Sunday, April 25, 2010

"Beautiful city, we must part," part 3: Old Man in a New Place

While I don't know if I'll ever get used to living away from New York, sometimes I'm convinced beyond a doubt that leaving was the only thing to do in order to go on living.  I'm exaggerating wildly, of course: we didn't leave because our lives were threatened, we left because my husband got a job in Appalachia.  And, while I often feel like a walking ghost here, and as if I've left my whole heart behind, I must confess that for many years my abiding fantasy was to decamp to a place where I knew no one and no one knew me.

All New Yorkers are familiar with the painful, uncanny way that the past stalks us there; if you're not running into your former loves on the street (and they always do seem so much happier now), then you are constrained to coexist with the constant evocation of former lives, former ways of being.  In New York, you can try to cast off your old self and pick up the trappings of the new, and you can succeed quite well up to a point; but then you have to pass by the building where thus-and-such happened, or the spring wind as you walk up one of those streets that are veritable wind-tunnels carries with the bits of garbage the whiff of the past in its wake, and you are brought to your knees.  Oh, that beautiful city, where you can find your heart's love and the dearest, most intimate friends imaginable, where you can breathe freely even if oppressed by poverty and care, where you can traverse whole nations on the subway and visit the Cloisters for a penny, where you can walk and walk for hours and find something beautiful even on the ugliest corners, where you can go to the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, where you can get a doctorate for spare change. . . 

After my conversion in 2002, I had to go on living in the city that had been the site of great sorrow, vice, and folly.  This wasn't as hard as it might have been if I had had to keep frequenting the precincts that had become associated in my mind with sorrow, vice, and folly; shortly after my conversion I began my doctoral studies, which took me on a new route through the city, and brought me new colleagues, friends, and pursuits.  Marriage and, soon after, motherhood effected this translation still more, and I saw that it was in some way possible to attempt a new life in the same place where the old life had run to ground.  But, even if possible, it is hard.  To live a new life, one must separate from one's old companions and one's old thoughts, and New York, the capitol of longing and loss -- is it just that for me?  it not such for every New Yorker? -- hits you upside the head with the old thoughts, the old yearnings, just by virtue of making it necessary for you to pass certain buildings or to wait for the bus at certain corners.

So perhaps it's safer for the convert to go far away, to start over completely.  But is it a dodge, an easy way out?  I imagine that countless souls must flee the wreckage of their lives in small towns to come to a place like New York, where they can start over, shrug off their failures, and become someone new.  I'm trying to do the same thing in reverse, and I have no idea how.

Above:  a picture I took from my brother's window on a recent trip back.

29 comments:

Rodak said...

But is it a dodge, an easy way out?

In 12-step programs they call it "doing a geographic." In those circumstances, it isn't effective.

Pentimento said...

I suppose those working geo-cures have not really been converted.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

A few months ago, I was praying for a geo-cure for myself . . . but of course, I wanted the new "geo" to be a place of my own choosing! I had prayed for a move to another country, and I ended up moving down the hall of the house I had hoped to escape.

Someone was just telling me that he had had to move back into his parents' home, after several years of "independent" living. And what he learned was that he had never really shaken his family just because he had lived away from them, and that he became more detached from all their issues after he moved in with them again.

I think it's more romantic for the convert, or for anyone who wants to start over, to move to a new place. And I'd say the romance can make it easier. But then again, I'd always thought of the convert as moving towards the ideal rather than away from it. (Doesn't it seem that way in books and movies?) Now I wonder whether the reverse is actually the more common experience.

Pentimento said...

I suppose it depends on what the ideal is. If the ideal is heaven, then it shouldn't matter how much smaller and dumpier our lives get, should it? And yet, it does, it does . . .

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Sometimes I think my definition of "ideal" is "whatever I don't have yet." =(

Pentimento said...

Hmmmm, that's uncannily close to mine . . . :)

Rodak said...

If one has really turned it around, one's gaze has been redirected away from externals and towards the self. This is not to say that we like what we see when we look inside. But do it we must. It is crucial to remember where Jesus said that the kingdom of God is to be found. The "self" who attaches himself to externals and knows himself only in relation to things that he sees and moves towards, is not the real self.
The real self knows the freedom of absolute poverty and essential humility. If we make an effort of attention, we can sometimes achieve enough detachment to catch a brief glimpse of that essential self.

Rodak said...

Below is the opening paragraph of "Ghost Story" from the short story collection, Slapboxing With Jesus by Victor D. Lavalle:

Move anywhere, when you're from the Bronx, you're of the Bronx, it doesn't shed. The buildings are medium height: schools, factories, projects. It's not Manhattan, where everything's so tall you can't forget you're in a city; in the Bronx you can see the sky, it's not blotted out. The place isn't standing or on its back, the whole borough lies on its side. And when the wind goes through there, you can't kid yourself--there are voices.

Pentimento said...

Wow - I love it.

Rodak said...

Yes, it's nice. Goes well with your photograph. The story is a dark one, however--about madness.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I'm such a philistine that the beautiful quote Rodak shared put me in mind of Jenny from da Block--because, you know, she's from the Bronx, too, and she can't ever forget it! =P

Pentimento said...

LOL! She's from a pretty bad neighborhood, in fact, though she's about a zillion miles away from it now.

Rodak said...

I'm about a zillion miles from it, too; but in a totally different direction...

Fifth Dimension said...

Good luck! I hear Appalachia is so beautiful.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, FD. I've been here over a year now. It *is* beautiful, but lonely.

eaucoin said...

I left the city for a rural town the year after I had my first child. To me, it's a kind of metaphor for motherhood: leaving self behind but sometimes looking back and mourning that girl I used to be. You'll find it easier to raise your children in a small town (where you can find out who's house the party will be at while standing in the grocery store checkout line). The best and worst of people stands out, but I find that learning other people's stories at close range leads mostly to admiration. Now when I go to the city, I feel a little sorry for all those bustling people.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Eaucoin. It really *is* easier to raise children here; I can see that already, and I'm sure it'll be easier still when I get my driver's license. In New York it does become a tiresome hassle to take children, strollers, and all the other things you need for your day -- snacks, changes of clothes, etc. -- on the buses and subways, but there's no choice (doing all this in the rain becomes a real penance). It's only being out of New York that I realize how difficult it is to get from point a to point b there, even more so with little people hanging off of you.

I think my feeling of exile here is a sort of microcosmic reflection of the constant exile that is our true state in this life.

Rodak said...

Yes, in a sense, we certainly carry our "exile" within us.

As for NYC vs. Smallville for the raising of kids, it's a no-brainer, imho. My girls were able to do so many things here that they never would have been able to do in NYC, b/c we weren't rich.
It had been great, in many ways, for me. But once I had babies (2 in less than 2 years), I began looking for escape routes.

Pentimento said...

Yes, oh yes, the money thing. Every single thing you want to do with your kids is prohibitively expensive in New York. My dear friend Rosie, who guest-posts here sometimes, just went through a year of anxiety about whether her son would be able to go to kindergarten in a non-failing school; if you can pay stratospheric rents, all the schools in your district (decentralized school districts in NYC since 1970) are fine, but she lives in Harlem. Luckily, her son scored high enough on a gifted-and-talented test that he will get placed in one of the non-failing schools in her district -- but not high enough to get into the best kindergarten programs city-wide. It's such a racket.

Rodak, were your children born in NYC? At what hospitals?

Rodak said...

My daughters were both born at what was then The New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. My wife was a nurse there, and I was working in the dean's office of the medical college.
As such, we were extremely fortunate to both have the very best obstetrical care and to have it free.
In addition, we lived only a block and half down York Avenue from the hospital. Those were the good ol' days...

Pentimento said...

I know it well. They've now merged with Columbia-Presbyterian.

Rodak said...

Right. And it's also now the Weill College of Medicine.

Tertium Quid said...

I just watched "The Irish Empire," on Netflix, and one talking head said:

"The Irishman leaves his home in order to find it."

TQ
Fifth Generation Irish-American (still leaving home in order to find it)

Pentimento said...

That's beautiful, TQ, and, though I'm not Irish-American myself, it's pretty close to what I witnessed in my old neighborhood in the Bronx.

It also reminded me of item #4 in this post.

http://pentiment.blogspot.com/search?q=ambulance

Rodak said...

Irish-American

I.e., what the Irish immigrants in the Bronx called narrow-backs."
;-)

Pentimento said...

Rodak, if you paid a visit to County Woodlawn, Bronx, today, you'd be suprised. Lehman College offers a degree in Irish-American Studies now . . .

Rodak said...

Aye, and well they might, lass!

Pentimento said...

Actually, truly LOL.

Rodak said...

I'm glad.