Geographies of Belonging (I Loved You)

I wrote this a while ago but felt like sharing it today. Here’s to editing less in 2018.

I loved New York, but I’m not sure New York loved me. Educated, multilingual, young, hardworking: the city stifled me. Too much space, too many avenues, not enough context, even though more Native people live in big cities than anywhere else.

Still, I couldn’t find myself there. In New England, I am a “city Indian” but, clearly, belonging somewhere. In New York, I was anonymous and ambiguously brown, without tribe or nation. I had come from a margin to the center, and yet, at the center, I was just another nameless nobody trying to make it, all without ever having defined this elusive “it” for myself. An apartment, a job, a boyfriend—the Sex and the City Trinity every young womyn who finds herself in New York is supposed to strive for?  I wanted to see myself in the streets and smog, the grime, cigarettes and self-important millennials, delayed trains and deferred dreams. But I couldn’t imagine the city as my own.

Instead, I kept my frustration to myself. But it was clear New York was not meant for me. My first winter dumped snow over my block in Queens, burrowing me in for days. It didn’t melt for two weeks. The second winter was dry and gray uptown, where every day Dominicans barked at me in Spanish and I stared back at them, incredulous. I didn’t know any insults in Narragansett––only the few words my elders had taught me, because outside of that, I hadn’t asked. And so I burned with silent resentment.

In the spring, I met someone who I thought I could love, and yet, he was beyond help. He loved the idea of our people too much and himself too little. It was pathological, but I wanted it to be better. I wanted him to be better. What was I supposed to do? He left at the beginning of May, maybe to Los Angeles, or the rez where he never felt accepted, or the moon. Who knows? He left.

Those were my longest days and worst nights. I didn’t drink; I had struggled with alcohol before. My grandfather died of cirrhosis when I was small, and I didn’t want to repeat the pathology. At times, in the hazy twilight above the city that did not see me, I smudged. I wept to my grandmother who walked on before I was born. How do I get better? How do we get better? I wept for my family, my trauma, my hopeless almost-love for a hopeless fool full of hope for our people. And he loved New York. Everything he treasured about the city, I hated. It was a riddle I couldn’t figure out.

As the spring nights thawed and eventually stretched into an airless summer, I wondered if I was doing it wrong. Other millennials, it seemed, were having the time of their lives in Harlem, downtown, Brooklyn––anywhere but where I was. When I crossed paths with them, they seemed exuberant to leave their old selves behind. The city, they told me, was a place where you became new. You didn’t bring who you were when you came. You didn’t weep for your ancestors or the land you left behind, and certainly not for the people on whose stolen land you now inhabited. They told me to walk the streets like a runway, but I longed for the woodlands and shores my people have inhabited since the beginning of time. They didn’t understand me, but the fool who left me did. Wherever he was, he carried with him secrets I hadn’t told anyone in New York: my sadness, shame and stigma, my pathologies, my pain. Maybe, at best, we commiserated. We saw each other in our sorrow. We wanted to believe in each other’s come-up story. It was fucked-up and, clearly, ill-fated.

And somehow, life went on. Or not. During the day, from my air-conditioned office forty floors above Midtown, I watched the resistance at Standing Rock unfold. He appeared from the flood of posts and hashtags and retweets. I was angry and concerned, disoriented, afraid. At night I smudged for, and because of, him. I worried for the Standing Rock community, for the earth, for our sovereignty, and for us. Both of us and all of us.

During the day, I watched my people being sprayed, attacked by dogs, shot at and mowed down; and in the dead of a New York City summer, I walked to the train ice-cold to my bones. The revolution will not be televised, and it certainly won’t be advanced by a sad, lonely Narragansett girl moping in an office on 34th Street.

But I didn’t tell anyone that I’m Native. I ached silently for my people and the pathology called America––a pathology we didn’t ask for or perpetuate on ourselves, at least not willingly. If Standing Rock was a start, I wondered how I could do better for all of us, living a half-life on a cruel concrete island I wafted over like a ghost.

I loved New York, but I was lying to myself. So I left at the beginning of September. I came back to New England and held my breath for several months. In the emerald forests of Arcadia, on the breezy shores of Narragansett, I listened to the wind at sunset and thought of nothing. Maybe a pukwudgie would get me after nightfall, or even worse, maybe I’d catch up with myself. Either way, I didn’t dare cry, or talk about my stifling days and sleepless nights.

Space, avenues, context, belonging: I learned that margins and centers are relative. There was so much I thought I could love, and yet, none of it loved me back. Standing at various points in the middle of nowhere, I heard the wind and thought of spring. What does the thaw feel like in North Dakota? If I ever saw him again, would I have anything to say? It was an overwhelming silence, a hole in my heart. I began learning Narragansett. I wore my knees out praying because I wanted to get better.

Even still, I don’t yet have the language for what happened: heartbreak. Rage. Rupture. Who knows, and at this point, who cares?

In New York, I faced my sadness, shame, pathologies, and pain. I decided to lay my trauma to rest, and for that, I feel grateful. I learned that, for now, I need to be in my community and on the land my people have inhabited since time immemorial. And ultimately, I left because I’m bigger than the city. I left because you never asked me to stay.

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