On Cities

“Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each another. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.” 

― Olivia LaingThe Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Here we are, a tangle of bodies, a mess of dreams, a web of plans and to do lists and uncertainties, all navigating this maze of streets and sidewalks, the never-ending stream of transportation, together.

When I breathe in, the man in his reading chair next door waiting for the kettle to boil exhales. When I wake up to the sun, the wandering souls out on the street behind are just returning from a dance with the night. While I am paying my electricity bills there are people down the street struggling to make ends meet, there are sleeping bag-wrapped bodies in every train station. While I can’t pry myself out of bed on the down days, there is laughter echoing against the lampposts from those who have seized the adventures of the day.

Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about the strange human experiment that is a city – all of us piled on top of each other, just trying to carve out as much space for ourselves as possible. Sometimes I feel like I’m suffocating; every venture out my door feels like drowning in a sea of strangers, gazes, looks, other people running errands.

My heart craves stillness. My brain doesn’t lose momentum because the background noise never stops, there is no Off button to the City.

But on the other hand, there is something so intriguing, so utterly intoxicating, about the shared pulse of this place – when the sun comes out, I feel connected to millions of other souls whose hearts are beating a little bit faster, our cheeks flushed with warmth and the fleeting optimism of sunshine in April.

When I can’t pull myself out of my head as I’m walking down the street, just wanting to be back home under my duvet, I see three little children riding their bikes down the sidewalk, giggling and flashing their smiles like today is the very best day, and tomorrow probably will be, too. And I feel my lips curling up and my heart burning for the sanguineness that fills childhood to the brim. And suddenly my walk home becomes lighter, I am pulled out of the negative self-spiral and placed back into the universe where we are all connected.

There are days when I simply can’t bear facing another stranger’s face. I think maybe I feel collective energy so deeply that the city can sometimes be an overwhelming complexity of intensity and forces that are coming from every direction, that are hitting my ribcage from every angle and making their way into the chambers of my own heart.

Do I put my armour on every day before I leave? Or will this also block the serendipity, the chance encounters that become stories, life-forces, pivots in our path?

You don’t know loneliness until you’ve been surrounded by 8.78 million people and still felt excruciatingly alone.

When that tree down the road has begun to blossom and you want to show someone its beauty but there is no one, but simultaneously everyone, and you feel the urge to just shout about the lovely blooms to the next person who approaches you on the sidewalk.

But then the other night, as I was walking home, I paused in my tracks and smiled at the fickleness of it all, of my on-again/off-again relationship with cities. The sun had set and I was looking up at the moon, no headphones in, just listening to the sirens and the chit chat and the slow beat of the speakers down on the high street where a man was rapping to a hip-hop/reggaeton track outside of the station. I was passing by this cute white row house that I’ve always admired (because of the perennial orange berries that climbed along the black wrought-iron fence surrounding their front garden) when I heard the heart-wrenching tune of a violin melody spilling out from an open top-floor window. I stopped walking and closed my eyes, listening to the melancholy hum of the strings, my own private concert.

And I took that moment and tucked it away in my back pocket, for all the times when I will inevitably feel lonely again. For that moment, I was connected to that solo musician in the top left window of the white house I admire every day on my commute home. I don’t know him/her, although maybe I have passed them before on the street, or in the Yogurt/Cheese aisle in the Tesco down the road, or in line for the cash machine that’s next to the flower stand (the flower man only takes cash).

So I sit here, reveling in the duality of it all. I can hold both; the suffocation of the people & the buildings & the never-ending noise and stimulation together with the beautiful serendipity, the eternal opportunities, the communal highs and lows, the joining of sighs and umbrellas opening and windows flying upwards to let in any faint hint of spring.

I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I know where I began (in empty fields, on sprawling lakes, climbing the bluest mountains). And I (kind of) know where I am now – living amongst millions of other people’s beginnings, middles, and endings, aligning my timelines with theirs, sharing this space to grow and fall and mess up and hit life milestones and phone home and build a new home and try to find a decent patch of nature every once in a while..

I don’t know if its harmony that we are living in or chaos, or some sort of blended chaotic harmony that both pulls me apart and stitches me back together again. But for now, this is where I am. And may I continue to be rooted firmly, in the midst of it all.

“Why should I feel lonely? Is not our planet in the Milky Way?” -Thoreau