Three Minute Fiction: “Howling at the Wind”

This challenge was part of NPR’s Three Minute Fiction series. The instructions for round 10 were to “Leave a Message After the Beep”– write a story in the form of a voice mail message that could be read in under three minutes. Here’s a link to the winner: http://www.npr.org/2013/03/09/173722517/sorry-for-your-loss?sc=tw&cc=share

Unfortunately, it was not me. But here’s my entry:

Howling at the Wind

BEEP.

“Hey, it’s me. I’m glad you didn’t answer cause that would’ve really freaked me out. Your phone is over on the desk in a plastic bag with your wallet and a pack of cigarettes. I knew you were smoking again, jerk. Well, I’m drinking again. So, there. It’s some cheap vodka. Really terrible. And Wonderful. Anyway, I’m at this motel by the hospital. I can’t go home and look at all of your shit. And I feel like you’re still in there, in the hospital, I mean. Like, I’m just waiting for them to release you to me and you’re just gonna stroll out of there and say, “hey, sorry babe,” and then I’ll forgive you. So I wanna be here just in case this is wrong because it feels really wrong. There’s one of those old style box TVs in here and some really ugly curtains, but I wanna be here…Your mom tried taking me home yesterday. I couldn’t stay because our bedroom smelled like you–you’re everywhere. And nowhere. Murphy won’t eat his food; he just walks in circles at howls at the wind. It’s weird how he knows something is up. The storm is still pretty bad…You know what I thought of today? Remember that time when I was living in the city and you made me go to your friend’s birthday party downtown in the snowstorm? I was so mad at you. The FDR was a mess and you were driving like an asshole because we were late. I wanted to kill you that night. I keep wondering if you were scared this time or if you were just your usual cocky self, smoking your cig, and showing off how fast your stupid car is. God, you drive me crazy. What am I supposed to do now? They want me to pick a suit for you. I think that’s insane so I’m just ignoring everyone. I know they’re gonna make me get rid of your stuff since that’s like part of the process or whatever, but I won’t. They can’t make me. You don’t mind if I keep it all, right? I know you don’t. But not your car. Or what’s left of it, I should say. I really hate that thing. I don’t even know where it is, actually. Alright, I’m really tired but I’ll be here so call me back. I love you.”

On Leaving New York

Well, I seem to be onto a little mini-series as of late. Here’s another snippet about last year when I traded city streets for country roads and chaos for solitude.

On Leaving New York

As I walked onto Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport, my boots clanking with their new soles that I just got from a repair shop a few blocks away, I felt as if I were walking down giant plank towards the water’s edge. Clickety-clack clickety-clack went my boots taking on a rhythm of their own, as if their new soles actually had some soul–something I felt I was sorely lacking those days. I had recently accepted the inevitable. I couldn’t afford to renew the lease on my apartment that I had previously paid for with graduate student loans. I would be leaving the city to live back upstate for who knows how long. IMG_7585

At the end of the pier finally I reached the railing and looked over, feeling a bit like Rose DeWitt Bukater on the Titanic with no Jack Dawson to save me from impending doom. But in all seriousness, I did feel that day as if I were a woman on the verge, on the verge of something I couldn’t quite discern. I dreaded going back to the town I grew up in, walking into my uncle’s bar and having ten different people ask me the same question I had no answer for, “so what are you up to now?”

My thoughts wandered to how odd it was that older versions of those ships docked next to me would’ve had a plank, like a small portion of the wooden pier I was standing on. Walking the plank. I imagine Captain Kidd, supposedly having lived on nearby Pearl Street, might have directed men to walk to plank toward their impending doom. It occurred to me, then, how the planks of legendary pirate ships resembled our diving boards of today’s swimming pools. Joyous laughter of children and an enthusiastic, acrobatic leap into the water is quite different than what I was feeling. Why is it that so many things from the past that represented something so disdainful have been reworked into something we consider enjoyable and harmless? From planks to diving boards. It’s like candy cigarettes. I’m not sure whether to call it an absurd coincidence or simply grotesque.

Maybe this is true of the city, too. Critics of modern urban spaces have likened places like New York to a theme park. For me, in a way, it has been a sort of giant playground. But I don’t think we have to settle with just one idea of the city in this way or any other. New York has an uncanny way of becoming like a character in your life. I will soon be boxing my books and packing my clothes and leaving this place behind for a while, but I won’t be without the memories of it. I’ve got the stamp of New York City on the passport of my persona. As Conor Oberst sang, “some wander the wilderness, some drink cosmopolitans.” Well, I endeavor to do both.

“Who Are You?”

As part of my recent internship project, “Entrepreneur Vignettes,” at Followgen.com, I’ve been told by some entrepreneurs that for them it was a “genetic proclivity”–written in their DNA that they would start their own business. This might be true in the same way Tiger Woods was destined to play golf. But isn’t it odd that when we meet new people we ask, “what do you do?” when what we really want to know is “who are you?” (side note: I have a friend that asks this latter, rather intrusive question when she’s drunk and meets someone at the bar. “Who are you?!” It always makes me smile. Oh, alcohol. Liquid courage? Truth serum? Maybe. Who knows.)

I suppose it comes down to a matter of perspective. Many people who haven’t yet “made it” in the way they define success hate this question at social gatherings. I’ve been one of those people. They’ll come up with some sort of euphemism for the job they are currently doing until they catch a break. “I’m a floor manager at a restaurant.” Translation: I’m a host at Applebees. “I’m an electronic sales technician.” Yes, so you work the register at Best Buy.

Is what we do really an indication of who we are? In some cases, yeah, I’ll buy that. There is probably something innate in people that have a drive to start their own business in the same way some feel compelled to create art. But reality doesn’t always allow for us to easily slide into what we really want to do with our lives. Furthermore, as successful as we might be in any chosen career, that can’t be all there is to a person. Maybe you’re an entrepreneur and an artist. Perhaps on the weekends you trade business casual for boho-chic, spread a huge blank canvas on your apartment floor and go all Jackson Pollock. Or maybe you play golf. Or both.

The next time I meet someone, I think I’ll ask, “what do you do on the weekends?”

One of my favorite entrepreneurs must have had all of this in mind when she said, “How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone.” – Gabrielle Coco Chanel

Over Exposure

A stranger left me this comment on my blog: “I am in envy of your skill with writing. Perhaps I just need to put more of myself into it. Metaphorically bleed on the page, as the saying goes.”

To which I replied, ” I think you just gave yourself the best advice you’ll ever get. Most people don’t realize that writing, whether fiction or not, is an incredibly courageous act. I don’t mean this to toot my own horn, but rather to share with you my experience. Once I got over the fear of the exposure–ironically, the very thing you need to make it as a writer–your writing has the freedom to soar and resonate with people in the most amazing ways.”

I metaphorically bleed all over the page. And as it goes, I often bring the people who’ve affected my life along with me, leaving them as raw and as exposed as I am in a sense. But it is solely the writer’s cross to bear. If any of you ever feel over-exposed, please let me know. I don’t want you to bleed, too. Such is the danger of the dalliance with non-fiction; I’ve fallen in love with truth.

Lunch Hour

*Note: Of course since I first drafted this, things have changed (as if I don’t talk enough about that pesky little part of life). I’ve moved back to the country and Bryn works days (thank God). Also, my dad’s office was completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy so they are working out of a temporary space, not the one of my memories. The rest, I’m happy to say, remains exactly the same <3

  Lunch Hour

In New York City, there’s no telling when you’ll find time for a break, when you might get that moment to rest and reflect, to long for the past or dream of the future. Especially for an insomniac grad student or my friend Bryn, a nurse, who works the night shift at Sloan Kettering. Sometimes lunch will be right in the middle of the day, like when I visit my father and sister downtown in their office and the menus come out just before noon. We wait for the delivery boy to buzz while my sister answers calls and I stare at that classic framed photo on the wall of men during their lunch hour sitting atop a steel beam as they eat from brown paper bags, taking their break from building the Empire State Building. If I think about it too long my stomach flips. No harnesses. No problem.

One day early last fall, Bryn and I found ourselves on the same schedule. After about an hour on the phone complaining about work and school and men, we decided to meet for lunch. Or, well, brunch, since that’s so much trendier. We picked a quaint little place on Lexington, ordered paninis, and decided it was acceptable at such an occasion to share a pitcher of sangria.

An hour later we found ourselves a far less classy establishment a few doors down, drinking some concoction from a fishbowl that the bartender called “swamp water.” Three hours later we were calling around to find two open appointments to get friendship tattoos. Isn’t that always the way it goes?

Five hours later we had traded that fine restaurant for an even better one. After a couple rounds of two-for-one Bud Lights and the best basket of pigs-in-a-blanket I had ever tasted, we were in a cab headed for the Lower East Side. We withdrew cash from an ATM at the bodega across the street from the tattoo shop and gave each other pep talks on how to act sober.

By 9:00pm I was back in my apartment with a massive hangover and a new heart-shaped tattoo on the inside of my middle finger of my right hand. For all the horror stories of drunken tattoos, I can proudly say I have no regrets. (Although I’ve since found out that I am no longer eligible to join the Marines, so I guess that backup plan is out. “Try the Navy, they might take you,” a recruiter once told me.)

If I recall correctly, it was somewhere mid swamp water that Bryn and I realized we had been friends for ten years–a milestone that clearly deserved attention. A commemorative tattoo was the best idea, obviously.

photo(1)That fateful day our lunch break, which turned into an all-day extravaganza and full on celebration of the ten years we’ve managed to stay close, even when Bryn lived in Boston and I in Tampa, was one of those times we found for reflection. I think it is no mistake that even as I write this, I see that heart on my middle finger and think of so much more than a ridiculous, drunken day. I think of all the years of my life that Bryn has been a part of, and I’m reminded that she’ll always be there. Not just as a heart-shaped symbol, but as a person who is also stamped on the heart in my chest. Some may call us foolish, certainly our parents didn’t find it as brilliant as we did and still do, but I love the mark that Bryn has made on my life and this little tattoo is just another signification to remind me of that every day.

Tattoos are one of the ways we can choose to remind ourselves of our past. Our friendships, our hardships, the names of our exes that we never should have gotten. Places we’ve been and places we shouldn’t have gone, either literally or metaphorically. Tattoos in our culture are a reminder, at least in this lifetime, of what we’ve been through. It is this same impulse that makes us write on bathroom stalls, or carve our names in trees–these gestures take it a step further with the hopes of living on past our short lives here on Earth.

In the small walk-in closet of the bedroom I grew up in is a blue, pen-ink inscription that reads, “Pete was here 2001. I love you.” Whenever I visit my parents’ house in upstate New York I glance at my first boyfriend’s cartoonish handwriting and despite myself, I smile. That old writing on the wall not only reminds me of being fifteen and defying my father’s rule of no boys on the second floor where my bedroom was, it also makes me keenly aware of the nostalgia we carry around with us for the past—some idealized simpler time. I think this is part of the human condition, to long for the past when the present, and worse still the future, can feel so daunting. As time presses forward, what we all seem to be asking is, What will be lost?

One of the reasons I’ve always loved the romantic poets is for their persistence of this sentiment and their ability to incite an act of nostalgia even as the moment is happening, reminding us how fleeting life is. My ex-boyfriend Pete was no great poet, but I can still appreciate his impulse to document a time in our lives that, even as teenagers, we could recognize was passing us by. And my heart shaped tattoo–it incites nostalgia for past as much as it does for the present.

Maybe poets like Wordsworth and Keats felt the weight of nostalgia so heavily because theirs was a time of rapid industrialization, and thus the growth of mechanization, factories, pollution, and, of course, of cities. When Wordsworth wrote of the smog of London or the ruins of Tintern Abbey, he does so with a sense of lament for what is gone. Similarly Keats does this, too, perhaps with the knowledge that the Tuberculosis that killed his loved ones could take him, too. And it did at the young age of 25. I think Keats understood the ephemerality of life better than all of us, for as he requested, his tombstone in Rome does not bear his name, but rather, in its last lines, the truth we all struggle to face. It reads: “Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821″

Civilizations since ancient times have been writing on the walls. While there is certainly a strong cultural disparity between early tribal tattooing and the ones we get today just as there is between early human cave paintings and the graffiti that in its heyday of the 80s colored so much of the grey canvas of our city, the impulse remains the same. To declare, I was here! becomes a therapeutic way of dealing with the temporality of life and the persistence of change.

How many people have moved into and out of this very apartment I’m living in without a trace of themselves, their histories, their trials? It is an educated guess to say that these wood floors below me have been here sine the Great Depression. They are weathered, have numerous shades of paint spills and stains of God knows what. But my lunch hour is nearly over, so I’ll skip to the end. With the looming Mayan prediction of apocalypse this coming year, I feel strongly the impulse to leave behind some documentation of my existence on this planet as many have before me. So here it is, writ in water:  I was here. January 20, 2012.

 

Garden Secrets

Garden Secrets

“The idea of the garden—as a place, both real and metaphorical, where nature and culture can be wedded in a way that can benefit both—may be as useful to us today as the idea of wilderness has been in the past.”

-Michael Pollan from Second Nature

Although city gardens are often an afterthought, ranging in the simplest form of a potted plant or window sill basket to a large-scale recreational or social space, there are those, too, like Central Park, that were carefully plotted out as a means of preserving an essence of wildness even if excavation and non-indigenous flora make up the schema of the large-scale garden. The very spirit of the word “garden” throughout centuries of use suggests a public space, and so I think it fair to imagine parks in this way. It is interesting how many of New York City’s parks exist very much in the spirit of Frederick Law Olmsted’s credo where the space truly becomes an egalitarian retreat; it is a free area intended for the use and betterment of those who visit. But perhaps it is more interesting to consider what happens when parks are private and one needs a key to open a locked gate to enter. How, I wonder, does this affect the western psyche in relation to our imagining of the garden? Do we want to image the garden as a pastoral retreat, a democratic space, or a privileged demi-Eden? I’m not sure we can have it all.

 If not only for its scale in addition to its perpetual enhancement of New York City, Central Park deserves some special attention in the discussion of the garden, here defined not only as a place where flora are grown, but also by incorporation of its most significant meaning as that of a public meeting area. As I reflect on Central Park, I return to a journal entry I wrote about my first experience of the place:

“As a relative newcomer to New York City, I (shamefully) hadn’t ventured far into the interior of Central Park until today when my Field Studies in Ecology course gave me no choice. As a preliminary investigation into the ecology we’ll be studying in a few short weeks at Black Rock Forest, today was a sort of trial run, and also a point of reference from the urban semi-natural to that which we will study upstate. Today happened to be a gorgeous day in New York, and with the cold front earlier this week, it was much deserved. We entered the park on the west side by the American Museum of Natural History (one of my favorite places in the city) and made our way down by the theater, to the Turtle Pond, and the Great Field, noting the various plant and bird species as we made our slow journey. What’s interesting about Central Park is the paradox between what we consider natural and unnatural—an obsession I’ve come upon that seems to reveal itself to me everywhere I go.

Central Park is of course a man-made park, carefully designed in the romantic vision of Fredrick Law Olmsted. Nonetheless, what has happened as the years pass is that the place has become more natural, despite its deliberateness. Many of the plant species, particularly the trees, are not native to our area. They are European imports. This is true of the birds as well. But native plants and animals have found their way into the park, making it suitably diverse as the rest of New York, I think. Today alone I must have heard five different languages spoken in the relatively crowded park, including an American singing British songs and a bagpiper who didn’t even pretend to portray himself as one of Scottish decent. I suppose, for me, the great paradox lies in the idea that this man-made landscape is an icon of the wonders of human capability in construction and design in our urban jungle, and yet we cannot entirely, not even halfheartedly say, it isn’t natural.

As my attention wandered from the starlings and red-winged blackbirds to people sunbathing on the lawn and a group of attractive men playing softball, I realized that the human component of Central Park is essential in its conceptualization. Of course it is a no-brainier that people would use this space for recreational purposes, but we, as part of nature, are doing natural acts just as much as the squirrels who rummage around in hopes of a nut. At once I was no longer in a fabricated park in one of the largest cities on the planet, I was just a human in a part of a larger ecological system that I am only beginning to uncover and comprehend. Olmsted knew full well that his great park would one day be surrounded by tall buildings and stand out amongst the seemingly unnatural urban landscape as a retreat or a haven, which certainly it is, but I wonder if he, too, had in mind that what he was doing, all of his careful planning and building was in fact simply a natural act to build a natural place where humans and other animals and plants would come to simply act naturally.”

As I reread these words with deliberation of what the park, the garden, really means, and armed with many more visits to Central Park, I’m surprised and pleased to find that I still think of it in the very same way. I’d say now, then, that the park is quite a success, especially by Olmsted’s standards and even by my own as I continue to discover and rediscover the urban pastoral all throughout our great city.

In addition to Central Park, Olmsted is responsible for much of the land preservation that we have deemed our National Park system here in America. It was initially difficult to read of Olmsted–the hero I had wanted him to be–as a man who only sought to preserve wild spaces for human or anthropocentric purposes. It came across to me as a dirty word–anthropocentric. I now realize how foolish that is for what other view could we possible have of the world? Olmsted thought Yosemite should be preserved because it had value for humans; to be in a place surrounded by ‘natural scenery’ would promote human health and well being. As anthropocentric as these views may well be, I think the relevance of these places, both the physical space and the conception thereof has far surpassed Olmsted’s original hopes for Yosemite and all of our parks, and for this he should be praised as far as his intentions seem to have been in good faith. And this was long before the environmental movement and realization of the human impact on the planet.

Certainly these parks have benefited our environment, protected thousands of species, and provided a haven for those fortunate enough to visit on family vacations, class trips, or solitary adventures into the spirit of the sublime. But it should be acknowledged that many of our great national parks have come at the cost of the homeland of indigenous tribes that lived in these places we so often take for granted as “untouched.” Indeed these gardens are, in a sense, like the ones in New York City’s village with lock and key where wealthy and often predominately White mothers like Sarah Jessica Parker walk alongside their nannies who push the strollers. Who are these nannies and where do they come from? In this way, I wonder if either of these spaces, huge national parks or these small ones with locks and keys, can truly be considered anthropocentric, for if it doesn’t include the welfare of all humans, not just those who are privileged, can we really call it such?

I love that we seek to preserve the wild—as Thoreau once said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world”—and I applaud Sarah Jessica Parker for her many accomplishments on screen and off, but I think it important to ask just who benefits from these parks, these “public gardens,” when there is a lock and only so many keys, even if we can’t always see the gates. That’s the thing about the sacred, secret garden: when we find out what’s at the core—be it the core of an apple or simply the root of a land’s history—the knowledge may have the power to ruin the idealized garden, the demi-Eden. History can not be undone and the wrongs done to the native people of America will never be atoned, but for the sake of all humanity, perhaps we should be a little more anthropocentric and consider unlocking the gates from now on (so to speak). The irony will lie, as it so often does, in the definition of the term. What exactly do we mean by “anthropocentric?”  For Olmsted it sufficed to say that the preservation of the wild was for human gain. But today, after all we’ve learned, can we really stop there? Anthropocentric is, of course, for the good of humankind, but what if it doesn’t include all humankind but just a few of us lucky ones? It seems time to reconsider not only our place in the garden, but also our perspective of it.

 

Write or Die (you decide!)

Please read the following 3 paragraphs and let me know if you want more:

“I didn’t know which room number was ours or even which floor we were on. The hotel we stayed in was in lower Manhattan, but I couldn’t remember the street. I awoke wrapped in crisp white sheets with only a sliver of light, like a laser, peeping through the impermeable dark curtains that felt like velvet. When I sat up, I paused a few moments, waiting for the dull ache of my head to hit me–my body’s way of telling me I should drink more or not at all. The bed was cold next to me, no sign of the body that had been there hours before, no traces of the person who kissed me goodbye and told me he’d see me soon. These are the lies we tell each other. Those same lies we tell ourselves.

When I realized, despite the near blackout I had achieved the night before at some seedy, downtown, hole-in-the wall bar, that I could actually stand, I immediately went towards that light to glance out onto the street and try to figure out where I was. When the curtains parted I nearly collapsed at the sight of it. I was standing, naked, looking down at Ground Zero. The partially completed Freedom Tower, however beautiful in the morning light, could not make up for the fact that it stood behind a gaping hole. Between that tower and me was something I couldn’t even comprehend. I still can’t. I just sensed loss, emptiness: complete and irrevocable.

Before 9/11 the term ‘ground zero’ had a completely different connotation. It simply meant a starting point or a base for something to be built upon. Now it feels like what I sensed that morning, like something you know is true–a reality you know exists but don’t want to admit out loud or even acknowledge. But those floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows in that hotel room forced me at a time in my life that I had reached a personal low, to stare into yet another abyss. It might as well have been a mirror, razor sharp.  With its precision it stared back at me and said, you can’t deny this now.”

So, is this something you would read? Should I write more and try to build something on this unsteady ground, or just let it die and fall into the unending wasteland of literary failures?

Write or die. You decide!

Seeing in High Definition, or The Nature/Culture Binary (continued)

Seeing in High Definition

“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

-John Berger from Ways of Seeing

There is nothing like watching our favorite sports teams on our over-sized, high definition televisions or revisiting our favorite old movies now re-formatted for HD. The clarity is startling; we are engaged more than ever in our beloved programs and tend to reject older technology that does not allow us to see as clearly. Even our smart phones, iPads, and iPods allow us to see vivid images with clear lines of distinction like never before. We have become obsessed with the idea of definition, for both of its connotations. First, we have come to relish in the idea of seeing in HD, not just with our technology, but also in our lives in terms of categorization and specialization. We crave distinction. Secondly, definition of course means significance. Words, ideas, and objects are only relevant if we can discern exactly what they mean. Our brains jump to find meaning before we know it is happening. Perhaps this is why we can find shapes in the clouds and a face on the moon.

But what happens when we go to the extreme with our love of seeing the world in high definition? It seems there is an inherent danger in over-categorization that rears its ugly head when we try to form distinct categories to define complex ideas, like, for instance, ourselves. John Paul Sartre would call this our existential crisis. How often do we distinguish between “us” and “them,” “black” or “white,” or even “democrat” or “republican” without stopping to consider all of the complexities that are obscured by this either/or mode of thought. Do we really want to be reduced to simply a label, a neat organized and pre-packaged existence? When Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes,” he seemed to have already given this a thought or two.

When we define a term or a concept, once of the easiest ways to do so is to determine what its opposite is. I would call this being lazy. Words are rich in meaning and connotation and often their conceivable opposite can not be found in such limiting terms. One of the greatest instances of the failure of our either/ or, high-definition logic is the long-held binary between nature and culture. When we unpack what these words actually signify, we can begin to see the repercussions of thinking in binaries and often even in absolute terms. If the opposite of “natural” is “unnatural,” then in this binary between nature and culture, we are calling culture something like artifice, something I find uncomfortably close to artificial like cans of sprayable cheese and plastic bottles sitting on mounds in a landfill. Culture of course comes from human life and community. Are these really unnatural? The last I checked we are biological beings just like all of the other creatures we share our local communities with, even for us in New York City. Why, then, do we insist on seeing ourselves as so distinct from nature? If there is a single root cause to the degradation of the environment, I would call it high definition. The American conception of our relation to nature and the “wild” is very much a part of our environmental ignorance, misconception, and perhaps even crisis.

One of the most important broader studies of the changing conception of the American landscape is Roderick Frazier Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind. This book is an exploration into the changing perspective of wilderness in America as strong ties to the larger western tradition were slowly unraveled. Nash points out that it was actually civilization that created wilderness; in fact, it would later be those in the city, the “literati” and scientists of the nineteenth century that first began a real appreciation for the wild, open landscape. The first lines of distinction between the civilized and the wild began with the dawn of agriculture and the comparison of controlled or domesticated space to that which was not. These areas not plotted out for agriculture, herding, or town space were initially viewed as a wasteland. A complicated perspective of the wild that began in the ancient Greek and Roman world and continued in the Judeo-Christian tradition was pervasive throughout early American settlement. It would take a long time, perhaps until the Romantic era, until the wilderness began to become separate from the negative connotation as the anti-Eden of uncultivated space. With the advent of Romanticism came a celebration of nature and the primitive. Furthermore, with American independence followed pride for the landscape. With concerns of legitimacy the celebration of wild land followed in which“…wilderness was actually an asset. Of course pride continued to stem from the conquest of the wild country…but by the end of the nineteenth century wilderness was recognized as a cultural and moral resource and a basis for national self-esteem.”

American artists and thinkers of this era began searching for something particularly American, and they found it in the wild. Where the problem lies, here, is that lines of distinction are clearly drawn between wild and cultivated, between nature and culture. In the same vein as Nash, Peter Coates writes of our nature/ culture binary:

“If, following the original Greek definition in all its catholicity, nature is deemed to be everything material that exists, then, strictly speaking, nothing can be unnatural. However, the distinction between the natural and unnatural (artificial) is invariably made, and while nature has no conceptual opposite, we usually think of it as human culture.”

It is this same limited view of either/or that has caused so many of our social problems. Why, then, has it been so hard to recognize that to think of our natural world in binary terms in which nature and culture and pinned against one another would be just as problematic and misleading?  In writing about the conception of our American landscape, William Cronon can be considered a pioneer. While Cronon’s article, “The Problem with Wilderness,” has many important points, the main argument is that the existence of wilderness—or at least how we conceptualize it—reinforces the false idea that man and nature are two distinct and separate entities. Cronon makes the important distinction between “wilderness” and “wildness.” He quotes Thoreau at the beginning of the article, claiming, “ In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” To Cronon, “wildness” is anything that is natural, while “wilderness” is the mythologized and often even fetishized portrayal of nature that we in cities came up with.

In many ways the perspective we have of nature is a problem of language and of definition. As Nash has pointed out, the idea of wilderness was actually a result of civilization, its antithesis. Therefore, to view a certain landscape as wilderness is to deem it uninhabited by humans. Cronon points out, even worse still, that “any way of looking at nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from nature—as wilderness tends to do—is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behavior.” Cronon believes that it is our very identification with the land that is integral to forming responsible environmental practices. He believes it is our challenge and our task to stop thinking of the world in binary terms such as natural and unnatural, but to understand the continuum of nature of which humans are a part; this will have great consequences for the wild spaces we seek to preserve along with the inhabited places we call home.

In case I haven’t said it enough, I would argue that our misconceptions, our disconnection from the physical reality of landscape is precisely a result of our tendency to view the world in binary terms that in turn has seeped into many different avenues of our culture. This mode of thinking has found its way into our educational system, which by overspecialization fails to show any real, practical connections to our physical world. As David Orr writes of the modern curriculum:

“We have fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines and subdisciplines, hermetically sealed from other such disciplines. As a result, after 12 or 16 or 20 years of education, most students graduate without any broad, integrated sense of the unity of things. The consequences for their personhood and the planet are large.”

Since the environmental movement that became mainstream in America in the 1970s, there has been a renewed interest in the landscape and the idea of wilderness conservation. While the effort to maintain wild areas of America is certainly a noble cause, in some ways it has encouraged a larger separation or distinction between the spaces we live in and the wilderness. The spectrum, which Nash calls “from primeval to paved,” can be a helpful way to imagine this. In other words, the primitive or pristine is on one end while the paved, civilized, or urban is on the other. What has resulted from this mode of thinking is a clear disconnection in the American mindset that has found itself trapped in the postmodern world of abstractions. As David Orr urges:

“It is time, I believe, for an educational ‘perestroika,’ by which I mean a general rethinking of the process and substance of education at all levels, beginning with the admission that much of what has gone wrong with the world is a result of the education that alienates us from life in the name of human domination, fragments instead of unifies, overemphasizes success and careers, separates feeling from intellect and the practical from the theoretical…”

It is precisely the anthropocentric notion of human domination that we’ve carried along with us through centuries of thought which has caused us to get in our own way when it comes to understanding the world around us. Even our domination of language and of definition have left us in a world that is in great need of integration over specialization. The postmodern abstractions literally have no grounding in the land—a perspective we so desperately need to dismantle in regard to how future generations and we today understand our position in the natural world.

In the case of New York City, Philip Lopate has said, “New York’s granitic environment promotes living in your head, a cerebral, landlocked state just this side of paranoia, but perfect for an information capital.” The very design of this city, particularly anywhere north of Houston, is a clearly defined grid of easily navigatable streets and avenues. I’ve never been one for grids, for numbers, or order, but I can be accused, as Lopate says, of living too much in my head. New York City will never shut up or slow down, but it will always challenge us to reconsider the life force it emanates and the uncanny way it becomes a character in our lives. I think more of us need to get to know that person and understand New York, like the rest of us, is so much more complicated than it seems.

Nostalgia and Nature: A Glimpse into the Urban Pastoral

When I was a child I was so adverse to change that when my mother altered her hairstyle it was worse than finding out there was no Santa Claus. Difficulty in coming to terms with change has been a reoccurring theme in my life; this isn’t something I’m particularly proud of, but it is one of the ways I’ve come to understand myself—a thorny pastime I would not recommend to the faint of heart. Some people live their whole lives in transit, in constant change, literally living the life of a nomad, or others just with a knack for re-self-fashioning. For most of my life I’ve lived in the same house on the same three acre lot surrounded by woods and grew so connected to that place up on the hill, in the hard, resistant earth that it will forever remain a part of me. When I moved to New York City it was like ripping a plant out of the ground with long, clinging roots and trying to replant it in a window box. I’ve found, though, against the odds, that I can thrive there, too.

It is no profound realization that history is constantly encouraging us to reevaluate, to find new ways of understanding our past, and thus our present (an idea you might have noticed I’m a bit obsessed with). In an urban-dominated world, the common use of complex ideas like nature and culture has become antiquated. It no longer suffices to consider one without the other in the same way one can not truly understand the complexity and development of a city without also considering its hinterland. Time is one of those inescapable forces that we have to come to terms with, as sad as we may be to see things change. I am convinced that nostalgia is a huge component of the human condition and one that may even tie us to a collective unconscious that it attested to by great minds like the psychologist Carl Jung and the poet W.B. Yeats who both came to obsess over this same concept without ever having known of each other. You need not be religious to be conscious of the postlapsarian world in which we’ve been cast out of the garden and ruing it ever since. If it exists for one as simply a metaphor for the lament of our time here on earth, which is alarmingly short when we consider how old this planet is, I think it applies to us all. Do we all not find ourselves in some ways longing for the past? Be it regret or happy memories of days gone by, don’t we all remember times that seem somehow simpler? For us in modern cities like New York, the urban pastoral becomes our way of coping; it is our elegy for the pre-urbanized world that can at times seem so unnatural.

Instead of boring you with a long digression into the etymology of the words “urban” and “pastoral,” and a lecture on classic literary modes, let’s just go with this: In addition to the literary mode, the pastoral can be understood as both a moment in time and a physical place in the present that has notably rural qualities (think shepherds back in the day or even farmers in upstate NY); however, both understandings of the term suggest that it holds a sense of elegy—nostalgia for the past when nature, in all its forms, was more prominent than skyscrapers.

“Urban pastoral” has a clear tie to the usage of “pastoral” in earlier times; however, I would argue, the term seeks to problematize the binary between its two parts in suggesting that there is indeed nature in the city. Some may go as far as to call the urban environment a natural setting. The urban pastoral mode does not seek to dismantle the former definition of the pastoral; it instead incorporates it into a new understanding of how both country and city and nature and culture may relate to each other. It turns out, then, when we combine these two words to make a new term, we are actually both incorporating older, more traditional associations of nature and culture and forging a new understanding of how literature continues to participate in the essential understanding of this complex relationship, which, in an ever-increasingly urban society, becomes essential for encouraging sustainability (another word that deserves an entire essay). Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the urban pastoral allows us to see ourselves within nature, as opposed to remaining separate or even above it.

Central Park is a great place to experience the urban pastoral outside of a text. Consider that there are native versus invasive species—the European imports that Frederick Law Olmsted carefully chose for his masterpiece. I wonder, then, if the park could serve as a metaphor for the people of the city who, like many of the trees in the park, are transplants (pun!) from other places in the world, or migratory inhabitants of the city who, like so many of the birds, come to and from New York out of necessity and for comfort, to work, to live, and for pleasure. And what about the decorated horses that carry people around the park in carriages and sleep down by the Lincoln Tunnel at night? The dogs with collars and leashes that walk briskly along with their owners? There are so many qualities of urban life that we do not traditionally consider natural or consider at all, and others than upon consideration become problematic.

As sad as I am for those horses that sleep by the Lincoln Tunnel, I find solace in many forms of the urban pastoral. For the many ways the urban pastoral—a way of seeing– manifests, it is indeed a state of mind that reminds me that those weeds creeping up through the sidewalk or an occasional mouse that found his way into my apartment are examples of nature showing her presence and resilience in the traditional ways that might in turn help us to find new examples we hadn’t considered before. Maybe the rats running wild around the city in places that hurricane Sandy drove them out of*.

You might say the urban pastoral has become for me a coping skill in my resistance to change from my stubborn roots upstate. But once I became aware of it, this way of seeing not only changed me, it made me accept change and sometimes even rejoice in it.

*note: this reminds me, there is a fantastic book entitled “Rats”by Robert Sullivan that explores the human disdain for these creatures who, like it or not, live only where humans live. Where there are people, there will be rats. Think about that one. Or just read Sullivan’s book.

Five Points

So, I’ve given a bit of background in “What I’ve Been Up To,” but here’s a draft I’m working on for the creative portion of my project, a piece called “Five Points.” There are so many elements of the urban pastoral mode, but history and nostalgia are perhaps the core. Keep that in mind if you’re wondering how the hell this all relates. I promise, it does. Why? Because I said so.

Five Points

Maybe you don’t walk down the south end of Mulberry Street and imagine gunslingers, gritty butcher shops, and prostitutes in petticoats, but I do. Maybe you’ve stopped seeing the ironic and now clichéd signs in all the Irish bars that declare my kind “need not apply” but I always see them and smile. Maybe lower Manhattan makes you think of the Village, knock-off Fendi bags on Canal Street, or the Financial District. You might think of the revitalized and increasingly trendy Lower East Side or new luxury apartment buildings, in places that once housed tenancies of fifteen people per room, popping up in unexpected areas—the new New York. But I see the old. I see the port of New York, gangs of immigrants, and market stalls. I see the birthplace of New York City and imagine all the way back to Henry Hudson happening upon Mannahatta in 1609 with its hills and vales, its ponds and thriving wildlife. I think of the Lenape and idealize how beautiful this island must have been flanked by water. Green and lush, not even yet bucolic in the way we might imagine.

Going back in history to understand how we as a society got to where we are now is kind of like two hung-over friends trying to piece together their pervious night of alternating blackouts; things are inevitably going to get a bit skewed.  But just for fun, let’s go back, way back, and try to piece together how we all got here, shall we?

If you don’t believe in serendipity, consider this: When Henry Hudson was brought on by the Dutch West India Company to find a northwesterly route to Asia, many would say he failed, that he proved as useless for the Dutch as he was for the English. His Renaissance contemporaries would probably be surprised to know that the stubborn Henry Hudson who somewhat accidentally “discovered” the river that bears his name remains a household name some 400 years hence. And that massive body of water, Hudson Bay, where a ship of mutineers left Henry and his son to freeze to death does more for the American tradition than it ever did for the Dutch or the English. It exemplifies how Henry Hudson, if he stayed in New Amsterdam, would have not only been one of the first true Americans, he would have been a real New Yorker, the first one of us.

It doesn’t seem that Hudson ever truly fit as a Londoner; if anything, the Dutch culture suited him better. They were among the first society to value the merit of a self-made man than one who simply inherited a title of nobility. Those walking the streets in Renaissance Amsterdam were, much to the horror of the haughty English culture, casually dressed; their ambition was directed towards work and innovation, not privilege and custom. Hudson’s fellow sailors might have shared his aspirations in theory back at the dockyard, but the icy waters of Hudson Bay can quickly stunt the will of a man with frostbite, no food, and no promise of relief. Unless you are Henry Hudson.

The Dutch settlers that did end up returning to the present day Hudson River Valley and the island of Manhattan were steadfast enough to establish their Dutch roots, their principles of hard work, of tolerance, and perhaps maintain even a glimmer of the blind optimism they left the Netherlands with; it was these people that would became our first New Yorkers. This period of time is often glossed over in history books that seem to only validate New York after its possession by the English crown. But I can’t help but think it was those first men and women who braved the three or four month voyage across the Atlantic that both literally and metaphorically established roots of  what New Yorkers may or may not even subconsciously realize they are made of. Such, I would say, is the stuff of determination, of forbearance, of tenacity. This small island we share, even with its hills and vales long gone, is a place where nothing became everything. For millions it remains a place of dreams, of opportunity, of ambition, but never of ease. Nothing here comes free; not even freedom itself.

What a lovely piece of our history, isn’t it? As long as we blackout the part where the Native Americans were slaughtered, dislocated, and diseased by Europeans; the early exploitation of animal life by trappers; and the introduction of slavery, it sounds kind of nice.

(I’m so glad there are beavers back in the Bronx, by the way. A bunch of school children got to name the popular returnee. His name? Jose.)

Historiography, or the writing of history, is shaped by a continuously changing set forces that are often dictated by various media. Archives, amateur video, advertisements, scrapbooks, and the exponential growth of social media are just a few of the myriad examples of non-traditional histories and hybrid forms that have a profound effect on cultural memory and our understanding of history. But these various forms of miscellany are not necessarily in opposition to one, dominant master-narrative history; rather, these forms often work reflexively and/or in dialogue with the accepted comprehension of the past that is perpetually re-contextualized. History is no longer just what we read in our middle school textbooks. And we didn’t just get here because of Henry, although I do give him a lot of credit.

While new media technology and miscellany provide fascinating means to study history, they can only be useful as long as we self-consciously bear in mind the ways we tend to obscure the facts in such forms that are often more representative about the nature of a desired reality and reception thereof rather than a mirror image of actual life. Cultural memory, which has an enormous effect on how we understand historical events can be broken down into social memory versus individual memory, two forces that when combined form the dynamism that exists within ideas of history. A simplified way to imagine social versus individual memory is to think of this breakdown as the idealized and the actual. Idealization often comes as the result of idealized stock images that are forever burned into our consciousness. This translates to a shared cultural memory about events that we may not even have been alive for, but nonetheless accept the narrative as truth.

But for all of these mixed stock images that any one of us may have of the historical New York City, let’s fast forward a couple hundred years to an unpleasant time in the nineteenth century when New York’s infamy could definitively be placed in the Five Points–the notorious neighborhood of crime, disease, political rioting, and general squalor written about from the likes of Abraham Lincoln to Charles Dickens. It may seem odd that the heyday of that truly wretched area was a popular place to visit for the aforementioned, but I imagine it to be akin to staring at a car wreck or a freak show, something that in theory you wish didn’t exist but can’t look away from all the same. But unlike the aftermath of an accident or a spectacle separated from its audience behind bars, the Five Points was a quite dangerous place to be in the nineteenth century. I imagine it to be something like the Wild West, which is probably why it interests me. Isn’t there something alluring about a place of such outright lawlessness? But there were laws. And two police forces. But there was also a whole lot of corruption and when the police are fighting the other police, I imagine there’s a lot of opportunity for some back door deals.

The fight for survival can make people do some pretty horrendous things. For most of us living in New York today, that type of ruthlessness is simply not a part of reality. Even when we’re so broke we can’t even afford free, we’re much better off than the majority of people on this planet. And that must have been the driving force for people like the Irish and the Germans who were pouring into the city in hopes of a better life. I wonder if their sense of hope diminished when they got to the Five Points, stood on that triangular parcel and saw what must have looked like the mouth of hell open before their eyes. Maybe their will to survive brought them closer to the primitive. Maybe New York felt like a wilderness then, too.

To stand in the center of the Five Points back then was literally to stand in the center of the city. And New York City, some would argue, is like being at the center of the world. For others, still, the center of the universe. The streets once physically created an intersection of five points, like a web spanning out in each direction. So much for two roads diverged. None of those streets was the road less traveled and none better than the next. It must have been an entirely different experience, even in the nineteenth century to be on the periphery of such a place where you might get pick-pocketed, but prefer it still to standing right in the thick of it with the possibility of bullets whizzing by and no buildings to use as armor. As the key members of gangs and political organizations battled it out on the streets, I wonder if they ever stopped to see things from all five angles, or if they just fought on one front.

It took a long time for social reform to reach the Five Points. Most sources I’ve read say the place was the worst slum in the Western world (rivaling East London) for something like 70 years. So for nearly a century, New Yorkers living outside the earthly manifestation of Dante’s Inferno must have been living in constant trepidation over crossing the boundaries into the area in the same way that today Upper East Siders are careful not to cross over the border into East Harlem. Aside from fearing crime and violence, one would also have to be guarded against the spread of disease–no easy feat considering the sanitation methods of the time, or lack thereof. It is hard to imagine surviving in such a place let alone raising a family in such conditions, and yet New York somehow survived and grew as it continues to grow, if only vertically.

New York City is full of paradoxes. It has always been a place of extreme individuality as it is a place of unbreakable community, even if these so-called communities were often a euphemism for less reputable networks. When I think of how New York was born and raised I think of the people, both individuals and groups, and also the physicality of the land. All parties mentioned were nearly leveled before they rose up again and the cycle keeps repeating. A quote by Raymond Williams is perhaps best when imagining the city, to think of New York as “red in tooth and claw; a ruthlessly competitive struggle for existence; an extraordinary interlocking system of mutual advantage; a paradigm of interdependence and cooperation.” In New York City you are never really alone, but then again I’ve never been to a place where there is a greater capacity for loneliness.

As I come to my fifth point, I think it has become clear that whatever time in history we’re talking about, it is best to look in from as many perspectives as possible. But we can also circle relentlessly around the island of Manhattan at any time in history and still miss what drives the core of it. It is not just about what lies on the surface of Mannahatta, the land of many hills, but it is this terrain, this same playing field, this arena, or battleground that has provided the context of history since the Native Americans laid claim to it. There are so many critics of urban life, so many people that come to New York City and see chaos without stopping to question how we all got here and why the city looks this way, feels this way. But peel back the layers of history, look for the subtext and you will find a wealth of understanding. The heyday of the Five Points was a grim part of our city’s history, but a critical one if only for the birth of the city as a political hot seat and the neighborhood’s devastation a catalyst for change, which, as is the nature of things, came both in the formula of riot and reform.

New York City, for all its past ills and present ones, is still, to me, the center of the universe. “That’s such a New York thing to say,” I can hear my ex-boyfriend from rural Virginia complaining in his slow, southern drawl. But my New York attitude will not back down. I still want to go to the top of the Empire State Building and quote Shakespeare when I look down at my island and exclaim into the wind “This bless’d plot! This earth! This realm!”

(Pretty casual for a thesis project, huh? Gotta love the freedom of creative non-fiction.)