Retracing My Own Invisible Cities in the Second Person
When troubled by the throes of a hyper-consciousness, an immobilizing force, go back to the house we grew up in, a place you can no longer call home. I want you to consider, why you hold dear and tight to the standstill of reflection. What is holding you there? Is it the memory of your youth beaming? Following your present consciousness around the living room, repeating the words that you say with mocking delight? Yawning and coddled, asking with its eyebrows who are you
? And of course, where’s mom? Or is it, rather the experience of your youth dying, moving you further to nihility that brings you back, again to your first experience of death in youth? To answer this question, visit these differentiating possibilities. Go back to the house we grew up there, and return the next day. For, I believe in the Soren Kierkegaard’s statement in his philosophical text, Stages on Life's Way
“… only gypsies, robber gangs and swindlers follow the adage that where a person has once been he is never to go again.
“With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire, or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discoveries is secret, their rules are absurd, and everything conceals something else.” –Invisible Cities, Italio Calvino
In the dark catacombs of your brain lives a Garden, which has been rejected by sunlight, tread upon by the steps of responsibility, and overcome by the weeds of insecurity. The dusty plants have begun to wilt from each breathe of reality which you take in, stifling their sense of being from the harsh neglect, which age has demanded. This garden is all that remains from the house in Oshkosh. The house, overcrowded by the sense of beginning, was where your family made its start in Wisconsin. Now it lay in ruins, combusted by realizations of progress, dejected by success. The house was your families’ responsibility and so its demise could be shared; however, you deserted the Garden, alone. Thus, you succumb to digression and allow yourself to visit the Garden.
Carefully you turn the rusted handle to the black gate, pleading to God not to let the screech awaken the dormant memories. Though, it doesn’t comply and it sounds, signaling you forward into reverie. Your steps leave prints across the vibration, which has coated the garden with greeting. Instantaneously watered from the pools of remembrance, the plants return to their form shooting past the sky. Your fingers slip out of their callousness and back to the chubby grip of six years. They wander faster than your short legs, into the moistened earth gripping the coolness. The roots caress your fingertips sharing the pulse of growth. The calmness knows no calamity, and you sit among the tomatoes plants hidden from the chaos inside your brick house. The tomatoes are ripe here, filled with the senseless possibility of never being eaten, torn, or sliced. The fireflies glow unrestricted by bed time. They float within you, around you, placing gravity near the sunflowers so that you may greet the music squeezing through the window. Grasping onto the notes of your father’s late night piano practice, you remain.
You could stay there forever, cradled a web of enchantment. They would find you in a hammock of dew, Bach’s symphony spilling out of your pockets. But they don’t.
You heard the news through the window. The piano’s soliloquy stops cold.
“Pop’s passed away.”
And you fall, a thousand strands breaking. You hit the earth. And within that instant, you grow up. Your brother and sister find you intertwined with the soft leaves. They take your dirty hands and pressed them to their hands, palm to palm, in a circle. They found you, and in the circle, you find them.
The Garden will do both: enchant you and disenchant you, cradle you and let you fall. The duality of this patch of earth displays how life: within you, around you, despite you, lifts and falls. You tried to capture the essence of the garden like a firefly in a jar, and the light failed at the dawn of your adolescence. You must let it go, allow its sublimity to burn around you, and kiss the warmth back into your fingertips.
““Does your journey take place only in the past?””
“… That what he sought was always something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the past it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced on his journey, because the traveler’s past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is to which each day that goes by adds a day, but a more remote past. Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again the past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.” - Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Along the path I have ventured I have often had to pause. I have had to stop—right in my tracks, and listen to the sounds around me. If, in accordance to the popular axiom “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” then I have found that the eardrums are the trapdoors to the heart. The sounds, songs, and steps of my past have become inextricably woven into the formation of my present ideas. In this way, my present consists of a symphonious collection of memories, experiences, and future hopes all following the magic wand of their maestro conductor New York City. This song has halted me, and egged me towards an epiphany of existence. Only through analyzing my time in New York City have I been able to ascertain the connection between place, self, and sound. I have begun to explore the realms of my own “Invisible Cities”—the myriad pockets of moment that exist in my memory as multiple versions of metropolis. The experiences through which I have lived, the perspective though which I have grown enact as unique narrators in the urban vignettes that encapsulate my time in New York. These “cities” may seem invisible to the naked eye, but through my lens, I see them as beacons of personality. They have fostered my dreams and fears, observed unobtrusively the decimation and renewal of love, and have unlocked truth.
In the empire of New York City, exists a parallel invisible world known only in the sacred collaboration between the wayfaring memories of my lyrical home-life, and the infectious lullaby of city-life. Through imperceptibility my own city evoked my identity with a premise of secrecy and a standard of intimacy. I have returned to this collision of past and present, with the hopes of exposing the subtleness of their connection and of discovering to what beat my next step is directed.
When I arrived in the City of Voices two summers ago, I realized that I must jump into this place, fully submerge myself, until I was covered in waves of vibration. The air was rampant that July fourth, with actions and reactions exuding excess that transcended into ecstasy. The humidity of the summer months is a force, which slows this sublime hum into a quivering legato.
There is a bench on 116th street where I always went, with Mallory, my new companion during my time at Columbia in a creative writing program over the summer. We would watch as kids would run along the cross walk, sparklers galore, cheering at the distant fireworks. The chaos in the sky sounded like Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” and persisted shooting right through the humidity. It broke, Mallory and I stood, allowing the pollution of rain to dilute our senses. Relief. Mallory had grabbed my slippery hand, and pulled me onto the bench next to her. As she discarded her inhibition Mallory lifted her hands into the sky, allowing the zephyr of warm thoughts to breeze through her. Droplets of rain hit the ground splashing shivers upward. From my place, high on the bench, I could hear the mixture of horns, footsteps, greetings, forming a haphazard beat. From my place, I could see the lights of traffic smearing on each side. From my bench, I began to move, unable to contain the vibration of the city; I had to continue, dancing to the sounds around me.
I had thought that the City of Voices, New York City, would pollute my own intonation. As I returned home, I realized, it has the opposite. I lent the city some of my voice, and it lent me the strength to sing out loud.
Though it was fall semester, I could consciously profess the evening was turning into a Midsummer’s Night Dream
. The faded light twisted around the blinds hanging on for a second too long before descending into the warm darkness of the room. The sound of Rohin Sethi playing his acoustic version of MGMT’s “Electric Feel” filled the abyss of our over-dilated pupils with a mixture of serenity and wistfulness. My eyes were no longer drowsy with the lack-luster bloodshot of overtiredness; but rather, heavy with the possibility of happiness that lingered in the air. The lone candle burned with an incandescent pulse of its own, gently mocking the flicker of Rohin’s fingertips down the strings. It seemed too simple to be this rare a moment, caught between sleep and the sun. For it seemed now, more than ever, the shock therapy of lyrics rang true. The song became more than the haphazard anthem for the city that never sleeps. Rather, the melody transcended the refuge of benign techno enterprise, to become an afterglow of reminder ringing all "along the eastern shore" to listen. The quiet notes floated above the drowning island as dawn let the tide of a new day wash over the previous night. Yet, the song remained and whispered to me softly the only lyric it had saved: “change the world".
Everyone has that one
song. A portal to another time, a weary traveler this song carries one and is carried by one throughout life. A coalescence of words and sound, which have both the audacity and the tenderness to unlock the secrets of one's being. The story behind each person's experience with the song has equal affinity with the experience from which the song was conceived. Though: what is the secret, what is the circumstance, what is the ideal, who is the person, when is the time, where is the clandestine meeting that inspires the musician towards those incendiary musings?
His words became static to the three clicks of a red lighter. Sparks before fire, the dark room cackled with resistance to allow such an obstruction to the surrounding darkness. Finally, the flame appeared and I saw Ray’s soul just beneath his skin basking in warmth. During the last snowstorm of my senior year, I sat next to Mike in a circle of thirteen guys who had been jamming nonsensically while the night smeared on. In a shard of silence Ray interjected: “This is your soliloquy.” I felt the eyes of the room follow the dedication, which glided through the space on Ray’s warm breath, to the space where my smile resided. He had already begun to play. He told me, through the coalescence of letters, everything. This “soliloquy” was the thoughts of my high school ideology played out, played on. The guitar strings cradled the “sol”, the sole interpretation of everything I was and wasn’t to him. The “lil” was sucked underneath the garage door and into the storm, released and caught by “lo,” low. His voice was low in the morning, a grumble of realism, which woke before the rest of his philosophy. Lo was the note that his pinky had to extend to play, for me. “Quy” was the scar on his finger.
All other words, I had tested and tried; but this “soliloquy” encompassed a realization that I would never need another moment, never need another song, never need another word. Only one word hovered near my lips and flickered across my mind. Soliloquy. This word, wrapped in memory breaks the barrier of time and the forgetfulness of my cluttered mind to indulge in existence as an illusion. Without its deeply entrenched reference to Ray’s song, the dedication, the darkness, and the silence only filled with the smell of devious exhales, the word soliloquy would not be seared into my mind.
New York has transformed the seemingly auspicious soliloquy into a transition, a portal to understanding myself. The experience was not fortified with truth; Ray was, as usual under the influence. Despite his discrepancy from reality I did find a drop of truth within the memory, but rather from my reaction than from the experience itself. I felt convulsed with feelings: I was happy, heartbroken, in love, excited, awkward, amused, sentimental, and confused. I was sure of nothing, and wanted for nothing more, than the meaningless and meaningful: soliloquy. By experiencing my time as an undergraduate at NYU through the lens of my former self, I have begun to discern that the colorful lifestyle is more than a mirage of fabulous but rather, a portal into the kaleidoscopic world of the aware. The people of New York City are the designers of awareness. They have espoused the intricate beat that propels the city’s creative engine. This beat encapsulates the echoes of pennies trying to find their way back to the Washington Square fountain, the scuffle of platform heels yearning for the indulgence of a cab ride, and the clicking of a lighter that illuminates the contours of a listener’s face.
I felt as if I had been fully submerged into a pool of oil on a hot pavement, staring up at the reflected colors of the rainbow on the sleek surface of its dark, toxic reality. The Brooklyn loft was filled with strangers sharing first kisses. The newly formed star-crossed lovers must have found themselves inspired by the twinkle lights. The strands of Christmas-past used and reused the bright colors of the tapestry in which they were entangled to enhance their luminosity. The Turkish evil eye stared out from the handprint painted on the canvas. Clearly satisfied from its view from the wall, it remained unblinking and hypnotized by the haze of candles and the unspoken whispers of wonderment. Above the bar, there was a screen fitted in an old window frame, that had a crackling movie of a train, which gained momentum synchronized with the rate of the dancers’ heartbeats projected onto it. As the band began to play, a girl with feathers in her hair stepped up and belted out: “Hey! What’s going on!” that were lyrics from a song by FourNonBlondes. Everyone stood to attention, as if it was the anthem of the lost soul
revolution. A revolution led by the ingenious creative freaks of originality that were sharing their insatiable vision of freedom. The freedom to express oneself in a land that has enough open space- in the minds of each nonjudgmental inhabitant- to calm the wanderlust of each spirit, so that it may call this place: home. Thus, in New York City with my friends all around me, and the light of exhilaration commingling with the gust of voices, I felt completely free to listen.
I hope I will never take the silence between my steps for granted. New York City has given me the opportunity to be constantly inspired by the array of sounds around me. Though, I will never forget the fleeting moments of quiet. I have found the silence that the city rarely gives me along my venture, is the perfect time to fall through the trapdoor and begin again. This time I will step in sync with the rhythm beating inside me, and listen to myself moving forward.