City or Country

I write currently from coffee shop smack dab in the middle of downtown Manhattan, while listening to a reel of “nature sounds” through my headphones. “A Walk in the Country” is a personal favorite.

There is a plethora of things that I genuinely dislike about living in New York. The heat is stifling in the summer. The humid air mixed with putrid smells and nonexistent breeze. The chorus of car horns I hear daily from our window or when Jack and I meet for drinks at the outdoor bar near our apartment. The lack of space in our apartment, on the street, in restaurants. The crushing feeling of looking up and seeing only skyscrapers, not trees. The lack of grass. Pollution. People who do not clean up after their dogs. People who walk while they smoke.

Every time I have left the city within the last year I have gone to the country in some form. The bucolic English countryside. My hometown in Ohio. The mountains of eastern Tennessee. The oceanside hills of Malibu. I have loved every minute of my time outside of New York. I’ve had mulled wine by a wood-burning fireplace in Oxford after a long walk through the forest. I have walked barefoot in cashmere soft grass in my family’s backyard to sit by my favorite willow tree and as fireflies burst from the earth. I have watched the sun and mist rise over the Smokey Mountains. I have stared at the horizon of the Pacific Ocean with my feet submerged in saltwater.

If I could teleport myself to one of those beautiful locations, I absolutely would. There is a high temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit today, and I do not want to leave this air-conditioned coffee shop to walk the five blocks home. I am procrastinating writing and nursing my now tepid coffee. What a life. If someone asked me, city or country? I would choose country. Before moving here, I’d only lived in Ohio, Vermont, and briefly in Oxford, England and Northern California. I’d never lived in a large city for more than a few weeks. I still crave open space, cleaner air, and the natural touchstones that remind a human of her place in the grander scheme of things.

Recently, however, a friend asked me, without agenda, “What do you like about living in New York?” I am not trendy, so usual millennials responses about convenience when you have a hangover and art gallery openings and speakeasies do not really apply to me.

I paused, then replied, “In New York, everything is mixed together. People of all shades, shapes, abilities, and faiths walk in one place. I cannot walk down my block without confronting the wide gap of wealth in this country, standing among one of largest housing projects in the city. I am forced to confront extremes every day in New York and think about what those extremes mean for human beings, all of us, in the middle of things. I work to remain soft, to remain human, to still look homeless men and women in the eyes in the face of the cruelty and majesty of this city.”

My love of the countryside, whatever that means in the modern imagination, and my routine in the city are in competition with each other, just as the tension between wanting to retreat like a cloistered nun and wanting to be out marching in the street lives within me. I know I cannot live in this city forever, but for now, I will continue my project to be soft, kind, and present in the face of its madness.