Wouldn't change a damn thing about life right now, if I'm being really honest.
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so lonely than in the two months before I left New York.
It was an odd feeling, at an odd time. I was tremendously happy, and also lonely in a way that occasionally felt like it would kill me.
Which is different than being alone.
I’m not wholly convinced there exits sufficient language to describe the experience that is loneliness. Because it’s not so much the feeling of being alone, it’s the feeling of being alone in one’s experience of that alone-ness. It’s nuanced and personal and deeply alienating. And it sometimes feels like standing on one side of a ravine while everyone else who has already crossed moves on without you.
I was careful not to expect too much. I was excited to move to Durham—excited to begin school—but didn’t want to think that everything would change. I was hopeful, but tentative. Experience has taught me not to overreach in my wanting.
I live by myself now, in an apartment with three small rooms. It’s the most amount of space I’ve ever been able to call my own. Each room gets light from morning until the evening when the sun dips behind the fence across the street. I’ve printed photos from recent trips to London and Paris and they now hang on the walls. A jar of ground coffee beans sits next to the stove, a Moka pot beside it. I walk across campus a few times each week to go the grocery store or the small yoga studio with its brick walls painted white. The air is made sweet by gardenias, and in the evenings there is a riot of sound made by cicadas alone. I live on a tree-lined street in a tree-lined neighborhood in a section of town that is quiet and a bit removed from school. I can walk to the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings, or the bar that serves food until two on Friday nights. I love it.
It’s so good here. Life is so easy.* I didn’t know--I had no idea it could all feel this way. Like the center of my chest has softened. Like faith itself is loose and adept and everywhere.
I spend a lot of time in classes or in the common area at school. We go out on Friday nights--and some school nights, too. I am surrounded by others, often. But I also spend a lot of time on my own--at home or in the library, on long walks or lying on the yoga mat. And the thing is, I'm not lonely here. I mean, maybe I will be, eventually. But I'm not today. And probably won't be tomorrow.
*This is not to say school is easy. School is hard. I am neither a statistics or microeconomics whiz, and I don't seem to read as quickly as some of the others. But hard in the context of that which has meaning is transformative. Which is to say, totally worth it.
Years ago, when I was living in Brooklyn, I got off the train one night two stops too soon and walked south towards home. There must have been some issue with the subway because it was too hot for such a long walk and the summer air seemed to catch between my fingers and stick at the base of my neck. Hot and tired and at the end of a long day, I remember thinking, if I could leave, right now, and do anything else, I'd go and sit and stare at the mountains for a month.
I feel like I mostly made a mess of leaving New York. I should have gone quickly, with little fanfare. But there were logistical concerns and so I stayed for as long as was necessary. I'm not quite sure how to describe those last two months other than to say that time felt thick and viscous, and I felt stuck.
It occurs to me that I haven't actually said why I am going, or where. Not here anyhow. So here goes: I'm headed to Duke to get a Masters in Public Policy.
It is a decision that feels deeply and quietly and unambiguously right. Which is to say, yes, I'm excited.
But before North Carolina, before school, before the terror and thrill of having to meet all new people, I am spending a month in the mountains. To sit and breathe and edit a book. Because life is weird and cool and the twenty-seven-year-old me who walked home that night tired and hot and overwhelmed by the future planted some seeds, and here we are.
I went back to Brooklyn last week, two nights before leaving. Another warm summer evening. With nearly everything I owned packed away in boxes I pulled out a vintage dress I got a few years back at a small shop in Park Slope that no longer exists. I swiped on a dark lip stain and took the F train one last time. To Vinegar Hill. To a tiny restaurant on a tiny street that my friend Kim and I discovered one night after reading an article in GQ. And there I sat marveling at four of my oldest and closest friends as we laughed and argued and ate cheese and pasta and jam and chocolate cake and it felt like an actual celebration.
If you'd have asked any one of those friends some five years back if I'd ever get there--if we'd ever sit in Brooklyn on a quiet July night and drink tequila and celebrate so much good--I'm not sure what they might have said.
New York was hard. I think I can say that honestly, without addition or pretense. I am so glad to leave. So much of what happened in that tangle of streets was not good. But there was much good, too. And as I walked to the subway on Tuesday night, and as I sat with my girlfriends eating too-expensive-and-too-small-dishes, quietly happy, I couldn't help but think I am leaving New York with everything I might need. A sense of awe. A little bit of grit. A capacity for both joy and sadness. A clear and meaningful value system. And a deep appreciation for the woman New York made me--or perhaps the woman I became in spite of New York. Everything else that I might want--or wish for--will be built on the backs of those things. And that is enough. More than, actually.
"In the summer New York falls apart, admits its seams, its ghosts, its basic enormous unfeasibility. The cracks show; this is a place that doesn't actually work, a place that is better in theory than in practice. It's happening with the subways now; each week the disasters get worse, moving from inconvenience to real danger. Someone at a party once told me they'd been one of the people stuck in the subway in the 1977 blackout and what they remembered most vividly was how sweat condensed and eventually dripped off of the metal poles overhead like some hellish slow rainstorm. Summer is when we learn who we are when everything falls apart, when life resists being lived in a decent, efficient, organized way, when the lie that living in a city is a dignified or defensible choice begins to visibly break down.
If you live in a city long enough, especially if you start out there when you're young and stupid and throwing yourself at every choice like the canvas was large enough that no amount of paint could ruin it, then eventually every street corner becomes a place where you made out with someone, a place where you hailed a cab, a place where you didn't want to go home. I went out to Brooklyn, to the old neighborhood, for a friend's event, and at Atlantic and Flatbush every emotion I'd ever felt rushed at me in a neat line. I talk about watching friends get older, about watching the city get richer and slicker and more dishonest, but that day I felt like I was what had gentrified, and not the world around me. When I was growing up, my parents told me stories of themselves and their bad old days because they couldn't stand the potentials that they had left in their own past, because they couldn't quite live with the fact that the story had continued to close up its choices one by one, making the path clearer and narrower around them. Perhaps none of us can live with this, perhaps no one ever really gets over the tragedy of progress, perhaps none of us quite forgive ourselves for getting better."
I had no idea it would feels this way, change. It never occurred to me that I’d need to grieve what I’d already lost—to grieve that which was never really good.
But it turns out that grief is how we process the loss of something we are/were attached to, even if that attachment isn’t a good one. I didn’t know that; I do now.
I saw a girl on a bike get hit by a car recently. She’s is fine—let me say that right off the bat. I’ve told this story enough times now to know that I need to make that clear immediately. She was crossing with the light on a small side street just north of 110th. The car must have been paused in the intersection—must have been sitting in the middle of the street when the light was still green and not noticed it turn red. Or maybe the driver ran the light, I can’t be sure, but I do know that no one was going very fast. And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, an impact. It took a few minutes to sort out that everyone was fine. Those first moments were about efficiency: an assessment of the situation, pulling over the car, checking out the girl, the bike, too. And once it was established that, by the grace of God and fate and chance, real disaster was averted, I watched as biker and driver both, began to sob. Maybe just excess adrenaline finding a way out of the body, maybe a keen awareness of what was so narrowly averted.
I keep thinking about how it was only after they knew that everything was okay, that they could process that for a moment, it wasn’t.
That’s the thing about change that I’ve found most surprising, that what was for so long fine—by necessity—no longer is. And how immediately that shifts.
Thirteen years of throwing a hook against a stone wall hoping it might catch, quietly panicked it might not. Everything that happened here was both okay and really not—and only now that the worst has passed can I say that. Only now that the hook is firmly rooted in the stone can I say it was fine because it had to be, but it also wasn’t. It was really fucking hard. It took something precious and vital from me. And aware of the narrowly averted disaster, the full weight of that which I weathered is overwhelming, and I suddenly find myself grieving. For the person I was. For the person I had to be. For how sad I was and how fine I had to be with that. For the version of New York I’ll never know. And for the girl I am now who sits at bars with friends and says, I’d never do my twenties again.
There will come a day, in the not so distant future, when I will forgot what it felt like to have people ask what I was doing with my life and not have an answer. I will forget the helplessness I felt sitting at diner tables being asked, albeit subtly, to defend my worth and my time and my life. I will forget that particular brand of loneliness, that cruel question: What are you bringing to the table? When I alone was not enough.
Everything has changed, and nothing has. Everything will be different, and nothing will.
People have told me that there is almost no way to prepare for how beautiful a place becomes just before you go, made sweet by its impermanence. I walked through the park this morning, the air sticky and thick, everything green, the dogs all off their leads, a certain light catching the corner of my eye, and I thought, I could love this place; perhaps I already do.