This weekend, my family and I escaped the city. We zipped our suitcases, buckled our seatbelts, and drove away from Minneapolis, where we live. We took I-94W and US 10-W and Country Road 23 and kept going until the numbers stopped mattering as much as the direction we were headed: up north, to the country.
When we got to the place where the Mississippi River begins, we stopped driving. We stayed in a little red cabin with a sleek metal roof. Inside the cabin, there were knotted wood walls and a big window over the couch that looked out on a blue lake edged in tall green pines. It looked like a painting of an idea. The idea was simplicity.
I have to tell you: The simplicity seeped into me. It entered my skin and my bones and my heart. I felt the red cabin and the blue lake and the green pines. I felt all together with myself and with the place. I felt good.
When my husband drove us back, we had the conversation we have every time we get out of town. “Why don’t we live somewhere else,” my husband asks. “Why do we live in a city?”
My answers usually come from my calendar. I live in a city for late suppers splitting Korean BBQ pizza at Young Joni. For author talks in the black box at Moon Palace Books. For breathwork circles with Helen Buron at Sacred Space. But this time, on this trip, my calendar offered no answers like these. No shared food. No shared events. No shared breath. The Covid-19 pandemic had erased it all.
Without the container of my calendar to hold the answers, I felt a small shock, as if I had missed a step coming down the stairs. Was I wrong about where I had landed? Maybe there wasn’t a reason to live in a city at all, not anymore. Not with the pandemic. Not with civil unrest. As the pine trees gave way to outlet malls, I scrolled through Zillow, trying to picture being at home in another life. A simpler life, a life of blue lakes and green pines.
That’s when words from a book I had read at the cabin dropped in. They offered the answers my calendar did not. The book is Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. In it, adrienne says, “I have grown an appreciation for simplicity, while also understanding that I enjoy it as a visitation — that being in a complex life is actually intriguing and delicious to my system.”
I think complexity is delicious to my system, too. As far back as I can remember, I have been drawn to complexity like a fleck of iron pulled to a magnet. I like complex conversations, complex ideas, and complex people. I also like simplicity. But maybe I like it the way one of iron’s 26 protons likes one of its 26 electrons; I am attracted to it, but the place I settle — my home — is someplace else.
You can find complexity in a lot of places. You can find it inside an atom of iron. You can probably find it alongside a blue lake and green pines. But a city is complex by definition. A city is a place where lots of different people with lots of different experiences mix together and try to make it all work.
Some days, I don’t know how it can work. But that’s the magic of city living. I don’t have to, all alone, by myself. We get to figure it out — together. It’s an inspiring call to action that adrienne wrote about in her book, too. “How,” she asks, “do we turn our collective full-bodied intelligence towards collaboration, if that is the way we will survive?”
When we — in all our complexity — collaborate, then ideas and practices can emerge beyond what we could possibly design on our own. There’s magic there. There’s hope. And that magic, that hope — that right there — that’s why I live in a city. And that’s why, when the highway curved and I saw the silver skyscrapers gleam on the horizon, I knew I was almost home.
This essay was also published in The Work + Life Balance.
5 thoughts on “Why I Choose City Life, Even Now”
Thank you, Emily, for another thoughtful essay. I can just imagine driving back down I-35 and seeing the cityscape again.
I’m writing with the hope of challenging/complicating some aspects of your piece. First I’ll disclose that I am also a settler, that I’m in my own process of learning about the legacy of settler colonialism in this country and in my mental paradigms, and that many of my comments will be an echo or amplification of ideas I encountered from Indigenous people either in writings or podcasts or trainings (I’ll credit specifically when I can).
I think that the dichotomization of rural/urban as simple/complex is a convenient literary device that obfuscates a much richer and more complicated reality, and which also reinscribes some of the basic assumptions of settler colonialism and white supremacy.
What is meant by ‘simple’? Perhaps a closer connection to nature? Scarcity of people? Lack of consumer materalism? I would challenge many of those stereotypical associations based on my own (limited!) personal experience living in rural Alaska for the last year (Yup’ik land in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta).
Indeed my existence here is in closer connection to the plant and animal world, but nature is anything but simple. Living in rhythm with the seasons, the extremes of weather, the movements of animals for hunting and fishing, the availability of food to harvest – it is full time work that requires a deep and sophisticated knowledge passed down by generations of people living off the land. I don’t have that knowledge because I’m not Indigenous to this place, but some resources I’ve used to learn more about this include Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Always Getting Ready/Upterrlainarluta by James Barker, On the Land podcast available at http://www.onthelandmedia.com, and the generous wisdom of Yup’ik people I’ve come to know in Bethel.
As to the world of human relationships in a rural setting, I have found that to be just as complex as in a city, if not even more so. Because of our isolation, I am more dependent on my neighbors than when I lived in a city. Because there are fewer people, I interact with my neighbors in more settings and bring all my intersecting identities into those interactions in very different ways. And there aren’t really isolated neighborhoods to retreat to–we’re all holding space together all the time.
What I most wanted to bring up in response to your piece is the way that the ‘rural/urban’ ‘simple/complex’ duality perpetuates the legacy of settler colonialism in this country. (This part is really all thanks to the wisdom and writing of Indigenous scholars and activists.) It was the notion that the ‘country’ was empty and waiting to be discovered that provided the justification for the taking of Indigenous lands by European settlers in the form of Manifest Destiny or the national park system. The suggestion that Indigenous people were ‘simple’ or ‘primitive’ provided justification for genocide. Otherizing Itasca state park lands as ‘simple’ or ‘wilderness’ negates the historical stewardship of the Mdewakanton, Anishinabewaki, and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ peoples and contributes to the ongoing erasure of Indigenous people (credit https://native-land.ca/).
I am confident that you do not intend to perpetuate colonization or dehumanization, but these dangerous paradigms are deeply embedded in the narratives and basic constructs of our settler culture. Without examination, we bring them along with us wherever we go. In these ideas I’m drawing from Indigenous historians like Nick Estes and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a decolonization training put on by the Alaska organization Native Movement, the Red Nation podcast, and the Me and White Supremacy workbook by Layla Saad, among many others.
My intention is not to ‘call out’ what you wrote, but instead to ‘call in’ a critical awareness of the ongoing presence of settler colonialism in our world and how easy it is to perpetuate it. I am very much in the process of realizing and reflecting on the ways that I too reinforce the ‘isms’ I am hoping to dismantle. I am grateful for your courage in putting your writing out in the world, and for this opportunity for both of us to do some ‘public learning’ (credit Native Movement) around colonization.
With lots of love and respect,
Thank you for the love, reason, and accountability behind your comments. On consideration, I agree with your critiques.
I want to say a lot about my intent and what I was trying to say and what I meant and why I said what I said, but I know from BIPOC activists (including adrienne maree brown, whose ideas partly inspired this piece), that it works best when we assume good intent and critique impact. The impact of my words is that I invoked (and therefore reinforced) old and wrong-headed settler/colonial concepts. Full stop.
There is a part of me that now wants to delete this essay, but I am going to resist that impulse. I think there is value in admitting you are wrong and acknowledging mistakes, and I am proud to take part in a vulnerable dialogue with you about this. Thank you for the opportunity for public learning.
With love and respect back,
Thanks Em for being so gracious! After I posted my response I regretted its overly critical tone and implication that I had access to the ‘right’ answers. I did not mean to convey superiority and am sorry if that is how it came across. Again I am grateful that you were able to hear my response in a loving spirit! It turns out it’s really hard to write about this stuff, to put something down for others to critically engage, when I still don’t know how to organize my own thoughts. I am very much publicly learning here. Thanks for holding space with me! We’ll all do better when we all do better 🙂
I made a little squeak of delight to see breathwork at Sacred Space as one of your favorite city things! Mine too. And I really resonate with this: I yearn for simplicity some days, but the complexity fuels my curiosity and creativity.
On Tue, Oct 6, 2020 at 8:05 AM Emily P.G. Erickson wrote:
> Emily P.G. Erickson posted: ” This weekend, my family and I escaped the > city. We zipped our suitcases, buckled our seatbelts, and drove away from > Minneapolis, where we live. We took I-94W and US 10-W and Country Road 23 > and kept going until the numbers stopped mattering as much as th” >
And not just any breathwork. Breathwork with you! I edited the essay just now so that it more clearly reflects exactly what I miss. 🙂