It was interesting to be facing questions about what life is actually for and searching for a sense of meaning and purpose while travelling in America, exploring cities which are so suggestive of a set of principles and values. It was in New York that the dynamic seemed most total. Even walking along the street you could sense that life was about striving, working, succeeding and that people were keen to prove themselves strong in all those respects. Built as a result of people’s energy and determination, New York’s very skyline suggested dreams and optimism and a determination to build. While the dynamic that life was all about working hard and playing hard could be detected in other places I visited, it was in New York City that it seemed most total, shaping the consciousness of its inhabitants most fully. Being a New Yorker seemed an identity and full time occupation in itself.
It was in New York that I had to work hardest to keep in front of me all the things I valued in life and held so dear with Mark, such as being in the moment, appreciating the small things, cherishing the simple pleasures. I felt determined to do so, making sure I stopped to look at the trees in the park, look above me at the skyline, bask in the late Autumn sunshine, savour good coffee. It took a little extra effort, a conscious decision to detach from the flow of people walking along the city’s grid. I felt the force of that dynamic most strongly when I saw beggars on the street – it was here among the apparently confident, striding city dwellers that I found it hardest to cross the road. It was as if by associating with the poor, the needy, the destitute, I felt I would be displaying a vulnerability unacceptable among New Yorkers.
Talking to Lerryn about Detroit and the good things coming out of there, she told me her art tutor told her that students had produced the best work during times of difficulty, crisis or struggle. I don’t see difficult times as something to be welcomed or sought after, but do see that it’s how we respond to them when they come that leads to us doing remarkable work, or finding new purpose or creative direction. Yet we still have an almost compulsive desire to be among the successful, the achievers and strivers, to be able to show the world we are happy.
It was easier to see the dynamic at work in New York, but my experience there has challenged me to think about the extent to which my sense of self rests on what I consume. Just how far have I bought into ideas about success and achievement that remove me from the vulnerability of not only myself but of others? I’ve managed to throw it off, but there have been times that I’ve felt a twinge of shame that I’m a widow, that my life has been devastated by loss, that I haven’t got a ‘beautiful life’. Is it our fear of our vulnerability, of the possibility that we could fail, lose those we love, be rejected, that makes us so determined to avoid pain and difficulty and judge so harshly those who haven’t attained the same level of success?
To a lesser degree, I’m still questioning why I felt so delighted when I came across a decent coffee shop in Detroit, not only because I wonder at my need for respite from the city’s devastation, but I also because I question the extent to which good coffee shops, and a certain style, bolsters my sense of me. The desire for style, for cool surroundings and good coffee can’t be wrong in themselves and I know that in recent months spending time in cafes has been one of my great pleasures. But doing so doesn’t make my life any more creative, or give my life more meaning, even though the Simone de Beauvoir-idolising part of me still wishes otherwise.
But to again draw a comparison between me rebuilding my life and the recovery of the city, perhaps they shouldn’t sit too high in our list of priorities? By which I mean that we should probably carry them lightly. We can have intense relationships with small businesses such as cafes and restaurants that offer us lifestyle and identity as well as a place to eat or drink. But while we can welcome their appearance in a broken city, we perhaps have to go deeper and ask ourselves questions both individually and collectively about what we truly value and are seeking in life.