Moving out of New York City last year was not a chance decision. There was a reason, a glaring, explicit reason why I barely looked at any graduate programs in the city, and when accepted into one of them (another was upstate), opted to instead accept the offer from my current school in Maryland. It was not that I hated the city, if it’s even possible to do so, or that other cities glistened with such allure so as to make New York seem worth leaving. Other than the retired, the expatriate, or the newly-minted family, who really leaves New York by choice? But twenty-three years is a long time to spend in one place, even if most of that time is spent half-conscious, and as I began to finally grow into that amorphous outline which had haunted me for each of those twenty-three years, I came to recognize a certain stifling imposed on this actualization, a certain tyranny of fulfillment, which came directly from this asphyxiating, and generally uncomfortable, city. This outline was not eidetic but lucid enough so as to elicit sublime determination. The symbol and self, separated at birth, constantly sought reconciliation. As my unhappiness in New York became increasingly crushing, I realized the foundations of what I truly wanted out of life—peace, community, and space—could only be attained elsewhere.
So I left. I didn’t go far enough to not be able to come back when I pleased, but far enough to not be included in the geographic grouping of northeast states. In Maryland I was far enough so as to be just beyond the reach of the city’s dirty claws and crudity. I began graduate school and made my own life for myself in a fabricated, pristine suburbia (Columbia) which stands as direct opposite to the honest grit of my home city. In this freedom to establish the lifestyle of my choice, one not directed by the judgmental precepts that come with longstanding occupation of certain space—one not mandated from that which was external to me—I found the peace I felt I had sought before; the outline no longer haunted, but was instead being filled in, substantiated; colored with every step of my establishment. I created communities; I joined them. I found love, centrality, direction. The rudimentary sketches shaped into being. I found my self and in this I found my peace.
So when I called my old boss at my alma mater in New York and asked him for a class to teach during the summer, I’m not sure what I was thinking. There are a few reasons which may serve as justification. There’s the practical reason: the money. Though, in truth, I don’t make very much of it. Despite having no classes to teach in Maryland over the summer, I could have wrangled some reasonable income flow together, spent my time freelancing. The ironic truth is that I’ve lost money by coming back to New York. So that doesn’t quite fit.
There’s my stock reason, the one I present to others upon their questioning of my decision: teaching this particular class is important to me. There’s not a shred of mendacity in this statement, as anyone who has seen me pour my energy into it can attest. It’s a program vital to the students and I have not felt in my three years teaching it that the college treats it as such. The program needs me, the students need me, because I sincerely (and sometimes excessively) care. There’s inspiration in my insanity and my students often thank me for it. I can’t change the way society views education (of self, as well as proper), but I will not stop in my seemingly-constant quest to open the minds of a select few all the while using myself as an example tantamount to what I preach.
Besides, though I often diverge from the pervading philosophy of this college, I’m comfortable there. My colleagues—many of whom are my former professors and mentors—are also friends of mine, individuals who cultivate a particular nexus of erudite, colloquial community, who have inspired—and continue to inspire—me in my constant intellectual growth and enterprise.
This reason satisfies my decision on a particular level. It is, after all, the very reason for my return. And there are others: seeing my best friend regularly, roaming daily the spirited, independent and artistic blocks of BoCoCa (my favorite portmanteau, and tri-neighborhood conglomerate), sipping cappuccino in the very place I now sit, Building on Bond, or wine at the Jakewalk, meditating and working on poetry in Trinity Church, buying fresh vegetables at the Union Square farmer’s market, perusing the art galleries in Chelsea, spending time with my mom, or watching free performances at Lincoln Center all remind me of why I loved this city in the first place—and why I will always love it.
When I decided to come back—for two months—I was expecting something. I didn’t know what, and I still don’t know, but I know it’s not here.
Was it the intellectually and spiritually revitalizing sincerity and communion of the time right before my move last summer, when each breath was of freedom, of happiness, of love, of life itself? (So refreshing is vitality!) This, after all, was my final impression of New York before leaving. Or perhaps I sought to recapture a piece of my past from which I have progressed so far. But why would I want to do that? Why would I upend all I’ve worked so hard to establish? Maybe I thought I could recapture something that I left behind, or stand defiant in the face of a dead past and all the perception and projection that comes with it. Those who stay mired in a past, and hence something fallacious, are the army of sad soldiers forever marching in circles towards their own sorrowful delusions. Believing the past to be the present is to impede progression, and what are we doing if not progressing? But maybe my living in the present and the future was obscured momentarily by some unconscious prodding of my past self.
I sit here now, gazpacho and empty cappuccino cup next to my open notebook, Sam Beam (of Iron & Wine) typing away on his laptop at the table adjacent to me, and I realize that there is nothing left for me in New York. There are physical things, sure—my favorite haunts, my family, and so on—but the essence of what I need to maintain the peace I’ve acquired is not here. Not now. All that I’ve faced since returning is bitterness. The new direction that I’ve taken with my life has not met support but instead vitriol from those burdened souls who are so comfortable on their throne of negativity that any sense of change is approached as hostile. The positivity I try to espouse gets lost like a backpacked traveler in this hurried city of selfishness and anger. My father’s house—the very house I grew up in—synechdochally represents this collective comfort, this clinging to an illusory present based on an all too extinct past. Too often people like to sit in their sorrow and self-pity just to sit in it, siphon false compassion from others, and not actually use the sorrow to generate something positive. This I have no sympathy for because I’ve done it, I’ve lived with it, and it’s empty. Your emptiness is sad and false, and I will not allow it to impede upon the spirit of movement, of artistry, of love that I cultivate. Your lack of sophistication to understand me should not affect me. But I’d fail to properly express how fatiguing it is to maintain my sense of love and peace, of light, balance, creativity and direction in the face of such relentless dissension and desperation. I wish I could sit here today and write something defiant and inspirational about my triumph over emptiness, bitterness, and perception but I can’t because it’s been its own battle to hold together that which I have worked for.
So maybe I know why I came back. Maybe this return, as exhausting, frustrating and consistently disillusioning as it has been, was needed to keep me reminded of what I need in order to maintain and continue building upon the foundations I’ve established for myself. Maybe this shadowbeast of a past life was to serve as a challenge in order to continue to inspire me to create, to love, to grow; to be the one who stands upon the shooting throne of light, scepter pointed ahead. Maybe I needed this regression in order to continue going forward.