Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Goodbye, All of That
I've come back to New York to finish up my business here. Today I am set to turn in my dissertation and sign out of the university, which will sever my official ties to this city in which I spent most of my life.
I lived variously in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan Valley, the East Village, and Washington Heights. I reached adulthood in New York. The city has undergone gradual but ineluctable changes in the past two decades in ways I could never have foreseen in my youth, and whose cumulative effect is startling, especially after coming back to the actual city, not to the city of my memories and my interior life, after time away. I've always believed that I know New York like the proverbial back of my hand, but now, since I was last here a couple of months ago, I already feel like a stranger.
Some things are familiar, but altered somehow. I stayed overnight with one of my brothers, who lives in a Brooklyn neighborhood (its backyards are shown above, in the snow) where I spent a great deal of time over the past twenty-some years. Through a set of fairy-tale-like circumstances, he has come to live in one of the most beautiful apartments that anyone could imagine. One window looks out over a courtyard covered with snow and criss-crossed by paths like a Kertész photograph; from another, one has the hypnotic, strangely beautiful sight of an endless parade of cars and trucks on the arching overpass of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the container cranes at the Port of Elizabeth. From my former knowledge of the neighborhood, I could never have conceived that a home like this could exist there. If I lived there, I would never want to leave the house (though outside it's just as charming), but would stay in looking out the windows all day (his wife works from home; I'm not sure how she can manage with all that distraction from the mesmerizing view).
But I couldn't stay and look out the window. I left my brother's at 7:30 in the morning. My path took me through the Lower East Side, where I saw a group of Chinese immigrants practicing a fan dance in the snow in Sarah Roosevelt Park, and I crossed the street where, a hundred years ago, my great-grandfather had a pushcart. I realized that, once my dissertation was deposited and the flurry of bureaucratic office visits and paperwork that went along with the process was over, I would have no more real business here. It was an astonishing thought.
Going through the administrative process at the university was bittersweet. The six years I spent getting my doctorate were among the happiest and most fulfilling of my life. I felt like I had finally found my place. I would walk from my day job to the university and back several days a week during my coursework and research years, and once I got to school, a sense of rightness would settle upon me, and I wanted never to have to leave. I hadn't felt that way at first, however. I recall that, at the music department's orientation in the fall of 2002, I was gripped with fear, sure I would fail. The next day's general university orientation was much more reassuring, though. One of the things that cheered that day me was a speech given by a woman doctoral candidate, who said, among other things, "You can get married in graduate school. You can have a baby in graduate school." Those possibilities were among my fondest wishes (though, as it turned out, they did not involve the beloved man who was my boyfriend had at the time. He moved away, and I met my beloved husband a few months later. My baby was born in the midway point of my doctoral work).
So my path away from the life I'd known for many years coincided with my doctoral studies, which were also a sort of path away from performing and towards teaching and scholarship. My work finished successfully, but so many other things in that old life did not. The psychic landscape of my New York is littered with bitter failures of all kinds. In a way, it is a countryside of utter brokenness, of devastating memories. Because of that, I'm not entirely sorry to leave; sometimes I feel as if our move away from New York is a hejira, a flight from danger (at least according to Joni Mitchell's definition of the word).
Still, I will miss New York terribly in so many ways. Most of all, I think, I'll miss New Yorkers. There is a beautiful kind of unspoken understandng among people of all origins here; people approach one another with a frank openness, mostly lacking in the preemptive suspicion and guarded hostility found elsewhere.
I don't know when I'll be back next, but I do have commencement in May.