It was that one August week in Brooklyn when the lumpy bags of trash stewed and steamed on the sidewalks, when the sirens spooned the thick air like pudding, when everything and everyone dripped. I was subletting a friend’s apartment for a 12-day stay, and the place had air conditioning, plus a dishwasher — transformative luxuries I never experienced in my own Brooklyn abodes over the past three years. In this city, extra layers of sweat and suds and soggy skin had always seemed inevitable.
The bizarre balmy gauze of the humidity only intensified my strange sense of displacement. I was in the city I call home, but technically homeless, mentally jolting back and forth between feeling at home and feeling jilted. Like the heat wave, poised for an eventual ebb, I was there only temporarily, and everything seemed tenuous.
The point of the visit was to test the waters, to reassess my stance on New York after my summer away so I could decide where, exactly, to anchor myself next. In the meantime, I was unfixed, floating.
I switched up my regular running routes, pounding pavement through neighborhoods I had hardly touched before, since I’d always lived in the northern half of the borough. One day, I wound up in DUMBO, and when I came careening around a corner to that waterfront view — the face of Manhattan, with its glimmering skyscraper teeth in a grin and bridges outstretched like arms — I lost my breath for a moment.
“I love you,” said my brain. Something primal inside me always says “I love you” when I look at the city’s magnificent expanse.
I stopped jogging and stood for a while on the dock, watching the tongues of waves lap in and out, thinking about how New York was first built as a port town. It was made to bring things in and send things out, in and out, in and out, a tide that shapes each visitor like a shimmered grain of salt. It softens you or sharpens you, depending whom you are. It hugs you close with its morning breath and its stubbly cheeks, and then it sends you off.
The people who stay for good are those whose own transitions align with the ebbs and flows. Think, for example, of the first-time mothers who now tote their gurgling mini-me’s on their hips to the new Whole Foods in Williamsburg, sifting neatly manicured fingers through miniature glinting jars of pureed kale. The glorified grocery debuted last month on a plot that was grizzly and graffiti-riddled just several years ago, and the mothers — overwhelmed with tending to the tiny humans whose mere existence was previously unfathomable — must be grateful just for a convenient place to go get their organic goo.
Down the street from the Whole Foods, there’s now an Apple Store; a few blocks away, an Equinox gym. What was gritty has gone glitzy. When I meandered around after an afternoon yoga class, I passed swanky buildings like shiny metal butterflies with robotic wings unfurled, in spaces where, the last time I checked, their architectural skeletons still sat wrapped in rough cocoons. Meanwhile, certain old haunts and restaurants had been shuttered, collapsing back from whence they came.
In and out, in and out, in and out. It either softens you or sharpens you, depending whom you are.
Some things remained unchanged, though. Across New York, fire hydrants were exploded so kids could dance in the overindulgent spews of cool. The streets smelled like rotten popsicles, and the trill of an ice cream truck warbled always in the distance like a tinny echo of vintage simplicity.
One night at 11pm, I discovered that I was out of dark chocolate. Not bothering to swap my pajamas for appropriate clothing, I slipped into Birkenstock sandals and ambled to the bodega down the block. There was a line. I waited behind five other people, also buying late-night snacks — handfuls of peaches, Goldfish, popcorn purporting to be healthy. Outside, a man begged for change with a paper cup outstretched, and a couple across the street argued over one partner’s infidelity, drooping across their bicycles with their biting words slicing into the heat. Nobody seemed to notice my pajamas. This is one thing that I have always loved about New York: the way it allows you to be alone but not lonely in the hot hug of an uncaring crowd. Everyone stands out there, so that everyone doesn’t.
Is there a difference between “I love you” and “I’m in love with you?”
The tenor of “in love” has a different depth. In love — a submerging, as if in a pool; a sinking; an integration.
Without that one tiny preposition, that in, there’s an implicated distance. I love you. I love you, you thing apart from me. I am here and you are there and I love you, but you and I are on separate shores.
There’s a presence to being in love, versus loving — a nowness. It’s the distinction between family love, the constant kind that’s taken for granted from the start, and romantic love, a thing sudden and stumbled upon and salty and fizzing. Love is what happens when you’ve anchored the emotion in rationale, justification, and understanding; in love lacks logic entirely.
If there’s a difference between “I love you” and “I’m in love with you,” does it matter? I thought about this while I ambled around in the 95-degree Brooklyn humidity, in between long hours of work. With trickled rivers of sweat down my forearms, I kept pausing to ogle the plants at the sides of the sidewalks, subconsciously seeking the wild ones I learned to recognize in Vermont in July. I stopped at every neighborhood garden. I found solace at the farmers market: the layered lace of lettuce drenched in dew, the dill like doilies, the peppers and eggplants piled and shiny as purple pearls, and the sweet scents all stronger than pheromones. And that was when I realized: I’m not in love with New York City anymore.
I still love it with aching loyalty. But I’m not in love, the way I once was — not hook, line, and sinker. Not right now. Instead, my heart has flitted off after a different fantastical dream. I’m caught in a feisty and fervent flirtation with Nature, a giddy vision of a different way of life — one with long mornings spent outdoors, with homegrown meals, with birdsong — in which New York no longer quite aligns as the proper partner.
I just arrived in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where I’ll be living and working on an organic farm for three weeks. I’m going to be growing vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers; cooking and preserving the produce; and foraging for mushrooms and other medicinal wild plants. After that, I have other farm stays lined up until the end of November.
I have to quench this nonsensical, unignorable quiver — this biological, bodily craving that keeps rumbling in my roots — for sunlight, for sweat, and for the rich wisdom of plants in perpetual progress.
I am giddy with excitement. I am sad. I am ready. I am unprepared. I am certain. I am confused. I am up and down and in and out, mourning what feels like a permanent departure from my beloved Brooklyn — which I was so vocally assured I’d never abandon, with that same naïveté of pop song lyrics promising “eternity” and “always” and “forever” — while eagerly anticipating this new adventure.
We don’t talk enough about what this feels like: this unexpected, unprompted falling out of love. There are no pop songs for this. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have the proper words for it. It’s not so much a “falling out” as a rising up — slowly, almost imperceptibly, like steam. There’s an odd shame to it. There’s such bittersweetness to it. There’s the dizzy delight of the new crush, but also the sorrow of surrendering that person, that place, that thing that still feels so soaked into you. You stay steeped in the past love, stained by it, even as you emerge from its depths.
It’s scary because it’s a reminder: there is no flow without an ebb. Like the tides, the human experience will always be unstable, always shifting and unsteady. Even the deepest anchors can be dug up.
Before leaving for my farming trip, I returned to New York for one last visit. The heat wave had passed. I stayed at a different friend’s apartment, and in the mornings, a sweet breeze marbled the siren sounds outside as it stretched its arms in through the open windows, tugging the bedroom door open and closed with invisible fingers like a playful toddler. Door open, door closed, door open, door closed, each time with a surprising thwack.
By mid-day, the summer heat had rekindled, but the signs of autumn promised change. Early September days always seem to shimmer that way with quiet possibility, rendered audible in the soft shuffling of gold-going leaves on branches just beginning to submit to letting go. That’s what I was doing, too: preparing to let go, at least for now.
One night before bed, I flipped open a book of Rilke poems that sat on my friend’s bedside table. “Tell me what I need to hear, Rilke,” I said out loud before picking a random page. I landed on Sonnets to Orpheus II:29, which I’d coincidentally heard Joanna Macy recite on a dazzling On Being episode just a few weeks ago.
“Move, then, in and out of transformation,” wrote Rilke. “Be in this night of all our overmeasure / the magic force within your senses’ junction, / the sense in their mysterious overlap.”
At the end, the last lines go like this: “To the still earth answer: I am running. / To the water say: I am.”
What Rilke means is, we exist as we shift. There’s nothing more constant than movement — nothing more honest. Life is meant to flow, not stay stagnant, and heavy anchors are unnecessary once we learn to float in our turbulent tides. In and out, in and out, in and out.