Sunday, March 30, 2014

On New York and Carbonara


In his classic essay, Here is New York, E.B. White wrote of Manhattan,

"...the curious thing about New York is that each large geographical unit is composed of countless small neighborhoods. Each neighborhood is virtually self-sufficient. Usually it is no more than two or three blocks long and a couple of blocks wide. Each area is a city within a city. Thus, no matter where you live in New York, you will find within a block or two a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand and a shoeshine complete is each neighborhood, and so strong the sense of neighborhood, that many a New Yorker spends a lifetime within the confines of an area smaller than a country village."


Before I came to this city, I wondered how people could eat, and do laundry, and go about all the mundane tasks of the everyday, while hurrying about to the rhythm of big business and small business, of patent leather shoes and sneakers and heels, all driven into the same concrete streets day after day. How, in the chaos of urban life, could a person find the discipline for all the small tasks, let alone all the big tasks, that underlie the business of living? 

Clearly, I was not a city person then. Perhaps I'm still not. But E.B White nailed it– Manhattan is a leviathan built of smaller parts, villages woven together by crisscrossing subway lines, pulsing just beneath its asphalt skin. Around the corner and up the block, are the same faces mulling around the same shops– the same coffee bar boys and deli clerks out for a smoke; the same skinny blonde, maybe 20 years old, sitting on the same red brick wall, awaiting someone I've never seen perhaps; the same dapper old man giving me a wink through fall, winter, and now spring. 


This neighborhood even has a farmers market on weekends. It seems a small miracle in fact, that in the 4 square blocks I haunt day in and day out, there could be a gathering of fresh, local food, readily available weekly. What luck!

To be fair, the market wasn't much to speak of this winter. There were apples in abundance, in all colors and sizes, and assorted apple products too (ciders, jams, and butters for months), but not much else. Apples, apples, apples... the weeks wore on. Maybe I'll miss the apples come summer, but somehow I doubt it.



You might think that in a city like New York, famous for glittering highrises and sprawling culture, that locals would disperse like ants at a picnic, cutting trails here and there– getting into everything good. I'm sure that's true for some, but it hasn't been my experience of Manhattan. No, for me, excitement arises in the small deviations from normalcy I find day to day, in the few blocks I know well here. It came in the yellow blush of daffodils, lined in bouquets at the farmers market this Sunday. Besides apples, finally, there was a sign of spring. And it came too, in cooking and eating the week's bounty amongst friends, after an all-too-long winter.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Winter Woods (or, peeling out the watchword)


Eight months ago, in the Catskills for the first time, I wandered through autumn woods. Leaves crackled red and gold underfoot, covered in the velvety dust of their own senescence.

Back then I had wildness on the mind– wildness as the seductive in the unknown; as the hint of risk on the darkened edge of understanding. And as I walked, crunching through the evidence of seasonal death and impending decay, I felt a pull from the gut– a pull forward into life.

Ladies by Amy McDermott on Grooveshark

Nearly a year later, it's late March and spring is hesitant in her arrival. I’m back in the Catskills, hiking those same trails, now frosted thick with snow. The creek runs low, frozen at its banks and fringed by barren, somber trees. Death and decay have taken their course, autumn's ember gone.

It kept me up last night– the woods as a reminder that life is finite. I lay awake, staring into blackness, grappling with my own mortality. Wrapped under the covers, I lamented my impermanent skin. Why live at all, if we have to die at the end of our short season?

This is not a new question– not for mankind, and not for me. But it's an important one, because it leads us to ask, what is worth living for? And when I keep that question close, I work to become my favorite self– inspired to embrace passion in the moment, and to find beauty in the details. Hell, it's only in facing death that I ever really live.


But in the routines of the everyday, it's easy to forget that death is an unpredictable certainty. We stop paying attention, stop asking ourselves what is worth living for, and let the end drift out of mind. The days pass unnoticed, and the weeks turn to a march of monotony and convenience. Soon, death doesn't seem a part of life at all. 
Mortality takes on the frightening nature of the unknown, even though its been there all along.

And there's the heart of all this– it is the element of the unknown, of wildness itself, that draws me back to the forest time and again, just as it is the wildness in our mortality that both inspires and terrifies me. Last autumn, it was the presence of death in the change of the seasons that grabbed me by the gut and pulled me forward. And now, in the stillness of late winter, it is once again that presence of death, and the fundamental wildness therein, that inspires me to step fully into life.