Place and Purpose

For nearly a year, Jack and I have been dreaming about moving to Southern California. Over dinner, we’ve floated ideas of walking to my brother’s house for coffee on Sunday mornings, of getting a dog, of breathing in salty air on weekend hikes, and of finally healing our chronic Vitamin D deficiencies. We thought we’d found a way to organize next steps for both of us there, nestled between the mountains and the ocean. Recently, however, we received an email that suggested our plan might not be as simple as we had hoped and that New York might offer an opportunity Jack has been thinking about for many years. We may still move west. We may not. We may remain in New York indefinitely.

We both felt disappointed upon receiving the email. Of course, much remains to be seen. We have no definite plans either way and at least another year where we are in work and graduate school, but I found myself wondering in the valley of the let down, “When will I ever find where I belong?”

Ohio still feels like home to me. Nothing brings me greater joy than returning to the Chagrin Valley for Christmas, when the air is crisp with the promise of snowfall. That season is wood-burning fireplaces and hot chocolate and walks as the frosted ground that crunches beneath my boots. That season is my family and, the only time all year, when finally nearly everyone I love is in one place. I am happiest and calmest those days. I am lit from within and not worrying about anything.

I’ve been searching for that feeling elsewhere for all the other seasons. When I lived in Vermont, I found inspiration from the landscape, but it never felt like home. It felt like an experiment; the wild terrain was my teacher. I was in an incubator, learning how to love, grow, organize, and walk on my own. I loved Vermont for that time in my life in when I become wild and elegant, educated and independent.

Then, I moved temporarily to Oxford and fell in love. That wasn’t the plan. The plan was to go to Oxford to read by myself in coffee shops and wander down cobblestone streets in solitude. But Jack walked into a coffee shop, where I was reading alone, and from that moment he sat down, I had a new life-long reading partner. Oxford was all seasons for a year: mulled wine, church carols, Victorian poetry in the autumn and winter; wisteria, champagne, and Easter in the spring; wildflowers and moving boxes in the summer; good coffee all year round.

The, Jack and I moved to New York City, the city of extremes, pollution, and ambition. We adopted a cat. We installed floor-to-ceiling bookcases from Ikea. I learned how to batch cook. Jack improved his American accent. New York was and is the daily grind, coffee of all sorts good and bad, new friends, walks by the river, commuting, and practicing yoga in the kitchen (there’s no space anywhere else). Someday, I will feel nostalgic for this place and this rhythm and all we’ve learned here, but…that day is not today.

I commute from New York to New Haven every week for graduate school. Yale is writing at all hours of the day, the Metro North, maple lattes, and existential angst.  It is beautiful and frustrating, the fruits of which are still ripening. I push myself to weather all sorts of traffic and live split between two circles. Life ebbs and flows along the academic schedule and in my daily life. I flow – run to Grand Central, run through Grand Central without knocking down some poor unsuspecting tourist – I ebb- write on the train or listen to a podcast. I flow – push myself through classes and meetings, run back to the train station – I ebb – take a hot bath and lie on the couch with our cat, Isabel. Wash, rinse, repeat.

We have lived in New York for nearly three years. This place was supposed to be temporary, another experiment, but now, with the threat of this place being more permanent, all the energy to ebb and flow seems to have evaporated. I know all this running around isn’t sustainable. The waiting to think about what I should really do in my career until we move to California and love life again thought loop needs to be interrupted.

Discovery and direction need to happen within the not knowing, here, now, in New York, until definite plans are made. No matter where we go, my indecision will unfortunately go, too. Moving may not solve anything, but it may have or may very well help. New York is a transient place, where we live above concrete that was never land and where anonymity is often bliss, but can begin to feel like isolation over time.

How are you supposed to figure out who you want to be without figuring out where you want to be? A tree cannot be a tree without a place to plant its roots. I feel that this is true for people, too, that place and purpose are connected. Rooting oneself on a part of the ground and claiming space with purpose is like saying: I belong here and this place shapes and feeds me. I am hesitant to grow too much here. Part of me wants to remain transient and continue to travel lightly, so I can be transplanted, for is New York City a place that will feed me forever or nurture the cultivation of my best self? I feel that it will not.

Place and purpose are connected through identity. People create community, while place is made up of those people and the land, air, and architecture around them. Purpose, on the other hand, is one’s mission on the ground. Purpose, without a sense of that place (that ground) lacks depth. For instance, the way many aid efforts that cross literal and symbolic borders often have nothing to do with the joy and suffering of actual people or the particular struggles embedded in that place. A sense of and commitment to a place should precede change-making, advocacy.

The motivations of contemporary culture make finding place, then identity, then mission, truly challenging. We are a distracted culture that crowds and circles around death – watch the news for five minutes – and nothingness – watch reality TV for five minutes. We are now a more transient culture, too. Many of us move far away from our families, from our roots, toward metropolises that make survival – feeding, clothing, sheltering oneself – difficult with substantial sacrifices of time and adrenaline required.

The evolving answers I have to the questions of meaning are fraught by my lack of a place I want to exist and study, a place where I want to take responsibility for its struggles. What should we focus our attention on? Is the purpose of life to experience joy or to be of service? Should our work include both? What will become of this country? How can we make the world more just? Is that an attainable goal? Is true change motivated by the legal system? By politics? By art? What about therapy? If everyone had access to therapy, would that solve the pervasiveness of violence in this culture? How does living so far from ‘home’ change us? Should we just be focused on our circles, on our loved ones? What else really matters? And what about our suffering earth? Welcome to the jungle of my inner monologue. People wonder why I frown when I stare off into space or begin to write.

Towns, the landscapes, and their seasons shape us. They inspire us to think differently, either to become more generous or to become more defended. But sometimes places and stages in our life are not aligned. We have precious time to think and evolve in a place that does not suit us. We must cultivate the courage to, yes, make changes in our life that serve us – those will always be necessary – but we also must learn to cultivate the presence of mind to use the soil beneath our feet and find ways to grow toward the limited light.

I realized this summer that I was often on auto-pilot last year. I was just surviving on terrible chickpea pasta and moving until I dropped of exhaustion and burning out. I was masking my anxiety and doubt. I was missing opportunities to actually live my life. The same life that may include moving to California or not, that may include an amazing, unplanned job offer this year or not, that may include new friends or not, but that will certainly include pockets of joy that are to be cherished.

This is my life, for now, and what I say during the mundane moments (for instance, reporting for jury duty), the energy I bring into every classroom I enter at Yale, the adventures I choose to take with Jack, the time I make for the loved ones in my life – is all still a part of it. Right now, it is all that I truly have. So for now, I will keep dreaming and I will start making better choices with how I spend my everyday attention and time. I will cook more, and pray more, and get more exercise, and use less plastic water bottles, and find a regular sleep schedule, and call friends and family more, and read more of what I want to (less of what I think I should read to prove my intelligence).

New York is home for now. Sort of. So I will make the moments I spend here more intentional. I may not love where I am, but I will live my life in a way contains the love and generosity for which I know I have the capacity…in this place.