In my recent visit back home, to Austin, I had to recount my life here in NYC to a lot of different people. It was interesting to listen to my own sum-up of the last seven months slowly go from a lengthy description to a simple “It’s hell on a cracker, but I love it.” As I went through the tellings of my daily life, I would watch as excited and caring expressions slowly turned to that of concern and appall. And as their faces quickly changed, I automatically likened them to how quickly a good day can be turned into a bad, one minute you are walking on air, the next cursing the MTA as the subway doors close on your face.*
So, I am going to use this as an opportunity to set the record straight on my experience (so far) of living in the biggest city in the country – to those I met on my visit home, to those who read my Facebook statuses or get sudden grumpy text messages, and to myself.
New York has this way of yelling at you. “Who do you think you are?” and “What the hell do you want?”
So far, I’ve only begun to answer the first. The second has now become my permanent mantra. I cannot begin to tell you how many times a day I ask myself that question – and it’s much more difficult to answer than I ever thought possible.
Here, it is difficult not to let yourself get surrounded by negativity – as it is as constant as the presence of yellow cabs. It is also just as easy to get mesmerized by the constant sight of the Empire State Building sticking up out of the skyline, frequent celebrity sightings, and that somewhat eery feeling of being sure you know where you are until you suddenly realize you only recognize your surroundings from a scene in You’ve Got Mail. Somewhere between the stress and elation, you have reality.
As much as I thought my life would change dramatically when I moved, much is still the same: I spend the majority of my time with people I live and work with, I spend way too much time getting sucked into TV shows on Netflix, and my biggest problem is trying to figure out when I’m going to find the time to do my laundry. But, while daily life has not seemed to change much on the surface, this city has already taught me a great deal about myself, the world, and my place in it. And it has done that by constantly revealing to me one simple, but difficult fact: in a city of over eight million people, you are alone.
This might seem like a harsh or negative idea. And it can be. Let’s face it, it has been for me. I’ve always been surrounded by people – family, friends, college, co-opers, the list can continue. But suddenly, somehow, my life has brought me here, with very minimal company. As time went on, the idea of loneliness continued to rub itself in my face and I was ashamed by it. Somehow I felt myself lesser because I didn’t have a hoard of new friends and that I had to make excuses for myself because of it.
Around this time, a Facebook friend posted a video entitled “How to be Alone.” It challenged my idea of what it means to be alone, and to be lonely, and what it was that I could take from it. Slowly, I began my attempt of seeing this predicament as a positive, a blessing even, to slowly reap some good from what life has brought me to.
So surrounded by lights and constant advertisements and noise and people, I turned inward to focus on myself. And being alone for once, I didn’t have anyone else telling me who I was. As strong a person as you might be, the influence of those around you does have some toll – and I saw the toll my loved ones had on my identity. I don’t mean this in a bad way particularly, only that, much like many when they move away from their parents’ house, hometown, or large group of old friends, I began to question what was mine and what was theirs. And what was always missing. A sudden need to create an unbrainwashed self – one who makes decisions based off of her own wants, needs, and goals, and not based off the environment and circumstances of the past.
Moving to New York City was like starting from the recently dried concrete of a somewhat sturdy foundation – created by my family, college, and Austin. And then suddenly, without any actual instruction for how to safely build it, asked what kind of house it was that I wanted to build myself into. How big? How small? Modern? Victorian? And then carefully choosing each brick as I slowly build my own life. So, first, it seemed, I had to figure out what I already was.
I asked myself who I was daily. I tried new things – yoga, mediation, walks in the park, spinning. When I was stressed, I would ask myself the simple question, “What do you need?” I started caring for myself – giving myself nights in with the television, using facial moisturizer, and buying myself bottles of wine for no apparent reason. I examined why I liked doing certain things, didn’t like doing others, and constantly procrastinated on things that I thought I deemed important. I even changed my diet a few times – tried quitting coffee, becoming a vegan.
I let myself be angry if I felt it. Sad if I felt it. Happy if I felt it. Danced if I felt like it. Cussed if I felt like it. I was able to break out of the social cage of steady controlled emotion that was slowly driving me crazy – never ecstatic, never depressed, never high, never low, just a constant middle C. I told myself it was okay to yell, okay to cry, okay to sing, okay to talk about difficult things and not ignore them. And it was okay to dance on the subway, even when people are there, because most likely, you are not the weirdest person they have seen today. Plus, there’s the added bonus of the very small likelihood of you ever seeing them again.
And I began to examine things from my past that have been rattling around in my mental baggage for many years. Things that I assumed would eventually go away, if ignored.
And finally one day I thought about the time last summer on the beach outside of San Francisco when, in a not completely sober state of mind, I started yelling “I love myself!” over and over again into a bright blue ocean – I wasn’t lying or putting on. It wasn’t a drunken thought suddenly brought forward for attention. It was a subconscious feeling that I had never let myself acknowledge. Because somehow the love of oneself is seen as self-absorbed and arrogant. But there is a difference between that kind of love and the kind of love that brings about a bettering of oneself and of embracing yourself as an individual, beautiful, human being – together with all the good and all the flaws. And I realized that while family and friends come and go, I can be happy with the dear fact that I get to spend the rest of my life in the company of myself.
So I unpacked mental baggage and selected what should go and what should stay. I acknowledged what of the past impacted my decisions negatively and which I could turn into positive. And even the act of acknowledgment made it all a little lighter to bare. I let myself grow and heal from past negativity and realize the only value in it was what I could turn into good sturdy bricks of positivity.
My short visit back to Austin showed me how far I have come in these past seven months. And while I miss Austin dearly, I know that New York still has much more to teach me, force out of me, and offer me.
So, yes, it’s been a rough ride so far, but sometimes you need a good shake and a few hard questions. Questions that only I can figure out how to answer truthfully. And for all the answers I already have, I have this city to thank.
*I’ve noticed, many of my negative portrayals ultimately end in my audibly cursing – it’s better than just doing it in your head, I find.