New Year, New York

One exact year ago I stood shivering in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, waiting for the fireworks. There was a huge crowd gathered, people of all ages, kids with silly string and noisemakers, couples with their dogs, all waiting. I was with friends–some new ones, some old ones–thinking about the year I’d just had and the one I hoped was coming.

Whatever else happened that upcoming year, the most important thing was that by the end of it I would be back here in the city I love.

In a sense I’m still waiting for the fireworks. Still waiting for everything to be happy and okay. Still waiting to be completely certain I was right to come here. Still waiting for this story arc of my life to come to its perfect finish.

I know I’ll be waiting a long time, probably forever, for that.

But as the clock struck midnight a year ago, I wished to come here for good and I did. How often in life does a wish that urgent and overpowering actually come true?

I’m very lucky.

~~~

Before I moved a number of Well-Meaning Adults told me condescendingly that they so hoped I wouldn’t get disillusioned by New York once I had to actually live in it and have all my dreams shattered. That does seem like the typical young-person-moving-to-New-York narrative, but it didn’t happen.

Of course, I haven’t been here all that long yet. But I’ve been here long enough to watch one season shift to another, and then another. That means I’ve been awestruck by all of New York’s seasons now, and I feel like I’ve been here much longer than I have. I’ve played tour guide to visiting friends and done the various little things you start to do as you realize that it’s time to settle in. I’ve had my fair share of those late New York nights, come home after 3 AM to find kids still playing in the streets where I live. I’m learning where all the Chipotles and Barnes and Nobles are and which subways take way too long to show the fuck up.

I don’t know that I’m happy yet, but I don’t regret having moved, not at all.

If I ever leave New York–which, someday, I probably will–I don’t think it’ll be because I stop loving it. It’ll probably be because the rich and powerful of this city have decided to make it a place where, increasingly, only the rich and powerful can afford to live. Or it’ll be because some dream job turns up somewhere else, or because too many of the people I love will be somewhere else for it to be worth it to stay here, enchanted but alone.

~~~

The truth is that I’m pretty sad a lot of the time. I miss my old routines, my friends, my family, Chicago, college, nature, pretty much anything in the world I could conceivably miss. As I wrote in my guide to moving, it’s a process that doesn’t end once you get there and your stuff’s unpacked. I have plenty of friends and relatives and things to do here, but all my brain seems to care about is that it’s just…not what I had before.

I predicted this would happen, that this would be one of those things where things have to get much worse before they get better. I thought my first year or two here would be awful. I worried that my depression would relapse completely (which maybe it has, who knows). I didn’t tell many people this because I didn’t think they’d understand why I’d do something that I thought would make me feel awful for a while.

John D. Rockefeller said, “Don’t be afraid to give up the good and go for the great.” Sometimes “the great” is actually real shit for a while. Sometimes you never even get there, and in the real world, you don’t land among the stars if you miss the moon. You end up floating in the vacuum of space.

Sometimes I seem to do a lot of things that make me sad. This is only the latest in a long line of them. I don’t understand it except that, as someone for whom happiness has always been elusive, I don’t prioritize it very highly anymore. Living alone in New York is sad, but at least I get to live in New York.

~~~

Over the last few months I’ve watched myself change to fit into my new surroundings, sometimes in surprising ways. I’d remarked many times when I visited that people in New York are extremely helpful and kind to strangers, and while I’d never been one to refuse help when it was asked of me, I rarely offered it proactively. Now I find myself picking out the tourists and giving them directions, stopping to help someone carry something up the stairs out of the subway, suddenly sinking down onto the pavement in the dark to pick up the groceries that had spilled from a woman’s cart.

And then I think about how some of the people I’ve casually, thoughtlessly helped went home and told their friends how kind people are in New York, and how maybe when they come here for good someday they’ll carry on that custom. Maybe that’s how it gets perpetuated, despite what people think about New Yorkers.

But assertiveness and proactiveness are traits that can manifest in lots of ways. I used to shrink down and try to shrug it off when people harassed me, maybe thinking up witty comebacks hours later. But recently I surprised myself when I was walking down the street at night in Queens, listening to music, and some dude suddenly shoved an open stick of Axe in my face. (For a fun exercise, count the number of things wrong with his behavior.) I didn’t hear what he or his friends were saying, but without thinking about it or missing a beat, I yanked my earbuds out, shoved his arm out of my face as hard as I could, yelled “What the FUCK are you doing?”, and continued on my way without listening to the reply. I’m quite sure he meant no harm, but my response was mostly instinctual, and anyway, that should teach him about violating women’s personal space on the streets at night. It doesn’t really fucking matter what he intended.

I stand up for myself all the time in other ways, things I wouldn’t have done before I moved.

Another weird change, but this one I have no idea if it relates to moving to New York or not: although I’ve been playing music since I was 11 years old, I have never willingly practiced in earshot of people and have performed solos maybe once or twice. The thought of being listened to made me so uncomfortable that no matter how much I loved playing piano, it wasn’t worth it. But last week I came home to my family where I have a piano, and I completely shocked myself by sitting down and playing it in a room full of people. Even though I needed to relearn the piece that I’d forgotten and was completely out of practice. The fact that people were listening didn’t bother me a single bit, and over the course of the week I relearned the piece almost to perfection and felt even better about playing it in front of people. I am good, goddammit, and I will fill up the house with music if I feel like playing.

(One wonderful thing that came out of that was that I decided to ask my parents for a keyboard piano for New Year’s, so that I finally get to have a piano in my residence for the first time since I left for college. I think it’ll do wonders for my mental health.)

At the same time, moving here has made me crave and cherish alone time in a way I never have before. In Ohio and even in college, socialization was a sort of rare luxury and my brain operated in scarcity mode. That is, if I had the opportunity to socialize, I took it, because who knew when I’d have the opportunity again. While I enjoyed the things I did when I was alone, they always felt “pathetic” to me somehow, like I “should” be out there interacting with people instead.

Then I came here and social interaction became so easy to come by that suddenly I was desperate to cut down on it. I still felt weird about declining invitations or not going to events that I thought were cool, but it calmed me down to remember the sheer volume of things there are to do in the city, most of which recur at least semi-regularly. The world will not end because I didn’t go to some queer book club or poly party.

~~~

Usually with these New Year’s Eve posts I try to reflect on my life over the past year, in general. This year, moving to New York seems to be overshadowing everything else I’ve done with myself, which is probably not for the better. I did do a lot of cool stuff. I started speaking professionally-ish, I made a ridiculous amount of friends and started seeing a number of new partners, I went to grad school (which I rarely talk about either in my writing or to people because it doesn’t feel very important to me, but I still did it), I read a lot and revised lots of my opinions and ideas in response, I started working out again (which is a really big deal), I wrote lots and lots (and spent the entire year here on FtB, which is just awesome), and mostly kept depression at bay.

There’s not much to say about all that now but that, except at my worst moments, I really do feel extremely lucky despite how hard and sad things are a lot of the time.

Since this is after all my blog and most of you are probably here for the actual writing and not the rambling about my life, I decided to make a list of my favorite posts that I wrote in 2013. Not necessarily the most popular ones–just the ones I still find myself thinking about, linking to, and feeling proud of.

~~~

A few weeks ago, I was on a completely frozen 2 AM trek through upper Manhattan with a friend after having hitchhiked across the bridge from New Jersey (as you do), trying to get to the subway. My hands and feet were in that uncomfortable stage of freezing the fuck off where they just hurt a lot, and it was dark and almost completely deserted (some parts of the city do sleep). Had I not been with a friend, I probably would’ve honestly been terrified, but as it was, I was merely exhausted and extremely cold.

And then I looked up and saw a fire escape completely covered in Christmas lights. It shone like a beacon in the night, red and green. And though it probably wasn’t the first time I saw a fire escape decorated for the holidays, something about it went right to my heart–the fact that even something most people consider ugly and utilitarian can be turned into a celebration of something, the fact that you couldn’t even see the rust underneath all that light, the fact that folks don’t even really see their own fire escapes unless they happen to be looking out the window, so who could it even be for but for people trudging through the night in a lonely, out-of-the-way part of the city?

But this is something I’ve noticed New York does all the time. When I’m feeling my worst, when it’s the darkest and the coldest it ever gets, I find that the city shines through.

Until the fireworks–until leaving my friends and family to come back to New York starts to feel a little less like heartbreak and a little more like homecoming–I’ll keep looking for those little flashes of beauty in the dark.

Six Months

Every New Year’s Eve, I write a post about the year that’s about to end. When I was younger, I mostly used these posts to talk about significant things that had happened to me (getting a boyfriend, losing a boyfriend, getting into this or that program or college, and so on), explain what I’d learned from them, and make resolutions for the future.

Looking back over my resolutions from past years is kind of sad for me now. It’s both unsurprising and depressing how many of them concerned random metrics that I’d allowed the world to value me by–GPA, weight, stuff like that.

These were always the resolutions that I was never able to keep.

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions anymore, mostly because my resolution would be the exact same every year: do better, be better.

Over the last few years, the theme of depression has completely taken over these New Year’s Eve posts. In 2010 I wrote about being diagnosed and recovering. That was the first time I wrote about depression publicly, and I’ve continued doing so ever since.

In 2011 I wrote about relapsing and trying to find a way to carry on. At the end of that post, I wrote this:

A few days ago. I’m walking near Union Square in Manhattan. The sun has nearly set and the wind is chilling. I hear a man begging for money.

“Can you spare some change?” he’s saying, over and over. The passerby walk past him and he says, “That’s okay. Maybe next year.”

I put a dollar bill in his cup and he says, “God bless you, miss. I really mean that.”

He says happy New Year, and I say happy New Year too.

And then I continue on my way.

Maybe next year.

Today I returned to that exact spot. Not on purpose or anything. I’m in New York for the week and that spot just happens to be located next to my favorite bookstore in the world, the Strand.

And even though it was cold and I’m not in a particularly good mood today, I realized: the “next year” that I’d been dreaming about has come to pass. That year was 2012.

The end of December marks six months since my depression symptoms suddenly abated last summer. Psychologists seem to agree that at the six-month mark, remission officially becomes recovery. I don’t know what this means other than that I get to say that I’ve recovered.

I feel like I should have some Good Insights about how to recover from depression, but I really don’t. Medication helped me deal with the worst of it, but it stopped working after a while. I never managed to find a therapist that helped, but I’ll keep looking.

There were a number of amazing things that happened to me this year, some of which I attribute to my recovery. However, the interesting thing is that they all happened after my symptoms stopped, not before. Stuff like getting involved in the atheist movement, meeting my best friends and my partner, growing my blog and moving to FtB, finally deciding what I’m doing next year (getting a masters in social work), and so on. My life has changed so drastically over the past six months that I sometimes wonder if recovering from depression somehow opened me up to let all of this in. But I don’t know.

People who suffer from depression are constantly being exhorted to Look On The Bright Side and Be Open To Love and all that stuff, but here’s the thing–I was unable to do any of these things until my symptoms had eased up. I would never have been able to be outgoing enough to meet all the awesome people that I’ve met, and although I’ve been a good writer for a while, it got much easier to handle criticism and promote my blog once I didn’t feel depressed anymore. And while I hope my partner would stick with me if I had another depressive episode, the person I was half a year ago probably wasn’t someone he would’ve been interested in. Sad, but true.

I’d bet that the connections I made after I recovered are a large part of the reason I’m still doing so well, though. Without them, maybe I would’ve relapsed quickly. My writing, my friends, my partner, and even all the random acquaintances I’ve made while blogging are like a large safety net, giving me something other than myself and my moods to focus on when I’m not doing very well. My future, which is starting to clear up and coalesce into an actual set of plans, is always on my mind, reminding me that the college life I’ve never liked is finally ending soon.

I wish I could tell you how I got to that place I was at six months ago, ready to connect with the world in a genuine way for the first time in years. Maybe the illness had just had enough. Maybe I started getting enough vitamins or something and some random chemicals in my brain balanced out. I don’t know.

More likely, though, all the stuff I was reading and writing was finally going to my brain. While feminism certainly can’t cure serious depression, it really got to the roots of a lot of the issues I was having that were contributing to my depression. For the first time, I started to understanding that, yes, I can be serious. I can be critical. I can be passionate. Being these things doesn’t keep me from being a kind, loving person that others can actually appreciate, and it doesn’t have to make me an outcast. In certain social circles, of course, it does. But fuck those social circles. Seriously.

Feminism also showed me what I can expect out of my friendships and relationships. I don’t have to put up with the mean-spirited jokes, I don’t have to accept the shrugs and cold shoulders and eye rolls. I don’t have to deal with people who cancel plans at the last minute and treat me like their own personal therapist without ever offering any support in return. I don’t have to pretend to laugh at sexist, racist, and homophobic comments made “ironically.”

And so I stopped. For a while, this meant I had less friends and had to be more picky. This is fine. As it turned out, I left just enough space in my life for a loving, loud, affirming bunch of feminists to walk right in and become my dearest friends.

There are times when you need to compromise. I don’t expect to have the perfect job in the perfect city any time soon, if ever. I will probably always have a bit too little money. If I find a good enough apartment in a good enough neighborhood for a good enough price, I’ll take it. The thrift store clothes will do just fine.

But when it comes to friends and lovers, I will not settle. Ever. Again. When it comes to my writing, I will say what I want.

My happiness now does not come from the academic achievement I used to yearn for. I never did lose that weight. Those resolutions were all bullshit. When I see people getting these things, I sometimes reflexively feel jealous and then I remember:

I have beaten an illness that consumed my mind for nearly a decade, and I beat it without any of that stuff. For six months now I have been happy, sometimes so happy I could cry, without any of it.

The clock will tick on, six months will turn into seven and then eight and then more, and maybe someday I will lose count of how long it has been since I found myself again.

Happy New Year.

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New Year in New York.

Christmas From The Outside

Just some personal reflections on Christmas from an outsider.

It is impossible to be a person living in the United States, of any ethnicity, religious affiliation, or national origin, and not understand the meaning and significance of Christmas.

It’s a religious observance. It’s a sparkling monument to consumerism. It’s a celebration of family, of charity, of miracles, of food, of childhood, of living ethically–depending on who you ask. It is the only holiday I’ve ever heard of that has an entire genre of music dedicated to it, that requires over a month of preparation via that music playing in every public space, hours of shopping, and decorations covering trees, roofs, walls, doors, countertops, bathrooms.

Growing up as an immigrant and a secular Jew in a particularly Christian and conservative part of the Midwest, I grasped all of this so early on that I don’t even remember learning it.

It’s bizarre and a bit unsettling, having such a detailed understanding of a set of traditions, beliefs, and principles that I have never participated in. With absolutely no effort, I learned about jingle bells, advent calendars, stockings, Santa Claus, coal, elves, milk and cookies, chimneys, Christmas Mass, eggnog, nativity scenes, reindeer, holly, mistletoe, and more. It’s not like I ever had to ask a Christian friend about their observances or attend one on my own. I just absorbed all this information passively by virtue of living in the United States.

This, to me, is part of what it means to live in a Christian country. Christianity is the default here, which is how I came to be so knowledgeable about its traditions while few of the people I meet know anything about my traditions.

This isn’t in itself a “bad” thing. If you live in the places I’m from, you’ll experience the same thing. It’s impossible to live in Russia without understanding what New Year’s Eve means to us. It’s impossible to live in Israel without knowing exactly how we observe Shabbat, Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Chanukah, and many others that you probably haven’t even heard of.

The truth is, though, that I have to understand Christmas. If I didn’t, it’d be kind of weird, don’t you think? Friends would tell me they can’t leave the house and go do something on the 25th and I’d wonder why. We’d be asked to sing Christmas songs in class and I wouldn’t know any of the words. When asked what I did for Christmas, I’d say that I sat around at home and read a book rather than understanding that I’m supposed to say that I spent it with my family.

I have to understand Christmas in order to interact with people normally at this time of year. But they never have to understand the things my family and I do for holidays in order to interact normally with me. It’s standard for people to ask me why I’m shopping for “New Year’s presents,” or why Chanukah lasts eight days.

My little brother’s teacher once asked someone from our family to come to their class and give a presentation about Chanukah, so I showed up with a menorah and a bunch of dreidls and gelt, explained the history of the holiday to the class, and showed them how to play the game. It was fun and they seemed to have a good time, and it occurred to me that nobody ever had to give me a presentation about Christmas.

Some of my earliest memories of living in the United States have to do with Christmas. I remember singing Christmas songs in school in kindergarten. At first I was jealous, naturally, of the other kids. I’d pass by my neighbors’ houses and see the glowing Christmas trees through their living room windows. Although in Russian culture we have “New Year’s trees” (or novogodniye yolki, I guess you would say), my parents abandoned that tradition. I think they realized that people would pass by on the street and assume that we celebrate Christmas just like everyone else. The fact that a decorated evergreen tree could have any other significance probably doesn’t occur to many people.

Anyway, I grew up and stopped feeling jealous, instead growing proud of my own holidays, traditions, and language. But it stings sometimes to have our observances roped into this amorphous Holiday Season when, in fact, the similarities end with the fact that our holidays happen at the same time of year. Chanukah is nothing like Christmas, and neither is New Year’s Eve (except for the fact that the Soviets stole some of those traditions from Christmas).

These days it has become politically correct to acknowledge non-Christian wintertime holidays as part of the Holiday Season. Grocery stores now carry dreidls, gelt, and menorahs; people celebrate winter solstice; kids in school sing a song about Chanukah in addition to all those Christmas songs. Kwanzaa, a holiday observed by the African American community that the majority of Americans might not have otherwise heard of, is often given an obligatory shout-out. “Happy holidays” is often considered more appropriate to say instead of “Merry Christmas” if you do not know which holiday(s) someone observes.

It’s nice that people are finally recognizing that not all Americans celebrate Christmas–and, hell, not all of us are even Americans. But nevertheless it feels like, in a strange way, we’re still being asked to conform by participating in The Holiday Season even if we don’t have such a thing. (In fact, the Jewish version of the “holiday season” are the High Holidays in the fall.)

Despite these well-intentioned concessions, it’s still quite clear that Christmas reigns supreme among wintertime holidays. It feels weird knowing so much about something that has never been part of my life and never will.