Finding my way to being lost

If you know me, you know that I love to get lost on foot. A perfect Sunday afternoon back in Brooklyn usually included a long, meandering walk down streets and through alleyways that I’d never walked before. Like Matt of “I’m Just Walkin’,” I tried my best to walk new streets every time I set out. If only I had had his idea way back when I started and had photo documented my little journeys because I feel fairly certain that my feet tread over most of Brooklyn, a significant portion of Manhattan, and a nice expanse of the Bronx while walking New York City for the past seven years. The number of pairs of shoes worn out past rescue that I tossed out while packing is testament to the mileage I must have covered.

While I don’t know how many miles I’ve walked through the streets of New York City, I do know that now I feel the lack of that kind of exploratory movement where every turn could reveal a new building or a really old one, an unfamiliar monument or a road marker left over from the turn of the century, a group of kids playing in a fire hydrant or old women in house coats sitting on a porch. These twists and turns of my getting lost revealed the expansive and diverse cultural landscape in which I lived. Often, I’d stop in a bodega and buy a pack of gum just so I could peek into what items were featured in the store. You can tell a lot about a neighborhood by what is sold in its bodegas. Usually, these encounters led to conversations with the shop owner that almost always resulted in my learning something new about the area and the attitude of its residents.

I’m trying to transfer that same practice into my new life in Greeley, and it’s bringing with it an unexpected set of obstacles, the most significant of which is that people don’t tend to walk here unless they are doing it very obviously for exercise and in a park (usually indicated by footwear with reflective material and 3lb weights in hand). Last Sunday, I set out for an afternoon exploration, completely forgetting that shops and restaurants are closed on the day of rest. As I walked fairly purposefully up and down streets, a nice seeming older man pulled over and asked me if I was lost and did I need a ride. “No thanks,” I said. “I just like walking.” “Well, are you sure you’re ok, ma’am?” he said. “Yes, I prefer to walk.” Was that really so strange?

This incident reminded me of the time I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma doing research on Jean Rhys. I tried to walk from the library back to my hotel and realized rather quickly that there was no shade cover and that wasn’t a great situation for a 110 degree day. Suddenly, a two mile walk seemed impossible, and the bus used only by Tulsa’s most down and out was just not showing up. In that case, I was really, terribly lost, lost on how to prepare for the elements, so when a similar kind older man pulled over and offered me a ride, I took it. Those NYC instincts kicked in and I believed he would deliver me safely to my abode, which he did. But, last Sunday in Greeley, it was not 110 degrees, and I really just wanted to get lost in my new town. After two more men, one on a bike, one on a motorcycle had ridden up alongside me and asked me (with less innocent intentions) if I was lost, I decided to head home. Defeated and without the buzz of tapped out energy in my feet and legs that I’d hoped to develop by a good pavement pounding, I sat down on my porch and watched my street for awhile. No one walked by.

Getting lost in walking through populated areas offers my mind an opportunity to mellow. It clears space for thinking and, later, for writing. I wonder about how people live as I walk by their houses, and I wonder where their feet take them each day. Do our paths cross? Do we see the same things? Probably not. I was telling an acquaintance here about this “problem” I’m having with walking and he said, “But you have the Rockies! Go get lost in them!” Yes, I do have the Rockies, but that is the last place one would want to be lost.

Maybe this change is bringing with it an opportunity to see being lost differently. After a conversation with my English majors yesterday in class about Rebecca Solnit’s perspectives on being lost, I see the most important difference in how they view being lost and how I view it is that for them, it’s not about location, geography, and the body; it’s about losing yourself to uncover your true identity, and that is absolutely what they should be doing at age 18, 19, 20. I already did that work. For me, finding my way to being lost is about opening up and letting in difference to shake up my perception, jostle my senses, and be really embodied.

I’m going to keep on walking in Greeley, but instead of looking at the ground and lamenting my loss of Brooklyn’s endless streets, I’ll say hello to all my neighbors as they look at me funny for using their sidewalk.

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Rumination on Furniture

The first few days I spent in Greeley were unorienting, to use a word I’ve invented for scholarly purposes. I kept thinking, “when I get back to Brooklyn, I have to tell so and so about this or that.” Everything about the town reminded me of somewhere I’d been before, somewhere in California, in New Hampshire, in Oklahoma. It didn’t feel familiar even though I had been here just a few months back. Because my family came to help me get settled, it really seemed like a vacation complete with snoozing in the backseat of the car, pinching my brother, and buying representative trinkets, postcards, and hiking guides as we toured Estes Park. And because my home is filled with furniture I inherited from my grandmother and special family pieces given to me by my parents, the house didn’t immediately feel like mine. I haven’t lived with these objects in a place of my own. They remind me of my family, especially when I touch them. Wiping a quick gloss of wood polish across the dining room table reminded me of being a kid and sitting under that table while watching my parents in the kitchen making dinner back when we lived in an old house that had rich smells of antiqued wood, much like this house. Putting my socks into the drawers of my gramma’s dresser shot me into a reverie about how she showed me to fold socks into tiny packets and line the pink drawers with them all facing the same way so as to maximize space. Opening the desk panel of the secretary that belonged to my mother revealed the word “love” etched into the wood. I did that when I was quite young. Because it was what I felt for her, I thought my mom would like it, but no…that led to a lesson on vandalism. Packing the china and crystal into the china cabinet reminded me of the dining room in my grandparents’ house, its blue carpet and how itchy it made the back of my legs when I played on the floor. These objects have long stories, and their retrieval signifies the beginning of my story here in this new old old town.

I wonder how differently things would feel if I had kept all the things I’ve lived with during my time in New York.

The uprooting process of taking myself out of Brooklyn required leaving familiar objects behind, such as a couch upon which I’ve sat to watch many films, share many conversations with my various roommates over the years, and that provided a bed where many friends have slept. Not having this couch in my living room is surprisingly affecting, though it isn’t the object itself I miss. It’s the sensation of comfort that old worn down, floppy, ragged, dingy sofa provided my body at the end of a long day or when I had a cold.

Now I have space and quiet (aside from the plentiful cicadas and wonderful sounds of the train depot a few blocks away) and these two elements lead to mind/body clarity and comfort. It’s a new kind of comfort, the sort that corresponds with having a truly desirable job, a sense of accomplishment for having finished graduate study, and knowing that I’ve gotten to the beginning of the place I’ve always wanted to be. But, as I spoke with other new hires yesterday, I realized that none of us are actually comfortable yet. We have so much to learn about our new community. We have to make choices about how and where to spend our time. We have new students to meet next week, and we hope they are as engaging and bright as everyone says they are. We feel like we’re standing in diver’s pose, gripping with our toes, searching for the fulcrum’s balance. And despite the excitement of newness, all of us miss our old sofas.

Greeley intersects Midtown

Greeley intersects Midtown

So there I was, walking down 6th avenue after a very quick NYC-style lunch with a friend who works in finance (I know, I know), and I’m telling him about the history of my new town Greeley, CO, and he looks up and says, “Wow! Greeley Square!” Now, I was aware of this spot, but hadn’t really thought to capture it in a photo. However, the re-launch of my blog demanded a photo. Here it is! (That’s the Empire State in the far background, for you non-Manhattanites.)

The story I was telling my friend is that Horace Greeley himself was disillusioned by the landscape of Northern Colorado. Thus, he left it up to a guy in his employ named Nathan Meeker to take charge of making sure his NYC-style grid laid bare on the front range turned into a town. Greeley bailed, returned home to NYC, and according to the great authoritative text, the tome of 19th century NYC history, the best musical on Broadway and recent winner of the Tony for choreography, Newsies, he died. I wondered why Greeley (the town) wasn’t called Meeker. I mean, give credit where it’s due, right? Well, the people thought “meek” and WESTWARD EXPANSION didn’t fit too well, so there we go. A newspaper mogul gets credit for a town through which he blew like a tumbleweed.

I’m gonna get me a tumbleweed as an ottoman.

“Go West, young woman!” –Horace Greeley

I’m about to leave the big city for the wide open sky of the Front Range to join the English Department as Assistant Professor of 20th c Brit Lit at the University of Northern Colorado. It’s time to change the function of this blog, which previously served as a clinical method of showing search committees that I know how to blog, but it didn’t have very much fun stuff on it as I was very aware of my highly critical audience. Now that I have a wonderful group of people looking forward to my coming to Greeley, CO, people who want to get to know me, my blog will serve as an exploratory space for me to post my musings about how changing one’s geographical orientation affects oneself. From Brooklyn to Greeley means big changes. Look forward to wide ranging topics from teaching reflections to walking meditations, high altitude cooking debacles, to yoga adventures (I envision a photo of me in side crow on a cliff edge posted here sometime soon). I’m embracing it all!

And for all those wonderful people I leave behind, you can check in on me here, or just give me a call. I’ll never be too westward facing not to be able to shift my gaze back to my homeland of Brooklyn.