I’m a story-teller. It infuses my work. I share the stories and realities of my life in order to explain points that I think other people could appreciate. Today, I’m telling you my New York story. It’s not rags-to-riches and I’m only triumphing over my own stupidity rather than terrible obstacles. I fight to give opportunity to others but my own tales are infused with my own levels of privilege. If that bothers you, probably best to stop reading now.
Like many New York stories, this one is all about how I never lived in New York. Losing both Bowie and Alan Rickman in a few days has made me think about that city again. This is the story of how I loved a city but we never ended up together.
Oh, Oh! New York!
Even in the home counties towns in the UK, the adults spoke about New York as if it were Olympus, Shangri-La and a wild west town all rolled into one. You could be incredibly cool in Hampshire just by having been to America. If you had been to New York, and survived, you were some kind of god. They had different music, different cars, different money. In a Britain collapsing under the 1970s, America was a golden place.
I grew up in the 70s and was fortunate enough to hear Bowie hit the UK scene hard, to see early Doctor Who, to be mentally invigorated by very demanding progressive UK kids’ TV, to hear a Police album when they were just starting out and then, even more fortunately, we left the home counties and, because my Mum was amazingly brave and strong, we made it across the sea to Australia, where a better life awaited us.
I shrugged off Britain in weeks but New York never left me.
I continued to grow up in one of the Australian state capitals (Australian population is mostly concentrated into cities on the ocean) and it was nice, but it was no New York. I’m not sure I’ve told anyone this but, in my head, I was always going to America. That’s what success was defined as when I was a boy: you were a traveller, you did interesting things and that meant America. When every other Brit was going to the Costa del Sol and baking their skin, the interesting people were pale, thin and had walked around in magical places like Central Park, Times Square and along Broadway. They knew about music and understood what the Tarkus artwork meant on that ELP album. They even knew what “prog-rock” meant. They were art, life and wonder.
When I finished University, I started to think seriously about America. I had visited by then, and that is a story in itself, and finally seen New York. Mid-winter. Just after Christmas. Quiet and grey, on the cusp of 1995 and 1996. It did not quite amaze but it do not disappoint, even though I was walking around with a bung knee after slipping in unfamiliar snow. I began to think about how I could get there.
But one thing became clear as I thought about it. I didn’t know how to get to the New York that I wanted to be part of. I was creative but I wasn’t an amazing artist or musician and the New York I wanted to be part of was the bubbling, creative, amazing community of 1970s. I was a middling rhythm guitarist, a karaoke-tolerable singer, an abstract artist (I still can’t draw very well), an enthusiastic poet, but, mostly, I was a computer guy. I could go and get a job but all I would be doing would be living in (or near, most likely) New York and never becoming part of my vision of NYC. Tech support in Shangri-La was not what I wanted.
I had kept an idea of where I wanted to go in my head but I had never turned that into an intention to actually go there. A goal with no plans had turned into a life without much direction. (I was lucky enough to fall in love and start a real journey and adventure locally, just as I realised that I had never set my cap for New York, but that’s another story.)
There’s a poem I love, Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy, and it talks of setting out on a magnificent journey, full of adventures and monsters, in search of the island of Ithaka as part of a glorious ancient Greek adventure. But the most important part of the poem, for me, is the end:
Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
As Cavafy and all of the Greek authors of myth before him note, the journey is the thing. When you arrive at your goal, if you have thought about it for long enough, then you may find it was not as good as you thought it would be. Memory may have tricked you, things may have changed. But if it caused you to start a wonderful journey, then it was worthwhile. No, not just worthwhile, it was magical. It was transcendence and enlightenment.
But, by not seeing New York as a goal and leaving it as a dream, I never set myself upon the journey and thus I deprived myself of both the adventure and the chance of achieving my dream one day.
Let’s be realistic, I was never going to live in the 1970s New York that I idolised, unless I found a time machine, but if I had actually made some career and life choices that would have seen me head to America in the 90s, I still would have made it there. It would have seen me experiencing a New York that, while not the one I thought of, would have been a capstone to an amazing journey. But, because I didn’t align myself to realise my New York dream, it didn’t happen.
My long-time love affair with New York was a fantasy and we’re both lucky that we never moved it beyond that point. I would have ended up being bitter and resentful, New York didn’t need another tech support person pretending to be an artist. You need more than attraction and the frisson of distance to have a relationship.
This year, I have reassessed my goals and dreams. I am deciding which of these will define my journey and give my life structure for the next decade or two. Where can I find new wisdom? Where can I find the experiences that will take me to new and amazing places, physically or mentally? I have been successful in a number of things but I really need to focus on the goal to make sure that I get the most out of the journey.
I’m not the same person I was back in the 90s. A lot of thinking has happened, a lot of growing has happened, a lot of love has happened. I’m more comfortable with the softer definition of myself as a communicator, an educator, an artist and even a philosopher. This small journey was triggered by the realisation that I had never chosen what to do or where to go. There’s a natural pause at this stage and it’s time to set a new heading. Where do I go from here?
The point of my New York Story is a simple one: assuming that nothing else gets in the way, you’re unlikely to get somewhere unless you actually set out for it. We often mistake what we’re doing with what we want to do, the necessary aims of our work with our real goals in life. We do something today because we did it yesterday and that means we’ll do it again tomorrow. Perhaps we should only do it tomorrow if it’s the best thing to do.
There are many things in my life that I don’t want (and don’t need) to change. But I look at Cavafy’s poem and I can smell the sea winds, hear the sails fill, and the helm is asking me where to go next.