The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go

5 09 2010

A friend is moving away.

Not for awhile—not for a year—but she is leaving.

I’ve got to get out of this city, she says, even as she asks, How can I leave?

Already, she’s missing it.

Already, I’m missing her.

I guess I can hope that she’ll change her mind, but her announcement isn’t a surprise, not really, and because it’s not a surprise—because what’s driving her away from the city have been there for almost as long as I’ve known her—I don’t think she’ll change her mind. It’s not a matter of saying These things you think are bad aren’t really that bad at all, not when these things are bad and not when, in the end, the bad things aren’t  the issue.

No, the city no longer works for her; she can’t live her life here. And so she must go.

I understand the impulse: it’s been pulsing in me since I was a teenager, driving me ever onward. I loved Madison, but never considered staying; it was my college town, and, defined as such, a transitional place. Similarly, Minneapolis and grad school. Albuquerque was a hideaway and I knew even as I didn’t know that the moment I landed I would depart. Montreal—so easy to love, and I did—but my postdoc was for two years, so there was no question that I was just passing through.

Somerville? Oh, no.

And New York? New York was always the holdout city, the one dreamt of as a teenager, the place I could never scrub from my mind even as I avoided moving here. Until I did.

This is the last place; where else could I go?

So I wonder about my friend, and how she can leave. I wonder this even as—still—I wonder where else I could go.

Part of this restlessness is plain unhappiness, dissatisfaction with a life to which I am ill-suited. I don’t think I will ever be rid of this dissatisfaction, that I my life will never suit me. It’s not that I nurture this estrangement, but that I distrust comfort; ergo, satisfaction will always decay into unease.

I have to remember this when I think about leaving. I cannot outrun the thermodynamics of my own existence.

But I also have to remember that even if there are no perfect places, there are better and worse places. For my friend, New York may be better than her (many) previous cities, but that a new city may be better than here. She does not have to be trapped by the grandness of this city.

And I wonder about that. I wonder if I could leave without feeling like a failure.

A year before I left Massachusetts, I visited a friend, in Madison, who grew up in the New York area and lived for many years in the city. She was about to leave for a job in the southwest, and when I told her of my plans to move here, she was wary. New York is a tough town, she said. Unhelpfully, I thought.

I now know what she means (even if it wasn’t what she meant), but at the time I took it as a challenge, as in, You don’t have what it takes to live in New York.

It was humiliating. And devastating, in a small way: How could New York City—my city, my last place—how could it not be for me, or me for it?

So I’ve been here four years, and I can handle it. But just because I’m not handled by it, I wonder, is this my last place? Do I stay to prove a point that does not in any way matter?

Could I do what my friend has done and recognize that this city and her life are not the same, and that the life matters more than the city?

I have to see that, whether I stay or go. I am staying, for now, for however long now lasts, but like my friend, I can’t let this place matter more than my life.