That American Life

I first published this over two years ago. A friend who is thinking about moving home to NYC prodded me when I said that living in New York was HARD, but worth it. I remembered writing this post, and am grateful for her question, since today — more than many in recent past — I needed a reminder, in my own words, as to why I moved here. Why I stayed. And why I’m staying.

It’s December 3rd. It’s clearly, firmly, winter in NYC, and I’m sleeping with my windows on and the Air Conditioning running at full blast. It’s environmentally atrocious, that I know, but you see, I don’t have control over the heat in my building. And even with the radiators turned off, temperatures rise to the mid 80’s without this global warming-inducing — not to mention, costly — tactic. And this tactic is common here in Manhattan.
It’s one of many things that you do here, that you get used to, because that’s just how it is. That you have virtually no control (and zero leverage with crazy landords) over things like your living conditions, or at least the temperature within. Or your transportation. Subway delays? Yep. Hope you charged your Kindle and have a sympathetic boss. Freak snowstorms, or hurricanes. A city where your dog searches for the lone patch of grass in a four-block radius just so they don’t have to pee on the sidewalk. We do these things, us New Yorkers, because the payoff is worth it. And — in some ways — because we quickly become immune to it. Our skin, it becomes thicker. It has to, and not just to survive the winter.
When people asked me why I moved here, I’ve had a hard time articulating it. What I kept coming back to was that I needed life to be harder. I couldn’t explain well what that meant, or at least not in a way that didn’t make me sound like an entitled asshole. I think it still does. But I read an article tonight that helped me understand my reasoning, why I’d shed the security and comforts that I was so lucky to have for a place where many of them were now gone, or at least out of my price range. Please take a second to read it; it’s beautifully written, and describes a mother & wife’s decision to move out of the city, because it’s the life they want to lead and the future they want to provide for their son. It describes her fear of making the wrong decision and abandoning what she knows, scared of the potential mediocrity in contrast to their current life in NYC. And it discusses how she was raised, likely in a way that I and many of my friends were, that we had choices and were in many ways in control of our lives. She writes:
“It is, it’s a wonderful thing — a privilege — to feel that you can do anything…but it also makes it really hard to finally choose what you want to do. Why should I marry this amazing guy when I’ve never even been to Asia yet? My even-more-perfect man might be waiting there for me. Why should I accept this pretty cool job offer when I haven’t even tested the waters in these five other career paths? I might like something else better. Why should I move to this one town, when there are so many other places in the world that might make the perfect home?”
It was that paragraph that made me understand my choice. And it might sound backwards or broken or ungrateful or jaded — basically, choose your judgmental adjective — but I realized the reason I moved here wasn’t for it to be harder, it was so I could appreciate what I’ve had. The fact that I was able to buy a home at a younger age. That I’ve had the ability to have some amazing jobs and travel and meet friends and the experiences…I have had the opportunity to meet some phenomenal people and see some once-in-a-lifetime things. I am grateful for these every single day, and I have worked very, very hard for all of them. I am thankful.
But I was complacent. Was I appreciating them enough? Was I — in the moment, or afterwards — realizing that I was in so very, very many ways the exception? That this life I was living was a privilege? Maybe. But maybe not. Perhaps if I took away some of my creature comforts or made my day-to-day a bit more difficult, I’d be able to place the value where it should lie. And that wasn’t with physical possessions — I’ve gotten rid of so many of them — or even physical space in my home, but with people. With those experiences. With the opportunity to go to work on something I love WITH people I love and respect and want to be around. I wanted it to be harder so I could know what was important.
And I think — I hope — I do. This weekend, some new(er), dear friends who have become my New York family convened at a friend’s house for a potluck dinner. Mind you, this doesn’t happen much here, namely because our kitchens fit two people at most and dishwashers? Our two hands under scalding water. I had spent Thanksgiving with many of these people, hosting them at my home and simply enjoying each other’s company. Sure, we could have eaten out; there was talk of going out of town. And on Saturday night? There were a ton of events happening. It certainly wasn’t the house or the space or the possessions or even the food (while delectable) that drew us together. It was the people. And that’s what I’ve found to matter here. Until that changes, New York City is my home, hurricanes, sweltering summers, sweaty subway rides, dodgy bodegas and all. Harder suits me only because for the things that actually matter, they’re easier to recognize.

Originally published at aubreysabala.com on December 4, 2012.

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