It takes about 80 minutes to travel from Rome to Florence on a high-speed train. I rode on such a train earlier this summer. I sat in an aisle seat next to a 30-something woman who wore sunglasses so her 60-something mom, whom she was traveling with, wouldn’t see that her eyes were open. She leaned her head against the window and pretended to be asleep while her mom listed their plans for when they arrived in Florence, speaking to her daughter, herself and no one in particular.
The daughter’s head against the window could’ve been the focal point of a painting, the background a blurred landscape of the Italian countryside created by our speeding train. When passed by at 150 miles per hour, the trees become formless blurs of leaves. Individual pines blend into one another, like the ticking milliseconds that amalgamate on a stopwatch.
Then, without warning, the train enters a tunnel and the window turns black. The trees disappear. The only view is your reflection. The reflection moves slowly compared to the zooming landscape. The face bounces up and down. The eyes blink open and closed, open and closed, and open — the face is still there.
Then, again without warning, the landscape appears and whizzes by, all green trees and clusters of sunny wildflowers.
It takes less than 60 minutes to travel from Cleveland to New York City on an airplane. I rode on such a plane last summer. I sat in an aisle seat next to a man in a suit who lowered the brightness on his computer screen and then tilted it away from me, but not so far that I couldn’t see the word “confidential” in bold red letters. He slouched against the wall of the plane but left the window uncovered. At thousands of feet high, the sky is blue with white dots of clouds below. The land below vanishes as you are transported in a small aluminum-alloy box that holds your world because it holds you.
I traveled to New York last summer because I would spend the next three months interning there. I didn’t love the city. This is not a surprise to anyone who knows me.
“How was your summer in New York?” People would ask, eyes sparkly and full of anticipation. “What is it like to live there?”
“It was a great experience,” I would say, purposefully letting experience hang at the end of the sentence so it could speak for itself.
For a while, I thought I hated the city. There were too many people. Even when it was sunny, the tall buildings cast shadows so long that every time I walked outside, I felt dark and small. Everyone moved quickly. Mouths that smiled were rare.
I decided months later, while alone and surrounded by trees and air, that I couldn’t go back there. I wouldn’t.
I am moving back to New York less than three weeks from today.
Even when the Italian scenery reappears, you can see your reflection in the window. There you are, projected onto the moving blades of grass. Your features are more defined than the blurs of green and yellow and blue and brown. You are now part of the scenery that passes, but instead of staying behind with the vineyards and the hills, you move forward at a rapid pace. The scenery becomes part of you. Your skin loses pigmentation. The greens and yellows and blues and browns color you. You are made more vibrant by the world around you.
Then black returns. And you, the colors of you, reappear without the radiant glow of travel and adventure. You look away. “This I know,” you think. And so the train ride continues, with moments where you try to distinguish the new blurs that pass. Then, in the darkness, you close your eyes and look away from the familiar.
I “hated” New York because instead of being the reflection in the window, colored by the scene and the people, I was the blurred tree in the countryside, a millisecond amongst millions who raced the clock. I am not the first person to feel this way. (Writers penned books about it, after all). And, I will not be the last.
I wasn’t used to the way New York reminded me every day that life passes more quickly than a 150 mph train. Instead of knowing that my friends were busy because of white message bubbles that said, “I can’t today,” I saw people, thousands of them, hastily elbow one another in a rush to get to where they needed to be. When the subway doors closed in a man’s face as he ran toward the train, I saw how easy it is to be left behind. When a young woman dropped a quarter and ran back to put it in her purse as a homeless man reached for it, I saw what it means to scrape by. When I watched “bed guy” lie in his bed for days at a time, I was reminded how often we feel alone.
Humans are constantly left behind, lonely, hungry and fatigued. But New York reflects humanity in other people — people who feel lonely, left behind, tired, desperate, and, of course, happy — rather than in windows. New York shows you your reflection millions of times each day. You can look away, but only at the risk of missing part of yourself.
In three weeks, it will take me less than 60 minutes to fly from Cleveland to New York City. I will see clumps of clouds below the plane, and I will bring my small world to New York to do work I am genuinely excited about. I am fortunate.
I don’t know if I will feel like the reflection this time. I want to be colored by the scene and the people and the energy that lives in the city.
I will try.
This time, I won’t close my eyes because I think I know what I’m seeing. Now, I know that if I, if we, look away from what we think we know, the land, the clouds, the sky, the flowers, and the people, then we—our lives—will pass by.