I don’t know how to live in a city without shrinking. I’m already shy and prone to leaving parties early, without goodbyes. Yet in a city those dispositions are exponentially magnified. When I lived in California it was known by friends and family alike that two hours might be my max in a city before sprouting sharp teeth. Sensory overload, perhaps. I was born in a seaside snowglobe filled with fog; a tiny hamlet with no grocery store or bar or gas station. We left when I was four, first to a town that still had a train running through it, and then to a town with a freeway and a mall, and all I’ve ever tried to do since is go back to the snowglobe.
For me to be in a city, then, is to live internally. My thoughts are my comrades, my allies, my saviors. My enablers. My backward walk, zig zagged, into the woods. I don’t fear the outside. I walk around until I find the places that feel alright to be in. I go to bars with friends and I go to concerts. I do the things that keep me from disappearing altogether, because when left alone in a city I shrink as every part part of my mind splinters into smaller and smaller categories of daily nothings: Where to buy the cheapest gas and how to avoid traffic. What is for dinner and will it include the CSA veggies rotting in my fridge (will my boyfriend and I ever have harmonious schedules?). Keep the blinds drawn or buy some billowing catalog curtains to lighten the mood. Which way is west- I never see the sunset anymore. And as my thoughts shrink, my shoulders bend. My spine curls, and my head hangs like a tired mule’s over a barbed wire fence. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
When I was on the road and had only a car full of food and camping gear I felt huge, solid, and wondrously insignificant at the same time. In Maine I toed the shore of a tiny bay whose surface so perfectly captured the sky I felt suspended in air, light and transcendent. In Montana I sat in the shadows of jutting, angular glaciers and felt my mind unfold like an origami box and stretch upward. More of this, I keep saying to myself as I relive these moments in my mind. I want more and more of this. Sense memories will flood back into me at unexpected moments – the hunger I felt for everything I saw and for what I hadn’t seen yet. I hope I never lose them.
I keep remembering the land. Getting lost in Taos while trying to find something to eat, and finding instead a road that deadended in a desert full of sage and a sky full of evening fire. Arriving at the edge of Arizona’s canyon lands, the yellow earth kicking up behind me as I walked toward a fat, glowing moon traveling up the breast of a lapis horizon. Walking quietly, gently through the moss kingdoms of the Pacific Northwest as soft rain fell through reaching branches onto the crown of my head. Driving alone out to the edge of the Great Prairie with only dust and buffalo for company. And the scents. I could smell the raw earth in blossom and in death. The bite of eucalyptus. The black, shadow scent of decaying leaves. The musk of honeysuckle that makes your lips and bare skin yearn for touch. The electric bouquet of the midwest’s midnight storms. All without the permeation of industry. Alone upon the open earth, on light feet, I had nothing caging my thoughts or my body: I was free, and the highway of my thoughts knew no bounds.
Here, in the thrum of the city, I am back to splitting and splicing and organizing every thought until it resembles what I had tried so hard to escape before: a worn page of erasure. Though there are aspects of city life I have come not only to love but find that I sometimes need (music, so much music), I don’t see the endless opportunities in it that others seem to flock to cities for. Instead, I catch myself sifting through recollections. I bring up the smell of nasturtium, sand, and juniper. I recall the feeling of heavy fog blanketing my shoulders as I walked along deserted beaches shrouded in indigo twilight. I live in my head, knowing full well that’s no way to live. I wander around in the attic of my mind, and then I snap out of it, go to work, come home, and try not to wait.