New York City has a driving energy that can feel relentless. Even when most of the city is asleep, the streets seem to vibrate, ready for action. I grew up in a much quieter town in the west that is small and surrounded by countryside, yet I’ve been able to live in the city for eighteen years. I think my nervous system has had a certain resiliency to bear the city’s intensity, but I have also learned to make choices that help me from getting frayed nerves. Often these choices have been small changes, but have made a big difference.
In my mid-twenties, I remember how I would look down the dark tunnel of the subway, seeking the train. I would lean and look, lean and look. Where is that darn train, I would huff. When will it come? Then one time, as I was doing my leaning and looking dance, I clearly felt how I was only adding to my agitation. The train was going to come when it was going to come. Looking for it was not going to make it arrive any sooner. Ever since then, I try not to actively look for the train–sometimes I even look in the opposite direction! One might say I am more zen about it. It certainly helps me feel calmer.*
I don’t know how it is in other towns or cities, but a blatant visual once-over by expressionless strangers is common. I will admit, I know that I do it as well. I have noticed this particularly in Soho–perhaps because it draws so many fashion-conscious people, or because I am self-conscious of the tony nature of the neighborhood. Either way, I used to react by becoming very agitated. In fact, I would become incensed. How dare they stare at me and pass me by like I am an object rather than a feeling human? Then one day I had another moment of clarity: instead of getting angry, I could smile in response. Yes, people, I smile at strangers in New York City. It’s interesting how many times my smile seems to knock the person out of their unconscious buffered state and I will get a genuine moment of connection whether by smile or eye contact. I am not a complete saint or Buddha, sometimes my smile has an edge to it: yeah, I know you’re staring at me, now stop it. All in all, though, choosing to smile has shifted me from getting angry to feeling warm and friendly.
Me vs. the frozen yogurt truck. So there’s this truck: a pink, generator-grinding, sidewalk-squeezing truck. It parks itself in an illegal spot, right by the subway entrance on one of the busiest corners of downtown Broadway. Many mornings I would seethe with resentment as I squeezed myself past frozen yogurt-waiting customers, heading for work. Why was this truck not hauled off by the NYPD? This reveals my stubbornness, but it took my many months before I realized that I could simply walk on the other side of the street and avoid the truck all together. As long as the truck is there, I will gladly cross over to the other side. Perhaps I’ll lose a few seconds of travel time, but I will keep my nerves in better health.
I could go on, but instead I would love to hear from you. Whether you live in New York or elsewhere, what choices have you made to make your life a little easier?
* In the same category, I try not to jaywalk (a nearly blasphemous confession as a city dweller). I like looking around. There are always plenty of people to watch, or I’ll check out the buildings or the sky. Also, I almost never squeeze myself into the stuffed subway car. It’s not worth it. I am usually not in a hurry, so I’ll just wait for the next train and it is almost always much emptier.
This was originally posted on May 20th, 2013.