“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau.
“This has been like my gap year,” I recently said to my niece, about the one-year anniversary of the move with my husband, from the suburbs into the city’s center.
“Gap year, I like that,” said the senior in college.
Though I had not backpacked through the city (I have learned to carry very little), and had only reached ten of the 52 neighborhoods on my morning walks, the notion was still valid.
For over a year, we had put lives on hold, to celebrate a wedding, a college graduation and a high school graduation, as well as a right-sizing for our next stage of life, moving from a suburban home built in 1998 to a home constructed in 1875, in the heart of the city.
Despite starting a new blog, working on a novel’s second draft and teaching writing classes, my words were no match for such a monumental year, one that included trips to orient the new college student, travels to Washington D.C., New Orleans, and Charleston, where the other three young adult children were located and, finally, an epic adventure to SE Asia.
In Asia, while speaking with our daughter, Shannon, she asked, “Now what will you be doing?” I repeated again. “Well, my gap year is ending, and I’ve been trying to learn more about the city, how it functions, why it functions, to get ready for my next venture, whatever that is.”
The southeast Asia rains had been pounding the paths of our hotel, while we leisurely sat on its veranda and read books,
“So you haven’t figured that out yet?”
“I want to write, teach, gush profoundly about Findlay Market and Over-the-Rhine, but…there’s more.”
We went quiet again, back into our books. I looked back up through the streams of water dripping on the palms to marvel at how deliberate my husband, Mark, and I had been in our decision to move to the city.
Weeks later, Mark and I were running along the river, and I turned to him and said, “You know, all these years, when people asked about our move, not once did either of us stop to say, ‘wait a minute’, or ‘I’m not sure’, or ‘do we know what we’re doing ?’ (of course, our kids said that instead).”
We knew. We knew what we were seeking, but just didn’t know what we would find.
I was struck by the deliberate nature and doggedness with which we pursued this home, this living, this ideal. Not that actual city living was considered ideal.
But the opportunity to be part of a grand experiment of long-time and new residents growing together in a petri dish comprised of 110 blocks of varying sizes, in the heart of a racially, economically and culturally diverse, and often divided, city.
We persevered amidst taunting by friends and the media. We were either crazy or hipsters (it turns out we were neither). Our children scattered about like chess pieces, we endured the loss of a parent. We moved 30 minutes from our closest friends, attempting to maintain those ties, while forging so many new ones, that we were forgetting names and places and events.
But we came here to live consciously. To walk in the steps of history, politics, poverty and blight. To support, and as it turns out, keep pace with the soaring success of our arts organization, To marvel how every day is unlike the next here, walking past Nick Lachey at Bunbury one moment, and little boys we tutor who live in a small apartment over a deli shop in the next.
We were pushed and pulled in directions we never deemed imaginable. We engaged in every last festival, art event, and non-profit we had time for. Every last person walking on the sidewalk did not walk past without a greeting from my husband or me. It takes energy, positive energy, to live in the city (and yes, to also stay up late and catch the action the city has to offer), to believe in a wider purpose for the mixing together of all species, including the possum that occasionally roams through our courtyard.
The house is finished, except pictures on the wall. I’m not opposed to the permanence of hanging a nail, but I don’t want our life experiences here to be framed and hung and permanently set, I want them to be dynamic, ever-changing.
While we sleep here, and the home has been held up as an example of renovations in the city, 1419 is merely a placeholder, another root in the tree of our city, used for growth inwards and upwards.
One point missed by naysayers is many of us came to live in the city with intention, not because of the bars and restaurants, Music Hall and John Morris Russell, nor the extraordinary Fringe and Shakes and Ensemble scene, and certainly not the Bengals and Reds.
We came to understand each other in a way we had not attempted before, to learn what the city had to teach.
We have found ourselves now, after three days of Bunbury, to have officially concluded the gap year (and the college kid is home). Mark submitted his nomination for Over-the-Rhine community council. I am leading a writing workshop at City Gospel Mission, we tutor at Prince of Peace, where one family of four children arrives faithfully each Thursday for prayer and practice. We shop weekly at Findlay Market and support the market in varied ways. Could we have done this elsewhere, from any place, suburban, rural? Yes. But.
I wished I would have tracked our actual, direct spending in the city for the past year. Our investment was not only in the house and local contractors, craftsmen, etc., though my husband thinks we made quite the investment, according to American Express. But in emotional and political and cultural learnings, we far outperformed our Amex bill.
So, what wisdom did I gain, in my very first year?
In its own way, the city resembles Thoreau’s woods. The city is its own collection of species, where some reach for light, other stay in the dark. Soft nests of old pine needles intermingle with prickly ones of new. Sunlight sneaks through the trees and creates a quilt of light and dark on the forest floor, in the same way the light cuts through centuries of time and space and height, but the edges are sharper in the city. There is wild, wild life and then – there is peaceful silence.
Some chose the beaten path and some make their own. Some folks are native, and others come purposely. Not unlike that of the woods, there is a heartbeat in the city, but one has to work harder, sweat more to feel it. The pulse, not always evident above the noise, runs beneath cracked sidewalks, cobbled bricks, courses through sounds of fusion on Fridays and bluegrass on Thursdays, streams through the homeless and downtrodden, the youth and old, the working and creative class.
The theme of survival has always been equated to the woods. But how we live in the city, when bumping up against one another, is a greater testament to human fortitude and compassion. How we react to others who do not look like us, have the same value system, or live within the same means, is a far greater trial than how we live when left alone.