I thought about it for a minute. "I can't just get up and leave.:
They laughed "why not?"
The question haunted me. What was really keeping me there?
It wasn't like I had a husband and kids I was tied to, or an amazing, high-paying job. Why was I still here? I was young; I didn't have to be tied to any one place.
--Issa-Rae, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl
I just read Issa-Rae's The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and one of the final monologue-essays in her book is an essay on her time in New York. I find her sentiments about New York City to be congruent to mine. It is a place that is cracking with constant sparks of excitement and opportunity; it is full of life and bustle and activity and it is sizzling with human emotion. And it is fundamentally not for me.
For the most part of last year, I wrestled with this; with trying to resist this city, but conquer it at the same time. I tried to, I think, mold it a bit into the image of the city that I wanted it to be. But New York City is not malleable. It is an adamantine monolith of a city. And it demands a lot from you; it also takes a toll on your Joy, your health, your lungs, and your hope in humanity.
I do think, however, that complaining about New York City is a bit like complaining about an ex-suitor. Any sort of griping you do makes you seem ungrateful and ungraceful, and is really about your unwillingness in your own heart to encounter an Other.
“Cities remind us that the desire to escape from the problems of other people by fleeing to a suburb, small town, or a monastery, for that matter, is an unholy thing, and ultimately self-defeating. We can no more escape from other people than we can escape from ourselves.”
― Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk
There are two sorts of complaining I do about New York City. One is the unholy thing that Kathleen Norris writes of above: a selfish desire to escape from other people. A very unfounded belief that the suburbs, the beach, the wilderness offers more peace than a city of 8 million people. For the most peaceful places I have been have been the most crowded and cacophonous. Peace, as a Dove Chocolate wrapper once told me, is not found in the circumstances, but in the heart. And if there is no peace in your heart, than even the Grand Chartreuse will be more restless than Grand Central Station.
Then, there is another sort of complaining I do, which is the sort of complaining you do about someone you have fallen out of love with, to justify why you have decided to break up with them. You know, when you make up all these little nit-picky excuses; all sorts of specks appear in their own eyes; because you are trying to distance and detach yourself from a person. Persons are utterly beautiful; they are sort of designed for you to fall in love with them. Everything about them is engineered to be loved. So it's quite a tricky business deciding you no longer want to love them and then executing that maneuver.
I think cities are somewhat like that. I am always shocked when I meet someone who has always wanted to live in New York City. I wonder what it is like inside of their heads. How do they see the city? Does it look so very different from the way I see it?
New York. I was walking along one day down to the bus and wrestling with the many different feelings that this place stirs up inside of me. Lots of hate and rejection. Sadness, oh, l'esprit of this city is sadness and sonder. But then, you'll run through the park and see the lights of the buildings twinkling in the night sky. You walk through Union Square and see all the stalls and shops and steady lamp lights. You walk through Soho, over uneven cobbled streets, twisting, winding, losing sight of everyone else. You walk through Fort Tryon Park or along the East River and rediscover nature; or through the West Village and see how beautiful each person looks. And then I feel feelings of attachment--I hesitate to say love--but certainly of appreciation. But whatever feelings, there is certainly no indifference. I am not a creature prone to be indifferent about anything, however, I suppose.
New York. So many times I shy away from the stark images it presents: the homeless widow sitting outside the subway station. The noise, everywhere. Everywhere. The crowded projects down the street. The trash littering the garden, despite the silent protest of its sign, inscribed with the words: "This is not a place for trash." These are the realities of New York that I despise. The dirty sidewalks and the broken windows, and the humans trapped in them.
New York. If these images are all I see, however, I think I'm missing some fundamental beauty in this place. There is nothing inherently miserable about 8 million people gathered all together, or there ought not to be, because that is just essentially a gathering of 8 million images of God.
Although I may not want to find God here, I may want to go other places to find God, this is where I am. And the task of being human really isn't any more complicated than finding God right where one is. It is so very simple. Find Him in the people that surround you; in the students you teach; somewhere in the silence hidden deep within the noise of the subway train and Metro North, rattling over the tracks. This is where God is, as well. He is not just in your favorite cities and places, in your best friends and in all the towns you feel like yourself in. He is here. In this giant machine of a city. He is in the smile of the subway evangelist; in the homeless man in the wheelchair on the corner of 110 and Lexington; in the eyes of the commuter staring out the subway window; in the sunset shining magnificently over the East River.
He is here. And there is peace enough in that.
Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the live of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. [...] A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as He continues to walk the streets of our city.
--Pope Francis, September 25, 2015. Mass at Madison Square Garden, NYC