Over the years, it has become something of a Thing to write essays after Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” about leaving New York. I have never had the chance to leave New York, however, because I have yet to come and stay. I once told an old boyfriend (perhaps to keep him from getting used to having me around) that sooner or later I must move to New York precisely so that I can become disillusioned with it and say goodbye. When it comes to stereotypes about the writing life, it seems that leaving New York is second only to moving there in the first place.
I adore Joan Didion, and in fact I adore New York as well, but I do not think I will ever write such an essay.
Each time I come to New York I love it a little more – even as I grow a little older, even as I settle a little more firmly in Durham, even as I become a little more realistic about what such a life would mean. At 32, I won’t pretend that the idea of moving to a new city, alone, isn’t daunting, though if any city could tempt me it is New York.
These days, rather than a desire to move to the city, I find in myself a desire to come back again and again and get to know her as a friend. Perhaps we'll never go steady, but I flirt, shamelessly. I cheat on my home with another metropolis, spending a weekend here, a couple of weeks there, and my home can't blame me, not really, because New York is New York is New York. I am a writer, and I am not immune to her charms.
I say I won't move here because I cannot afford it (who can?), but in truth each time I am here, exploring the city on a shoe-string budget, I think to myself that perhaps I'd rather be broke here than anywhere else. The real reason I won't move here evades me, though I wonder today if maybe it is that I crave the manageable urban environment I now inhabit, where I run into my city council people at the coffee shop and farmer’s market, and choose between my two or three favorite bars on the weekends. I am comforted by familiarity, because so often I feel so alone in this world. It is a writerly kind of alone, and secretly I fear that in a larger place “alone” would eventually morph into “lonely.”
It is good to know my city council people, to know my bartender's name, and for them to know mine. It is good to be able to navigate, via bicycle, a maze of un-gridded streets that mystify out of town visitors – even if the “out of town visitor” is merely a bewildered Tinder date from Raleigh. It is good to know the history of those streets and the buildings that line them, and to care about their future, and the future of the city I call home.
I always assume that is harder to do in a city like New York, though I can't know for sure. I imagine people that commit to the city find that sense of home somewhere, find their places, cities within a city, to feel at rest. Again, I don't know. I don't live there. And there are things you only know about a place when you've lived there, when you keep living there, when you give it time and let it take you in, make you its own.
That perhaps is why I don’t want to move, even as every time I return to New York people ask me if I will, if I am planning, scheming, if that’s the reason for the repeat visits. But no. I don't know when it happened, but in some now vanished moment I let Durham have my heart. I let her start to mold me, make me into a different kind of person, a different kind of writer. A place will change you if you let it, and I did.
So much "development" is other people (and other people's money) changing the face of a city. But I am more interested in knowing who she was and is, and letting her change me. I live and work with people who remember and know, who tell me stories, who help me imagine the future of Durham by understanding her past. This place was home for my neighbors long before it was home for me.
Writers who think about the idea of place often focus on rural environments, and gravitate toward writers like Wendell Berry. That strikes me as a mistake, a failure of imagination that neglects all the ways the lives of people in small cities are intertwined, and indeed intertwined with rural folks, as well. This is not to say we don’t need Wendell Berry; we need rural writers like Wendell Berry, and writers from every other kind of place, as well. The Wendell Berry vs. New York writer dichotomy, like most either/ors, is false. We leave, we stay, rural and urban dwellers alike; we build fragile lives together over the short and long term. All of that is worth the attention of our art, all of that is part of this idea of place.
I was young when I moved to Durham. Nine years later, I think – I hope – am a better, wiser person. Some of that is simply age, but some of it is undoubtedly the lessons my city has taught me from year to year. The more-or-less stable life I’ve built here allows me the freedom to create, to take risks in my art that I might not take were I not surrounded by a supportive community that knows and loves me.
I am from Kalamazoo, Michigan; I will always be from Kalamazoo, Michigan. A Midwestern girl, a Michigander, a southern transplant. I use my hand to show you where I spent my childhood, where I grew up, before I uprooted.
But in these late days of summer, as the crepe myrtle trees bloom and we all wilt in stifling heat, I know in my bones, in every inch of my sweaty, freckled skin, that Durham, North Carolina is my home.