“In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.”
I found my peace in New York City, where I spent a year as a consultant on a temporary work assignment.
It may seem counter-intuitive that living in a city targeted by terrorists, clogged with traffic, and punctuated by sirens and honking horns could instill a kind of tranquility unattainable in Minnesota, where I currently live. After all, Minnesota is home to over 10,000 lakes, comforting casseroles of tater tots and cheese, and generations of Scandinavians who make Minnesota “nice.”
So, what is it about the chaos and madness of New York City, as experienced in my year of living and working there, that helped me slow down, tame my neuroses, and rediscover a quiet place not present in my Minnesota life?
It turns out New York City is a pretty good teacher. It pushed me to my limits (and no, not just how long I’ll stay in a subway car with a puddle of piss) and taught me three big lessons along the way.
Lesson #1: Let go.
It seems simple, right? Who hasn’t received this advice at some point in her life? For me, letting go speaks to short-circuiting the wiring in my brain that causes me to spend far too much energy worrying about things that objectively don’t matter.
Back in Minnesota, I get hung up on things like people taking the parking spots in front of my house or the peeling paint on my neighbor’s windows or the landscaping crew that fires up when I step outside for my morning coffee.
I’m one of those people who adjusts the angling of picture frames and positioning of salt shakers and wipes the fingerprints off my phone screen with a persistent regularity. If I had lived in Victorian times, I certainly would have been treated for my “delicate sensibilities” and spent my days on a fainting couch or taking in the air on the Continent.
But living in my pre-war rented apartment on 23rd street in a building with over 900 apartments, I somehow managed to not care about a lot of things that likely would have triggered me back in Minnesota. For New York makes palpable the sense that I am part of something much larger than myself and my petty preoccupations. It puts my sense of my own importance into perspective.
My particular concern at a given moment is not more important than anyone else’s.
You don’t like sirens at 3am? Too bad—someone’s probably fallen down a flight of stairs or needs his stomach pumped.
You find it rude and annoying that the woman down the hall parks her cruiser bike in the hallway in a blatant disregard of apartment policy? Deal with it. It’s not worth the risk of months of awkward elevator encounters if you say something.
In those moments, instead of giving in to my frustration, I chose to let go of my urge to control and settle into a space of acceptance, knowing that New York City will not bow to my will and neither will most New Yorkers.
Lesson #2: Be present.
I know, this is another lesson that is boorishly common and desperately close to being trite. And it’s a lesson I’ve been trying to ace for a long time with fleeting success.
My mind lures me into the future, pulling me along on a subtle but sustained undertow of discontent that prompts wonder about how things might be different if I found a new job or started doing yoga again or any number of “what if?” scenarios.
It’s not uncommon for me to read or watch something or sit in a meeting and realize that I haven’t really absorbed anything—my mind was too busy thinking of other things. Sometimes it is serious stuff, like whether I’m saving enough for retirement, but more often than not, it’s random thoughts that could certainly wait, like what if dogs could whistle?
The city demands a certain degree of presence to avoid being hit by a cab or taken down by a commuter on a Citibike.
For me, the splendor of being in one of the world’s greatest cities inspired me to take in all the sights and sounds (but definitely not the smells) and feel truly alive.
I remember sitting precariously on the ledge of my 16th floor window on a warm October night with only the faintest whisper of winter in the air. I watched dogs come home from their nightly walks, saw the specks of other humans in windows across the way, listened to the hum of the bus as it let people on and off. Above us all and our millions of anonymous lives, a harvest moon shone bright, lending an intimacy to a night alone balancing on the edge.
In those moments I became more of an observer, experiencing the world as it was in that moment, divorced from any of my misplaced notions about how I think things should be.
New York City rewards those who pay attention, whether it is those beautiful moments of feeling connected to humanity and grateful to be alive or the ridiculously absurd things you can overhear walking down the street that will have you laughing for days.
Lesson #3: Simplify.
This lesson gets to my inclination toward accumulation and the sense of satisfaction I get from filling my house with beautiful things. Being married to a general contractor who likes projects, I live in a big turn-of-the-century house built for a family with servants, yet currently home to only my husband, dog, and me.
Despite acknowledging when we bought the house that it was far more space than we needed, I found myself becoming more and more attached to my house and cultivating an unconscious belief that I need a big house and lots of pretty things to be happy and feel successful.
Living in my little rented apartment in New York City, with its sliver of a kitchen, I learned that not only can I be happy with much less, but the weight of those possessions and responsibilities creates a not insignificant amount of stress and anxiety.
While NYC real estate certainly brings its own burdens, I discovered the value of scaling down and living a simpler life that is focused on how I live, not where I live and what I have.
As my project comes to an end and it is time to return to Minnesota, I’m challenging myself to bring these lessons home and maintain my New York state of mind. In my own version of “What Would Jesus Do?” I need to ask myself: “’Would NY-me care?” If the answer is no, then I’m just going to breathe and let it go.