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.