I’m up early, as usual, in my Airbnb 2nd floor apartment, the space recently renovated —modern and clean. Outside my locked apartment door, from the steep staircase down to the rest of the house, it’s a run-down shabby affair on a less-than-pleasant, far-from-gentrified, industrial street in Queens. The contrasting elements grate uncomfortably inside me. By Airbnb standards the apartment is cheap, so what did I expect? I’m lucky it’s nice inside.
It’s not yet 7am. I multi-task. Eat my oatmeal, drink my tea, read a TIME magazine article, and listen to NPR news. The news is all bad. Paris. North Korea. NY firefighter falling off a 5-story roof, dying. Trump lying (not really news). The newscaster points out the real truth, contradicting Trump’s alternate-fact-world in detail. I think, why can’t they just say — another day, another Trump lie? Not even say what it was, just give the number, like Lie # 2,879. Don’t spread his lies by re-butting them.
I wonder why they can’t report one or two good news stories. I was reflecting on the difference between big and small stories. Noticing the overwhelm of hearing too many big, bad ones. In between listening to the radio news, I read a Time magazine article about Sheryl Sandberg’s grief over the sudden death of her 47 year old husband. I felt how vulnerable we all are. About how we are… no, about how I… am experiencing (and handling to some extent) my own vulnerability and overwhelm. I decide to turn off the radio and start writing…
It’s been almost sixteen years since my young daughter moved to New York City and blossomed into the lovely woman she is today.
When she moved, I waited four months to visit, wanting to give her time to settle in and get her bearings. I arrived in NYC on September 7, 2001 (but that’s another story). Anna was living in Brooklyn, the town I was born in, but hadn’t really visited since childhood. My grandparents lived in Brooklyn tenements after their arrival at Ellis Island (from Russia) around 1912. My mother had grown up in Brooklyn before she herself immigrated in 1943 to the farthest reaches of the new country, the “wild west” of Phoenix. There she married her Bronx-born GI sweetheart, and stayed.
At 19, I’d left Phoenix and immigrated to San Francisco, where I stayed. There was a kind of poetic coming full circle when Anna decided to immigrate back to New York. My own history and perspective helped me through my initial sense of profound loss and the loss of my bearings. I was 53, soon to retire, a single mom, alone… and well, alone.
At my in-laws’ Passover seder last week, each of us were asked to tell the story of a difficulty we had faced in life and how we got through to the other side of it. With a question like that, you weigh how revealing you want to be — serious, humorous, charming, or whether you’ll tell the story of something truly difficult. I surprised myself telling the story of Anna’s exodus from San Francisco to New York and how I got through to my own “other side”. After all, the Passover story was one of a people (my people, my ancestors) faced with crushing difficulties and choosing their route to redemption. Once I started telling my story, I felt terribly vulnerable. Also, I worried that Anna would hate it. It was kind of gutsy (or foolish) of me, but that is often how I roll, treading the fine line between the two.
And so, at the seder table, I spoke of surviving the letting go of my daughter. How, when she left, I felt I might not be able to go on. I spared the seder gathering some of the gorier details of my grief, the feeling I could curl up in a ball and simply die because my sense of loss was that strong. But I did say it was really hard, and I did say something about wanting to be here for my daughter as someone who doesn’t go through life as a victim, as someone she could feel proud of. I talked about how I made a conscious choice to live as fully as I could. (I didn’t talk about how difficult the enacting of that choice was). I tied up my story with the neat bow of my happiness with Jay and Anna’s marriage, and of being at the Seder.
(Speaking of grief, the article I mentioned earlier about Sheryl Sandberg’s take on grief is compelling: I recommend it. Setting judgements about the uber-wealthy aside, one can hear (and benefit from) her deep compassion and wisdom on the subject.)
Anyway… here I am visiting New York City, for the 16th year straight. It is high-powered, rushing, throbbing with the intensity of multitudes of people. Noisy machines, trucks, cars, sirens. Assaultive on one’s senses. Sight, sound, touch, smell. For instance, when we climbed out of the subway station into a beautiful day and Union Square, vibrating with throngs of people walking every which way and spring blossoming everywhere, I suddenly smelled dog poop. After walking a ways and the smell still being strong, I thought Oh, no! Maybe I stepped in it! Anna smelled it too. I checked the soles of my shoes. Nothing. Anna checked hers. Nope. We noticed a lady twenty feet ahead of us checking the soles of her shoes. The strong smell of dog poop lasted half a city block, then vanished.
I think New York City is a good place to be if you are rich (have enough money to buffer the experience), or young (have your own awesome energy), or an immigrant getting started (have determination). Or if you are a tourist who wants to experience the myriad events and historical locations NYC has to offer. It is also a creative beehive. I get why it’s a good place for some people.
Right now I am here for my daughter, who has cysts on her ovaries, which are going to be surgically removed asap. It was supposed to happen last week, but for a variety of reasons, at the last minute the surgery got postponed, which landed me here for a three week stint.
I’ve always felt affection for Brooklyn. But I didn’t intend for my daughter to make it her home. That was her choice. Trying to find a way through the Red Sea to freedom, she, like her great grandparents Harry and Anna, found her way to Brooklyn.
Maybe the exodus never ends… Maybe there are simply greater and lesser exoduses, in between the short times where life feels stable and moored. Stability, like security is an illusion. Still it’s of value to have a sense of it. When we don’t, life feels so much more stressful, and yes, overwhelming. Like now.
I had written a neat little ending to this post. In the Trans Am cafe where Anna and I ate lunch yesterday, Anna pointed out my rush to tie up the “loose ends” as if the mess, the challenges, the overwhelm of life, could just be written out of existence by a writerly sleight of hand, like a magician might do. As you who read me (or know me personally) know, I’m no magician, not even a writerly one. Instead, I’ll end with — just now on NPR I heard Lie # 2,880. Also I’m checking out of my Airbnb this morning, heading over to spend a few days at my cousins Neil and Robin’s house in a distant part of Brooklyn. At the moment, it’s SO quiet in my little Airbnb kitchen, where I contemplate and type. Despite my sense of overwhelm, I know I am experiencing a moment of real peace. Still, I can assure you nothing is tied up.
One thought on “notes from Brooklyn…”
Sweet piece, Gayle. Hoping all goes well for Anna. Warmly,