Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Botton – a review

goodbye-to-all-thatI do not venerate New York City.  I never have.  Despite living a stone’s throw from it (rather, a fairly short bus ride from it), I almost never visit The City.  The limited appeal it holds for me has always been tempered by the anxiety I’ve sometimes felt when I have been there; the crush of the crowds, the busyness, the claustrophobia, the overwhelming New York City-ness of it all, and until recently, I never saw a need to challenge that.  Other writers and artists (Woody Allan comes immediately to mind) have essentially based their careers on fetishizing the city, and this is something that has distanced me from their work.  I just don’t feel it.  So I wondered when I began to read this book whether I would be able to identify with the authors, or whether I’d feel left out in the cold.

This concern was not well founded.

Despite my coolness towards New York, the ostensible subject matter, this collection still pulled me right in.  I caught on pretty quickly that these essays aren’t just about New York; they are about having an intimate relationship with a place and being so fundamentally changed by it that it ceases to be home.  They are about transformation; New York is merely the backdrop.  Not all New Yorkers go through this transformation.  Some never leave.  But these writers allowed themselves to be changed; they grew, and they spread their wings and flew away.

In odd ways, the writing reminded me in places of Barry Lopez’s descriptions of his relationship to the land in Arctic Dreams.  I never thought that I would come across writing that so beautifully evokes a similar sense of relationships of reciprocity with an urban landscape, but here it is.

Although the references are all local and specific, the experiences of the writers are universal. A few passages hit me hard:

When it comes to place, there are two kinds of writers:  those who more or less stay where they’re put and look around themselves, and those who need to go somewhere else to look around themselves there.  p127, “Losing New York,” Lauren Elkin

I thought I fell firmly in the former category, but I wonder if it’s as simple as that for me.  I remember telling K after our trip to Guatemala that one of the benefits of travel is getting to see home differently.  I do most of my writing in Ulster County, where I live, but the ink sometimes seems to flow most readily when I have some separation from my day to day life.  The important thing, I think, is the looking around and within myself, regardless of where that happens.

I liked to observe non-loner-alien people, and New York City was the best place to do that….  Here, on foot, I was free.  Wherever my feet took me, I was happy to have the city as my sole companion.  I loved the feeling of being alone but among people. p154, “Real Estate,” Sari Botton

I love that feeling, too, though it’s not New York, specifically, where I go for it.  An odd quirk of my own flavour of introversion/extroversion is that I do need to be around people, even if I don’t want to interact with them all of the time.  It’s reassuring to see that others feel this as well.

And finally:

My relationship to New York City – home – is and always has been about my relationship to yearning. p235, “Captive,” Dana Kinstler

Full stop.  Yes.  This is the most powerful sentence in the book for me.  My relationship to home is also about my relationship to yearning.  What would home even mean if I actually arrived there?  If I actually had what I wanted, if I did the messy work of removing it from the abstract and bringing it to the real, what then?  Would I, too, be changed, and discover that I now wanted or needed something else?  That is why these essays touch me so deeply.  It’s a courageous act, bordering at times on desperate, to go after what you want, but it’s an even more courageous act to realize later that it no longer suits you, and that you must let it go.

So, my review in short:  this essay collection is deliciously written, exquisitely introspective, and thought provoking.  Buy it.  Read it.  Thank me later.  I’m not even going to edit out or apologize for all of the adverbs I just used to describe it.  It’s just that good.

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"cold and drunk as I can be"

So, a few years back I decided that I wanted to bag all of the fire towers in the Catskills. I had already hiked Overlook a few times, and the next tower I set my sights on was Hunter Mountain. I tried it. Really rough terrain, lots of elevation. I didn’t quite make it to the top. Tried again. Another failure. Again. Again. I gave up. So it goes sometimes.

Well, yesterday I finally did it. Unfortunately, my sense of accomplishment is tempered by the fact that I beat the shit out of my knees on the way down. They’re a lot better now, but I’m still concerned. I was treating this hike as step one in a training regimen to prepare me for a NOLS trip to the high Arctic that I’ve been thinking about taking next summer. That’s not going to happen if my body isn’t in decent shape. In addition to my knee issues, I also have a shoulder injury from years ago that never really healed, and which makes it difficult to carry a pack. Plus wrist issues that have been plaguing me for the past few months. Plus… the courses I’m interested in have an average participant age of ~20, more than ten years my junior. How much would I enjoy a month in the company of the summer-break-from-university crowd (even if it’s in the Arctic, the place I want to see more than anywhere else)?

I applied for (and was accepted to) a NOLS course once before – sea kayaking in Prince William Sound in 2000. I didn’t go. The weird thing is that I can’t for the life of me remember why I didn’t. I was in pretty lousy mental space at the time, and that must have had a lot to do with my decision to back out, but I remember none of the specifics. This was when I was living in Beltsville, MD. Three days after I would have left for the month long course, I came home after work to discover all of the utilities turned off and a note of foreclosure on the front door of the house where I was renting a room. The landlord (who much to my surprise was not the owner listed on the foreclosure notice) was nowhere to be found. That was one of the worst weekends of my life. I had no one to turn to, so I called my father, who I hadn’t spoken to in six months. He put me in contact with some relatives who were living locally and who kindly put me up for a few weeks. I was humbled by their generosity.

Sometimes, still, I lie awake at night and wonder if it wouldn’t have been better for me to have gone on the NOLS trip. I would have returned to MD to discover that my apartment was no longer mine (according to the foreclosure notice, the house was to be sold at auction in two week’s time, and I had no lease). What would I have done? Panic was my usual response to stress back then. Would NOLS have changed my outlook on life? Is it possible that I would have just shrugged my shoulders and calmly worked through the situation? Hard to say. Revisiting the past is always tricky business. I wonder, though.

Well… I’m in a different place now, geographically and emotionally. All these memories do come up for me, though, when I think about NOLS. Most of the draw of next summer’s program is my fascination with the far North and my desire to see it before it all melts, but I know that some of the appeal is the possibility of salving memories from this sore spot in my past; proving to myself that I can, indeed, do this.

I have plans to do some more hiking later this week, assuming my knees are on the mend by then. I guess I’m going to go ahead with my training regimen, unless/until it becomes apparent that physical limitations are going to make a NOLS trip infeasible for me. In which case… I don’t know what I’ll do. That would be quite disappointing.

Oh, and regarding the title of this post – I’m neither cold nor drunk now, but I’ve wanted to use that Gordon Lightfoot line as a post title for quite a while, and I figured I’d better use it now or else I’d waste it on some horribly maudlin diatribe, when I am actually drunk.

Jesus Camp

A few nights ago, I watched the most terrifying horror movie ever made. It’s a documentary called Jesus Camp. I felt so bad for the kids in that movie. Their parents, their pastors, their entire culture tells them that the physical world is rife with sin, that physical pleasure is evil. The scene in which the ten year old girl says that dancing for the holy spirit is okay, but dancing for “the flesh” is wrong, is horrifying. How are these kids going to deal with puberty in a few years? Their bodies are going to be giving them signals that their indoctrinated minds refuse to accept, and no one around them is going to have any sympathy. Something’s going to have to give. You can’t internalize that much hatred and fear without doing some serious damage.

I am a big fan of Philip Pullman’s books. Jesus Camp helped me to understand why Evangelical Christians are so afraid of him; his philosophy is completely antithetical to theirs. This is how I summarized Pullman’s message in a recent email: “What the books argue in favour of is existence itself – the here and now. The beauty and the wonder of that which is right in front of us, and within us. The books are distinctly against relying on a superhuman power (whether a god or an unaccountable organization) to dictate morality.” No wonder there was a call to boycott the Golden Compass movie (which stunk out loud, incidentally, but the books are great). Hell, most of the kids in Jesus Camp weren’t even allowed to watch or read Harry Potter, and that’s practically a paean to Christian values.

I try not to get too obsessed with other people’s beliefs. I don’t burden people with my belief system unless they ask, and I expect the same courtesy from them. Worship whatever you want to, just leave me the hell out of it. But when you’re fucking up your kids with your idiotic and dangerous beliefs? That’s not acceptable.

Totally unrelated: my yoga teacher training program runs through June, and I’ve been thinking that as a reward to myself for finishing the program (assuming I finish the program), it’d be nice to go to Prince Edward Island for a week or two, rent a bicycle, and ride from one end of the island to the other. I’ve never been there before, and I’d like to cross it off the list of provinces I have yet to visit. I don’t know if I’m in good enough shape to do that much riding, and I’ve been having knee issues lately, so those are issues I’ll have to address before I decide whether to go. I have this vision in my head of PEI the way it must have been a hundred years ago, when L. M. Montgomery was writing. I know it’s certainly not the same now, but maybe I could still get a sense of the history of the place.

Finally, a wonderful, wonderful passage from Barry Lopez’s new book: “Whatever their styles and emphases, many American poets and novelists have recognized that something emotive abides in the land, and that it can be recognized and evoked even if it cannot be thoroughly plumbed. It is inaccessible to the analytic researcher, invisible to the ironist. To hear the unembodied call of a place, that numinous voice, one has to wait for it to speak through the harmony of its features – the soughing of the wind across it, its upward reach against a clear night sky, its fragrance after a rain. One must wait for the moment when the thing – the hill, the tarn, the lunette, the kiss tank, the caliche flat, the bajada – ceases to be a thing and becomes something that knows we are there.” Those last few words especially are haunting to me. I’ve never read anything else quite so well written about what it feels like and what it means to find oneself merging with a landscape; for the land to become not just something out there, but something to which one is intimately, vitally connected. No longer other. Kindred. Family. I have that sense here, in the Hudson Valley; I have had it in south eastern Ontario as well, where I spent healthy chunks of my youth. I did NOT have it when I lived in Maryland for a few years, and that is a large part of why I never liked it there.

(Note: I pieced together much of this entry from recent emails, which may explain its slightly disjointed character. Guess if I posted more frequently I wouldn’t feel as obligated to cram so much in to a single post.)