man who is now her husband. She is currently writing a (beautiful) memoir about the NYC-NYM transition, about which I am mostly thrilled, and minorly disappointed that she got to it first. Okay fine, NYC may lay claim to a few million more of our kind–but again, folks, we’re dealing with Minnesotans: learn from them for one fucking second and Be Nice.

On Loneliness, Lifelong Friends, and Letting Things Sit

There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either. — Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

The night before I read those lines, Sunday, I got home at half past midnight–the top of my right cheek still specked with crumbs from Saturday night’s mascara. I felt exhausted, high from a little whiskey and a little wine; I felt–as you might imagine–a few things, none of them lonely.

The next morning, Monday, I slept soundly and late, buzzed around the lower half of Manhattan for a few hours–a visit with out-of-town relatives; a lively Zumba class on Lafayette–before heading to a Passover seder in Brooklyn at the home of one of my oldest, dearest friends.

Sitting on the subway, I recognized a distinct, physical pleasure in the anticipation of being with her and her family.

In other words, I had spent the subsequent forty-eight hours surrounded by people–and still, I felt a rich excitement in going to do so again.

*

I have a vivid memory of sitting in the window seat of an airplane in my early twenties.

I’m not sure where the plane was taking me–between Minnesota and New York, perhaps, or Argentina to JFK. I only guess the latter because my other association with that memory is a college friend who lived there; and I remember telling her, in what context I can’t recall, that the worst kind of loneliness is the kind you feel when you’re with someone else.

I then considered this friend a serial monogamist, and delivered my wisdom, sermon-like, with superiority–a defense, of course, against my own insecurity with being serially single.

Maybe I was writing down that thought as I sat by the window on the plane, or maybe I was realizing, as I sat there, alone, that I wasn’t sure it was true.

*

On Sunday night I was coming, most immediately, from a dinner party with two couples. Both happened to be made up of handsome and fabulous gay men, which made me feel more Honored Guest than Fifth Wheel.

But at times, still, I felt conscious of my single status: talk of joint vacations, Sunday brunches, weeknight dinners–those stinging moments of recognition that, yes, it would be sweet to have a companion in this life: someone to come home to, with whom to unwind and share meals and minor daily surprises and frustrations–the things of urban life.

What to do in those moments?

In them, I didn’t even get to ask myself that: I let them pass, as they did, quickly pushed away by vibrant and inclusive dinner party talk–scuba diving, sneakers, YouTube sensations.

It was only later, after underlining those sentences in Robinson’s book on my way to the seder, that I returned to the question, and thought of something a former therapist in Albuquerque–a woman with fuzzy boots and blunt reddish bob–used to say: “Sit with the feeling,” she’d advise. “It might be uncomfortable, but that’s okay.”

*

Lifelong friends aren’t unlike spouses in that their families matter: in the friend with whose family I spent Seder, I could not have done better–generous is far too small a word.

“I consider them my second parents,” I explained to one of the fellow non-family members sitting across the table. “But I’m probably one of about forty people in New York City who would say that.”

“Yeah,” he nodded right away–explaining how he’d spent most recent holidays in their home. “I’m definitely one of them!”

As I reflected on the sheer joy–I use that word mindfully–in both anticipating and being a part of their holiday, I thought (besides, of course, of matzoh balls, charoset and chocolate-covered macaroons) of how so much our lives can consist of efforts to stave off loneliness. How glad everyone there was to be together. How all of us humans feed, so beautifully, off each other.

*

I take pride in my passion for being alone. But if I’m honest with myself, I realize that my happiest moments are being with people. It’s wonderful to connect through writing; it can be intoxicating to explore new places alone; but the thrill of discovering commonality–with a new lover or a fellow seder guest–is singular. It’s special. It’s everything.

And yet.

Being around others, I know, is no bulwark against loneliness. The pronouncement I made to that friend years ago may have been hyperbole, but I do believe there’s a particularly harsh pain in feeling lonely with someone you love–it’s the opposite feeling from finding fresh connection with a stranger; where there ought to be solace, there’s distance. It’s a loss of the most sacred expectation.

There are many ways to feel lonely. As with any emotion, to rank the varieties hierarchically serves nothing.

What does seem useful to me,though, are the twin pieces of wisdom from Marilynne Robinson and that therapist. Basically, this: loneliness is a large part of life. Whoever you are and whomever you are with, it will come. Sit with it. Let it hurt. And let it pass.