In 1993, when I was 22, I moved to New York. I wanted to be a writer.
A recent college grad, I didn’t have much, not even a typewriter, but I bought a one way ticket, grabbed my suitcase and a giant birdcage inside which was my cockatiel, who refused to stop shrieking for the entire 12 hour trip, and made my way to Alphabet City in Manhattan to crash with a friend.
I worked as a waitress in a big fancy steakhouse at night and wrote during the day—long hand in big yellow legal pads. I wrote terrible stories in which the characters did inexplicable things like run away to Rome and have abortions because I was too young yet to understand or portray the real meat of life.
The first three years I moved every September—I went from the East Village to Chelsea and finally to Hell’s Kitchen where I signed a lease on a place that finally felt like home. Its lopsided parquet floors and tiny backyard enchanted me, and my bird and I settled in: he; focused on kicking as much birdseed as possible onto the kitchen counter, and me; still trying to come up with a yarn worth spinning.
In 1997 I met a boy. A boy/man, really. We fell in love or at least I did, I still don’t know if he ever loved me, and my writing started to seem much less important. We spent every day, all day together. I moved in with him and left my cockatiel behind to languish alone in a place I still paid rent for, but otherwise only visited once a week or so to pick up my mail and give the bird fresh food and water.
My new boyfriend loved to tell me all about his theories on men, women and how sex drove the world, and he loved to do it while inhaling coke and tossing money around strip clubs. His life was the polar opposite of what mine had been—the highlight of which was the giant bowl of cornflakes I ate before brushing my teeth, trying to work out some character sketches and then going to serve 24 oz. porterhouses to loud men smoking cigars.
Soon, I matched my boyfriend line for line. We were locked in an endless, drug fueled conversation that took precedence over eating, bathing and, eventually, going out or going to work. We were both fired and hunkered down in his place, talking and talking, as our electricity was turned off, our hot water stopped running and our kitchen became overrun with mice and cockroaches. Finally, the landlord asked us to leave.
Instead of sobering up and pulling ourselves together, we tossed our things in some hefty bags and continued the party at my place. We sold everything to buy drugs. By the time my landlord came around to kick us out, my beautiful, charming apartment was empty except for a futon on the floor and piles of empty liquor bottles and cigarette butts.
The sheriff had accompanied my landlord, expecting trouble, I suppose, and the two of them stood guard as we were told to collect whatever we needed most. They gave us ten minutes. I stumbled around, crying absurdly, still jacked on coke, stuffing mismatched socks and dirty underwear into a backpack. I brought the bird to my neighbor, a nice girl who took one long, dubious look at me and accepted the cage and the bag of food wordlessly.
The sheriff and my landlord stood on my stoop and watched as my boyfriend and I shuffled down 47th Street, and the languid July sun stroked our throbbing heads with hot, fat fingers. It would be an entire year before I had a roof over my head again.
As I walked down that street I realized I had been giving pieces of life away ever since I’d met my boyfriend and I thought, now I have finally peeled myself down to nothing. I had no friends left, no job, no money, no home, no pride and no possessions except the odds and ends I’d managed to get into that one backpack. I believed it was the end of me, that I had done so much damage that now I would cease to exist.
But I didn’t.
Day after day, despite having nothing, I was surprised to discover I was still me.
In filthy clothes stiff with sweat, trying to sleep in Penn Station, I was still me. The essential point of energy inside me which is unique and incorruptible, which hides deep within my cells like a sacred, invisible womb was always there.
It was there as I sat forlornly in prison for two weeks, as I continued to prowl the street for drugs, as I dined and dashed from restaurants and wrote bad checks.
It was there as I begged our drug dealer, not for more drugs, but just to use his shower, as I lay in tanning beds which I paid for by ripping coupons out of public phone books so I could fully rest for 20 minutes, as I climbed up the stairs of my old apartment building to sneak up onto the roof because I had nowhere else to go.
A strange fact is that when I had absolutely nothing I felt my self more clearly than at any other time. I had indeed peeled myself apart, but I still existed, and my soul wept and cried out for me to stop all the terrible things that I was doing. It was still strong and loud enough to do that.
Finally, I listened and began to make different choices. It was amazing then, to look back and see that thin, constant line that is my essence drawn through everything that had happened. My possessions, my emotions, and even my actions had never defined me. Things changed around me, I learned and I grew, but even healthier, I was still the same old me.
I learned this lesson many times over the years.
When my step son took his life, I once again thought I would cease to exist. But I didn’t.
When my second son was born—though I was joyous, I was also terrified—certainly this would be the end of me. But it wasn’t.
At each major turn in the passage of my days, I thought that my relationship to things outside myself might impact the integrity of the thing which makes me me, but it never did. I continued on and on despite shifting realities and circumstances.
It is such a basic yet elusive idea. Substitute the word “self” for “clear mind” in the following quote to better understand:
“Clear mind (self) is like the full moon in the sky. Sometimes clouds come and cover it, but the moon (self) is always behind them. Clouds go away, then the moon (self) shines brightly. So don’t worry about clear mind (the self): it is always there. When thinking comes, behind it is clear mind (the self). When thinking goes, there is only clear mind (the self). Thinking comes and goes, comes and goes, you must not be attached to the coming or the going.” ~ Seung Sahn
At our core, we are always the same. Whether we drive a Mercedes or a beat up old Toyota, whether we are Nobel prize winners or beggars rattling our cups for change in the street, whether we are married, divorced, abandoned or cherished, we always, always have ourselves—our beautiful, moon bright, unsullied selves. Knowing that can help release our attachment to the labels that imprison us and set us on the path to personal freedom.
I am grateful for all the events of my life, good and bad, because they have shown me that I am like a rock anchored to the ocean floor.
No matter what tides roar across me and even in calm seas, I know that my spirit will endure as will the spirits of every being that all together help create our singular universe.
Author: Erica Leibrandt
Editor: Katarina Tavčar
Photo: Reddit Aprianto on Flickr