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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run run run run run

So I stopped practicing and teaching yoga about 3 months ago.  This is the only time in the past 11 years that I’ve abstained from yoga practice for more than a week.  I wasn’t finding any meaning or growth in my practice anymore, and I was getting frustrated with a lot of the culture around yoga (which doesn’t actually have much of anything to do with yoga itself).  I got tired of overhearing conversations about homeopathy and vaccine conspiracies and ear candling and Mercury in retrograde and rave reviews of someone’s new gluten free, dairy free, egg free, sugar free, chocolate free cookie recipe (as far as I can tell, this describes a cookie that is comprised chiefly of sawdust).

I have spent the past 15 years working in medical research (ACTUAL medical research, with science and numbers and peer review and stuff), and eating well is one of my few unmitigated sensual pleasures.  Anti-science and cuisines of deprivation?  No thank you.  Life is too short to be so ignorant and unhappy.

I’d started (and continued) practicing yoga because in it, I’d found a way to create some peace for myself and work on unresolved issues.  But it wasn’t working anymore, and maybe that’s partly because I’m dealing with a different set of issues now.  I remember hearing a great, great yoga teacher say that yoga is not a way to develop boundaries; if you need to work on your boundaries, practice martial arts.  Whoa.  Full stop.  So, so, so true.  How are you going to work on boundaries with other people if you’re just stuck on your mat, contemplating your navel, not interacting with other people?  It had become too easy for me to use yoga as a beard to avoid self-work, rather than engaging in it.  And boundaries, in the most general terms, are the issues I know that I need to work on right now.  So no more yoga.

I would have liked to take up martial arts again, but the martial art I’ve studied in the past, kendo, is not taught anywhere near me, and I’m not interested in aikido or karate.  Call me a snob, but if I can’t fight you with a sword, I’m not interested in fighting you at all.

suffer-runSo I’ve been running instead.  The benefit of running, for me, as I’ve been sharing with anyone who will listen (and some who would probably prefer not to), is that I already know that I hate it, so I don’t have to worry about discovering later on that I despise it and deciding that I need to quit and try something else.  No, I’m being honest with myself from the get go here.  Hating it in turn confers another benefit to running – I’m so focused on how much I’d rather be doing something else (anything else!  Please!) while I’m doing it, I can’t get lost in my head.  My focus is single pointed:  This sucks.  I can’t wait till I’m done.  And getting lost in my head (in addition to being sick of yoga) was why I started running in the first place.  I realized I was falling into a depression, and I needed a way out.

The downside to running is that I still have boundary issues to work on.  Which, again, in the very most general of terms, is why I was spiralling into a depression.  So maybe I should bite the bullet and sign up for karate.  I have friends who practice, and I’m sure they’d love nothing more than to beat the tar out of me once or twice a week (which, actually, sounds kind of great to me too).

“You’re nervous because it means something.”

Woke up this morning around 5:30 and knew I had to start writing.  I didn’t want to.  I tried to find distractions.  Checked my text messages, narrowly fought off the urge to check email and facebook as well.  I wrote the date and the topic of my free write in my journal, then lay back down with the journal next to me in bed.  Standing on the cliff’s edge.

The same question keeps coming up in this round of TMI, and I keep not knowing how to answer, so I coyly avoid it and work on other things.  Wednesday, I finally heard the question in terms I understood.  Unsurprisingly, the terms that finally clicked with me involved a Canadian, which is a useful reference point for me.  And on Thursday I figured out my way in, how to start answering the question.  So eventually I did pick up my pen and start writing, and I didn’t come to a stopping point till I was three pages in.  I did some editing this afternoon to get the chronology right, but stopped myself before I’d edited all the life out of it.  Hopefully.  And I think where I stopped sets me up to pick up my pen again tomorrow morning.

I’m a simple person.  This is pretty much all I ask out of life.  Challenging work, and some sense that it’s coming together, or will.  I can usually tell when I’m onto something interesting because it spurs more questions.  Sort of the way fractals unfold.

Anyway, I watched this interview of Gord Downie on George Stroumboulopoulis’ show afterwards, and somehow, it made sense to me.  What Gord says towards the end about not holding back, using it all up – I need to keep reminding myself.  There’s nothing to hold back for.  This is it.

(Oh, also this article Gord wrote a few months ago for Maclean’s.)

Canadian travels

I made my annual pilgrimage to Canada earlier this week; I spent a few days in Bon Echo Provincial Park, followed by a few days in Ottawa.  I’d never been to Bon Echo before, but had heard it was beautiful, and it certainly was.  I did some hiking, some kayaking, and some swimming.  Hiking in Central Ontario in the summer is in some ways a test of endurance; the insect life is voracious.  I had, of course, forgotten to buy DEET for my trip, but I remembered that I had some non-DEET bug spray stashed in the glove box of my car, so I tried that.  It worked surprisingly well; shockingly well, actually.  The one down side was that it left an oily sheen on my skin, which of course became grimy with dirt and dust from the trail.  I was a filthy mess at the end of that hike!  I was really, really grateful for the camp showers afterwards.  Later that day, I rented a kayak and paddled along Bon Echo Rock in Upper Mazinaw Lake, checking out the climbers on the cliff face and the pictographs left by first nations’ people.  Living at the base of the Shawangunk ridge, I guess I have a natural affinity for climbers, even though I don’t climb myself.  I see people splayed out on a rock wall hundreds of feet above me attached to intricate rope systems and shouting things like “Off belay,” and it feels like home.

Also, Bon Echo rock on the east side of Upper Mazinaw Lake is amazingly beautiful, especially in the light of early evening.

The thing that made me happiest at Bon Echo, though, was the diversity of people there.  Not everyone was white!  This is not always the case in rural Ontario.  I was staying in a campground, and the vibe was sort of summer-camp-for-families.  This was a little uncomfortable for me, since I was there alone, and didn’t know anyone.  The first night, my campsite was surrounded on all sides by sites full of teenage girls, listening to terrible music, singing along badly, and gossiping loudly.  It was pretty great.  The entertainment value was tremendous, and it harkened back to my own youth.  I did kind of feel like the one Hank Williams figure in a sea of Taylor Swifts, though.  Or to use a more nationally appropriate reference, Leonard Cohen in a sea of Justin Biebers.

Bon Echo Provincial ParkBon Echo Provincial ParkBon Echo Provincial ParkBon Echo Provincial ParkBon Echo Provincial Park, Shield TrailBon Echo Provincial Park, Shield Trail
Bon Echo Provincial Park, Shield TrailBon Echo Provincial ParkBon Echo Inukshuk, Shield TrailBon EchoBon EchoGraffito in Bon Echo underpass
Bon EchoBon Echo climbers!Bon EchoBon Echo pictographBon Echo climbers!Bon Echo climbers!
Bon Echo climbers!Bon Echo pictographNot-so-fine-art bannock photographyBon Echo Provincial ParkCamp site, Bon Echo Provincial ParkBon Echo Rock, Upper Mazinaw Lake

Bon Echo, a set on Flickr.

On to Ottawa.  This was my first trip to Ottawa solo, not to visit anyone, not with any specific agenda in mind, just to have a good time.  And so I did!  I stayed in the Jail Hostel, an old jail and the site, I believe, of Canada’s last hanging.  I stayed on the top floor, which was death row when the jail was in use.  So now I can tell people that I spent a few nights in the slammer on death row in Ottawa.  That should stop any conversation dead in its tracks.  Also, I bought a t-shirt at the hostel that says “A great place to hang!” with a picture of a noose.  Classy!  I’m looking forward to wearing it to yoga classes and scandalizing my fellow yoginis.  The thing I like best about staying in hostels is the fact that when interacting with other hostelers, the first task is always to figure out what, if any, language you have in common.  This does not happen in hotels.  I always feel stupider after a stay in a hotel.  There’s very little interaction with other people; the whole situation fosters isolation and anonymity.  Not so in hostels.  The situation fosters interaction.  And that rocks.

My first day in Ottawa, I took a long walk around Parliament Hill, across the river to Hull, past the Museum of Civilization, and back across the river to Ottawa again.  As in Bon Echo, I was happy to see the diversity of people and overhear a diversity of languages.  Unfortunately, not everyone shared my enthusiasm.  On the Alexandra Bridge on my way back to Ottawa, I heard an altercation behind me.  A pair of young women, apparently, had wandered into the bike lane on the bridge (which was not well marked), and a biker was directing an angry tirade at them.  Actually, it was beyond angry; he was rageful all out of proportion.  And he ended his lengthy, loud, and wholly unwarranted temper tantrum by calling them “Chinese fucks.”  So I don’t think his anger was about what they had done, but rather about who they were, or rather, who he believed they were.  Frightened and angry myself, I didn’t know what to do.  I’m still not sure what, if anything, I should have done.  He was much bigger than me, and clearly pissed, so confronting him probably would not have been a good idea.  Plus, I was wearing ladybug earrings in my ears and my hair was in pigtails.  A realistic appraisal of the chances of him treating me more respectfully than he’d treated the girls was not overwhelmingly promising.  I didn’t think it would help to run back and see if the girls were okay either, though maybe I should have.  I wanted to tell them that not all Canadians are like that, but who am I to tell them that?  I’m not Canadian.  And for all I knew, they may well have been Canadian.  On the chance that they weren’t, though, that they were just visiting, it saddens me that some bigoted jackass did his best to poison their trip and their opinion of Canada and Canadians.  Come on, Canada.  You can do better than that.

That was really the only dark spot marring my trip to Ottawa.  Monday night, I sat on the green in front of Parliament Hill and watched a multimedia presentation on the history and culture of Canada displayed on the front of the Centre Block building.  I loved it; I totally choked up whenever the strains of “O Canada” played.  Before the show began, I was wandering around behind Centre Block.  Saw a pair of young women, clearly in love, holding each other and gazing deeply into each other’s eyes.  That brightened my day a lot, and ameliorated much of the bitterness I still felt after witnessing the altercation on the bridge a few hours earlier.  Also, there were statues of Canada’s past prime ministers, and I noticed with great amusement that there was a stream of pigeon shit trickling straight down the face of Diefenbaker.  Even birds give him no respect!

Tuesday, I spent the morning in the National Gallery and the afternoon on a tour of Centre Block.  The National Gallery didn’t impress me much; I though the art museum in Montreal was much better.  There was a sculpture in the Inuit exhibit that made me smile, though; it was titled “The Aurora Borealis Decapitating A Young Man.”  And there were a handful of very good pieces in the permanent collection.  I was struck by how similar some of the early Canadian art was to the Hudson River school work from the 19th century; I wished my friend E were there with me, so that I could discuss it with her.  Unfortunately, I had the same problem in the National Gallery that I usually have in art museums.  The work progresses from older to newer, and at some point, usually around 1930, the production of art begins to strike me as an exercise in who can out-clever who.  I lose all emotional connection to what I’m looking at.  So I spent a good bit of time in the old part of the collection, but pretty much rushed through the newer work.

I really enjoyed the Parliament Hill tour.  The architecture and the ornate details of the building were stunning; especially the woodwork in the library.  Absolutely gorgeous.  And part of me, of course, was excited at now being able to visualize the place that Canadian legislation and policy are debated.

I returned to the states on Wednesday; as usual, I was remorseful that my trip had been so short, and I promised myself that it wouldn’t be so long before I returned.  Beyond my (obvious) love of Canada, simply stepping outside of my daily life for a few days altered my perspective.  A few years ago, when we were in Guatemala, I told my friend K that “The benefit of travel is seeing home differently.”  Walking around Ottawa, I thought about how profound the writing and performing that I’ve been involved in for the past few months has been; how that work has been pulling me out of a quagmire I didn’t even know I was in, and giving me direction.  “Profound” and “unfolding” were words that kept coming back to me in Ottawa.

This isn’t the best piece of writing I’ve ever produced, but I’m sick of editing it so I’ll just post it as is.

Squirrel masonry!  On Confederation Building in OttawaHull BixiGraffito, Alexandra Bridge, OttawaNotre Dame, OttawaNotre Dame, OttawaNotre Dame, Ottawa
Giant Spider attacking Notre Dame, OttawaChamplain!Ottawa National GalleryParliament Hill House of CommonsParliament Hill House of CommonsParliament Hill Senate Chamber
Lion with indigestionVomiting UnicornCentre Block, Parliament HillLe Chateau Laurier

Ottawa, a set on Flickr.

short story

A few years ago, I walked into a restaurant during Hudson Valley Restaurant Week, and immediately discovered that I was slightly underdressed.  Uncomfortable with this realization, I told myself “Well, if they kick me out, I’m going to proclaim in a loud and haughty voice that I’ve been kicked out of nicer places than this.”

Then I remembered that actually, I had been kicked out of nicer places than that.

Lesson learned:  It’s a wonderful feeling when you realize that the person you pretend to be when you need to muster up your courage is, in fact, you.

little earthquakes

So, I’m back to blogging now, apparently.  I will, perhaps, write more about what I was doing in my absence at some point in the future; for now, let it suffice to say that I celebrated a victory – a tremendous victory – this past weekend.

But that’s not what I’m writing about today.  I’m writing about two lousy situations, one from Saturday, one from a few hours ago.


#1.  Walking down Church Street with a friend on Saturday morning, we passed a trio of “adults” – two men and one woman.  With them was a child, probably 2 or 3 years old.  The kid was crying.  One of the “men” was screaming at him to “Shut up right now!” and pushing him along to keep him walking.  Unsurprisingly, this did not calm the child, who kept on crying.  The other two “adults” were not intervening in any way, they just kept walking along like nothing was going on.

Situations like these are hard for me to watch.  I think they are hard for anyone to watch, but they are really hard for me to watch.  I know what it’s like to be that kid, and it’s the scared, needy little kid inside of me who comes to the surface when I see anything like that happening, thus making it basically impossible to act or even to know what to do.  So I stood and watched, mouth agape, my rage rising without an outlet.  Eventually the “woman” (I put it in quotes because I find it hard to think of any of the three as adults) looked at me and said, “What?”  I didn’t know what to say, so I turned around and walked away.

When E and I got to the restaurant (right around the corner) I told her that I had to wait outside for a moment before we went in, to calm down.  So I stood against the wall and tried to calm myself, but I could still hear the “man” screaming at the little kid, all the way down the block, and I still didn’t know what the hell to do, and could not think straight, so we went inside.

I felt like a coward.  I spent most of the day angry at myself for not doing anything, and impotently fantasizing brutal retaliation against the “man” who was abusing the child.  I wondered if I’d misread the situation, if my own experiences had led me to view the situation as more dire than it was.  I don’t think that’s the case.  I know what an adult out of control looks like, and I know what a child in the middle of a meltdown looks like, and I know it’s a terrible combination, and I know which one has 100% of the responsibility to step back and figure out a better way to handle the situation.

Eventually, I realized that it was time to stop beating myself up for not doing anything, and time to sit down and figure out what the right thing to do would have been, so I’d know what to do the next time this happens.  The answer came to me quickly.  I should have called the police.  It wasn’t my situation to handle, and an intervention from a police officer may have been the wake up call that these three “adults” needed to stop abusing their kid.  So I put the phone number for the New Paltz police in my cell phone.  I hope I’m never again in a situation where I need to use it.


#2.  Less upsetting situation.  This afternoon, I pulled into a parking lot just as someone else was pulling out.  I stopped to let him out so that I could take his spot.  He took his time exiting the spot, did not seem to know how much space was around his car, or how much he needed, did not back up far enough, and just barely squeaked by my car.  He could have backed up further, or I could have backed up, but I really didn’t think I was crowding him, he’d just done a lousy job of leaving the parking spot.  As he passed, he rolled down his window and indicated for me to do the same, so I did.

Me:  “What’s up?”
Him:  “You couldn’t have backed up to let me out?”
Me:  “Your car doesn’t have reverse?”
Him:  “Fuck you!”
Me (loudly, as he drove away):  “Have a nice day!”

This interaction was not nearly as upsetting to me as Saturday morning’s, but it still was a little.  I always feel terrible after interactions in which someone is mad at me, legitimately or not.  The more space I get from this second interaction, though, with Monsieur Nissan, the less bad I feel about myself for it.  He did a lousy job of pulling out of his parking spot, and wanted to blame someone else.  Why the hell should I have been conciliatory?

My brother’s girlfriend and I made a pact to be more bad-ass this year.  Generally, I’ve approached this as trying to be more honest and hide my true feelings less, but it also involves letting people walk over me less.  So I’m adding a check mark to my bad-ass-ery counter.  I didn’t lose my cool with him, I just didn’t take his shit.

Also, when did it become okay to say “Fuck you” to random strangers whom you blame for minor inconveniences?  This man was probably in his sixties.  He should have known better.  I’m not opposed to vulgarity, in its place, but let’s save the f-bombs for when they’re really warranted, okay?  Let’s not cheapen the language by using the foulest bits at every possible opportunity.

poem

From circa 2004.  The Emily Dickinson influence, in metre and rhyme scheme if nothing else, is very obvious, to me at least.  I wrote this shortly before I discovered the joys of obsessive editing, and never calling anything done until I’d re-written it to within an inch of its life.  The imagery in the second and fourth stanzas still speaks to me.

I wish I were a beauty
To win you back to me
I wish I were a frigate
To sail us far to sea

I wish I were a church bell
Calling you back home
I wish I were the broken earth
Over which you roam

But I’m haunted by my ugliness
I cannot win you back;
I don’t know how to sail to you
I’ve never learned to tack.

I never walk into a church
But I feel that I intrude
And all I know of broken earth
I’ve learned in solitude.