On Leaving New York
I was a child here first. This is the city where my parents chose to enter the US from the Philippines which formed my first understanding of urban living as urban family. The social security numbers of my siblings and I show we were born here, around here. As children, my father drove us around in the old Impala to see the Rockefeller Christmas tree. I remember the sun-drenched slide at the playground, burning the backs of my sister’s and my legs when we slid down in our summer shorts. My name – Ana Lisa – comes from my two Lolas (grandmothers): Juana Fernandez and Elisa Factora. Elisa spent all of post-immigration years in NYC and died the night before the infamous blackout on August 14, 2003. When I was in my 20s, my best friend tucked my body with a barely-there pulse into her car after a devastating break-up and drove me from the midwest all the way to the East Village, where she fed me new music, poetry, and let me cry out my dark grief at Battery Park and then sat next to me on the top deck of the Ellis Island Ferry, riding the river between Lady Liberty and Manhattan until I began to show signs of life again. Many rituals of Filipino faith – weddings, baptisms, and funerals of my extended family – were celebrated on this cement. My family was here decades before and leaving is familiar. The oscillation between two states is what I’ve always known; I quasi-belong to a place I occupy only in intervals.
I began writing when I was eight years old, in a place called Massillon, Ohio, shortly after my family moved from the Atlantic shoreline to horizons of cornfields and pastures. To offer an alternate route for the deep ache of missing New Jersey and New York, my mother gave me a journal. That was 30 years ago. Mom, I’m still writing my thoughts about leaving New York. Again.
New York has birthed and eulogized many parts of my personal life, and its magic transforms me without delay or disappointment. It’s magical because of the deep relationship of my family’s history to the city. The stories of first and second generation Filipino-Americans is my narrative of New York, not the illusion of the Upper West Side bestowing the precious identity as a “writer in New York.” I am infinitely much more interesting than that. New York was given to me by my family, not the faculty at Columbia. I took up writing as a child, under the wing of my mom, not the fame addict who butchered the pronunciation of my name at graduation. I know the magic of this city because I’ve been here before and I’ve left it before. I can attest to its allure and I can also attest that the magic does not cure the hollow, pervasive loneliness of the writer, nor does it repair the erosion of empathy for the marginalized. The New York I know is multi-narrative and in this month-long goodbye in my series of life-long goodbyes, I want to bid one tip to the “New York writers” who don’t know any other narrative of New York other than your own: please stop offering me condescending looks and suggestions on my life decision to live elsewhere. Please close your lips.
I am equal parts mother and writer, traversing the unstable grounds of both vocations. Both writing and mothering necessitate the quotidian discipline of practice, practice, practice and establishing a familiar ease with failure, learning, and rejection. The decision to leave New York for Columbus was made using a lexicon that most “New York writers” are unfamiliar with; a lexicon that establishes life outside the conformity of trending unconformity; a lexicon supremely sensitive to the dis/connection between fulfillment and success. This lexicon has been built by experience, the decision to create a life with someone who – thank GOD – is not a writer, and the glorious grace called Your Mid-to-Late Thirties. This lexicon has roots in trust not trust funds, the desire to be with my aging parents, and the simple truth that neither Nick nor I can comfortably justify what New York requires for existence; a trade-in offer we are walking away from with peace. I love New York and rest comfortably knowing that the world is not New York. Leaving it can leave me devastated and thrilled at the same time.
To write, to write at the deepest level of consciousness and care that I can possibly reach, is to locate the primal voice, luring it out of of the cave of discretion into a robust and spined creature. To live, to live well means to taper the irrational urgency to pursue what’s greener on the other side because I’ve seen the evidence: both sides are equi-green. Living well means presence and absence, here and there, both/and, Ohio and New York, belonging but not, hyphens and halves, dwelling but never truly residing. Savoring but hunger, again, arrives with voracious demand. Life is cyclic. I’ve only known it that way. I’ve only known loving something, someone, some place so much that I can trust saying goodbye.
I’m not going to make a pronouncement or draw metaphors about the great madness and euphoria of this place. It’s been said. Each person who stays is right. Each person who leaves is right. The only person who is wrong is the one who invests their writing in the luminous skyline. The lights are real, but those lights, remember, do have a history of blackouts.