I lived in New York for two years in the mid ninties, about 45 minutes North of Manhattan on the Hudson River. I lived there alone – as in, I didn’t bring any friends or family with me. I ventured out on my own to a new land. An opportunity opened up for me to volunteer at a residential treatment program for drug addicts, and I started out working in their office, managing all their donations and donor records.
I sold my car, broke my lease, packed up my stuff, and went.
It was like me to do this, but not typical. I’m a homebody with an adventurous spirit. I like to plant roots and let them grow deep, but I’m willing to take risks and try new things. I took this job because I knew it would only be for two years. It was temporary, a sort of internship, if you will. Had they recruited me for a full time position I’m not sure I would have been so adventurous.
Before New York, the last time I packed up all my stuff and moved was when I turned 18 and went to college. I came to Seattle, and aside from spending my first summer back in Minnesota, I never really went back. Even while in New York, when people asked where I was from I always said I was from Seattle.
It was a time of solitude.
I spent hours sitting on huge boulders by the river in a little town called Cold Spring. I missed the waters of Puget Sound, and would retreat to the river in the evenings. I road my bike down Highway 9 toward the Bear Mountain bridge and back in the heat of the summer. The vigorous exercise in the high humidity seemed to set free all my stress and confusion. I took long drives on Saturdays, picking a spot randomly on my map – every Saturday, a new highway. In the summer I drove two hours all the way to Long Island’s Jones Beach just to swim in the warm ocean waters. On my weekends off I ventured out to further places like Boston, Cape Cod, Vermont, and Washington D.C.
Had I been a good writer then, it would have been my Prime Time. I was filled with angst, confusion, wondering, and love – perfect grist for the mill.
It was my belated Coming of Age.
I was in love with a boy who was not good for me. He was sweet and sensitive, but shoulder deep in his own demons, and I was not mature enough to let him work it out on his own. I felt he needed me, and that without me his life would spiral down the proverbial drain and he would end up in Hell. And I loved him too much to let that happen.
I asked God, Why. I asked God, How. I begged God to make him better. But in the end, God changed me instead. In a matter of months after returning from New York, I finally broke up with him for good. It was the third time. I was filled with sorrow, and I listened to a lot of Tracy Chapman, but this time it stuck. I didn’t go back.
Before him, I dated a lot of boys that were not good for me, but he was the last. I vowed to wait for the good ones, and let God heal the broken ones. I became ‘the lily among thorns,’ from the Song of Songs and waited for my lover to come and declare, ‘Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.’ I became the pursued, rather than the pursuer.
It was the final frontier of old theology.
The God of my old theology was weak. He was not capable of keeping his own sheep, so he needed me to do it for him. And in order for me to be worthy of the undertaking, it was necessary for me to attend a prayer meeting every day from 6 – 7am in a cold, dark, basement. Without this fuel in my tank I might be won over to the Dark Side, because God knows Satan is lurking around every corner and under every rock.
Working in a rehab exposed me to sin and depravity within an intimacy that I had never experienced before. I knew and loved each woman deeply as I watched them wrestle through their addictions and uncover the hurts their drugs were meant to cover. But so much of the work seemed to rest on their shoulders, and each of them feared the failure of ‘back-sliding.’
When I returned to Seattle I sat under a young pastor who taught me about a Mighty God, one who not only delivered, but also kept. One who used me, but didn’t depend on me; who gave me opportunity, but didn’t leave me holding the bag. I could sleep at night, knowing that one person’s salvation was not solely dependent on anything I did or did not say, and even if my words did turn someone sour to the gospel, God is sovereign. I could be friends with anyone without trying to convert everyone.
It’s the music that did it.
This afternoon while I was making a pot of soup for dinner I heard a song from Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily. I listened to this album endlessly in my New York solitude, and whenever I hear it I am transported back in time. When I think of New York it’s like sandbagging a rising river – it strengthens my soft, muddy edges and I stand taller, more confident. I know who I am, and I know what made me. I can face anything.
I will always have New York, and for that I am grateful.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and critiques on this essay – what you like, what you didn’t like, things to work on, etc. If you’ve been reading for awhile you know I’m trying to flush out a book, so consider this a Stab At It. Please send any critiques to jenzug (at) gmail (dot) com, and please be specific. It drives me crazy when Bryan says, ‘nice post.’ Please don’t do that to me. Any other regular comments can be left below as usual. Thanks!