Everybody wants to know why I moved back. I can’t say I moved from New York City without people thinking I failed or I am moving to the Pacific Northwest without people wondering what I left behind. I am from here, but I am moving back as a much different person than the first time I moved to Seattle as a wide-eyed 18-year-old. The truth is I lost my brother two months after I landed in New York. Overdose. The kind of death that means he’ll never be remembered as a good father or the brother who was proud of me. The truth is that the three years I lived in New York were the worst three of my life so far. The truth is that my experience of New York is different from my friends’ or my roommates’ or my lovers’. Like cosmically bad. Like comedy on top of tragedy, bed bugs on top of losing my only brother to the addictions he struggled with most of his life.
Sometime after his death, long before I landed a dream publishing job and was vacillating between staying and leaving, I became obsessed with the idea of “grit.” It was a buzzword in education, and the researcher who popularized the term, Angela Duckworth, began appearing on NPR’s homepage. NPR defined grit as the “ability to persevere when times get tough, or to delay gratification in pursuit of a goal.” The times were tough; the goal was to be a writer. Grit, I convinced myself, was all I needed to survive New York, survive my brother’s death, and survive my life.
Six months after I lost my brother, I found out my only living grandparent was dying of cancer. The thing I realized then was that life is mostly shitty, but there are pockets of happiness. When I found myself in one, I savored it; I felt grateful for it. Those pockets in New York were small: listening to a summer concert in Prospect Park with my friend, stepping outside of the bar during a date and finding someone had set up a giant telescope fixed on a nearly full moon, reading one of my pieces in a bar in the West Village and receiving roaring applause.
New York is a hard city to live in. It’s a hard city to shop for groceries and commute to work. It’s a hard place when your family is grieving across the country and a hard place to feel alone. But I could do it, I told myself time and again, as long as I had grit.
Close to my three-year anniversary in the city, after another relationship had petered out and I was again questioning why my life had become about getting by, I took a long, hard look at how far grit had gotten me: I had a job that excited me, a few close friends but no real community, and a book on the way from an indie publisher out West. Any excess cash of mine was spent on pricey plane tickets to travel back and visit friends and family whenever possible. No romantic relationships lasted because I always intended to return to the West Coast. And I was sad. Not all the time, but enough to make me question how much value there was in having grit if it came at the expense of my well being. What waited for me at the end of sticking it out? What if being happy meant more to me than proving to others I was tough?
In my post-breakup floundering, I did what many people do: look for quick and unrealistic solutions. There was an opening for a publicity position at a university press in Missouri. I had zero ties to the state, but for a week I entertained the idea that all my problems would be solved if I left New York and remade my life in the heartland. I quickly dropped that silly fantasy, but the idea of leaving persisted. I wanted guidance, so I sought out an unusual source: author Tom Robbins.
This may seem like an out-of-left-field choice in spiritual adviser, but Tom Robbins is just that. His novel Another Roadside Attraction played a key role in me losing my religion — long before I ever lost my brother. I read the book when I lived in Portland, during a time I felt myself fracturing from the Christian church over the patriarchy I felt was embedded within it. I had also been following a series on NPR that profiled atheists. This was a perfect storm of influences, and Another Roadside Attraction became the eye of it. The book features a madcap plot about exposing the Catholic Church’s cover up of the truth about the resurrection, namely that it never happened. The book climaxes with the main characters attempting to steal the corpse of Jesus Christ from the Vatican — an over-the-top and ludicrous plot turn that nonetheless caused me to look around at the religion I had been practicing for 10 years and recognize that Christianity itself is ludicrous.
Robbins is an icon of mine: a writer who made it outside of NYC and on his own, very weird, terms. He lives in the Pacific Northwest, the idyllic life in a small town by the ocean I frequently dreamed of when ascending the garbage-strewn staircase of my fourth-floor Brooklyn walkup. Through a bit of research, I found a mailing address that matched the small town north of Seattle where I knew he lived. To that address I sent my first fan letter: part confessional, part screaming into the void, and part advice-seeking. Surely Tom Robbins would know what to do.
“Mr. Robbins,” I began and told him, “After nearly three years, of which I have disliked every day on this coast, I think often of returning home. I dream, I plan, I hope, and eventually I talk myself out of it. This unfortunate result usually happens because someone shames me for wanting to leave New York, they tell me to be stronger and have more grit, they question how I could possibly give up working in publishing and living in the city of everyone else’s dreams.”
Truth is, nobody told me that. It was the voice of doubt inside my own head that clung to that word: grit. I savored the word, sucked on it like a sour candy. Grit was my obsession. I couldn’t control outside factors like New York’s constant, unprovoked aggression between strangers or the horror of being told over the phone that your sibling is dead, but I could control my response to it.
I told Tom Robbins that because I didn’t want to tell Tom Robbins my big brother was dead and I was hurting every day. I didn’t want to tell Tom Robbins about the worst months: that first winter after my brother’s death when I was jobless during the polar vortex and sometimes late at night when I waited for the subway after having too much to drink, I stared into the darkened tunnel and thought of jumping at the approach of the oncoming train. I didn’t want Tom Robbins to pity me; I wanted his sage advice. So I told him instead about wanting to be a writer outside of New York and asked for his advice — and his belief that I could do it.
A few weeks later, to my great bewilderment, he replied. When I wrote the letter I did so with zero expectation of receiving a response. I had already made up my mind to leave New York. The house, the job, everything else would fall into place. All that mattered was the inner peace I felt just thinking of my decision. Tom Robbins’s blessing would merely be the cherry on top. The letter was personalized enough for me to know it was not a generic response to a fan letter. It was endearing in its cultural references — sort of like receiving a letter from your cool grandparent. Why would I choose him to send a fan letter to, he asked, when I could write to Hillary Clinton or Bruno Mars? What the letter was not was an affirmation that I should drop everything and move across country. Instead, he told me a “cautionary note” about someone he knew who left publishing and New York behind, relocated back to the West Coast, and was now unemployed.
“Tom Robbins doesn’t know me,” I comforted myself. I decided waiting for his stamp of approval was as useless as waiting for anyone else’s. Nobody could make my decision for me. Moving back was my own choice as much as moving to New York was. What mattered the most was believing in it.
I don’t think you can be an optimist until you’ve survived a terrible experience. You can’t believe in good in the future unless you’ve seen darkness in your past. Otherwise, you’re nervous and fretful as you look over your shoulder for the bad thing coming. Growing up, I was a casual pessimist, more of a complainer than anything. I expected the worst, occasionally experienced a slight variation of it: a cheating boyfriend, my grandparents’ deaths. I don’t think I was an optimist until I came to New York. Until I learned that I could make it out the other side of tragedy. Maybe the grittiest thing I could do was admit my unhappiness and take steps to change it.
I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest since the end of August. I live in a house in a quiet neighborhood and have easy access to nature. But it’s more than the external improvements to my quality of living — it’s feeling the safety net of my community around me. I don’t feel as scared anymore knowing they’re close by. I live in the same city now as my brother’s children. It’s my responsibility now to be their safety net. Returning home didn’t put a Band-Aid on my life. There are new problems; there will be new tragedies. But I feel more prepared for them now, a little less naïve, and more at ease asking those around me for help.
When people ask me how I could possibly leave New York, even if they don’t imply failure but I still infer it, I tell them I missed nature or I hated the crowdedness. If we’re moving a bit closer toward intimacy, I describe the feeling of isolation or how much I missed my community. I rarely jump right into the bombshell of my brother’s death and the myriad ways it exploded my life. Death is a buzzkill at parties. With time, it will become easier to describe it and I’ll have the distance to reflect on who I was for those three years. Eventually, I’ll tell people I left because I didn’t have enough grit, but for what it’s worth, at least now I have a bit more happiness.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
On a recent foray into the deepest, dankest corners of my basement, I came across a box of college mementoes — old photographs, bottlecaps, blue-book exams. As I dug through the strata, I uncovered a largely-forgotten treasure: a stack of novels that I’d read and loved as an idealistic, horny, often hungover student. These books helped usher me from my teens into adulthood — and opened my eyes to the breadth, and often the harshness, of the surrounding world. I’d adored these books. So why had I left them in this box, like discarded memories? Looking through them again, I may have found the answer.
Dancing Soup with Coyote Girl • Tom Robbins
As a sophomore, I discovered Robbins’s Another Roadside Attraction and was blown back by his sentences’ studied freedom and his generous worldview. I quickly read Still Life With Woodpecker and enjoyed it slightly less; Skinny Legs and All, less still. By the time I got to Jitterbug Perfume, I was openly annoyed by the patchouli miasma that hovered over everything. The last Robbins book I read was Dancing Soup With Coyote Girl, published in 1992. The more Coyote Girl I read, the more I felt almost physically ill, as if a sketchy-bearded hippie was talking me through a brown-acid trip. I couldn’t finish the book. And when I saw Dancing Soup With Coyote Girl’s long-forgotten cover — a purple can of mushroom soup hovering above a desert mesa — I had a sweaty flashback that left me shivering under the utility sink.
Monsters of Privilege • Bret Easton Ellis
Of all the Ellis novels I ripped through in college — American Psycho, Glamorama, Less Than Zero — I remember very little about Monsters of Privilege aside from the fact that it featured hard drugs, an anorexic girl seeming to die without anyone caring, and lots of dead-eyed sex. As I flipped through my copy — the cover shows a backlit silhouette of a high-cheeked young man and a bold san-serif font — my eye landed on a passage that seemed representative: “Derek looked around, blood draining from the wound. The glass vase lay smashed on the Italian marble. ‘I need some coke,’ Derek muttered to the empty foyer. Out by the pool, someone had put on a Tears for Fears cassette.”
Garbageman • Charles Bukowski
Bukowski’s third novel, the autobiographical Garbageman, is about Los Angeles trash collector Henry Chinaski, who, when not working for the city’s Public Works Authority, writes short stories on a broken typewriter in his grimy cold-water flat. Chinaski rages against his circumscribed lot with a steady, heroic intake of hard booze and cheap women, unconcerned by the bleakness of it all. While some have criticized Garbageman as a carbon-copy of much of his other work — Post Office and Factotum come to mind — the differences are obvious. In Post Office, he’s a postal worker, and in Factotum, he’s a factotum (or handyman). In Garbageman, he’s a…well, I won’t ruin it for you.
The Gutter • Hubert Selby, Jr.
What I’d consider to be Selby’s lightest, frothiest novel, The Gutter follows the exploits of a heroin-addicted gigolo named Bunny. At the book’s outset, we find Bunny writhing in a flophouse basement, covered in blood and vomit while scratching at infected boils. Two hundred forty-seven pages later, Bunny is near death, “bad skag” spreading through his veins, spittle at his purple lips, as he moans in the titular gutter. “I always wanted to write a comedy,” Selby said to The New York Review of Books in 1987, upon The Gutter’s publication. “This is my Without Feathers.”
Ishmael 3: Going Ape • Daniel Quinn
I read the gorilla-philosophy classic Ishmael at the precise moment I should have, when I was about 19 and, like its narrator, had “an earnest desire to save the world.” Its message — basically, that we’re a species of selfish bastards, and we need to stop hacking everything to pieces — seemed sound, and I became a vegetarian not long after reading it. A sequel, My Ishmael, offered more of the same, and I responded in kind, cutting dairy from my diet and riding my 10-speed everywhere, no matter the distance. I was nearly at my limit — and the Gaia-minded self-sacrifice urged in Ishmael 3: Going Ape pushed me over the edge. After reading it, I sought out a remote yurt-based community, where we drank home-brewed scallionmilk and fashioned socks from dryer lint. It was a rough period, to say the least (it was the year of the Great Eastern Chigger Invasion), and as the memories flooded back, I shoved Ishmael 3: Going Ape into the deepest recesses of the box, along with its companions: the Selby, the Ellis, the Bukowski, the Robbins. I sealed it with fresh tape, hurried up the basement steps, and shut off the light. Upstairs, slightly shaken, I laid on my living-room couch and continued reading a book that, I’m positive, will never seem embarrassing in retrospect.
Image Credit: Flickr/Angelo Yap.