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Two years ago, May 1, 2018, I moved from London to New York. New York is an exciting city, full of possibilities. Every day there feels like an adventure.

The move marked my first time living alone. It was an interesting, slightly scary, and ultimately liberating challenge. With no one else to please, I had almost complete freedom setting up my home in my new city.

All my life, or so it seemed to me, I had dreamt of living in a New York style loft. It took me a little while to find this dream place. But I did eventually find it in Brooklyn.

I took my time setting it up, determined to minimally fill the space, and only with things that I loved.

chair

It was stressful at the beginning, getting my head around how another country functions and operates, but it was fun, too, creating something that had my stamp on it, a spatial environment where I felt safe, happy, and hopeful.

I even commissioned some art work—the artist was given the remit to imagine me in different environments that reflected my life and desires: the sea, my veganism, and movies. And thus the triptych that I love was created.

Art pieces

I eventually also got a cello and a piano. The space began to feel complete, even more so when I hosted regular recitals in my home.

416

My daughter visited me in New York, and I travelled back several times, either to Newcastle where she is studying or to London, to see her. But, it bothered me throughout that we were living on different continents. A few months ago, I had a nightmare that the apocalyse happened and she and I could never meet again. And so, when COVID-19 arrived, it felt as if my nightmare was about to come true. In March this year, I hurriedly left NYC, leaving everything behind, anxious to be back in the UK while that journey was still possible.

And now, May 1, 2020, here I am in London. The lease on my NYC apartment has just come up for renewal and I have declined. There are too many uncertainties and it feels as if London is where I need to be, at least for the medium term. Working remotely throughout these past couple of months has proven how possible it is to do my job from here.

I miss my place and my space. In due course, I will sort out accommodation in London, but it won’t be my NYC loft. As someone who isn’t particularly attached to material things, I wonder why I feel so sad at the thought of never again seeing the home I created there. It’s a kind of grieving, which of course extends beyond the physical construct. I am missing my life as it was, the routines, the people, the interactions, the stuff that tethered me.

Solitude isn’t such a problem, although up to now it was of my choosing rather than being imposed. In this current liminal space of suspended time and eerie quietness, I hover and fluctuate between acceptance and rage. I also bask in nostalgia but try not to succumb to it. This is a new world, there will be a new order of things, and I need to let go of a past that is already approaching the quality of an illusion.

As always, I have been reading Larkin. This poem seems particularly apposite.

Home is so Sad

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,

Shaped to the comfort of the last to go

As if to win them back. Instead, bereft

Of anyone to please, it withers so,

Having no heart to put aside the theft

 

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:

Look at the pictures and the cutlery.

The music in the piano stool. That vase.

 

Philip Larkin

 

 

 

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

One of 14 Irish films at the festival, Pat Collins’ piece is mesmerising, and also very difficult to classify. Primarily a documentarist, Collins’ latest film does not fit into the documentary genre. But it also lies beyond the world of fiction, with little in the way of plot, or ‘traditional’ narrative.

The film follows Eoghan, resident in Berlin but originally from a small island, Tory, of northwestern Ireland. Eoghan is seeking silence, and we join him on his quest to capture an experience that excludes man-made or man-related sounds. Inevitably, the endeavour fails, or is perhaps re-directed, as Eoghan moves closer to Tory, which he last visited 15 years previously. In the end, he re-visits the derelict home of his growing up, which is poignantly empty of sound.

As Collins said in the Q&A after the screening, the film is more about sound than about silence. As his journey progresses, Eoghan engages more with others, speaking in his native Irish, and all the time, subconsciously or otherwise, edging closer to ‘home’.

It is tempting, and fraught, to speculate on the meaning behind Silence, and to analyse what it may be trying to achieve. I loved this film. During the screening, and since, I have considered both the concept of home (Brian Dillon’s book In the Dark Room: A Journey in Memory came to mind) and its impossibility, a nowhere and an everywhere, and that of silence. Silence means many things, beyond an absence of sound, which can be welcome, but also deeply threatening, and a profound signifier of loss.

CQ