New York and I are coming up on our fourteen-year anniversary. As with all relationships, there are moments where I’m entrenched in the depths of my love, and many more where I take it for granted. Still others find me wishing I could run away, concocting elaborate fantasies of a better life. (“Trees! Mountains! A washer/dryer!”) Every time, I stop and ask, where else would I go? I have yet to find the answer.
In honor of another year together, here are eight things New York has taught me…
We’re all small fish in a big pond.
Like many of my generation, I am a special snowflake. I arrived on this island wanting to leave an indelible mark. But living here can feel a lot like this photo of Earth from 4 billion miles away. The perspective knocks the wind from you, until it sets you free. “HEY!” shouts the city, from inside the shimmer of a thousand tiny windows. “I think we may have met before, but what’s your name again?” You are not — could never be — the central focus. You are always alone in a crowd. “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy,” wrote E.B. White. And they are gifts indeed.
Someone is having a worse day than you.
To walk a mile in New York is to witness someone’s suffering. The person who asks you for change. The person who shoves you while boarding the 6 train. The neighbors whose nightly bickering passes through your living room wall. The city is a place of sweeping, alternating perspectives, constantly challenging where you fit in. Then one craptastic day, it’s your turn. You get heckled or injured or mugged. You lose someone you love. You are splashed by the classic meeting of bike tire and mud puddle. Whatever happens, you will survive. In its own sly way, New York has taught you how to do this all along.
Someone is having a better life than you.
Long before the filtered curse of social media, taking a walk through the Upper East Side or the West Village or the tree-lined streets of Brooklyn would send me into a tizzy. From the outside, everyone’s life appears incomprehensibly charmed. Screw keeping up with the Joneses when the Joneses are billionaires. Or when you encounter a supermodel buying a pack of sugarless gum at the very same moment you procure an economy-sized sack of Halloween candy (true story). Or the Times Square billboard promoting twelve stories’ worth of abs that are less realistic than the plot of Sharknado 2. New York taught me to say, f*ck the f*cking Joneses. There’s no time for that noise.
No one else knows what they’re doing, either.
Nora Ephron once wrote, “I thought [New York] was going to be the most magical, fraught-with-possibility place; a place where if you really wanted something you might be able to get it; a place where I’d be surrounded by people I was dying to know. And I turned out to be right.” When I came here, I hoped the city’s magic would rub off on me; that proximity to success and knowledge would encourage them to seep right into my being. What surprised me the most is not how wondrous the people are, though that is sometimes the case. Rather, it’s the many times those dazzling individuals have come right out and admitted they had no idea how to do their job, run their business, write that book, be married, raise a child, insert-large-undertaking-of-choice. What they did was start, then take it one day at a time.
Everything is constantly changing.
Buddhism teaches that all things are impermanent, that nothing is forever except change. This fact is quite evident when you live in a place where the skyline morphs on a monthly basis, where scaffolding is built and deconstructed so quickly it can feel like you’re trapped in a stop-motion film. You cannot control the tides. Often, you can’t even control your commute. So you adapt. You learn, however begrudgingly, to bend. You do this even when you’re harried and over-caffeinated and when “mindfulness” sounds suspiciously like something that hails from L.A.
You may glimpse yourself in everyone you meet.
One of my favorite quotes is from Gandhi: “If you don’t see God in the next person you meet, it is a waste of time to look further.” I’ve turned this into a game and practice whenever I can. In the cab, on the subway, with my significant other. It isn’t always easy. But spotting humanity is more plentiful and fulfilling than Pokémon. After years of seeking solace in solitude, it was connection that gave me life.
The answers are already inside you.
The city is not quiet. The city is not still. Yet the city has shown me the wisdom in each. I used to wander through the streets, searching for signs. What was I supposed to do with my life? Should I stay in my relationship? Was I on the right track? I looked everywhere for validation, when it was hiding inside me. In the midst of the noise and haste, I learned to stop talking, to stop thinking, to sit quietly with myself and take stock of what I’m feeling. You may not find it immediately, and it may not be the easy solution, but if you listen closely, I’ve found the answer is always there.
Wonder is a two-way street.
On my first night in New York, I made new friends. I met a boy. I stayed out late. I saw the East Village bathed in moonlight and the skyline looming overhead. It was, up until that point, the most magical night of my life. It felt like everything was possible. Over the next decade, life happened, and my wonder all but died.
Yet on all days — even days like this, when the humidity is stifling, the traffic is loud, and work feels like too much to manage — there is a glimmer that beckons: Come find me. Go for a stroll, hop on the train, but whatever you do, keep your eyes open. Somewhere outside your line of vision, there is Broadway, there’s a flash mob, there is Central Park. There is history in progress. There is one small act of kindness. There is your next great chapter.
After all, this is the city that houses more people than 39 of the 50 states. The place that built the then-highest building at the lowest point of the Great Depression. The city where toilet paper was invented. The home of the first U.S. pizzeria, and eventually, the first pizza rat.
I spent so much time waiting for wonder, so much time staying positive in the hopes it would appear. Until one day it whispered: No, kid, this is a two-way street. Your job is to find me. Your job is simply to notice. And when you do, I will visit you often. We’ve both kept our end of the bargain.
Thank you, New York, for everything.