On Writing and Contradictions

Finding a spot to sit and read and write and be alone in Prospect Park on a sunny Sunday in May is a challenge. I tramp around the paths of the Ravine in my hiking boots looking for a place where there aren’t too many people. It takes a solid half hour (and a weird pass by a spot where a young guy sits with a laptop while other guys, some with bikes, seem to hang nonchalantly around the area — I look curiously and then walk away quickly) before I find a fallen log next to the path that seems promising.

Even still, someone passes by me, and I can see another path nearby where people walk in both directions. It’s hard to be alone outside in New York City — sometimes you can almost achieve it if you keep moving, but if you’re sitting still, someone will always come by.

I’ve been thinking a lot since I posted last week about how much I left out of my New York goodbye. It’s so easy sometimes to write something and feel pretty good about it and want to share immediately. That’s the joy and the danger of a blog, especially when you’re the only person to tell you, hey maybe sit on this a little longer. That you should dig deeper, craft a stronger perspective.

At a party recently I spoke to a friend about the difficulties of being vulnerable as a writer drawing on her own life. When I put my words out there I’m exposing myself on two sides. If I write about failures or weaknesses, if I get political or admit that I am only now slowly becoming someone versed in current events, I risk being judged professionally by colleagues or future employers for shortcomings I am learning and growing from. And when I talk about relationships with people in my life, I have to think about how my words might affect them if they read my writing and recognize themselves.

It’s easy, then, to write generically. To talk about a place or event but to keep myself and my story out of it, to make a list of the things I’ve done and places I’ve visited in my time in New York but say little to show how I felt about any of it. To write a piece about wanting to be vulnerable in my writing and still not quite put myself into it.

New York has been a place of contradictions for me. A place where I’ve had a busy, full life and still felt myself struggling to find some kind of meaning, to find a way to grow and learn. I have so very many friends here, many of whom I’ve been able to see and hug and tell how much they mean to me over the last weeks and months. And yet I have often felt alone and lonely in New York, sometimes surrounded by people and sometimes when sitting at home by myself wishing I’d made plans but too tired and angsty to find someone to hang out with last minute.

It’s a different kind of aloneness than sitting here in the park writing this, birds chirping and squirrels chasing each other a little too close to me, with the sound of drumming in the distance and people still walking by every so often. Being alone today is deliberate, something I sought. Something I needed, because time alone outside soothes me in a way that only music comes close to.

And yet that time alone at home is deliberate too. I chose, four years ago, to live alone, and even though I loved my roommates and am still close with many of them, I have reveled in having my own space. Four years in I still look at my furniture and books and the pictures on the walls and am so happy with my home. I’ve joked (but it’s not a joke) that while I’ll miss my friends and parts of my New York life, it’s my apartment that I’ll cry over next week. Because those rooms and that quiet gave me time and space to grow and figure out who I am, even if it was sometimes lonely (and sometimes involved too much television.)

I’ve had a lot of conversations about relationships lately (always), thinking about everything from ties with friends and families to those with romantic partners. We talk about balance, about what we need and want from the people around us. It’s different for everyone and the relationships that most confuse me may be the ones that work just fine for the people in them, while the ones that look desirable from the outside may not be so healthy. But for those of us whose resting state seems to be stuck on single, observing and talking are the only ways to figure out what we’re looking for so that hopefully we’ll recognize it when we stumble upon it. And we learn from friends newly in relationships or always coupled how that impacts their friendships and how the demands on their time have changed. How they have changed.

I am both an adventurer and a homebody, simultaneously pulled to get on the next train or plane and go and to build a home and a network of people. In my New York life I have sometimes felt trapped by both the city and the network — how do I make time (and afford) to travel (and why don’t I do even more exploring in the five boroughs), and how do I reconcile my love of meeting new people with my love of maintaining my friendships? How do I put down roots and fly at the same time?

I can’t say whether meeting a partner during my time in New York would’ve helped with that paradox — if his career kept him here long term, would our relationship be enough to change me into someone who loves it in New York? If a relationship had given me more flexibility to travel, would that have balanced out my roots calcifying? Or would I still be leaving but with a more complicated choice behind me?

I can’t say. I also can’t say that life in DC will lack these contradictions — it may resolve some of them while putting others into sharp relief.

It’s a little cooler now. I’ve put on my sweater, and soon I’ll walk out of the Ravine and to the edge of the park to have dinner with a friend. I have lunches and a dinner and a coffee still ahead of me this week, with a few more to be scheduled. I am filling the time in between by packing slowly, leaving many of my books and my artwork for last because once it’s all packed it will stop feeling like home. When it does the joy of being alone may tip into that loneliness, and I would rather be a little sad about saying goodbye than feel pushed out by a place I have sometimes loved.

In my first year in New York my (coupled) roommates helped me set up my online dating profile. It was fun and silly (and taught me what I’ve learned every time I’ve tried it since, that online dating doesn’t work for me). Around the same time one of my roommates shared this video, How To Be Alone. I’ve come back to it a few times over the years because it captures that difference between being alone deliberately and feeling lonely so beautifully. I hope as I grow to choose to find the beauty of being alone and to resist having loneliness thrust upon me.

And on those occasions where I choose loneliness, because sometimes, once in a while, there’s a beauty in being sad, too, when it reminds you what you’re looking for… on those occasions, I hope I always have the perfect sad song to listen to, and the perfect walk to take through a part of a park that is just quiet enough to let me feel beautifully alone.

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  2. StephTheBookworm

    I love this post, Sarah! I understand your feelings about hesitating to put yourself out there online and on a blog. I put it all out there on my blog, for the most part, but some things I keep to myself. I also made the decision to share only a couple photos of Caleb a month on my blog too, after he turned one, as opposed to the many that I used to when he was a baby.

    “How do I put down roots and fly at the same time?” YES YES YES! This is so true. I recently wrote a post called “On Ataying” and I talked about how I’ve stayed here my whole life but have often wondered what life could have been life if I had left. I totally understand that need to plant roots but also to fly.

    I can’t wait to hear more about your move and next great adventure. I am thinking of you and sending good thoughts.


    1. Post

      Thanks so much, Steph! Life in New York has been both wonderful and complicated and I’m excited to figure out how to write about that more deeply than I have in the past (and to be more open going forward). And I totally understand your hesitations with Caleb as well! It’s scary to something more personal out there, but for those of us who love to write, it’s one of the ways we connect with people.

      I loved your On Staying post! I sometimes talk with other friends who have stayed about the fact that I have no idea what it’s like to be an adult in our hometown since except for the summer after college, I haven’t lived there in over a decade. I’m hoping to experience some of it this summer — we should get coffee and talk books while I’m home!

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