January 31, 2014

It's Time To Go

After eight years in Manhattan it’s time to move to the outer borough, and by this time next week I’ll officially be a Brooklyn resident. It’s interesting to think about time and place, and how eight years ago Manhattan seemed like the only place in the world that mattered. Eight years ago when I first arrived in the city the idea of living anywhere else was simply out of the question. Brooklyn - or anywhere for that matter - would never make me happy. What Manhattan had come to mean to me over the years was complicated, and multi-layered, and inherent to who I was. The city signified a kind of marker by which to define myself and my success. I’d waited my whole life to get to New York (at least since I first fell in love with it in the 6th grade), firmly believing from the very first time I set foot on the island at age twelve that once I got there my life would really start.

So, after all this time, what does it mean now that I'm leaving it? 

Like most things you think are one way when you’re younger, as the years press on they turn out to be another way entirely. From my earliest years growing up in the suburbs Upstate, Manhattan glowed to the south a kind of beacon. The energy, the cut-throatness of everyone trying to make it - to become someone, a name, a commodity, a star – I loved it. I loved it because deep down I was one of them, someone who not only felt at home among the thriving heartbeat of the city streets but who wanted to become someone, too. Not just someone, a writer, and New York was where it would happen. New York is where I would make it.

Only one year in, just as I was beginning to find my footing on those very streets I lost my balance completely. For after the loss of a parent, after the loss of anyone really, how can the things that used to be important still remain? The truth of course is they cannot, and all you thought mattered vanishes along with who you were before your heart got ripped out, as mine was one bitterly cold day in February seven years ago.
With my mother gone in a New York minute - Manhattan and what it used to mean, what it was supposed to mean for a twenty-three-year old who was attempting to eke out a living among its people - disappeared. Suddenly there was no point to any of it, to the excess, to the rat-race, to the total lack of a work-life balance. What were all these people fighting for anyway? Better jobs? Celebrity? More money? A house in the Hamptons? How stupid they all were to think any of it mattered when life could be cut short in the blink of an eye. Didn’t they know? Weren’t they aware of how fast it could all just...end? 

In 2007 I cried on the subway, and on the sidewalks, and in line at the coffee shops that just months earlier I couldn’t have been happier to be in. Who I thought I was meant to be in this place, this city my mother above all people knew how important was to me, well, suddenly it all seemed rather foolish.  

It has been seven years almost to the day since she died, and I find I’ve only just recently come out of the haze that is the process of grieving and reclaiming my life. In that time Manhattan has come into a kind of sharp focus for me. I turned around one day and Manhattan had become a place where few of my friends lived (when did it become that all the artists, and writers, and musicians couldn’t afford to live here anymore?). Old iconic institutions were being pushed out all over town by climbing rent prices and Trumpified. I could no longer afford my one little room uptown, and everywhere I looked were investment bankers and trust-funds I didn’t want to date. In fact, over the years the few men I’d come to love didn’t live on the island. It came to the point where I wondered if maybe holding on to Manhattan was holding me back. From experiencing life (surely I’d have more money to do more things if I lived elsewhere), and, perhaps, maybe even from love. It wouldn’t be the first time geography has come between potential lovers. 

It was as though I woke up and realized the Manhattan I used to love had changed. But then again, so too had I. 

In packing up my Manhattan studio I stumbled upon a stack of envelopes at the bottom of a drawer tied together with a piece of orange string. They were letters of condolences sent in February of 2007, all from friends and family, some from people I barely knew. They all said the same things, how sorry they were for my loss, how words couldn’t begin to express how sad they were to hear the news that my mother had died. I sat there and read through them, letters I hadn’t looked at since I first opened them seven years ago. Many of the cards were from people who have long since left the city, friends who have moved on, gotten married, bought houses in the suburbs, had babies, moved to sunny Los Angeles, and left Manhattan in their rearview. I wondered reading through them alone in my apartment - what have I been holding on to? 

There was one letter that stood out from the bunch. It was a note from a friend who also lost a parent years earlier, and in the card he wrote, “I know that you are a very strong person, but please remember that it is alright to let your guard down.” A seemingly small sentiment on paper, but the power behind those words held magnitudes. In New York you’re always meant to have your guard up, and if you don’t it can be a rather difficult place to navigate. From someone who understood what I was going through it was as though I was being given permission to let that guard down, to grieve. Permission to be sad, permission to not pretend as though this whole horrible, messy part of my life wasn’t happening. 

Permission above all, perhaps, to accept how big this thing really was, and that it was okay if it changed me. It was okay if I came out the other side unable to recognize myself. 

I’ve spent the subsequent years after my mother’s death running. Not in literal ways of course, (though I did leave the East side in favor of the West as I didn’t have any memories of her on that side of town), rather running from the wreck I’d turned into after she was gone. No one told me it’s only when the cards stop showing up in your mailbox, when the months pass and everyone goes back to their own lives does the hardship really begin. When I moved into my own apartment on the West Side a year and half after she died, I spent the day unpacking, and when everything was in its place I sat down on the bed and cried. The moment was so big for me I almost couldn’t breathe. I finally had the one thing I always wanted and worked so hard to get. The one thing my mother knew I always wanted - my own place in Manhattan - and it didn’t matter at all.

I’m moving to Brooklyn now because for me, like a shark I must keep moving to stay alive. I must keep moving forward no matter what. There is strength in that, I think. And it’s not running anymore but rather understanding that time and place are not tenable things. They are subject to all that life throws at them, and as our world changes so too does our place in it. We have to allow ourselves to come to terms with that, to accept all that’s happened, who we’ve become, and not be afraid to reassess our lives and take action. 

I think often about the last line of The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” I think we actually are able to move beyond the past if we allow ourselves. Loosening your grip on the things that haven’t turned out quite the way you expected is one of the most difficult yet empowering actions a person can make. And there is a difference too of course, between moving beyond something while at the same time still not forgetting it. Where we’ve been informs where we’re going, which is why I’m putting Manhattan behind me, along with the twenty-something me who for a while was lost there. 

Manhattan as a signifier of importance, of success, of having made it, has been boxed up along with my things, placed aside old letters from old friends sending me their condolences about a mother I no longer have but who I think about every day. Manhattan was my green light, my dream of what I thought my future was meant to look like. That dream has changed as dreams tend to do, and it’s not about giving up or giving in but rather knowing when to change course. 

Mighty Brooklyn is next, and then...who knows? There is a whole big world out there far from the dogged past that’s not boxed in by the Hudson and the East River. I refuse to be borne back, and choose instead to reinvent myself as I need to, as often as I need to in order to be happy. I choose to overtake the current, and not worry about where it leads me.