I walked by a shuttered restaurant recently – not an unusual sight in New York City, a place that’s always on-the-go, always changing, always moving. This particular restaurant was not an amazing eatery, but it was one filled with memories for me. It was close to my first two apartments in New York, and I’ve had dozens of conversations there. I’ve shed more than a few tears at its tables and gotten into at least one noteworthy fight. I’ve been there with friends, with guys I was dating, with my boyfriend-then-fiancé-then-husband. I’ve been there with one of my kids. And now it’s gone. The old is being replaced by something new.
New York and I, we have a rocky relationship. There are days when our relationship is good – when I come home from a run along the river, where I’ve listened to the birds and thanked God for the rocky shore and felt so blessed to live in a place so culturally rich and yet still so close to nature. And then after the run I pass the little playground at the end of our block, and a woman has set up a platform and is practicing her tap-dancing routine just behind the monkey bars. Because here in this city most of us don’t have extra space in our apartments, or private backyards, or practice studios. And so the city becomes our shared living space – the place where we rehearse our scripts, warm up for our auditions, paint our nails, shake out our tablecloths, and wash our dogs. We all live together, in this space, and we get to see and be a part of someone else’s life and talent and art just by walking down the street.
Some days our relationship turns sour. When I’m exhausted from the constant schlepping, the carrying-everything-you-and-the-kids-need-for-the-whole-day-on-your-back. Everything seems cost prohibitive, whether it’s eating lunch out or swim lessons or a few hours of babysitting – and I mourn “how easy” life would be in the suburbs, where we could drive around with changes of clothes and snacks and books in the backseat and pick up a coffee from a drive-through and get to soccer practice in fifteen minutes. I feel drained and stifled, and I get home and shut down. I am angry at God for bringing me here, and angry at his cruel plan to keep me here, in this miserable place where summers are sweaty and stinky and winters are filled with gray slush that I drag my stroller and preschooler through each day.
This month marks my ten-year anniversary in New York. I moved to this city planning to stay just a few years, until I got a job somewhere “more livable.” Making it my permanent home was never part of my plan. And raising a family here was definitely not a part of my plan.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
— Jeremiah 29: 11-14
Sometimes this city feels like exile, the place to which I have been banished.
And there are other times when it feels like the place where I’ve been found.
I have learned to call on the Lord here. I have reached the end of myself and learned to call on others. It happens easily here, precisely because basic life is hard. We are forced to rely on others in our community. To let each other into our messy lives and apartments. We don’t have the closet space to hide away the dirty clothes, or the mental space to keep the things that are hard and dark and ugly away from the public eye. I don’t have a car to cry in, so it happens on the street corner, subway platform, and park bench. My own weakness is so overwhelmingly apparent, and I am forced to my knees.
This life in New York – with its ups and downs, with its overwhelming energy and incredible expense and millions of people – has taught me much about God. About His faithfulness, His goodness, His promises. Because He has indeed provided for me – even here. He has provided an incredibly giving and loving community, and a thriving, growing, stimulating church. He has provided work and opportunities and a place to live in that we own (miraculously). He has given me a hope and a future. Even though it is so different from what I had in mind.
And yet, in the midst of this city of every possibility, of every choice – I often live in captivity. I live in captivity to my own desires and dreams. I live in captivity to my temper and my temperament. I want to love my husband and my children well, I want to treat them well, to use a voice that’s full of respect and grace and tenderness. And yet, I yell. I pray constantly to control my tongue, to master my temper. And yet. I am a captive. I read my Bible and try to focus on the work that God has given me to do. But I look around, and I see a city of people bringing home money and accolades, and I play the comparison game, and I feel inadequate. I am a captive. I tell myself the Truth, things that I know deeply some days and want to believe on others. But the lies in my head are louder. I am a captive.
When I look for God because I want Him to give me something, He’s elusive. But when I seek Him for who He is, with all my heart, because I’ve come to the end of myself – that’s when I can find Him and be found by Him. I’m a stubborn girl. I need a city like this one – as violent and vibrant and extreme and unremitting as New York – to bring me to this place of weakness and surrender. That’s when I can seek the Lord with all my heart. And that’s when He can fill me with Himself.
We have both changed in these ten years, New York and I. As I walk the streets and the neighborhoods this week, I think about who I was ten years ago, and all that has happened. My heart has been broken here and it has been found, and healed, and then filled, and filled again and again as I met my husband and then gave birth to my children in this city.
New York holds all these memories, all these different parts of me, so much of my history. And despite its restaurant changes and neighborhood upgrades, despite the new Broadway shows and the Lincoln Center makeover and the new buildings, subway stations, coffee shops and cupcake sellers, New York has been there for me.
And in the change, there is a certain trustworthiness, a certain consistency. New York will always be busy, always be filled to the brim with talented people sharing and living their lives. The subways will always be hot in summer, and in the winter the streets will fill with slushy, gray, gross snow. And this is my home, my place of exile, and my place to be found.
Cheers to you, New York City. Happy Anniversary.