It’s been a while since I’ve had one of those days that feels like a revelation simply because it’s a day and you’re alive, those days when everything shifts and shimmers and looks brand new, life revealing its essence before resolving back into its usual mundane iteration, like bubbles remembering to be ordinary dish soap. Life has been sticking to the calendar, no more and no less. I’ve been feeling, to borrow a term from Charles Baxter’s novel The Feast of Love, glimmerless.
Then there it is, for no particular reason: a Saturday in March. I’m going to a free lecture at Columbia University, which is so far away from where I live in Brooklyn that I have brought two books along for the subway ride, as if I will be gone for weeks and not an afternoon. Usually I spend my days in our provincial neighborhood tucked in the wilds of F-train Brooklyn (past where you usually get off), in the company of my small children. Any time away from them, even this mere handful of hours, feels at once like a transgression and a journey and a relief.
I am reminded of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, writing in A Gift From the Sea about being away from her family: “Parting is inevitably painful, even for a short time. It’s like an amputation, I feel a limb is being torn off, without which I shall be unable to function. And yet, once it is done… life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid and fuller than before.” Of course, she was away for a solitary vacation at the shore, and I am only uptown for a lecture on essay-writing, but then again, she had five children and I only have two, so maybe the ratio stands. Like Lindbergh, I am in need of recovering my center, and I can only find it when alone, which almost never happens.
My husband had seemed vaguely disgruntled about my leaving, maybe because I am always sneaking away on weekends while he has this odd goal of spending time together as a family, or maybe simply because he hadn’t yet had his shower, something that when you have rambunctious young children in need of supervision must be granted upon you by the co-parent, setting up a freighted barter system where once you had only hygiene. But in the end he encourages me to go, indeed the whole family yells, “Just go!” –even the children have noticed that I am much more pleasant upon a return from time alone.
A few hours later I step out of the subway near Morningside Park, a wild sliver of the city I have never before encountered despite having lived here most of my adult life. This park seems unlikely: an enormous schist cliff that must have survived Columbia’s stately sprawl by virtue of being impossible to ignore, worked around with typical New Yorker pragmatism, which is to say, with a staircase. It is a perilously steep climb, long and winding, but it is there if you wish to try – in other words, New York in a nutshell.
For some reason this park delights me and I race up the steps like a child. I stop at the top to hyperventilate and absorb the view: the low, white sky; the terraced layers of gray and brown and sienna buildings, like a concrete Positano. Shouts echo up from the boys playing basketball in the court below. Snow falls gently. I feel like I am in another world, another life. Part of this is because of that snow – it’s actually meant to be spring right now, so the snow, while lovely, is confusing.
Another reason for my sense of dislocation is that today I lack a smartphone. (You know how some people have weird body chemistry that stops analog watches? I seem to be like that with iPhones.) Though I fetishize anachronisms like typewriters and newspapers, I’m only pretending not to be as technology-addicted as everyone else. In practice going through a day phoneless feels like I’m trying to do everything while wearing mittens. I have to stop and ask a stranger for directions, like no one has done in America since 2008. When I see the beautiful view of the city from the Morningside Park cliff, I can’t Instagram it. I feel momentarily bereft. But it is beautiful! What did I used to do with beautiful things before I had a smartphone?
Oh yeah. I wrote them down.
I spend the rest of the day scribbling observations in a notebook, as if playing the role of me at age 19, noting, with that magpie-like OCD that smartphones have made more socially acceptable, things I want to remember and would otherwise photograph:
-A jogging undergraduate, radiant with youth, stops mid-staircase, to stare at a bouquet of ruined red helium balloons caught in bare branches; thinking (I imagine I know, for I am a wise crone who hath journeyed from the outer-boroughs) how beautiful it is and how no one sees the beauty but him, how he promises himself he will always note such accidental beauty in the world, and supposing, because he has never seen American Beauty, that he is the first to ever have such a thought.
-The statue of Carl Schurz (I have to look it up later, but it turns out he was the 13th US Secretary of the Interior) stands over the cliff’s edge, holding his hat like a man about to leap. A few feet past him a semi-circle of benches faces the view, shrouded in a cloud of pot smoke, of course, for who but a pot-smoking college student stops to enjoy a view?
-A perilously thin blond girl slouches by me in a miniskirt and torn fishnets covering her legs, which are approximately as long as I am tall, and I’m full of such goodwill that my only thought is, Thank goodness for modeling! Otherwise a girl like that would just feel gangly and too-tall!
I cross the street, away from the park and towards the university, past a spray of pigeons picking at a whole-wheat baguette in front of a matte-black 40’s-era Ford, like a still from a steam-punk something.
The whole city is suddenly a surprise, brimming with interesting details I miss when walking with my children and encouraging them to not get run over by Chinese food delivery mopeds. I feel nearly sated before I’ve even gotten to the lecture but I go anyway, and here too I greedily scribble down details, thinking how lucky it is that I don’t see an acquaintance who would require some attention and decent manners. The writers are saying wonderful things about writing essays! And the lecture hall is gilded! Literally!
After these few hours of phonelessness I have adopted the superior attitude of people who lack televisions and compost regularly. That jazzy ringtone interrupting the brilliant critic’s exegesis on book-length essays? Mine? I don’t think so! I don’t even have a phone! I carry a Moleskine! I page back to the beginning of the notebook I’ve been scribbling in, which contains within it outlines for my novels, including one that was never published and that I’d forgotten I’d even written, notes from museums and historical sites I’ve visited in researching my newest book, homework from a Henry James class I took, ah, before my grade-school-age daughter was born….references to MySpace…damn, I realize, this notebook is old. I promise myself to get better about maintaining notebooks full of ideas and observations the way I used to, to get all Joan Didion about things, to reenter the practice of journaling that once provided such comfort, connecting as it did the disconnected bits and bobs of life into a cohesive narrative. I think I used to make sense to myself, and I think it had to do with noticing, observing, keeping notes like a social scientist studying the world.
On the way home I am happily sketching on the C train – the C! Who takes the C?! Across from me is a pretty young woman whose aggressively bleached hair and talon-like manicure lend her the look of an aggrieved centenarian, or maybe it’s that she is a spritely senior citizen who has had some very good work done – this city is so confusing sometimes. But I love it, the city, with the fevered obsession of a crush you can’t quit, even when logically you know you should; I am reminded of this especially today.
Then the train screeches to a halt still underground in a tunnel, the conductor mutters something about traffic, and the lights flicker off. All the tourists are playing it cool, but the New Yorkers shift around, quietly freaking out. We are all on edge: There have just been in the news both a devastating plane crash and a Lower East Side building explosion, triggers for anyone who lived intimately with 9/11. After too long – probably only a minute, but any minute in a stopped train is a long one – the lights shudder back on, and I make terrified eye contact with a fellow passenger across the way, and then we both share a laugh at ourselves, at the train, at the fact that we are in a 100-year-old tube under a crumbling city that is exciting and beautiful and stupid and makes no sense at all, that we continue to love this place where we live even though it would devour us in an instant and never think twice, that we are all about to shrug and go back to our books.
When I get home my husband and children don’t seem to have moved from the Lego pile where I left them. I am full of energy and joy, even though it is 5:00 pm, a time of day I usually spend wallowing in exhausted despair. I want to tell them everything: about how healing it is to have a moment to reconstruct oneself; about what a gift it is to see the place where you live like it’s new; about how paying attention can be a kind of benediction. But I also don’t want to say anything, don’t want to break the spell, so tenuous, that is making the day feel like magic.
So instead I write it down, to tell you.
Amy Shearn is a novelist, essayist, and editor who lives in Brooklyn. Find more about her work here.