It was exactly two years ago today that I first had the teeny tiniest thought that I would be moving to New York City.
It was June 2015 and my friend Sarah and I were in New York on tour, staying in an airbnb downtown.
And as things would have it, my future fate rested on one simple decision.
“Do you want to come with me to my Being Selfish salon tonight?” Sarah asked me. Sarah’s husband’s friend, Matthew, had agreed to host a book salon at his home in Harlem.
“I really don’t,” I told her. I was exhausted and still integrating lots of recent changes in my life. All I wanted to do was stay in and pull the covers over my head. Being at a stranger’s house with people I did not know did not sound appealing.
“But how about this,” I said. “I’ll travel with you on the subway, and then find a coffeeshop or someplace to hang out until you are done.”
So let’s get this straight: while I really enjoyed being in New York with Sarah, I considered myself a country girl. My idea of heaven is sitting on the earth, hands in the dirt in a huge garden surrounded by vast expanses of nature and silence. True, I was born in Hong Kong and also love big cities, but I could never imagine actually living in one.
But then this happened.
We took the C train uptown to 125th and St. Nicholas, then walked the few blocks to Matthew’s house. The directions said: first stoop on the left. As we climbed the steps to the brownstone house I regretted coming. But I decided to make the best of it and waited while Sarah rang the buzzer.
My introduction to Matthew went something like this: “Hi, I’m HeatherAsh and I need a place to hide.”
“Great! I have the perfect place. Just let me know when you want me to take you there.”
Okay, maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad. A perfect place to hide? I’m in. (Can you tell I’m an introvert?!?)
When the first guest rang the bell Sarah answered the door while Matthew brought me downstairs to his basement.
It was the perfect pixie hidey-hole, complete with a couch that I spent the next two hours sleeping on and a real human skull on a back shelf that I’ll tell you about another day. (Oooh, that is a good story.)
As I walked back upstairs after everyone left I blurted out loud, “I could totally live here!”
Because it felt like home.
That moment on the stairs kept bringing me back to the City over the next two years. In my subsequent visits to New York I kept having that sense of familiar comfort. Whether I was hanging out in Harlem, visiting my friend Lynne near Union Square, or drinking in the beauty of Woodstock two hours north of the city I felt safe, held, and nourished.
And while my brain kept saying “It’s the city you can’t live there!” my body was feeling the deep grounding strength of the bedrock and the magic that draws so many people here.
My relationship with the land here became even more intimate last summer when I spent five very memorable days sitting on the earth in Union Square meditating each morning from 4 to 5 am. Read more about that adventure:
Sometime last Fall I went to a park and Harlem and laid myself – heart down, arms open – on an outcropping of grey mica-flecked schist rock. “Mother,” I whispered to the stone, “if you want me to come live here make the path easy.” I took a piece of the glittering rock with me and kept it on my altar in my bedroom in Austin.
This Spring I visited with the intent to see if I really could live in NYC. I said okay New York City, give me your worst, let’s see if I can do this.
Be careful what you ask for.
I took the train from Newark to Penn Station right before, surprise!, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It took me a while to figure out why there were so many young, intoxicated people wearing green at 11 am in the morning. I’m not sure why drunkness, loud screaming, and St. Patrick’s day all go together, but it was a mobbed scene of loud bedlam. Yikes! I literally fled the subway and texted my lunch date that I was walking rather then taking the subway of inebriated chaos.
I then proceeded to determinedly drag my super-heavy suitcase a mile and 1/2 through snowy sidewalks and slushy streets.
I arrived triumphant, with a smile on my face. “I can do this, I could live here!!!” I thought, “Thanks New York for showing me my own resilience and strength.” I felt I had passed an internal test.
And then one day a couple of months ago I knew. It was time. After 12 years I was ready to leave my familiar Texas land and tribe.
On Monday, May 15th my mother, sister, and I joined a broker in seeking out the best new home space. I fell in love with the first and the fourth apartments we viewed; Tuesday, May 16th I picked my favorite and submitted my application, and on Wednesday May 17th I had a beautiful studio apartment in a brownstone on the upper west side of Harlem. Boom!
And that apartment is exactly one block over from where I first stood on a stairwell two years ago and surprised myself by saying, “I could totally live here.”
Down the street, on the same block, is a public thirty-year old garden with huge trees, a pond, compost, vegetables, flowers, and a cat colony. I now have the key so I can hang out there anytime and put my hands in the dirt. Two huge tomato plants my friend T dug out of our garden in Austin now live there, a reminder from home. I live 12 blocks from Central Park, a short walk to the Hudson River and Columbia University, and ½ hour by subway to downtown. It is unreal in so many ways still – a few days ago I look a bus to visit the Egyptian section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Whoa. So much is still to be discovered.
It is a joy to live alone again, surrounded by my books, orchids, and abundance of altars. While I’ll still be on the road two or more weeks per month, this is sacred space for me to write, reflect, and rejuvenate. I’m also surrounded by friends who are writers, and just learned about one of the best cafe for writer’s in New York City, the Hungarian Pastry shop, which is a 20 minute walk from here. I’m heading there today to explore – closes at 11:30 pm : )
I so love the diversity, creativity, and passion here. The energy is a challenge sometimes, and it is also perfect for my intent to write three books and a PhD dissertation in the next two years.
So much gratitude to Christy and T for all the help with moving: packing, driving my stuff from Austin to New York City, schlepping things up four flights of stairs, putting together Ikea furniture, helping me settle in… true family!
And any of you former or current New Yorkers feel free to share great places to visit.
With love from Harlem, on the island of Manhattan, in the city of New York, New York….
Learn more about the Humans of New York on this revealing, raw, gorgeous facebook page:
Here’s a couple of videos friends sent me as a welcome to the City; followed by pics of my apartment and my nearby garden!
Grace Jones: stretching the apple