Archives for the month of: February, 2019

“Life is curious when it is reduced to its essentials”

Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys

When leaving London, I made it my mission to pack my up-to-then life into two suitcases. It proved to be quite a feat. I had lived there for more than 25 years, and although I am not really a collector of “stuff”, I had a home and therefore furniture, clothes, and very many books.

The task was achievable, and also extremely stressful. Most of the “stuff” was donated to charity. I sold a few things, including my piano.

And I did get on the plane with just two suitcases.

I do think of some of the things I left behind (and hopefully now enjoyed by someone else) – almost exclusively books. I had an eclectic collection and I suspect that I will replace at least some of them in due course. I left behind a box of prized works for my daughter. I think she will be glad of them in due course, and I hope that she will experience a similar amount of joy within those pages.

I miss my piano, daily. I have a cello here that I love playing. But I yearn for the sublime ecstasy (and solitude) that playing Satie and Mompou, in particular, gave me.

I have been reading Elisa Gabbert’s The Word Pretty – a gem. In the piece titled Writing That Sounds like Writing, she talks about overwriting and excesses in art. As she has gotten older, Gabbert has come to appreciate subtleties in, for example, poetry. Yet she worries that

…this is like rich people getting rid of all their stuff, the intellectual equivalent of mistaking asceticism for refinement. The Marie Kondo craze is basically the opposite of horror vacui–fear of empty space versus fear of bounty. Minimalism versus maximalism, simplicity versus complexity.

This has made me question my own actions. True, circumstance (I didn’t want to put anything into storage) was a main motivating factor. I also felt a desire to shake off the old and begin again, in a more minimalist and self-defined way–the totality of such a decluttering allowing for a simpler life, and a new way of seeing and being.

I am also aware that I am fortunate enough to, for example, replace some of the books I left behind, if I so desire.

Jean Rhys states that life is more curious when limited to the essentials. Of course, what the essentials might be is entirely subjective, and again inextricably linked to what can be afforded. Having less “stuff” – and I mean in relative terms compared to my previous existence–probably does make life more curious for me, but more than that it makes it lighter, less weighed down, less burdensome.

Perhaps, along with the casting aside of the material, I also discarded those emotional aspects that no longer served a purpose in my life.

 

CQ

This event happened last weekend, apparently a pretty huge annual one here in the US. I was pretty unaware of it until that night, when the guy who helped me in a store told me how sad he was to be working and not watching the game.

As it happened, the weekend also marked nine months since my arrival in NYC, May 2018. Overall, I now feel pretty settled. Returning to the city following a Christmas/New Year break in London, I realized how much NYC, and my apartment, feel like home. Also, over the past few weeks I have noticed that most experiences in my adopted city no longer feel like I am encountering them for the first time (which is a little sad in a way – I do want to hang onto the excitement of the newness).

My non-engagement with the Super Bowl led me to wonder, however, the extent to which I have truly integrated. Have I merely exchanged one big multicultural city (London) for another? And also, what happens to one’s sense of identity when you move from nation to nation, neither of which is actually your homeland of origin? I was surprised to learn a few weeks ago that everyone I encounter here assumes that I am English. I guess that living for more than a couple of decades in London muted my Irish lilt, but still… Being here in the US, I feel more Irish than I ever have, and gratefully so.

Things I have (particularly) noticed over the past transplanted months:

Language and spelling – gray vs grey / arugula vs rocket / squash vs courgette / sleeper sofa vs sofa bed, the plethora of commas (something I have embraced enthusiastically, being a passionate advocate of same)… The list is exponential.

Directness – it is not just the language that can be different here, but also the way it is delivered. People generally say exactly what they mean, which was disarming initially but I have come to appreciate the directness. It makes you feel that whatever the agenda is, it is transparent to all.

Friendliness – I like that people randomly talk to you, on the street, on the subway. When you start off knowing almost no-one, the acknowledgement of your presence from strangers matters.

Excitement – someone said to me that living in NYC is like being permanently electrified. There is so much to discover, to interest, to energise, to excite. If you are up for it, and I generally am, the options are endless. Take, for example, last week, when I went to a loft apartment in Long Island City for a classical concert. The organisation Groupmuse hosts intimate concerts in people’s homes. The price is a small donation for the musicians, alongside BYOB, and for that you get to hear pretty amazing music and also to meet new people. The concert on this occasion was a cellist performance. Wondrous, and only around 14 of us present. I plan to host a concert in my apartment, too. I love the idea of people coming to my space and sharing such experiences.

I perceive life in technicolor here. I also believe that what I perceive is not how I want it to be, but for the first time, seeing life as it really is.

Living in NYC has also moved my passion for literature and reading to another level. New York Public Library is amazing. And free. I have an endless request list there. Plus, there are numerous, and often free, book events throughout the city. Of late I have seen Colm Toibin, Paul Muldoon, Brian Dillon, Jorie Graham, Tessa Hadley, Dani Shapiro, Elizabeth Gilbert, Maria Popova…

Being surrounded by so much has inspired me in other ways, too. I play the cello in an amateur ensemble. With a friend, we planning to host literary salons on all things pretentious! I am writing, a little, and aiming to do much more. Despite the busyness of life here, I feel as if my brain is almost paradoxically lighter, and open to more.

There are downsides, of course. The UK where my daughter is at school so often feels too far away. NYC is super expensive, though I am learning how to exist here more economically., and there is much culturally that is free.

Although this is gradually and surely improving, there have been moments of huge existential loneliness – stripped bare of that which had previously supported me, moving alone to New York exposed a vulnerable me that inevitably questioned the meaning of my life on more than one occasion. But those experiences have also helped me to understand myself better. Being so exposed, so stripped bare, has encouraged me to critically question my self – my thoughts, behavior, actions – in a (hopefully) constructive way.

I love this a quote from the Baal Shem Tov that I came across in the introduction to Dani Shapiro’s book, Hourglass:

“Let me fall if I must fall. The one I will become will catch me.”

Someone asked me this week where I am heading, what my life plan is. I had no definite or concrete answer. And I am glad of that. I have largely stopped trying to plan my life, and also, I have become mostly okay living with a “not-knowing.”

From Denise Levertov’s Variations On a Theme by Rilke:

“….The day’s blow

rang out, metallic or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.”

 

Which is what I have gradually come to experience over these past months – a self-belief, and the sense that I, too, can.

 

CQ