Transitions

“Uptown & Queens” – this sign on the subway platform denoting the train’s direction, amuses me, or rather its counterpart – “Downtown & Brooklyn” – since pretty much everything is uptown from me. And that’s about the only thing that amuses me about New York’s MTA. Heading Uptown on the Q line, the train dips in and out of tunnels, sections of the outside world revealing themselves for brief moments until we dive back underground. Eight times out of ten, there’s a delay just after DeKalb Avenue that can run from just a few seconds to exasperating minutes that cumulate into a thick tension of loud sighs, long glances at the ceiling, necks flopping back in impatient agony. But in my opinion, what waits on the other side is well-worth the anticipation, no matter how rushed I’m feeling that day. Stuck in the darkness of that section of tunnel, I’ve come to think of it as the holding zone on a roller coaster before you’re shot up at a terrifying rate of speed and angle. Fine, maybe it’s the holding area of It’s a Small World, the gentle rocking motion of the train hardly a bullet of speed racing you anywhere at any efficient, much less breath-taking, speed. But it’s a ride that, whether timely or delayed, pulses with the city’s energy as it cuts through a wide cross-section of New York.

Since moving to Brooklyn two months ago and joining the masses that commute in and out of the city, this skyline has become a small delight that I relish. It emerges piece by piece as we move farther out of Brooklyn and across the bridge, sparkling like the blue of the East River below. From this vantage point, the Financial District, filled with all its classic images of New York, is on full display. Sometimes it disappears entirely into a cloud of bluish gray as rain or snow hit the windows and you just have to trust that it’s still there. We race with traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, running parallel to the south of us. There is something pleasing in the way the bridge is superimposed against the backdrop of the city, a balance of lines and energies – its tall archways and the curve of the suspension stretching as wide as the skyscrapers of Manhattan reach into the sky. An arm with a torch reaching far above what I know to be a crowned head, even if what I actually see is just a blurry dot, glimmers on the horizon, coming in and out of view in between the bridge’s cables. And then, when you get to the other side, you’re a part of it all, fire escapes and colorful mismatched shapes, bricks, stone, and glass, right in front of you. Early in the morning smooshed in among drowsy bodies and coffee mugs, late at night when sometimes my body feels so weary that it does not seem possible that I will make it to my bed in time to catch my collapse, and all the times in between, it’s this view that reminds me on a daily basis of why I’m here. It restores a sense of beauty and determination to the messy process of pursuing your dreams in a city already ballooning with them.

A year ago, New York was just beginning to come into view on my horizon, a thrilling idea that terrified me in its boldness and the dreams it fed in me. I was not ready, then, to say goodbye to Paris and the illusory promises I still wanted her to fulfill. A year ago, I slowly began to shift from waiting for other people to recognize something in me to walking through the doors that matter to me, the outcome becoming less important than the ways I fill up the minutes that add up into my life.

A year ago, I started to wake up from a haze, starting the process of letting go of a grief that I’d held onto for a long time as a way of preserving remnants of what was no longer. Until last year, I could not let go of the pain because of how it required an unraveling of all the stories I’d told myself to get through, and a fear of shattering the outer image of assuredness that I craved. Except that I was stuck, so incredibly dissatisfied with my life and myself, taking on all the guilt for being unable to do what I had truly wanted to do for so long, let alone say it out loud.

A year ago, I was sitting on a leather couch whose years had softened out the middle and into which I gratefully sank once a week, across from a fireplace that never worked but whose presence gave the high-ceilinged room the feeling of warmth. Suddenly in the most unexpected of ways, I found myself at the cusp of what I really needed to say.

“I spend all this energy on people and things that really don’t matter, instead of on what I really want to do.”

“And what is it that you really want to do?”

I halt. This is not how I expected us to come to this door. I did not plan on this moment happening today. I back-peddle

“I’m not sure if I can say it. But I know – have known – what it is for a long time.”

“You don’t have to say it today.”

A pause.

“I want to say it today.”

“Ok…”

Words stuck in my throat. Pressure on my chest. Wrestling with the desire itself, as if not saying it will somehow erase it all together.

“I want…to do…what my cousin does.”

“And what does your cousin do?”

“She is…an actress.”

The words hang in the air. I am waiting for the horrible consequences I have always imagined of bringing this secret into the light, and I try to shrink into that smooth worn leather. Except what I’m actually faced with is a big smile. He rearranges himself in his chair, leaning forward, almost excited. Two months in and we seem to have turned a new page.

I realize that from the outside, many parts of my life seem incongruous with this dream. I was the shy kid in school who would never have dared to audition for a school play. I never whispered a word about this desire to my parents, who, despite being great lovers and consumers of the arts, were more concerned with preserving other elements of my childhood amid difficult circumstances, and were just simply unaware of what was not spoken. And yet, the authenticity of childhood naturally infused the way I grew. I think of my mom gasping in disbelief and frustration when she discovered that I’d wet my pants at nine; I’d changed and tried to hide the evidence in my hamper but was discovered nonetheless. Mais franchement, Camille, tu exageres. Spoken with the calm coolness of hers that was always scarier than a raised voice, no exclamation point needed. I accepted her frustration and disappointment blankly, as I watched her wring out the underwear. I shrugged when she asked for an explanation – it seemed futile and counterproductive to explain that I’d been playing a game and my part had necessitated that I wet my pants – duh.

Or as I got older, our time at the dinner table as four, and my propensity for trying to enthrall with humorous stories and impressions of people at school, the usually strict code of conduct required of us at the table forgotten as their laughter egged me on. Tell it again, Camille. Do it again – the greatest encouragement I could have received from my father, the king of Sit-up-straight-hold-your-knife-and-fork-properly-and-don’t-act-like-a-child. Though they never knew about my desire to act, I was encouraged and given the space to use my imagination, to be the storyteller I am in all the forms that has encompassed. This matters to me more than anything else they ever failed to do.

As I stepped out of that office a year ago into the narrow winding streets of Paris that for months had started to feel like an impossible maze from which I could not escape, a flush of new energy bounced in my step and warmed my cheeks in the breezy half-promise of spring. The words of my secret, now spoken out loud for the first time, reverberated in my head and lingered on my tongue. The first hurdle cleared at last, the confident peace and eagerness it had borne began to resist the fear I’d carried for so long – of truly wanting something for myself, of daring to pursue a dream that was fully my own. I felt alive that night, for the first time in so long, and though it would take me several weeks to share those words and that dream with the people in my life, it was a step towards this life in Brooklyn, twelve months later. Crossing the Manhattan Bridge day in and day out, taking in the bold brightness of the Manhattan skyline, reminds me of that feeling that day, encouraging me to live into that dream as it presents itself each day. The start of making any dream always involves a little messiness, a little exhaustion, a little discouragement. I often feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. But I am figuring it out. I don’t know where all of this will take me and have little control of the outcome, which is easier to accept on some days than others. New York and I are still largely strangers to one another and I miss Paris dearly. But I feel alive, more than ever before.

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Surprises

Last week, Valentine’s Day fell on the same day as Ash Wednesday. The former was really just a blip on my radar until the night before when coming home late at night on the subway, I spotted several men with hands full of balloons and flowers. It was a surprising reminder of Americans’ unique fervor in celebrating really any holiday – the French certainly never really seemed to care much for it. I mean, sure, the bakeries will add some heart-shaped pastries to their usual line up of mouthwatering, buttery treats for a few days. But that’s about it. Whereas Americans seem eager to get behind a day marketed to them to celebrate love, the French are more apt to turn their noses up and say, yeah, we don’t need your holiday, we’ll do our own thing. Their stubbornness and free spirits lend themselves to celebrating love in different ways throughout the year.

In New York, the day ushered itself in with another one of those brilliantly blue winter skies, something I do not take for granted after three years living under clouds for most of the year. Overnight, I’d again forgotten about the holiday, readying myself for a busy day of work and class. But the short walk to my subway stop surprised me once again – more balloons and bouquets of flowers tucked in the elbow crevices of bundled up arms; an older woman selling Valentine’s gift baskets on the corner, wishing everyone who passed by a good day. Ok, but this is Brooklyn, I thought. People are just nicer here, it’s like a neighborhood.

As I climbed the stairs leading  up to the bustling, rousing space of Manhattan, though, I quickly learned I was wrong. Despite the lingering winter chill in the air, there was a warmth in people’s faces as they tilted their faces up to meet the sun and to follow the bobbing of balloons floating above the many bodies that crowd the streets of Midtown on a daily basis. Everywhere I turned, I spotted bundles of flowers and other cheesy gifts pertaining to the holiday. People rushing out on their coffee break, business people walking swiftly with their phone glued to their ear, tourists milling about – the usual Manhattan mid-week scene pressed on, just with these sweet accessories in tow. Call it reverse culture shock if you want, but I found these small gestures in the midst of the tornado of life that sweeps pell-mell across the city to be endearing.

Equal to this astonishment was the prevalence of the cross marked in ashes on foreheads of every shade, age, and profession. Again, it was just something I’d never seen before – when you live in the suburbs and drive everywhere, parts of your life remain very separate from the rest. The sliver of the population you come into contact with is narrow. Then, in Paris, where religious markings of any kind in the public sphere are wrapped up in a long history of tension and resentment, such an overt declaration of contemporary Christian faith is pretty absent. But it was an unexpected and meaningful representation to me of just how wide the net of Christ’s love is, and how even in the busiest places, people are drawn to what is greater than themselves.

On this island where people come from all over the world, we all struggle through this life to different and varying degrees against limitations beyond our control, hungry to find and live within our purpose. People work so hard here and with a conviction that it’s worth it, in a way that is more visible than anywhere I’ve ever lived, everyone chasing something while grasping onto what little space, air, energy, time, and ideas they have left for themselves. In New York, you don’t have to pretend for the sake of social graces that you don’t want something out of life. And yet, that sometimes gruff at best, no-time-to-catch-your-breath pace of life, and toughness that encompasses what it means to survive in New York runs only skin deep, it would seem. This tough exterior protects from the stinging disappointments of life, the exhausting antics of city living. But even so, there is always time for love, from its smallest gestures in the form of a holiday to what is far beyond our realm of comprehension. New Yorkers know to grasp on to its many forms in order to survive.

the story of one ball of yarn

On a recent trip home, I decided it was time to clear out the vast array of trinkets and objects I enjoyed collecting and displaying on my shelves growing up. Yes, I know this probably should have happened a long time ago, but when your family has lived in the same house for your entire life, things have a way of accumulating – each item has its own spot and there is never any need to disrupt that. I guess I have always been rather sentimental, whether by nature or nurture, I’m not sure. I certainly had a lot to be nostalgic about from a young age – early years I wish I remembered more clearly when health, youth, innocence and long thick black hair seemed to flourish without much effort. Holding on to the bits and bobs that pass through your life, finding the glittering objects that light up your eyes for a moment, is sometimes easier than finding what you need from the universe and making it last. I wanted to line them up on my windowsill and along my bookshelves to run my fingers over and remember that time I laughed, I won that award, I spent the day with that person, I went to that place, or was asked to dance by that boy at that dance – every object a bridge back to another time.

Now, as a child, I always dreamed of living in France and other faraway places. What I could not have anticipated in following that path is the sweetness of going through these treasures after being away from home for so long. This “clutter” I’d so preciously preserved sat in my plain sight for many years beyond its value and I had stopped looking at it. My time away made these objects new again and stories I had left behind long ago came back to mind. So I decided, oh what the hell, I’ll just keep them all!

Just kidding.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of what I found: pieces of mica gathered on our gravel road, shark teeth carefully hunted for in the rock pile behind the elementary school. Sea shells gathered from beaches all along the Outer Banks. Clay beads from a local craft store my mother and I used to wander through together. Boxes of every shape and size from different parts of the world, one filled with my baby teeth. My YMCA name tag with grit clinging to the back left over from one sweltering, exhausting summer. Porcelain animal figurines I so loved as a child. A handmade rosary given to me at my confirmation. Paper cranes from when I folded a thousand of them to help a friend win tickets to the UNC-Duke basketball game one year. The P-52 airplane I’m sure I coerced my brother into giving me in some shady deal, possibly involving gambling his toys away in a game of chess I knew I would win (no longer true today), or maybe breaking off the front propellers in an act comparable to licking the last slice of pizza so he wouldn’t want it anymore, anyway – a nice reminder of how when it came to being an older sister, I was not above a lot things.

But the knickknack that caused me to laugh the most and reflect on who I was as a child was a multi-colored ball of yarn, actually made up of a bunch of braided sections tied together at the ends. It was hiding in a drawer where I’m not sure I’d touched it since the third grade. For whatever reason, that was the year I decided I was going to accomplish what no one had ever done…braid the world’s longest braid. Yes, you read that correctly. I was convinced that this would be a meaningful contribution to the world and that upon its completion, I would have achieved the pinnacle of [eight-year-old] success – an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records! I’m pretty sure this was the year I learned how to braid my own hair, so I guess I was just transferring this new skill to a larger scale. What is even funnier to me is that I was able to convince my best childhood friends to get behind this project – which honestly probably only lasted for two weeks. But during that time, we sat as quietly as four elementary-aged kids can be expected to, braiding pieces of yarn together.

Clearly, we did not get very far (see photo below), and soon enough, I abandoned this dream. I went on to the next one that popped into my head and pursued it with the same headstrong energy and determination I seem to have always had. Because I was never content to sit around idly and do nothing, always needing a project, even if it was just reading a book all day. I had a lot of ideas. In reminiscing over dinner with my brother and these  friends who participated in the short-lived Longest Braid project, they joked about how my line growing up was, “guys, I have an idea.” And how there was usually well over a 50 percent chance that it was actually a terrible idea that would either lead us to getting in trouble, getting in a fight, getting very wet, and/or lost. For a full list of “Camille’s Great Ideas”, please refer to my brother who will be happy to share the list he’s compiling. For the record, though, they were always willing participants! So there.

As I stood in my room remembering the story of this useless ball of yarn, I found myself a little enchanted with the girl I used to be. For a long time, I believed that the qualities and stories that make up who I am were not good enough, an impediment to becoming the person I wanted to be. I was too shy, I was too loud, I cried too easily, I cared too much about school, my family wasn’t rich enough, I wasn’t interested in the right things. I pursued this idea that to grow up into an adult, it was necessary to leave behind the person I was as a child and the parts of myself I learned not to like. To even recognize this self-diminution has taken a lot of time and effort, and to unlearn it is a daily process, for all of us.

Those colorful fibers intertwined into a ball of yarn, how I pulled this idea out from the sparks that fly when what is in the moment rubs against the forces of creativity, reminded me of how I always wanted to be someone. I wanted to do something big that mattered beyond the narrow scope of a day, taking whatever the day had given me and running with it. No one taught me how to be that way, though there are some who have given me the space to do that more than others. Somewhere along the way, though, I began to confuse ambition and big dreams as only mattering if you set records, achieved stardom, or were recognized for your achievements – it was about being the youngest, the first, or the best.

In New York City, where people come to pursue their dreams and claim a piece of the vast opportunity for which this city has been celebrated across generations and continents, it feels as though you truly can be anyone you want. But what I have learned through much trial and error is that I can reinvent myself in a hundred different ways, molding myself into what is more acceptable or easier, and it still won’t be as satisfying as the slow process of growing into who I already am – the girl with a lot ideas and a mischievous side, who is very sensitive but strong-willed, and who could usually do with a little more patience. I don’t want to just be ‘someone’ anymore; I want to be me, whatever that means in each phase of my life. It is harder to embrace the sharp with the soft, but easier to set aside what I cannot control and feel satisfied with the pursuit of big dreams at the end of each day, no matter the outcome. The essence of who we are, hidden away in rooms filled with rocks, airplanes, porcelain figurines, and maybe one long-ish braid wound into a ball, that we may only visit in our minds, will carry us further than what entices us with the promise of making us more likeable, beautiful, or right. Learn not to trade any part of yourself for anything in the world. That is my dream beyond anything else.

ball of thread

Small Steps

Have you ever had a dream that seemed so crazy and unattainable that you couldn’t even say it out loud? Have you then woken up one morning to discover that suddenly, you are living in that dream, standing at the beginning of the path that might lead you there, and surely will lead you somewhere new and different? This is what waking up in New York City every morning has been like for me, Manhattan’s skyline greeting me every morning from the living room window. For the first few days, I couldn’t stop staring at this jigsaw of skyscrapers, watching how the light illuminates its industrial palette of shiny glass, steel and stone as the sun shifts across it, how even when the outline of buildings disappears into the night sky, Manhattan retains its mythical shape as windows light up and towers glow.

I am here. How did that happen? I keep asking myself. I went from knowing a city like the back of my hand, navigating life there with ease, to relying on a map and my sense of direction in order to get anywhere, and accepting that I’ll have to get lost several times before it all falls into place under my feet. From having different groups of friends in different places, communities where I felt I belonged, to knowing a total of eight people in a city of 8.5 million people. From having family just a thirty-minute train ride away to the closest family being five hundred miles away. From soaking in familiar wonder and beauty to swiveling my head around in a hundred directions every time I leave the apartment, constantly enthralled with the newness, the Americanness, and the vastness of my new home. I had a life in Paris – a good life – one where I was comfortable and finally feeling at peace. In the weeks leading up to the move, I would sit on my bed at the end of each day, my apartment reflecting less and less of my life and becoming more and more like the white slate it was when I first moved in, and wonder why I was doing this at all. Everything’s great now, I could stay here longer. Why do I need to uproot my life?! I asked myself this question a lot, as well as the hundreds of other questions that accompany the unknown.

And then the day arrived. After many goodbye dinners, cups of coffee in my favorite places, wines and desserts, hugs and tears, it had finally sunk in that I was leaving. It was time to momentarily say goodbye to France, this land and culture that will forever make up half of me.

“So this is it. You’re leaving for good,” my grandmother said rather stiffly at lunch that day, hours before my flight, just barely masking the sad despair of uncertainty that comes with every goodbye. She would not look me in the eye. And in her gruffness, I suddenly remembered all the other goodbyes, at the end of every summer as a child when the two months with my grandparents would come to an end and I’d have to leave one place that felt so much like home to go to another place that was home. The bittersweet relief of sending rambunctious grandchildren home mixed with the sadness of a ten-month absence until the next year always hung in the air on those car rides to the airport.

“It’s never for good. We’ve done this before, remember? We’re good at this, we know how to do this,” I reminded her gently. “I’ve always come back; I always will.” I hoped this truth would be as comforting to her as it is to me.

As I boarded the plane, I understood that I was leaving but the fact that I’d soon be living in New York still remained hazy. Aside from the address of my friends’ apartment I had saved in my phone, I had no bearings to latch onto. I would guess that almost everyone who moves to New York City to chase their dreams imagines that their entrance will be magical. We think THIS is what’s important, imagining the bright lights splaying out beneath us to make way for our arrival. I wanted to walk off the plane glowing with confidence and excitement as I greeted the first moments of my new life here.

However, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that this is NOT how I marched off the plane. I was tired, hungry, and grumpy after seven hours spent sitting in the middle seat of the middle aisle between two men snoring in my face. We descended into a cloud of fog and rain that completely obscured any clear view of the city lit up at night. As I stepped off the plane and made my way through the airport, the only thing I felt besides the cramp in my leg was fear. Businessmen sailed past me, large-print ads in English (English!), grabbed my eyes at every turn, and people cheerfully rushed into the arms of those waiting to be reunited with them. America – it was much to take in and I was being swept into it all at once. Panic squeezed my chest and my eyes began to well. This was a mistake.

The good thing about being young with no money and transatlantic travel is that it makes it pretty impractical to just turn right around and fly back to Paris. Lucky me! The only thing to really do was to keep going. Outside the airport, New York loomed as this big scary intimidating question mark. But I was here, now, and couldn’t hide in the airport forever. New York had to be broken down into small, manageable steps. Rent a trolley, collect my luggage, borrow someone’s phone to call my friends, find a taxi stand, wait in line until it was my turn, and not worry too much about whether I was doing it the right or wrong way. I’d figure it out!

There is something to be said for showing up somewhere you’re unfamiliar with and having to trust other people to help you find your way. It really forces you to let go of any need to control and simply rely on your instincts and put your faith in good people. I’ve experienced this over and over again while traveling alone, but have found that I always have to re-learn it. By the time I got a taxi, it was 9pm and any bearings I may have had from my previous brief stay in New York were totally erased by the darkness and the prevalence of Jersey license plates. Was this taxi driver taking me to Jersey?!?! That is not where I am going! my panicked, jet lagged inner voice was shouting, as though I would have a better idea of how to get to Queens than this man. I had to remind myself to breathe and resist the urge to remind him of where I wanted to go.

Again, the universe (or whatever you believe in) intervened to distract me from my fear. Only Americans (of which I am half, I do acknowledge) would see fit to install a TV screen barely a foot away from your face in the back of a taxi. Which means that maybe in fifty years, the French will decide to do the same thing. You know, so you can get all caught up on your local news and the weather report right when you probably have a million other things on your mind. I did not fully appreciate the beauty of American inventiveness until an infomercial on how to make lasagna in a bundt cake mold graced my screen. The part of me that is French watched in horror and disgust as something resembling a dense dumpling-colored jello was served up like slices of cake. But my rustier American side watched in fascination, applauding the ingenuity and not bothering to wonder how this improved the dish at all. Yes, this was my first re-encounter with all that makes America great.

As you can probably guess, the taxi driver did not kidnap me or take me to Jersey. I arrived at my friends’ apartment with little trouble other than hauling an enormous suitcase up a fourth floor walk-up. I’ve spent the past two weeks adjusting to the rhythms of New York, re-connecting with friends I haven’t seen in a long time, and tackling the long list of things that have to be done in order to start a life in a new place. Everything is new, exciting, and a little bit scary, but at night I’m able to fall asleep appreciating the fact that I am here. That a year ago, this all felt so impossible and out of reach. That three months ago, I literally trembled as I clicked the button to buy my plane ticket. All the small choices have added up to the big ones, have helped me embrace the uncertainty and trust that whatever lies behind it will lead me somewhere. I am seeking out my purpose but allowing life to unfold. Even if it leads me to making bundt cake lasagna.