A post two days in a row? I’m on a roll now. Maybe I’ll try to write every day of this impending trip, even if it’s just a dispatch from the road. Feel free to chime in with anything, even snips, a quote or a poem to encourage. I’m all eyes.
In all the times I’ve moved, it’s always been for purpose, never for place. I moved to New York for college. I moved to Alaska for a documentary project, to Bainbridge Island and then Seattle for Steve’s graduate program. In all of those places, that purpose became the organizing principle for the city. New York revolved around Lower Manhattan, because even after I moved to Brooklyn — because it was cheaper, and cooler, and I could breathe there — my school and then work was always south of 23rd Street, 27th Street max, and then only in Chelsea. Whittier was exceptional for imposing a fairly strict organizing principle on everyone. I guess that’s one way of explaining my interest in it. Because the only road into town cut through a mountain, and because that tunnel was only open in certain directions at certain times of day for limited durations, and because I and most of Whittier’s 200 residents lived either in one tall condo or one smaller, squat condo, and because the wind could be so forceful it could inspire a person to crawl commando-style from their car to the front door hauling full bags of groceries or to drive two tenths of a mile to the store to avoid it, Whittier itself supplied most everyone with the same primary organizing system.
Bainbridge Island was the first place I got to know by way of someone else’s purpose. Studying environmental education, Steve became close to this amazing cohort of his two dozen classmates. They were about the only people we knew on the island, and they were a godsend, even when it took me a long time to fill comfortable in my skin there, not feeling like I had a purpose myself. I felt resentful of Steve’s long hours at school, and the friendship he shared with his friends because of that intensity. I searched for jobs. I pressured myself to write. I volunteered in Seattle, and then worked there, and that helped, to have some tether, knowing we would move to Seattle in the fall for Steve’s second year. I think about this period a lot now, now that I am writing full time (a possibility that would have greatly soothed me then) and dreaming of that open slate. What I’d give now for a whole month off. But I was totally wracked by the feeling that I couldn’t permeate the place without an organizing principle.
Then I became, as they say, a digital nomad. Suddenly, I could work anywhere. That opens up any potential city as a home, but it also really changes the relationship to individual cities. Do you experience this in Cambridge? What shapes the way a newcomer gets to know a city, if not some program, some purpose? Once my workplace shifted from downtown Seattle and north in Greenlake to anywhere, my city was different. I had less of a reason to go certain places, especially in the northern neighborhoods, so I mostly stopped.
Now with this move to Philadelphia, my organizing principle is literally and figuratively a home. The only concrete connection we have to the city is a building: a three-story row home in North Philadelphia Steve bought last fall. He’d been wanting to buy real estate — anything to avoid a traditional job — but the Seattle market was too hot. And anyway, we didn’t want a tether that would make us stay there. In Philadelphia, where I was interning for the summer, and where 25,000 properties sit vacant, property was cheap. And it was just charming, and dirty in a way I had missed, unabashed by its mistakes. But there’s no program. Or: the home is the program. When I imagine living in Philadelphia, I see a bird’s eye view of the house, and then imagine energy emanating outwards from it. Footsteps that leave our front door and circle out, out, first in narrow arcs, then in wider ones. To the park across the street, to a neighbor’s place, to the secondhand movie set store. I’m imagining a city not shaped by a commute.
I guess that’s what it feels like to grow up somewhere. You start out with no skills to get yourself around except your feet, and then you acquire some small wheels and they get you little further, expand your map and your sense of freedom. You start on the ground.
Home as organizing principle is linked to relationship as organizing principle. That part’s not lost on me. I’m moving into city-as-home, home-as-city with boyfriend, and yes, he holds the deed. I can hardly begin to describe the month that we just had, but suffice to say: our hearts were bruised by a death, which was followed by a longer than expected bout of time apart. For the latter, though I’m grateful. I’ve had a lot of time to be by myself in my last weeks here, looking clear-eyed at the past three moves, and why I’m now moving a fourth time in so many years. I need a home. It comes to that. I do worry about conflating relationship and home, about the organizing principle of the city becoming Steve, or Jen-and-Steve, as we make our explorations together. I’m trying to be thoughtful about it.
blog comments powered by Disqus