The Myth of Change
by Emily Schmidt
The first time I saw New York, I was eighteen, it was springtime, and I was not yet inclined to see anything for what it was. I took the first flight out of Detroit; the sun rising as I waited alone in my terminal— the slanting golden light sharpened the contrasting shadows between what was and what was not. When I landed in LaGuardia, I called for the private car lent to me by the wealthy cousin I was visiting. New York greeted me with that warm embrace it reserves for its most opulent observers, an embrace I was not accustomed to. In trying to recall who I was this day, what I wore, what I believed, what I felt I was owed or needed, I do not remember. And perhaps that is the beauty in New York; its visitors need not remember who they were in the time before, for that version of self, like a shadow, has acquiesced with the passage of time.
I suppose what I mean to say is that New York changed me once, twice, then irreparably over, and over, and over again. I was changed without my consent or, I suppose if someone else less prone to victimizing herself were to write this story, with my full consent. I let the city consume me, both while I was there and while I was away. It became the object of all my desires, the plan on which my life hinged. Walking past restaurants, I saw a version of myself dining at a table messily made up of used dishes and stained napkins. I peered into shop windows only to see myself reflected back, not looking in but ahead at some unnamed destination buried deep into the future. By some instinct, I knew I would not be the same when I left. I let this instinct become my compass, surrendering my bodily control to the forces of this sea of ancient ghosts on which I rode.
Change comes like this, like a wave. Sometimes it is unrecognizable, like a wave while splashing among friends, making a game of the rolling tide. Sometimes it is frightening, the tide unexpectedly larger than anticipated. Regardless of the size, though, you anticipated the waves when you chose to swim. When we choose to live, we choose to change, and sometimes when doing one, we choose also to do the other.
That first night in New York, eighteen and possessed by the mythical spirits of Didion, Dylan, Sinatra, and every idol whose magic is woven into the fabric of that place, my cousin, her roommate, and I chased lemon Smirnoff from an unmarked, plastic water bottle with pink lemonade on the floor of their NYU dorm. To celebrate my arrival and the first of many times my cousin and I were to get drunk off cheap liquor together, we took the Q to Times Square at three in the morning. On the train car, each of us swaying and giggling, I felt her leave me. My former self. When we returned to my cousin’s dorm, I wrote more in one sitting than I ever had in my life.
If I should trace the beginning and the end of my youth back to any one moment, it would be this one. I know now that a coming-of-age is not only the beginning of one age but the end of another. I see it still in my head, albeit a bit blurry from the spirits, like a scene in a movie when the heroine becomes who she is, the music crescendos, the future lays just beyond her, unsullied and unwritten.
When it is dark and we are alone, we spin ourselves these myths of creation.
We reached our stop, and just like in those movies, my cousin grabbed my wrist and pulled me off the train after her. I can only imagine my short, black dress rippled in the wind of such a blunt force as it should have if my life were this movie. In this scene, change arrives with the rolling tide. Before New York, I had not imagined myself capable of being the person I wanted to be. Really, I hadn’t a clue who I wanted to be, let alone possess the tools to become her. But there, where youth is alive with the shimmering hope of a night never-ending, it happened. I changed. And it’s hard to tell you exactly what I mean by that because I didn’t look any different, or act different, or feel different, really. Something just happened in the way sweeping changes happen when you least expect them, and most need them. There was a shift in me, and from then on, the myth of New York– where it all happens, where this version of myself who is young and alive and independent and inspired– felt so in reach. Perhaps that is what Icarus thought, too.
When it is dark and we are alone, we spin ourselves these myths of creation. Our origin stories. Sometimes self-fulfilling prophecies. We tell ourselves the stories of who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. How we had to shed versions of ourselves to be the one here, now. We think of the people, the places, the moments inextricable from our beings and how these things either forced us to choose to change or gave us no choice. And yet? And yet, and yet, and yet; we change. Whether we must, we want to, or we are reluctant to even think the thought, the table at which our former selves convene grows longer as time carries us on.
Change, when we are conscious it must occur, is uncomfortable. Our bodies grow stiffer with time, and comfort becomes a necessity rather than a luxury. To change, to be uncomfortable if only for a season, grows harder to endure when each passing birthday cake begins to look like more candles than cake. We make lists of things we desire, selves we want to inhabit, perhaps changing not for the better but for the worse. But change in all forms is our running mythology. It is what fuelled Icarus, and it is what fuels us. It is the force that inspires us to trudge forward when it is hardest to go on. For me, the myth of New York haunted me for years after that first visit. Every decision I made had to factor in the “someday” my identity would be irrevocably tangled up in that place. As time carried on and I had yet to find myself arrive there, at this version of myself, I vowed not to feel ashamed or defeated by my failure to fulfill my own prophecy but inspired by such a dream I spun for myself. And perhaps then, did I change again. No longer mystified by my own mythology but inspired by it–charged by it.
If change is inherently uncomfortable, perhaps the best thing we can do is be comfortable with ourselves, whoever they may be. When we change, we may look into a mirror and not recognize the face staring back, but what if we vowed to always see ourselves, however we arrive to this mirror? I am not of the camp that believes we never really know ourselves. I know you’ve heard that in a song before. It’s not true; we always know ourselves. We know who we are at the end of summer, at the beginning of winter, in April and in August, on Monday morning and on Friday night.
When I left New York, I was still eighteen, it was still springtime, and I was perhaps even less inclined to see things for what they were— but I was different. Maybe it was the luxurious kiss of opulence or the mythical forces at play, but I knew that New York was where it was happening. In fact, the next time I returned to that city, freshly 21 and in an August much different from those I romanticize in February, I had “it’s all happening” tattooed on my arm. A reminder of all the selves I have yet to meet, all the lives I have yet to live, and all the changes I have yet to grow through. When I see myself and this part of me looking back in the mirror, I smile. I know her. I have always known her. It is all happening, all the time, and all we must do is vow to always see it.