on the challenge of new york city: thoughts + photos from the first leg of our trip

new york rooftops“In the absence of love, I found myself clinging hopelessly to the city itself: the repeating tapestry of psychics and bodegas, the bump and grind of traffic, the live lobsters on the corner of Ninth Avenue, the stream drifting up from beneath the -streets.” Olivia Liang, The Lonely City

In my teenage-hood, I planned to live, someday, in New York City. I studied street maps and photographs of the city, choose books written by writers who lived there, and tried to write my own stories about the life I imagined must exist there. All week, I thought about that verve, that determination. What had I expected, at fourteen, to find in New York City? And if I had moved, would I have found it?

We arrived in New York City at noon on Wednesday, and immediately, the city felt like an onslaught. We tried to keep our suitcases out of the way, and around us, people moved with such velocity I felt like it was the beginning of a bad movie. Midwest girl comes to New York, retreats to the corner, because the cornfields never moved like this.

This intimidation dissipated, thank god, once we found the correct subway station and dropped luggage at the apartment we were staying in, but what remained was the feeling of being challenged.

For much of the week, my experience in New York resisted any narrative or structure. I tried, several times, to journal (a habit I’m bribing myself into building with pretty stationary), but I couldn’t reconcile. There was the extraordinary beauty of a city designed to live up to its reputation, the layers of neighborhood and street that peeled back as we walked, and the sense I couldn’t shake of not being able to see the city for all the towering buildings. There was the activity of tourists (like us, I won’t pretend we were anything but)—Fifth Avenue a melee of money and cameras, but I kept thinking of all the people who live here. Cynthia Nixon once said that eleven or twelve (I can’t find the quote) is the golden age for a kid in New York, because they’re finally old enough to ride the subway alone. The foreignness of that experience—at twenty-five, I felt barely capable on the subway system, having hailed from the land of freeways and multi-car families.

I’m reading Olivia Liang’s excellent memoir/meditation on loneliness, which colored my view of the city. Never have I been in a place where I’ve seen so little personal space, and yet, such a collective preservation of what does exist. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, I’ve learned to avoid eye contact when I don’t want a conversation on the street or in a cafe, but in New York, I was liberated to realize that proximity wouldn’t necessitate small talk. By that same token though, Liang wrote of New York as a “city of glass, of roving eyes,” and I quickly saw how atomizing this city can be, how lonely it could become.

Then there’s the size of the city itself. The bewildering depth of history, culture, experience. That we walked above the footprint of the original Dutch colony just blocks from the site of the World Trade Towers attack on our way to board a ferry to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the entry point for 30-40% of people living in America. That hours later, we passed the Stonewall Inn and a townhouse James Baldwin once lived in and the fictionalized site of a TV show was too much to hold. I’m not sure how anyone, let alone a tourist passing through here and there, can ever try to hold the breadth or depth of what New York is or has been.

high linehigh line view

Our few days in New York righted itself as the plane lifted off from JFK. We flew at dusk, and when I looked out during takeoff, I saw the city. A gray line of skyscrapers cut out from the pearl grays and pinks of dust. So fine and so flat a sight it looked like a page from an illustrated book.

This is how the city positioned itself for me—there’s the city itself, and then the shadow of it. Our experience being the shadow. What is New York? What makes it special, makes it unique, defines it? I have no idea. We saw Central Park and Fifth Avenue, bought books from Three Lives & Company, ate brunch at Sarabeth’s. Walked fifty miles across this narrow island.

I’ve loved this city from afar for long enough to know what’s said of it: that you don’t understand this city unless you’re born there, that you don’t get to call yourself a New Yorker until you’ve lived there ten years, twenty years, unless your parents too lived there, unless you’ve cried on the subway. Any version of New York that a tourist seems is a slice, a pale version of its totality.

I don’t say this begrudgingly. I’m not sure New York is meant to be an easy city. The friend I visited said our first night “this city is gritty and harsh; it’s not meant to be pretty.” To visitors, it poses a challenge: what did you come for?

We came to do nothing more than see the city, but even that was dizzyingly broad. No, we came to see slices of New York: Bleeker Street and the High Line. Fifth Avenue (the busy stretch) and Madison Avenue (the quiet stretch). The Statue of Liberty, and the eastern edge of the island from the back of a retreating ferry. My friend took us to a sports bar so busy on a Wednesday night it had a bouncer, and to one of her favorite bakeries (Levain—the cookie so rich I couldn’t finish it in two sittings). I met her eight years ago, and she moved to New York two years ago. I watched in awe as this Midwest girl I met in the dorms navigated the subway, the intersecting streets.

statue of libertymanhattan in the distance

The city that seemed so inaccessible yielded slowly. The green of Bryant Park after the crush of Fifth Avenue. The café we went for coffee, baseball on the TV and Childish Gambino on the stereo. The surprises of Central Park, and the Upper East Side’s empty streets on Saturday morning. The two bottles of wine we split on Thursday, and the ways we talked—old friends—about leaving, returning, growing.

New York came to us in pieces. There was no way we were going to experience it as a whole, but even though I knew this, I still felt a pang of sadness. It reminds me of the limits of travel. For as much as it expands you, there’s only so much a tourist can receive. There will always be the hidden city, the one that operates outside the reach of the visitor, exists between buildings, behind streets, out among the crush of bodies. There’s always going to be the inaccessible experience, the totality of what it means to live somewhere like this, not just visit.

surprises of central parkthe lakebrooklyn bridge (2)

north shore getaway + thoughts on leaving minnesota (pt 1)

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Two days after we decided to move from Minnesota to Maryland, I texted my oldest friend and asked “what’s been the hardest part about leaving Minnesota.” He answered, “Leaving Minnesota.”

On Monday, I turned 26, and on the Tuesday before, my partner surprised me with a two-day getaway to the North Shore, so I could see Lake Superior one last time. He knows this lake is sacred to me (as it is for so many). Growing up, my parents called it our “happy place,” and it remains a place of peace and power for me.

His plan was for us to spend Tuesday in Duluth, and Wednesday visiting my favorite spots along the shore. A day to connect, a day to explore.

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Duluth is special to Chris and I as the place where we solidified our budding relationship. As much as this getaway was about my birthday and saying goodbye to Minnesota, it was a quiet celebration of us. It was easy, once we reached the lakewalk, to slip into some of our nostalgia. Last summer, the bay sparkled. We arrived at the golden hour, and the sun lay on top of the water like a silk. This year, the bay was stained red from iron and mud kicked up from weeks of torrential rain. Different a year later, but so are we.

We did what you do in Canal Park: Walk to the piers, walk the lift bridge, watch it rise for sailboats, walk the boardwalk until the crowds thin. We visited Vikre Distillery in the shadow of the lift bridge, and sampled gin, aquavit and whiskeys distilled in sight of the cocktail room. Later, we ate at Canal Park Brewing, a brewery with an excellent menu. Vikre was beautiful, the spirits an homage to passion and knowledge, and Canal Park Brewing Company is always a treat. (The food in Duluth trends heavy and American.)

We talked about everything. This next year will be big for us, but the way we talk about moving reminds me of what a friend once said about her pregnancy: it’s too big to talk about every day. Having hours without agenda let us roam. This is the beginning of something we can’t fully see. We agree that Maryland is temporary, but how temporary? And what comes after Maryland? We’ve each had thoughts about school or about my writing that excite me as much as they scare me. It’s the most fantastic learning curve to have a partner who actively supports the dreams that, six months ago, I didn’t think were worth pursuing.

As the afternoon stretched into evening, I grew quiet, so quiet Chris asked me if I was upset. Of course not, of course not. I process the world through words — if I’m not talking, I’m writing — but their volume can sometimes be an assault.

Admittedly, I barely understand how to be present in a moment, but I think it’s something like this. The experience of the evening — cool air off the lake, and lapping water, and his hand in mine — was too complete, too exquisite for more words. It was enough — it was everything — to just be in it. Happy, I told him, so happy.

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I wrote too much for anyone to read in one sitting. Part two coming soon.

thoughts on the business of creativity

Torrie June 2018 605 (2).JPGDo you ever become obsessed with productivity? The need to keep vaulting forward? Believe me when I tell you that, as I write this an hour after waking, and already I’ve felt myself pitching into the anxiety of industry.

I tried to explain this to my partner: I feel like I’m fragmenting. My brain is this hive, a colony of operations, except I’m the only bee inside and can’t visit every chamber. There’s the business of leaving: the leases and the jobs and the moving boxes and what you do with all the stuff you own when half of it you love and half of it you hate, but it all seems to necessary. But then there’s all the stuff that has nothing to do with moving, and everything to do with just living.

How do you make enough money to earn the freedom of unencumbered hours to create? If, by some miracle of economy and privilege, you have that freedom, how do you cut away the noise of the world to let ideas populate your wilderness? If by all the miracles of economy and privilege and focus, you actually create something, how do you get anyone else’s attention?

I sound like I’m complaining that “no one” reads me writing, but really, I’m not. More people read my writing than I can even imagine. After I wrote about finishing my novel, several people emailed asking for the PDF. What a gift that was. Doubly, triply so when those miraculous readers wrote me to say they saw the kind of beauty in my story I’ve worked so hard to create.

No, it’s all the business of creativity. The social media presence and the digital analytics and the “cultivating community” (versus the actual, valuable process of finding people who are as excited about the same things as you). We’re inundated constantly with all these stories about people who “hustled” their way into their careers, who built brands and followings and presences and parlayed them into other opportunities. I want to write, and I’m not saying I should be be able to do this without any work (because I’m shouldn’t), but I’m saying what does my Instagram following having to do with the stories I write about broken people? And if one means something to the other, how do I marry those bright squares with the emotional excavations of my fiction.

I’m creatively restless in the blank spaces that finishing my novel opened, and I’m uncomfortable and confused by the landscape of digital creativity. (What even does that mean? Again, I write. Does that make me a digital creative? Does simply being creative in 2018 mean you are, automatically, a digital creative?)

Yesterday, I sat in a garden for two hours, and finally left, because I couldn’t still my mind. These two trajectories, moving away and building my writing, are linked, because I’m looking at this move as an opportunity to refocus my time and energy. My brain is a to do list a mile long, and it’s an internet browser left open on too many tabs. 

I’ve questions I want answered and stories I want told. How do I drill down past all the extra stuff to think as deeply as you need to write? And then how do I pop back above the surface, and make space for myself in the already crowded room?

you learn to survive, then you learn to come back alive

mississippi river

I started my adolescence with all this fire and verve. All these goals and plans and dreams, and oh my god, I laughed at adults who told me “I hope you make it.”

Hope? I would.

I memorized New York City street maps, because someday, I’d leave Minnesota. I told adults who asked me if I wanted to be a mother that I only wanted to “after I was old and done living,” because I was too greedy for the world to imagine tethering myself. I installed a computer with only one working program (a word processor) and typed 250 pages about a girl who wanted to lead. I carried notebooks with me, and asked for books on writing for my thirteenth birthday. I registered for classes that I was technically too young for, and just didn’t tell anyone my age (until my classmates asked me join them for a post-class drink, and I had to say catch you in five years). I was going to be a writer someday. I knew this is how I’d get there.

I’ve written so much about the something that happened. Depression and anxiety caught up with me, and carved me from the inside out. Even after I got the help you get (meds, talk therapy, coping mechanisms, etc.), I wasn’t quite unstuck. Like silt in a river, I drifted and settled beneath the current. I stayed like this for years.

Movies and memoirs tell us there’s one big moment for us to change ourselves, but I have a theory that we’ll all do this many times over the course of our lives. Rise from a waking sleep, and realize that this life is partially, if not wholly, our own.

I spoke with a woman who is reaching the end of her career, and still preparing for her next act. She told me that she’s never regretted her choice to pursue what she was passionate about, not even when the money didn’t follow, not even when the dream jobs became untenable. When I told her I was still trying to figure out how I will pursue, she said, “If I could give you two pieces of advice, you need enough drive to understand your passion and how to follow it. And don’t ever, ever, ever delay your goals for a man.”

Elsewhere, I read an essay by a brilliant writer I admire, “I used to be a woman who did things. I was a doer, a maker, a builder.” I read that, and remembered the younger version of myself who assumed, at twenty five, that that’s who I’d be by now.

This isn’t about regret (although, to sing Sinatra, I’ve had a few) or some misplaced “I thought I’d have done x, y, and z by twenty-five” (we’re not expected to deliver in our first act), but rather about what happens when you start to feel the weight of time slowly building.

When I was a teenager, my favorite song was Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” A beautiful, and terrifying song. I rolled one lyric over and over, trying to make sense of it. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse.” He’s said that this album was his first attempt to hold both life and death in the palm of one hand. When you listened to this album at fourteen, you can’t understand all that pain. I held that line so close to me, because even though I knew (they way you only can when you’re fourteen, sixteen, eighteen) I’d never lose sight of my dreams, it haunted me.

About eighteen months ago, I laughed out loud when someone asked me what my dreams were. We’re really still asking those questions like they matter? We haven’t all given up and given in to the grind? Then someone else asked me the same question, a guy in a bar who I’ll never see again, and I felt the way you feel when you drink champagne on an empty stomach — all fizz and light and warmth in your fingers and your cheeks. Now, my boyfriend and I talk about dreams like they’re worth holding on to. He talks about mine like they’re worth fight for, and what’s even crazier to me, is I’m starting to believe it again.

I’ve been coming out of the fog for well over a year now. Survival is only one part of recovery. Reclaiming hope, reclaiming possibility, reclaiming not just the ability to, but the courage to dream, reclaiming my right to want something out of my life. That’s what comes after learning how to survive.

It’s like driving through the night. The earth starts to roll towards the sun again, and there, where there was only black, is the horizon. All clean and endless and there again.

how you get through the hard days

Urban Bean, Minneapolis

“As though there existed a parallel reality of darkness, with dark-fences, dark-trees, dark-houses, populated by dark-people, somehow stranded here in the light where they seemed so misshapen and helpless. Oh, isn’t that why shadows get longer and longer in the evening? They are reaching out for the night, this tidal wave of darkness that washes over the earth to fulfill for a few hours the shadows’ innermost longings.” Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Boyhood

I’m exhausted. Do you ever have weeks like that? Where each day feels, for no good reason, like a desert to cross?

We’re short on daylight, but really long on daytime.

February’s always been a hard month. Seven years ago, I was two weeks into the spring semester, and I begged my date to drive me to my parent’s house. I couldn’t return. A week later, I’d misread a bus schedule, and be deposited into a then-unfamiliar downtown. I’d cry on the transit station’s teal carpet, and call my mom, my dad and a doctor. I’d cry for three days straight.

I’ve had dark days, but none as dark as those. What I remember from my seasons of depression are that the days feel impossible, and there is no reason other than they are. Maybe my body is remember what my mind tries not to. Maybe a week of for-no-good-reason long days is my body’s way of reminding me that it’s okay to have days that aren’t okay.

The funny thing about being happy after being unhappy for so long is that you start to become afraid of the joy. Like it might run out. Like maybe you’ve only been given a short period of bright before you return to darkness. When the days stretch, and I get grumpy, and I want anesthesia for the waking hours, I get scared that maybe this has all just been a grace period. Maybe I’ll go back to being lonely and weak and tired and sad and scared. Maybe that’s who I actually am.

I know this isn’t true, but how often does fear care about truth?

I know I’m not returning to that black country. I sometimes wonder if I ever will. Right now, that depression feels like a house for which I’ve lost the keys. I can’t get in anymore.

Even on hard days, the joy of my life, the gratitude for it outstrips the undertow. My feet, as my grandpa always said, point towards the sunny side of street. A few hard days don’t make a depression, or even a dip, but they do remind me that joy is deeper than happiness. That happiness is good, but always fickle. That it’s okay to not always be megawatt.

Guys. We’re human. We’re not designed to live only in the light.

We live in an age where happiness is hocked. It’s a commodity we can buy, a challenge we can accept, a level we can unlock, a hack we can perform. I don’t want to hack my way into eternal sunshine. I don’t want to close-circuit myself to the range, to the all of it all. I like the symphony, the range of notes, the swell and the fade. Some days are hard because they are. Some days aren’t, and that is okay too.

How do you get through the hard days? You just do.

Light comes as steady as the dark.

rome + sardinia in photographs

This past summer, I went to Italy. My mother, whose long loved the country, took me, the gift of experience.

I went to Italy with my dad’s family when I was eight. We spent a full month touring the country — Sicily, where my grandmother’s family is from, Rome, Florence, Venice, Sirmione and Sorrento. My memories of that trip are children’s memories: Playing games with my cousins in Rome, pulling away from the sick dogs in train stations and on the streets of Naples, begging for gelato, lemon and strawberry, everyday, multiple times a day, watching my brother fly across a hotel room on a bed that hadn’t been secured to the floor.

I tossed a coin, still lira in 2001, into the Trevi Fountain at dusk, and refused to tell my family that I wished for my writing to be publishedMount Etna experienced a “flank eruption” in July 2001, and I watched BBC news reports of rolling lava and crying women: We’d been there a month earlier, heard the mountain rumbling, and even though the sky was clear, I remember my cousins and I deciding we were hearing thunder from a storm we couldn’t see. When we visited Sorrento, we swam in the ocean, the water a jewel tone that even the beaches of Sicily couldn’t rival. My memory is that the beach was rocky, but the ocean floor was covered in shattered pottery. We sliced our feet on ceramic edges, and dove to the bottom to retrieve the bright, broken pieces. This can’t possibly be right, but, like I said, they’re all the memories of a child. I saw at my eye level, filtered what I saw through eight, short years, and so much of that trip has either fallen away or has taken on a kind of magic-glaze.

This past summer’s trip to Italy was as much a reprisal of the 2001 trip as it was its own, new experience. My mom has visited Italy several times, and is familiar with Rome, in particular. As we prepared for the trip, she told me over and over again that she just wanted me to see the country that she had fallen in love with.

I’ve been wanting to, and trying to, write about this trip for several months, but I can’t quite unlock my experiences. For a myriad of reasons, the trip was as emotional and difficult as it was awe-inspiring. I found myself reckoning with a fragility within myself. I cried in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere over decisions that now feel like mistakes. I flew home with hives covering my hands and feet.

It took several months for the trip to mellow into what it is for me now: a new door opening inside of me. It was an invigorating two weeks, a thoughtful and, at times, painful two weeks, and while I was ready to come home at the end of it, I think I was so ready to come home, in part, because I was so excited about the life I had back here. Back home, I felt both new and old all at once. The girl I’d once been dusted off, and returned to where she belonged. I’m not sure I was ready to travel quite yet. Not sure I was ready to learn who I was in a foreign country while I was still so thrilled to be where I was at home.

For all it was, this trip was, above all, beautiful and breathtaking. Italy is. My mother’s kindness and generosity and excitement to show me the country she loves so much was (is) beautiful and breathtaking. Photos don’t do any of it justice, and while I’m not sure my words will either, I do hope to write more about this trip, once I’ve had even more time to let it settle.