I’ve been in New York for two weeks now and still very much feel like I’m trying to find my bearings. I’m staying in Queens and know how to direct a cab to my apartment building. I can find my way to my office and about twelve different coffee shops, and last Thursday I walked from the West Village past Washington Square, the Flatiron building and the Empire State, until I came to the New York Public Library and stopped for a drink of water and to check my email. As I looked up at the Flatiron and argued with myself over whether or not to stop and take a picture (I did) I stepped in front of a bus, and when the driver honked at me and yelled something rude from his open window I could only nod. That’s fair, I thought. And then I realized no New Yorker would ever respond like that. But then, I’m not a New Yorker.
Last night was the 4th of July, and I followed some new friends from my internship to a rooftop party in Bushwick. I only knew we were in Bushwick because somebody said so. I couldn’t possibly tell you what subway station we stopped at. I bought a six-pack of beer from the 7-11 (some things never change!), carried it up six flights of stairs, and drank it as I slowly introduced myself to about 40 strangers, all of whom had names I forgot as soon as I heard them. I think someone was named Joe? And someone else had just finished recording his first album. One tall red-haired man referenced V for Vendetta, the song “Peaches” by The Presidents of the United States of America, and Lady Macbeth within one fifteen minute period. When I told one girl I was an editorial intern with Penguin she doubled over, let out a strangled scream and said “That should have been me!” It was all a little much, but the fireworks were beautiful, and as I watched the people mill around the rooftop, drinking cheap beer and talking about their entry-level jobs, their silhouettes dark against the glow of the fireworks some idiots in the street kept firing at us and against the moon as it slowly rose above the edge of the city, I allowed myself to think, I could live like this.
Later, as I rode the subway home in the middle of the night, after waiting 30 minutes for one train, getting off at the wrong station and having to wait for another, then missing my stop and having to transfer to yet another, slower train in yet another strange station, where one obviously intoxicated guy asked me a series of increasingly personal questions until I walked up the stairs and only snuck back down when I heard the train approaching, I realized I might not be able to live like this at all.
This question of where and how I should live has been relentlessly pursuing me these last two weeks, for reasons that are probably obvious. That is, everything is in flux. Nothing is off limits, but nothing feels like a natural, obvious choice either. I could live in New York, or I could go back to Texas and live on less money in a bigger apartment, or I could move to New Orleans, where it never snows and the people don’t care so much about traffic delays. I could continue with editorial work, try to land a job as an assistant at the end of my internship and then slowly rise through the ranks of the publishing world. Or I could go to graduate school for writing, or I could go back to bartending. It all seems equally appealing and equally possible, which is confusing me and my friends and my family to no end.
A few days ago, as I was combing through online rental listings in places like Asheville, NC and Boulder, CO and, yes, Brooklyn, I took a short break to read a Millions essay that had caught my eye, “Small Victories, Large Discoveries: On Fishes, Ponds, and Finding Open Spaces.” It’s by Sonya Chung, a long time writer for the site and the editor of Bloom, and it couldn’t have come at a better time (disclaimer: I love and intern for The Millions, and I contribute a monthly piece to Bloom). Of course, the essay isn’t really about fish, but Chung does attempt to answer the age-old question: is it better to be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond? And just reading a thoughtful and accomplished writer ask that question, and then imply that the answer could be “big fish, little pond” and that that would be okay… well, it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me, as cliched as that may be.
As Chung writes, “the question for a student, or an artist, or anyone seeking to achieve goals and dreams might be: Where can I best blossom — upward and outward, deeply rooted and nourished?” And I think the emphasis falls on “where can I best blossom” – I, me, myself, and no one else. For me, that place may not be New York, even if New York is exactly the place where several other million people need to be, and that’s alright. It doesn’t reflect poorly on my status as an aspiring literary person, or on my identity as a person generally. I can still be creative and productive and “interesting” (my deepest aspiration, if you must know) in Lubbock, TX or in Oklahoma City or in a farmhouse in the middle of Missouri if that’s where I want to be. In fact, I’ll probably be more creative and productive and interesting if I live and work in an environment I sincerely enjoy. And if I end up enjoying and staying in New York, the ultimate “big pond,” after all, that’s okay too. But I don’t have to stay here just because I’ve been told it’s the place to be.
I realize it’s possible that this might not be a revelation to other people, people who struggle less with displacement and indecision than I do, or people who have always felt comfortable where they are, or who have always known where they wanted to go. I also realize that it doesn’t tell me where I should live – New Orleans, yes or no? In Austin? But it does help to answer the how: with an awareness of what works best for me, what feeds my creativity and work and love for life, what leaves me room to grow and, as Sonya Chung puts it, bloom.