In early February, I moved back home to LA after nine and a half years in NYC (I am so tempted to say ten years because I hear that after ten years, you are officially a New Yorker, and I am desperate for that badge of honor). Though I fell six months short from being “official,” those nine and a half years raised me. The city has embedded itself into my bones in a way that I can’t seem to extract. And as grateful as I am to have moved back to Los Angeles right before Coronavirus fully unleashed its fury, I have an ache and a longing for New York that no one here seems to understand. All I know is that in New York, I feel more of a sense of me-ness. When I’m there, the grooves in my brain match the grooves in the sidewalks, and I don’t feel like I’m weird. I feel like I’m normal.
The truth is, moving to New York when I was 18 gave me a sense of permission I had never had before. I was so relieved to be met by seasons — real seasons. For the first time in my life, the outside matched the inside. Most people’s anxiety goes up when they move to New York (cue the honking and the traffic and the constant feeling of being late). But mine went down. I think it’s because I had found homeostasis with the weather and the city’s briskness. I was a highly-feeling, over-thinking, emotionally-varied, textured human, and New York was too. It was a match.
New York taught me that I’m actually an introvert. And I like to believe that even the most social of New Yorkers can identify with that on some level. Whether maneuvering among thousands of people in Grand Central or walking shoulder to well-dressed shoulder on a busy Soho street, there is a fundamental aloneness that characterizes life in NYC. Among the crowds and the chatter and the commotion, I feel woven into myself when I’m in New York’s embrace. This city is the closest thing to a hug or an earnest sense of validation that a place can give a person.
Quarantine, with its grief and its long stretches of uninterrupted time and its sinking into stillness, has given me the same sense of permission that New York once did. Permission to be alone. To want to be alone. To stay in on a Friday night. To go to sleep at 9 PM. The permission to take a break, strive less, and enjoy the quiet. Quarantine makes me feel like the outside matches the inside, or at least gives me permission to honor the inside the same way a gloomy day in New York lets me curl up and have my feelings.
I feel scared to admit this, but when quarantine is over, I will miss it.
It took me a couple of weeks to sink into the quietness of quarantine without trying to “do it right” or “make the most of it” (mind you, I had similar perfectionism when I first moved to New York – I didn’t want to waste one moment of it). At the beginning of this, juxtaposed against the excruciating toll on frontline workers and vulnerable individuals, there was a suddenness, a sense of novelty, a buzz. Everyone and their mother were suddenly on Instagram Live. There were 8375921 streaming workouts and on-demand apps and Zoom classes to choose from. It felt like the cool kids were hanging out on social media, and I was knocking on the door trying to get into the party. I thought quarantine would have eradicated my fear of missing out because it’s literally impossible that people are hanging out without me. But I felt that if I wasn’t working out, doing tie-dye, or making bread, I barely existed. Compulsively consuming that content kept me company for a couple of days, delaying the inevitable grief that was slowly setting in.
I once had a therapist who used to tell me that part of soothing my anxiety was creating a warm tea and blanket environment within myself. “Make your thoughts cozier and kinder,” she would say from her salmon-colored couch on the Upper West Side (where all good therapy happens). “Lower the volume of the voice in your head. Use a softer tone when you speak to yourself. Just slow it all down.” After a few weeks of the virtual paralysis that comes from trying to master every corner of the Internet, I remembered her wise words and let go of all the doing. Just like New York had given me permission to feel my currents, quarantine was giving me permission to stop chasing. To stop chasing perfection and work and money. To melt into this moment, unfiltered and as it actually was.
I have fallen in love with the routine of simplicity – the spaciousness of time. It’s like a long summer day wandering around the East Village and finding myself in Nolita and knowing I can keep walking, and I won’t run out of time or wonders to discover. The small rituals of my coffee and my morning journaling are the things I go to sleep looking forward to – something reliable on the other end of a weird, dream-filled night. If the coffee in the morning has arrived, I have made it to another day, and I feel like any reminder of forward movement is a gift during these stagnant times.
I will miss the feeling of being in it together with people I don’t even know. About a month ago, on a beautiful Sunday morning, I left my house to go to the pharmacy. Across the street was an elderly lady, carrying a grocery bag from Whole Foods and looking pensive (masks were not yet required, so I could detect her expression). I had never seen this woman in my life, but suddenly I felt like I knew her. My heart welled up — like that feeling when you’re about to cry because something touches a nerve that is too sensitive to be exposed to sunlight. I could sense at that moment that we were co-travelers on a journey neither of us had signed up for – co-writers of this fortuitous story. We were both walking forward, surrounded by an invisible virus, searching for what this time could mean. It then occurred to me that I would probably never see her again, and she would never know that I felt a sense of comradery that made me so tender, I wondered if this was precisely the point of this whole thing.
Even though time is kind of endless right now, I am starting to feel like the days are escaping me. Each time I think that quarantine might end soon, I get nervous. This time has felt like a reprieve I needed but didn’t know how to give myself. Life going back to normal, especially in such slow-motion that it’s like a band-aid being ripped off, overwhelms me. Adjusting to change has always been hard. Especially if that change leaves me wondering what I should and shouldn’t do, where I do and don’t belong, and with whom.
When quarantine started, I was afraid that it would end, and I would regret not having done enough during it. Now, I am afraid that quarantine will end, and I will miss it for everything it was. A time to detangle. A time to undo. I will miss long Saturday afternoons going back and forth from my patio to the kitchen to my room and back to the patio with the only notable activity being that I got another snack.
Quarantine has also made space for me to grieve the loss of New York. Is my longing for New York just like a breakup, where I miss the person, but I learn to tolerate that missing? Where it doesn’t necessarily mean I want to get back together with that person or even that the person is best for me right now? Where the missing actually doesn’t indicate anything other than the fact that I loved that person – that I, even in a moment of profound pain, have the capacity to love? Missing them means I am healthy. Means my heart functions.
This morning as I looked out the window and contemplated what life in the wild might be like, I wondered if missing quarantine will be similar to missing New York. The missing indicates that I find refuge in my own company, relief when things slow down, gratitude for the respite of not needing to perform for the world. Missing quarantine means I have the capacity to be with myself. Missing it means I am healthy. Means my heart functions.
I am afraid that when social distancing lifts, I will begin to social distance from myself again. I will connect with others and goals and plans and achievements and disconnect from the self I have spent the last couple of months becoming closer friends with. Quarantine was kind to me. Will I be this kind to myself when it’s over? Will I remember that I felt peace when I didn’t have to be cool or do the right things or check the right boxes? Will I remember that sweet, old lady who I saw from across the street?
Will I finally realize that the only permission that I need is the one that I give myself? Will I set myself free?