It was the best apartment: A brownstone on a tree-lined street with a window nook in the living room, on the ground floor of a block nestled between a doggy daycare and Central Park—in other words, nonstop views, all day long, of puppies bouncing down the street with their little puppy butts, right outside my window. Okay, it wasn’t always great. Sometimes it was loud. And where there’s dogs, there’s dog poop. And once, I made eye contact with a man as he blew a snot rocket into my planter. But that’s New York, baby. That’s what you want.
Murphy and I would walk down our block on New York evenings, the yellow lights of every city dweller twinkling against the indigo sky. Hordes of people, and you don’t even have to stop and talk to any of them. It’s an extroverted introvert’s fantasy—or maybe the other way around. New York didn’t always feel perfect, but in those moments on our evening walks, it did.
When I first saw the apartment, I told the agent, “This is the kind of place I always imagined living in when I moved to New York,” and it was true. Like so many others, I always dreamed of moving to New York, but it was a dream that was too expensive or too inconvenient or too something, until earlier this year when I decided to finally give it a shot. I took a job, packed up my stuff, and my husband and I agreed to be long-distance for a year, at which point he would quit his job and we would officially leave California for New York.
But then 2020 took an unfathomably harsh turn, crushing those plans—and maybe yours, too.
A time for questions
This year has been stranger than fiction: A virus threatening the globe and throwing systematic inequality into the spotlight. A planet becoming uninhabitable. Our own government detaining and tear-gassing protesters. An English professor would tell you it feels too derivative, too on-the-nose. But it’s reality, and reality is so strange, it’s making us question everything.
A lot of things I used to accept as normal—even cool—are actually pretty bad. As a writer, for example, I used to dream of being a New York media type, rushing to publish a magazine under a tyrannical boss, a latte in one hand and edits in the other. Further along in my career, however, this now sounds like an actual nightmare. We glamorize toxic leaders in movies, and we let them get away with being bullies in real life. We normalize behavior that hurts people. But 2020 has made us question so much of that. Hey, maybe an abusive leader is bad, actually? Maybe we should rethink our current law enforcement system? And maybe it’s time to retire a flag that celebrates being on the wrong side of history?
These systems—whether it’s our police, celebrity culture, or a disingenuous obsession with tradition, are being revealed for what they truly are: oppressive and threatening to many people, especially Black and Brown people. So many of the institutions, leaders, values, and norms we used to hold dear are actually not that great. It makes you wonder and question your own desires and goals. Have I been lured by and benefitted from a system that upholds privilege? And, in doing so, did that make things worse for other people? Does it ultimately make things worse for myself?
For me, the answer is yes. Many of the accolades I’ve strived for, places I’ve wanted to write for, and tables I’ve longed to sit at have been reserved for the privileged few, subtly but actively pushing out others. Which makes you wonder: Is that table really worth sitting at?
What do we really want?
Today, Murphy and I hopped in the car on our suburban street and I waved to every neighbor I passed, reluctantly, because sometimes you just want to be alone with your thoughts. There’s no Central Park, but there’s a creek-lined trail we hike once a week, and we hiked it today. My house isn’t a brownstone, but I have a house, and it’s lovely. At night, the lights of other houses on the hills here twinkle against the indigo sky, and it doesn’t always feel perfect, but it often does.
Living between two places often feels like living nowhere at all. In March, I came back to California and figured I’d return to New York in a couple of weeks when this whole COVID thing blew over—ha! When it became clear that wouldn’t be the case—and that my husband would have to take a pay cut, and that maybe the job I took wasn’t working out, and that my family may need some help with money, too—I broke the lease on the apartment and coordinated a move-out from 3,000 miles away.
Suddenly, the plan to transition our lives to the East Coast didn’t seem exciting or bold. In this new context, it seemed selfish and grandiose. Who did I think I was, trying something like this? That’s the downside of taking a risk. When it works out, you look like a real go-getter, someone who takes charge of her life and saves up and does what she wants. But when it doesn’t, you feel like a fool. No matter how calculated it is, a risk is still a risk, and that possibility is always there. In the context of a pandemic and a global recession, I felt guilty for even having the means to do something daring. After all, risks are a whole lot easier to take when you have money.
Maybe New York, for me, is a microcosm of the external accolades I’ve spent my life convincing myself that I want. Maybe I never really wanted it and what I really wanted was the idea of it, like an empty relationship with a really fun and good-looking person. Maybe I didn’t want New York enough, didn’t try hard enough to make it work.
Or maybe not. Maybe it was a great idea that just didn’t work out, and I’ll try it again sometime. I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the fewer answers I seem to have. It seems I’m not actually searching for answers, even when I think I am. If you decide to live a curious, open-minded, multi-faceted life, you end up chasing questions more than you do answers, which is both fulfilling and frustrating.
So what’s left? Where do we go from here? What do we do with the goals, plans, and systems that 2020 crushed, for better or worse? Your guess is as good as mine. But I think the answer lies somewhere in those evening walks with your dog, looking at the sky and wondering, what do I really want?
Multipotentialites, what has this year taught you about your own goals, desires, and achievements? What are you doing with the goals and plans that 2020 has thwarted?