On some occasions, it helps to step back and squint a little to bring things into focus.
A week or two ago, I met a friend I hadn’t seen in years. She was visiting New York City as reward for completing her PhD. We met up in a hot chocolate house just off Union Square, and fell promptly into a lovely conversation punctuated by nervous, then happy sips of molten chocolatey milk. She told me what amazed and awed her about the city – the great size, the busyness and bustle — as well as what sights she had seen, from the High Line in Chelsea to Williamsburg (always ‘trendy Williamsburg’ in quotations in my head, just as Shoreditch in London is ‘trendy Shoreditch’, a way to puncture the coolness a little, make it more welcoming and accessible.)
After our meeting, I looked around at the streets I was travelling through. Suddenly lots of little significant details began to stand out; the slant of light across the roads, the white man in the go sign at the traffic lights, the green railing around the subway steps. I breathed freely for the first time in a long while. It was that she had made me see the wonder of it again, which for me had become buried in the difficulties of living as a novice writer in this city during the worst recession and some of the harshest weather, from cold so deep it scalds, to stupendous heat that puddles the flesh of anyone unfortunate to be caught away from precious air conditioning.
Of course, the renewal was not to last. Inevitably the routines of daily life began to efface New York’s smaller joys. I struggle again with writing. As usual the neighbours smoke copiously downstairs, and the neighbour’s dog next door barks with a hollow desperation at seven am for something, food? the fear of being outside in the concrete yard? I don’t have enough money to go to the cinema, or see live music without crashing through a wave of guilt. I found myself barging through crowds with a scowl on my face.
But now I catch myself doing this, and try to pause, catch my breath before I go under. What I really hope that I am learning from this is the maturity it takes to live in an alien and difficult environment (not the hardest part, I am not at all in dire circumstances) while at the same time remaining sensitive, absorbing and being capable of nuanced responses to the art and beauty of the world. It seems rather weak that I can lose this ability so easily, but never mind – now that I know it is happening, I can set myself straight, and try to be better at living attentively and therefore capable of writing the book. (confessional absolution over).
In whatever way I strive and fail, at least the obstacles are known.