Love is Blindness (or is it?)

I didn’t come to New York City expecting to fall in love. I’m a country girl through and through; I like dirt roads under my bare feet and brilliant stars above mountain ranges’ evening silhouettes. But as I near the end, I realise I’ve come to love the endless kaleidoscope, the constant change and yet sameness of the people on the streets, the subways running like (broken) clockwork, the engines and sirens sweeping the streets day and night.

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I binge-watched Daredevil this weekend, and out of the muddled hours of flashing guns, impressive ninja moves, and dramatically-whispered conversations, one line stuck in my mind:

Growing to love something is simply forgetting, slowly, what you dislike about it.

Wow. What a hit-and-miss theory of love. If you happen to stop noticing the bad things, that’s love, and if you happen to keep noticing them—sorry, not for you. It sounds pretty, but this version of love removes all intentionality and turns love into partial blindness. I would argue that love is a choice, not to forget what you dislike, but to emphasise what you like—to acknowledge the imperfections but focus on the perfections.

Loving a city is a little like loving a person. You begin as strangers, every corner and angle a surprise, and you slowly explore, growing more and more familiar until you don’t have to ask directions or read signs. You know what you can say and do and when you should go home and close the door. And as your acquaintance continues, you have the choice: will you focus on that bag of rotting rubbish on the corner, or will you look past it and see the windows glistening like jewels in the sun? It isn’t a matter of chance—it’s not sitting around hoping you’ll notice something positive before you see the negative—it’s a matter of choice, of looking for the positive and keeping your eyes on the good when the bad crowds in.

I’ve come to love New York, not because I’ve stopped noticing the dirty streets and jam-packed subways, but because in the midst of those I notice rooftops gleaming under the setting sun and ancient elms rustling in hot afternoon breezes.

You can’t love on condition; “I’ll love you when your faults stop bothering me” is not love. You have to love unconditionally, the dirty with the clean, the broken parts with the whole. You don’t love someone by not seeing what’s ugly; you love by choosing to look past to what’s beautiful.

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On Sightseeing: Lessons from New York City

“So what do you want to see while you’re in New York?”

I got this question from everyone my first week in the city—from my flatemates, my coworkers, my mother, the barista at the coffee shop… Okay, I’m lying about the barista; but he probably would’ve asked if he’d thought of it.

My answer was the same every time: “Well, uh, I don’t really know…what are you supposed to see in New York City?”

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So I googled “what to do in NYC” and, overwhelmed by so many suggestions, shut the whole thing down and drank a few cups of coffee. For a few weeks, I forced myself out of my flat every weekend. I dutifully visited the Museum of Natural History and got lost in Central Park. Then I stopped sightseeing, overwhelmed by the number of options, exhausted by the constant movement, depressed by seeing sights alone.

And then Emily came. I picked her up at the airport, escorted her onto the wrong bus, course corrected half an hour later, and helped carry her suitcase up four flights of stairs to my apartment.

I like to think we saw the entirety of New York City in one week of meandering down sidewalks and up subway station stairs. And I think our adventures translate into good sightseeing advice no matter where you’re visiting.

  1.  From the Statue of Liberty: Live beyond a lens.
    My camera phone is generally great, but skylines and statues aren’t really its thing. So I tucked the phone away and spent the ride to Staten Island and back leaning on the top railing of the ferry, breathing in salty air, and taking in the surprisingly diminutive Lady Liberty dwarfed by the city’s skyscrapers, marvelling at the waves and the seagulls and the glints of gold on sailboats. Instead a two- by five-inch screen, I saw the water and sunset stretching as far as I could see, the colours more vivid and real than my phone will ever show me. Don’t be so concerned about getting a photo that you miss an experience.
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  2. From the Museum of Natural History: Call it quits.
    Museums are fantastic, and New York City has more than its fair share. I’m thrilled that they’re here and that people enjoy them, but I don’t. Once I’ve seen one stuffed lion or unearthed pottery shard, I figure I’ve seen them all. And I refuse to feel guilty for that; I can always read a book or watch the history channel, and there are dozens of alternative things to do. I gain far more by doing something I actually care about than by trudging through a museum just to say I did it. Don’t visit a place out of obligation; spend your time on what matters to you.
  3. From Mezzrow and Smalls: Empty your pockets.
    I’m skint and stingy, so $60 for drinks and a show chokes me. But I spent the money, and I spent the evening listening to truly fantastic jazz piano and one of the best quartets I’ve ever heard. I packed in with people wearing evening formal and people wearing shorts and t-shirts, and we all had nothing in common except for the blue chords and smooth saxophone, and I’ve yet to regret it. A year from now, I’ll remember not the rent or the groceries but the memories. Shell out your money where it counts.
  4. From the Brooklyn Bridge: We came, we saw, we conquered left.
    We took the subway to Brooklyn and wandered through the park, along the pier, under the bridge. Then we got back on the subway and left. Most things besides museums don’t take as long to see as people seem to think. It’s important to pause and marvel; we all need a little wonder in our lives. But pausing and marvelling can be done quickly if that’s what you want. Don’t be afraid to stop, stare, snap a photo, and then leave.
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  5. From Piano in Bryant Park: Improvise.
    We put off our afternoon plans to walk the Highline in favour of sitting on rickety chairs in Bryant Park, eating sandwiches, and listening to a ragtime piano concert. A free concert in the park is nowhere in the “must do in NYC” blogs I skimmed, but to us, an hour or two of rag tops a half hour of walking along a repurposed train track any day. Yes, the Highline is more famous, but we prefer Scott Joplin to a different view of the same skyscrapers. Decide what matters most—not what will impress your friends, but what you’ll look back on with a smile. It might not be the most celebrated experience, but what matters is that you celebrate it.
    Bonus: From Gilmore Girls: Put your feet up.
    Don’t get so caught up in the tourist scene that you forget to rest. We spent two evenings lying on the couch eating ice cream and scones and shouting at watching The Gilmore Girls. If you need to bum it with smoothies and Netflix…that’s okay. Let’s face it: if you’re too tired to care, you’re not going to enjoy seeing the sights anyway.

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I know there’s a ton of New York City I still haven’t seen, but I’m satisfied, and that’s what matters. Seeing the world isn’t about crossing items off lists but about adding them—adding the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen, that little street where I got lost and never did find the museum I were looking for or the tiny cafe where I had a cheap coffee because the famous restaurant was too expensive. In the end, any sight is worth seeing if I look for the novelty, the history, or the beauty in it.

The 99% Cliché

“There is a mean-spiritedness to this place,” a coworker told me on Friday.

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I could only stare at her, speechless. In the nearly two months I have worked for Worth Publishers, I have seen I’ve seen coworkers do each other’s jobs to be helpful and supervisors provide time off without question. People have taken time to teach me and to laugh with me, to forgive my mistakes graciously and encourage my successes unstintingly. The doors are always open and the walls are thin. I’ve overheard casual conversations and business meetings, one woman swearing at her computer when it crashed and and another calling a plumber for her mother. I’ve overheard nothing to hint at pervasive mean-spiritedness.

I don’t write this to complain about a coworker or to rant about how much I love my workplace, but to point out the practical relevance of a cliché that we all know but seldom consider: life is 99% attitude.

I walked into that building on the first day terrified—but also excited, eager, and anticipatory. However, I walked in without expectations. I knew the company owed me nothing. Grateful to even be making an hourly wage as an intern, I planned to perform my duties as well as I could and ask no favours.

It turns out I didn’t have to ask; supervisors and coworkers handed out favours like free lollies at the bank from the moment I stepped in the door—but if they hadn’t, if they’d been cool and demanding and cut me no slack, I would not have been disappointed. I certainly wouldn’t have called them mean-spirited. I hoped for the best, but expecting nothing beyond civility, and thus I left no room for disappointment, only pleasant surprises.

I don’t know this woman. All I know of her is contained in brief “good morning”s, the blur of motion when she walks past, her voice coming through walls or over cubicle partitions when she’s on the phone or in someone’s office. She may not be as demanding as I perceive, expecting to be given what she sees as her dues, with no patience for anyone who falls short. It’s not my place to criticise. Perhaps she is due much more than I know, and her standards are high because she believes people capable high levels of growth and success. I don’t know.

What I do know is she is constantly dissatisfied with the people around her, and I am constantly encouraged by the people around me, and I don’t think the people around us are different—I think our attitudes are.

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I’m not saying, “Set your sights low so you can never be disappointed.” I’m saying, “Don’t assume people owe you anything.” Usually they don’t.

Life isn’t about paying and collecting debts, playing some abstract King of the Mountain. It’s about give and take. It’s about bringing doughnuts to the office or about doing a half hour of work for someone who’s swamped in deadlines. It’s about smiling and saying, “Good morning!” and actually listening to that girl across the hallway tell her saga of miscommunication with her realtor. It’s about about accepting with gratefulness and forgiving with grace and, in the end, realising that loving people is more important than running people.

My office is imperfect. If I searched for mean-spiritedness, I might find it.

But I don’t search.

Small Joys

I sat on the windowsill and blew bubbles out onto the evening breeze, because this week, the full weight of my aloneness settled on me.

Over the weekend, I walked alone through Central Park and passed couples jogging, children playing, and dogs walking their people. I wanted to point out the way the air smelt unaccountably of cinnamon, but I had nobody to notice it with me. I wanted to marvel at how unfamiliar grass and trees and mulch seemed already, after so short a time living in the city, but I had nobody to sigh with me. Every morning and evening, I walked alone through Madison Square Park and passed coworkers chatting on benches, mothers tugging toddlers along, and friends waving across the square. I wanted to see a friend and smile in recognition, but I had nobody to greet.

I slide into lonely self-pity with the same ease I slump down into my seat on the subway. But a wise man once remarked that, “The world is so full of a number of things…” So this week, I reminded myself of the small joys that soften my isolation.

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Small joys of soft rain caressing my face in the park. Of the sparrows fluttering in dust-baths, so tiny and yet so bold. Of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice drifting down the street out some open window, and of flashes of my childhood rushing in and out of my room as cars pass by at night, radios blaring.

Small joys of twisted tree roots breaking up the synthetic structure of the sidewalk, and of the cactus someone set in its pot on the first-storey windowsill outside my door. Of the man who greets me in Spanish at the tienda on the corner and sells me queso fresco for hojaldres that taste like home. Of hour-long, rambling conversations with my mother as I pace my flat—seven steps to the door and seven back to the bed, pivot, step again.

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Small joys of free books and hour-long subway rides to read them. Of the boy humming with his guitar in the Times Square station, eyes closed and mouth smiling, and of the man growling jazz on his saxophone by the fountain, dancing with the force of his syncopation.

Small joys of the post—of letters in elegant calligraphy swirls and heartfelt scrawls, and of boxes filled with homemade cookies, Nutella, and Sharpies.

And small joys of bubbles, floating like transient jewels on the evening breeze, dancing between high rises and lighting on fire escapes, escaping into the lowering dusk from my seat on the windowsill.

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Pizza: Free. Advice: Priceless.

Every Thursday, I stand outside a locked door and wait for someone to let me in. I think I hate it more than anything else I’ve had to do since coming to New York (and that’s saying a lot; this morning I took all the subway stairs in one embarrassing, painful step).

Why put myself through it? The quick answer is, “Free food!” Because, let’s face it, I’ll do a lot for free food. The more honest answer is complicated. It’s all tied up with scary words like “networking” and “career opportunities,” but I guess it comes down to this: people who made it to the top are telling their stories and answering questions, and I want to know what they’re saying.

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So every Thursday, I wait outside that locked door for someone to let me in. I walk into a small conference room crowded with summer interns all hoping these few months will give them the boost they need to start climbing that ladder. I queue for free pizza, and I find a seat as near the door as possible, and then I listen to a professional talk about publishing, or editing, or whatever they do, and I try to hear something relevant.

A couple weeks ago, in one of those crowded intern luncheons, Will Schwalbe said something I love: “You can’t make money doing anything cynically.”

This came in answer my question about striking a balance between doing what you like and doing what pays. And his answer has stuck with me. I see it as presenting an ultimatum: either you do something, or you don’t. But if you decide to do it, do it the right way.

Don’t be mercenary. Don’t do things because you think they’ll pay off. There are so many reasons to do things—you should be able to come up with something more creative than money. Do it for the experience. Do it for the challenge. Do it because someone has to, and you’re willing to be that responsible person.

Or don’t do it.

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If you have to do it, find a way to value it. There’s a 300-name spreadsheet I’m filling in at work. I have the choice of how to do it, and if I’m doing it cynically, I’m missing out. Some things don’t slap you upside the face with how meaningful they are; you have to dig, imagine, get outside your box.

Experience, as I’ve mentioned, is a good motivator for me. The story I’ll tell about it later often makes up for what I’m doing at the moment. Or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of a job well done: 300 names in neatly formatted columns? Sign me up! Maybe it’s the perspective I gain along the way—I’m seeing a broad comparison of psych professors and schools across the country in a way I would never have known otherwise, and I’m getting insight into what the sales departments deal with.

So no, walking across the park to wait for someone to let me into a crowded room full of strangers is not my favourite thing. But I do it every week. Why? Because I think I’ll make valuable connections that will pay off in the future? I did the first day. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is not about the pay rate it might secure me later on. This is about learning about something I love, from someone who’s loved it longer, surrounded by other people who love it too.

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…but the free pizza doesn’t hurt.

Three Weeks of Crowds (and also rain)

Three weeks: the point at which any adventure begins to crumble.NYC

At three weeks in New York City, I’m exhausted. The thrill of the adventure has given way to the repetition of the mundane.

Every morning I spend nearly an hour jostled by a shifting mass of shoes and bags and shoulders. Every evening I do the same. Every lunch break I brave the row of knees and takeout bags settled on park benches; strangers terrify me, but the office is cold, and I need that hour of sunshine.

Walking around town isn’t so bad. I have a destination. I don’t have to brave any one person’s presence for longer than the time it takes me to notice and then pass them on the sidewalk. But trains, coffee shops, parks… I have no escape. Nowhere to go, no excuse for where I look. Just me, motionless, and the crowd.

The fact that most of these strangers probably don’t notice me makes no difference. I know they’re worried about their own issues, not wondering about mine. They’re too concerned with whether or not they can find a seat to notice that I’m two inches too close or that I forgot to grab my rings this morning. But I notice. I feel their eyes on me, wish I could make some kind of public apology for taking up space on the train, for sitting on this bench, for eating my lunch in this place, for needing a second to zip my purse before grabbing my coffee and running out the door.Subway

I have no buffer. I’m alone in the city. Just me and my book on the train. Me and my tupperware at lunch. Nobody to distract or protect me or say no, it’s fine, you’re not staring at anyone, don’t worry.

Anxiety is like a spiderweb you didn’t see, and then you feel the sticky strands across your face, and you panic. And you can tell yourself it was just a web, but you’re still convinced at the slightest prickle that some hideous, venomous spider is hiding somewhere on your body, waiting to sink its fangs into you. And even though nothing bad ever happens, that spider rides on your shoulder until all you can feel is its weight.

The crowds are like filaments of spiderweb, each so light I barely notice, wrapping tighter and tighter, and somewhere in the tangle, I know there’s a spider biding its time.

And then this afternoon, something happened. It rained.

I walked out of the office building into a downpour. My umbrella did nothing to shield me from fat, warm drops, and rain ran into my shoes and soaked my feet, and the trees in the park dripped a wet syncopation, and the streets became rivers, buoying up taxis and busses. Umbrellas bobbed along above splashing heels, and as everyone else clutched their coats tighter and hurried from sheltered place to sheltered place, I found myself laughing in delight. Sopping wet and no way to prevent it, I couldn’t find it in me to pout about the rain when it turned the whole city into such a fascinating chaos of wet reflections and refracted lights.

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And yes, I walked through that sodden park and got on a packed train and braved a hundred faces before I reached my flat. But I also remembered that there’s always something beautiful if I look for it. And sometimes, something beautiful is enough to distract me from the spider, just for a moment.

6 Things I Tell Myself Daily

Last Monday morning, I walked into the Flatiron Building twenty minutes early (because my nerves woke me before my alarm), wearing four-inch heels (for confidence), trying desperately for a smile on my face despite my trembling insides. This Monday morning, I walked into 41 Madison on time, wearing flats, pausing to smile at the security man on my way to the lift.

I had no idea what to expect when I accepted this internship. Now, with one week’s experience in New York City, I feel qualified to share a few things I’ve taken to telling myself daily.

  1. Wear flats on the subway.
    FeetHeels are fantastic. I love my four-inch spikes. But rush hour means you’re liable to stand for forty minutes, and even if you don’t, you’re going to push your way through crowds in doorways, up stairways, and along walkways. You don’t want to do that in heels. Plus, if you make a spontaneous outing (or get lost and walk twenty a few extra blocks), you want comfy shoes. Give yourself a break. Keep a pair of flats in your bag.
  2. Smile.
    If you’re nervous, smile; it tricks your brain into releasing happy chemicals, and you’ll feel better. If you’re not nervous, smile; people like you better when you smile. It brightens everyone’s day a little. Don’t be the grouchy person who ruins the morning for someone else. Engage those muscles. Put a sparkle in your eye.
  3. Step out. Literally.
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    I knew maybe two people in the entirety of New York City when I got here. But now I know more than two, because I told myself, “Self, your coworkers are your community this summer. Don’t be a recluse.” So when the editors I work for invited me out for a spontaneous Broadway show, I stepped out and had a fantastic evening and made friends. We chatted. We laughed. They made sure I got on the right train home. When they invited me to a department happy hour and trivia night, I stepped out, even though crowds and party games aren’t my thing. I shook hands and learned names. I laughed and drank and offered wrong answers, and I made friends. Doing stuff that scares you is good. If nothing else, you’ll have a great story.
  4. Do the details right the first time.
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    No, I don’t love scouring websites for professors’ contact info to solicit textbook reviews. I don’t love checking every citation against the original source so we don’t get sued for reprinting a graph. But any job comes with perks and downsides, and if you want the fun stuff (yes, I’m geeking out about copyediting psych textbooks!), you have to do the not-so-fun stuff. Do it well. Realise the little details you work on in your cubicle in the headachy last few minutes of work are little details that matters in creating the big picture. Maybe nobody sees your little detail specifically, but they’ll see if you do it wrong. Take pride in your work, even if it’s scanning last year’s check requests for five solid hours (yes, I did that).
  5. If you don’t know, ask.
    Nobody expects you to remember every name the first day. Nobody expects you to know the secret of working the finicky scanner keyboard, opening those reports, or memorising the last year’s ISBNs. They’ll help you. They’ll tell you their tips and tricks, walk you through the process, tell you how to find the answers. Humility goes a lot further than fumbling attempts to do it alone. Just ask.
  6. Enjoy the scenery.
    SceneryI’m in the city that supposedly never sleeps. (Spoiler alert: people sleep in New York.) Here, amidst the express trains and honking taxis, I’m learning to slow down. No matter how impatient you are, you can’t make the subway go faster. Instead of worrying, smile at the kid trying to climb to the top of the pole. Marvel at the diversity of language around you. Read; you can’t be responsible, because cell phone service dies on the subway, so let yourself relax. Stop rushing to get there—to graduate, to find a job, to get promoted. Stop. Look around. See where you’re at and appreciate it. Stop thinking about the doors this will open, because where you go doesn’t matter if you don’t know where you are. I’m trying to stop watching the clock and appreciate that I get to sit in the office of a well-known publishing company and work on books that will influence students across the world. That I get to learn while I work. That I love my work. That I even have work. I have so much to be thankful for; why rush?

I remind myself of these things daily, moment by moment, because I still feel nervous when I step off the train and can’t remember which exit to take. I still eye the dragging minute hand on the clock and consider pitching textbooks out the window when I come across yet another table that might need copyright permissions. I tell myself these things because I have an opportunity that not many people have, and if I end this summer with only a fatter resume and four practicum credits on my college transcript, it’s nobody’s fault but my own.

So tomorrow morning, no matter how my nerves feel, no matter what’s waiting, I will walk into 41 Madison on time, wearing flats and a smile.

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Every Takeoff

My stomach lurches every time the plane’s wheels leave the runway.

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No matter how many times I fly, every takeoff feels like the first time. On days when the security queue feels like a recurring nightmare of struggling in and out of shoes, belts, and jackets, when every terminal looks the same, when I think I’ve lived my whole life in this one uncomfortable airplane seat—takeoff feels new.

As the wind reaches under the plane’s wings, tugging us away from the grime of the earth and into a sky so crisp I could crack it with my fingers, excitement rushes through me.

I am going somewhere, and I love to be going somewhere.

Travelling. Visiting. Flying to school or flying home.

My greatest delight is to soar through mother-of-pearl clouds and then shudder to earth in a new place—a corner of dirt I haven’t touched yet, a city whose streets I don’t know, a town grown a little older since last I saw it.

Every takeoff feels fresh, the sudden lift like the turning of a page, the adventures waiting at the end of the flight a mystery. Somehow I’m always certain this time will be the climax. This adventure, this new city—it will somehow be significant.

Somehow it will make me different.

And every time, it turns out that I’m still me.

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Still the same person when I fly home for holidays. Still the same when I fly back to school. I was me in London and Edinburgh and Dublin; I was me in Baltimore and Winchester.

Now I’m me in New York City.

If I expected something drastic—perhaps a shock rippling through me when my feet first hit the famous streets, perhaps a sudden shift from small-town-girl to New Yorker—I must be disappointed. I remain me, still myself in a new city.

But maybe, in the end, I am different, carrying a little of each place with me wherever I go.

I like to think I’m braver for having taken the subway downtown and back alone this morning. I like to think I’m more hospitable for the time I spent on the Mexican border, more open for the time I spent in Indiana’s cornfields.

And maybe, just maybe, there are pieces of me left behind, corners of myself that chipped off and stayed in those cities when I boarded yet another plane and felt that familiar rush of adrenaline as the wheels left the runway.

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