Things I Miss about Manchester

I’ve lived in Manchester twice, the first time in the neighborhood of Withington for 4 months and the second time in City Centre for 6 weeks. The flat I lived in the second time was about 10 minutes, walking, from the Manchester Arena where this week’s suicide bombing targeted young concert-goers and their parents. I would have been one of those people offering, at 2am, a cup of tea, a chance to recharge phones, even a spare bed.

To honor this city I adore and greatly miss, I’m making a list:

1. The people. Individual people, absolutely. The first I knew something had happened in Manchester was when I started getting Facebook notifications that friends had checked in as safe. But I also just miss the spirit of Mancunians. This is a former industry town, red-bricked and soot-stained with old canals and some gleaming new facades. First-rate public transit. Prams (strollers) in parks. Excellent museums and art galleries. Where there are more students than you can reasonably hope to count. Where I once saw a person in a rabbit costume walk sedately up the street. Where the Queen once attended a couple’s wedding in city hall. Where I could look up from my kitchen table and into the faces of passengers on the top level of a red double-decker. Where a statue stands of Abraham Lincoln, commemorating that though the American Civil War decimated Manchester’s economy, the ending of slavery in the US was worth it. They are extraordinary people.

2. Piccadilly Gardens. From hot chocolate at an outdoor table to watching children play in the fountain, from whirring over the city in a carnival swing to the Primark at the corner (good grief, I miss that Primark). I miss just walking through on my way to Arndale’s food court for lunch with a friend or to Printworks then a pub. (Both Arndale and Printworks are mere blocks from the arena.) I miss the ridiculous two Starbucks locations on opposite sides of the square, and a Cafe Nero, and another Cafe Nero around the corner. I miss getting desperate enough for a single Krispy Kreme donut that I pay that price and queuing for the bus in the freezing cold. I also miss running to the first stop up Portland Street when I arrived too late and my bus had already shut its doors to depart.

3. Food. MCR loves curry. And American restaurants. And Chinese food. Mostly curry, which is as it should be. And Chinatown is fantastic (I have a favorite place). Krispy Fried Chicken, Kansas Fried Chicken, and various other establishments (including KFC) can be avoided quite well, thank you. (The meat is hallal, there’s no such thing as extra crispy, they fry in olive oil, and it’s the greasiest food you can manage to find in all the Isles.) A friend begged me to go with him to the Arndale mall food court when Taco Bell opened. I know someone who threatened to move when the American-style burger place in the Northern District burned. But oh, goodness. The curry!

4. Parks. This is very much an English thing, but Manchester’s parks are amazing. I already talked about Piccadilly Gardens. Then there’s the one nearest my flat in Withington with double duck ponds and willows that look ready to whomp. The one where the Salford and Quays meet. The one where my friend took her boys to play every day, even in the rain, and where I also took them when I babysat them. The one we’d cut through visiting friends in Fallowfield. The one where I saw a 5-actor production of “Pride & Prejudice”. The ones attached to homes in the National Trust, great sweeping grounds of manor houses like Dunham Massey, Tatton Park, and Lyme Park (the house used as Pemberley in the classic “Pride & Prejudice” miniseries). There are even a couple more I can’t place. But parks are well kept and well valued by Mancunians.

5. City Katie. I’ve written about her before. She was her best self in Manchester. And she got really good at applying eye liner, mascara, lipstick, and blush on the train. Less so on the bus.

I long to hear the Mancunian accent. I long to queue! Every Christmas I miss the markets with an almost physical pain. I find myself wistful for a particular yarn shop, wishing I could get my watch battery changed at a certain hardware shop. I yearn for a specific Italian restaurant and please, please give me Nando’s! Did I mention Primark? I miss Primark. The Piccadilly Gardens one.

Manchester is truly English (much more so than London), truly British (see halal meat and curry), truly in love with sports (Man City over United any day), truly lovely in just about every sense of the word. And I am so, so sorry for them. I am also immensely honored to have called Manchester home those short, pivotal times in my life.

Things I Already Miss about NYC

I spent last week in the city of lights, specifically in Brooklyn and I was immediately a bit of a snob about it. I miss the narrow, tall house, the smooth wooden banisters, the orange and red tulips on my dresser. I miss the wonderful friends who hosted me. And here are some other things I miss.

Delivery on everything. We didn’t even order in groceries or pillows or bagels or postcards. But I could have. And I’ve missed that freedom.

Interesting food. Also bagels. And pizza. And macarons. And cart pretzels (even though I didn’t have one, they were always nearby). The restaurants themselves were fascinating: long farm tables so you can share a workspace, round tables stacked with silver plates of pastries, a narrow counter at an open window, a tiny square table in a former church.

Walking culture. I almost never say, “Let’s walk there,” in my life in Macon, GA. It’s still rarer for everyone in a group to assume we’ll walk. Even at church I take the shuttle to and from the back lot where I park. But in NYC, of course we walked the 1.2 miles to the book store. Of course we walked the 8 blocks from the restaurant to the theater. And I’m happier doing so. And I discover so much more along the way. And the Brooklyn Promenade my first night in town irrevocably captured my heart.

Trains. I love them so much a friend called me Sheldon. Mostly, I love that I can travel hundreds of miles without long waits and baggage hassles (as in airports) and while free to read, write, crochet, work, or any number of other things not possible when driving. Trains are soothing, scenic, inspiring, and the least stressful way for me to travel.

Good public transit. Set me down anywhere in a city like New York, ask me to get anywhere else, and I can do it. I don’t need a car or bulky bags—I can’t take anything too heavy with me—I just take myself where I’m going. I get to people watch. I get to share the space and experience with strangers. I’m also, as on trains, free to use my time because I’m not busy driving.

Connections. I had no idea how far the Chrysler building is from the Empire State building. I had no concept of how close Brooklyn Bridge is to Freedom Tower. I saw movies and read books about New York, so every place in New York was a shot framed under a lamppost, a pan of the skyline, every location disjointed and without context. I couldn’t see how the pieces fit together, relate to one another, and continually marveled at how near things were, even more than how big. Plus, I love recognizing a place I’m seeing in front of me from a favorite TV show or a well-loved movie (“You’ve Got Mail” came up a lot).

History. Yes, I love history. Give me a good museum and I’ll be happy all day. But NYC is, in so many ways, sacred ground. Every inch I walked and every train car and every seat in every restaurant has been vital in a person’s life. More than one person. In an old city, my heart beats in the echoes of all the heartbeats around me and before me. For centuries. Including people I admire and people I ought to admire but don’t know.

Art culture. Sculpture installations, galleries, musicals, plays, schools, book stores, and every other form or product of art. NYC is a place for art. When you visit the city, you’re expected to see at least one Broadway musical. The names of galleries and museums can be rattled off by people who have never been been to the Big Apple: The Met, MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Natural History Museum. And I do love art in Macon as well, and in Atlanta, but there isn’t a culture surrounding art in the same way.

Parks. City folks love—and need—parks. And NYC’s parks are unique, like The Highline: a former above-ground rail line full of trees and grasses and flowers weaving through the West Side along the river. Sitting on a bench in Cadman Plaza, I watched children race their scooters and nannies change diapers while a tiny soccer practice was underway. I live near a wonderful park that I use often, but NYC’s walking culture combines with the unique flavors of neighborhoods for delightful beautiful in high contrast to the surrounding miles of concrete. Not that NYC lacks green beyond it’s parks. I was delighted to find tulips growing at bases of nearly every tree on the sidewalks of Brooklyn.

City Katie. I love who I am in a city. I move through the world confidently. I’m comfortable. I’m so happy. Even when something goes wrong (or many things), I have options and I solve problems. Some days the city wins, but I win far more frequently. I’m flexible, patient, amused and amusing. I do so much in a day. I buy things that bring me joy and that I don’t mind carrying for the rest of the day. (It’s a good litmus test, really: am I going to regret buying this after carrying and keeping up with it for four hours?) I have access to almost any experience I desire. I’m creative. I’m so tired by the time I flop into bed at night. I’m on a constant adventure. I love being this creative, curious, confident, capable person. Driving to work in an ill mood this morning, I missed her the most.

“No imagination, I guess.”

For the sake of privacy, I am going to be scant on certain details.

I went on vacation to a warm place on the coast. I was visiting a friend, we fell in with a local artist, and this artist took us to romp around a local, undeveloped island. There we met some of the people who live there, essentially off the grid, who have solar panels and cell phones but sleep in tents on land none of them own. They drag cast-off furniture up from the beach and cook over a campfire surrounded by rocks. This particular morning, when we appeared on the path and the artist called out her greetings, their leader invited the three of us into their camp.

After introductions, the islanders chatted with the artist, with whom they are familiar and friendly, catching up with her and catching her up. The biggest events since they’d last seen her related to an inflated sofa tucked between some trees on the island’s north side and a spat with usurpers who’d come to the island. These men had set up camp beside the tent of a couple who were now sitting beside the fire. The men had set up in the same clearing without asking permission and then had refused to move. They’d stayed up late making noise and moving around beside the couple’s tent, generally being pests until, one day while the couple was off the island, they ripped down their tent and threw their stuff into the trees. The woman wanted to retaliate with glitter bombs, which I thought a rather restrained response considering, but the mother of the island (a steady woman who spoke so rarely that every word had ten times the weight of anyone else’s) had advised against. And so, even the talk of retaliation had stopped. The male leader explained how unreasonable these people were, how the islanders around this fire would have helped them make another camp elsewhere, and been good neighbors to them, if they’d only asked.

He asked several times, clearly still frustrated, “Why move right there? Why take over someone else’s camp?” The others kept reiterating how close they’d set up their tent to the couple’s, how hot that camp is in summer, how each of them—even the mother—had tried to convince them to give the camp back to the couple.

“Why do it?” asked the leader again and again. “Why would someone be that way?” And as I studied the woven armoire adorned by parrot feathers, he answered his own question: “No imagination, I guess.”

It seemed like such a strange conclusion, that I turned back to him.

He said, “I guess they couldn’t look at a place and see its potential. I guess they were afraid of settling somewhere new, where they didn’t know if it’d flood on high moon tides or be covered by birds in winter. Not that we wouldn’t have told them. But maybe they couldn’t picture how it could be. I suppose they thought, ‘Well, these people have been living here for years so it must be an okay camp.’”

Still frustrated but clearly resigned to this new conclusion, he sighed, “Just no imagination, I guess.”

I distrust people with no imagination. No imagination to put themselves in another’s shoes, no imagination to reinvent a space or schedule so it’ll work for them. People who say, “Don’t ever change.” People who believe that society and systems won’t ever change.

Which is not to say that I’m fantastic at this. I try hard to imagine what might have created this fist-clenched woman in front of me or this selfish, vapid man. I try to consider who they might become, who I might become, and speak kindly. I try to look beyond “Well, this works for now/ever” and see what would make me happier. I don’t want to be someone with no imagination. I don’t want to mooch off of other people’s attempts to improve their lives. I don’t want to dismiss someone else’s way of living simply because haven’t lived that way. I don’t want to say I’m a dog person because, actually, I’ve never lived with a cat.

The leader’s words struck me as strange at the time. By way of explanations, it seemed shallow, a mite compared to the usurpers’ behavior. But the more I think on it, the more I do see the leader’s sense.

So, this week, I’m taking Birdie’s advice in You’ve Got Mail (one of my favorite movies). I’m daring to imagine that I can have a different life.

I’m not talking about huge changes necessarily. Getting up earlier, shifting some furniture, volunteering at a hospital, starting to dance again. I won’t do them all, but I’m imagining. And I’m daring to imagine bigger things, too, like living on a boat with a friend, trying online dating, taking singing lessons, pursuing my master’s, traveling abroad again.

I do love so much about my life, but it seems like a really good time to imagine.

On My Own

I recently read Kendra Syrdal’s post about loving a woman who have spent a lot of time on her own. After I stopped singing my favorite song from Les Mis (okay, I haven’t stopped), I thought back to last winter.

Just after Christmas, a friend and I took a long drive. We went north, settled somewhere gorgeous for a few days, then drove somewhere else. We stayed there overnight, drove on. We stayed somewhere new, we drove home. The whole trip was planned and we knew the addresses of the places we were staying ahead of time, but now the entire trip feels like nothing more than drifting. The pair of us were leaves that floated, back and forth, swayed by unseen breezes, until we settled back into life on the ground.

We Southern ladies saw more snow than we had in years. We met and reconnected with great people. We walked a lot. We found new bands to fall asleep to. We listened to Marissa Meyer’s Winter. We talked. We talked so much that I don’t know where we were that week—if it was daylight or night, if we were driving or sitting or walking or creating—when she confessed a fear to me.

She didn’t say it like she was afraid. I don’t know if she knew that’s what it was, this thing she was telling me.

She knew a man. She’d met him years before who had asked her out. She’d said yes and had a good time. Because of her schedule, it was a sacrifice to go. But she enjoyed herself. He asked her out again. She knew him, had known him, and trusted him as well as one can trust the friend he’d been to her. He confused her a little, which may be part of why she kept sacrificing sleep, studying, time with friends and family. She shaved time here and there, which added up to a couple of hours a week to spend with him. Then he asked her for a little more, and a little more. He didn’t push her, but he asked. An extra half-hour. A few texts. A movie. Slight things to most that were significant sacrifices for her to arrange. He called her a few days before Christmas to ask her to be his girlfriend. She asked, once she got back to town and after her trip with me, if they could sit down and talk about what that means. He said yes.

We were in the dark car, the dashboard throwing green and red and orange onto our faces as snow fell on the salty roads. Or we were lounging on white sofas under woven flannel blankets, knotting yarn into hats and scarves and blankets for unborn babies. Or we were breathing on our gloved hands in the not-darkness of a city’s New Year’s fireworks, huddled close in our thin coats. She’d told me about him already. Now she told me, “I don’t know how to make sure he knows I want him.”

The obvious answer might be, “Tell him,” but she wasn’t referring to their impending conversation, once our drifting leaves landed on the ground again. She meant making room for him in her life. She meant the lawn mower. She meant the space next to her in the pew. She meant the bargain sofa. She meant the laugh from her parents’ driveway.

My friend has been on her own for a long time. She’s been an independent landowner, a landlady, a professional, a traveling specialist. She expected to remain that way, in part because of her schedule and in part because falling in love isn’t easy for her. She’d made a life for herself where she rarely needed to call a mechanic and never took the broken lawnmower home to her dad. She organized rental vans for her furniture and brought cardigans to keep her warm at church. She’d figured out how to live her life alone, and she made it the best life she could.

She doesn’t need this man who wanted her to be his girlfriend. She doesn’t need his help or his companionship. Even as she confided this fear to me, she knew her life would be simpler without him: more sleep, more studying, more time for the people she already loves. But she wanted him there.

She knew he would need to feel wanted, maybe want to feel needed, but she didn’t need him. She wanted him there, if he understood exactly what her life entailed and still wanted them to be a couple, but she knew that it would take time to make room for him. It would be hard. I heard how afraid she was to do this, because what if he left? What if he changed his mind? What if it just doesn’t work? It takes so much longer to put yourself back together than it took to fall apart (thanks, Suzanne Collins). Learning to be lonely but okay is a bone-breaking kind of hard, but once you’re there, you can live. Maybe you can live for the rest of your life in just that way, delicate but secure.

My friend knew she’d need to trust him. She knew he’d need to feel wanted. So she was confessing that she didn’t know how to make that happen.

I heard her fear under her clinical tone, but I also heard her hope. After she laid everything out before him—what her life would look like because of her programs and her job—and after he considered what it would mean for him and them, she hoped he’d still want to be her boyfriend.

She hoped, and that’s why she was trying, more than a week before their conversation, to figure out what she would need to do to make it work, for him to feel valued.

I’m telling you this story about her because it could be a story about me. The details are not the same, certainly. I’ve decided to make space for someone at the same time he decided I wasn’t worth it. I’ve refused to make space, and he’s gone away hurt. But after last winter’s setting-less conversation, I realized that I have also built my life to be on my own. I want someone, but I don’t need anyone. And I know that, because I’ve been on my own for so long, strictly relying on friends for what I simply cannot do myself, it’ll be hard for him to figure out I want him. It will be hard for me to show or tell him.

I won’t need him. People like to be needed. Some people are used to being needed. I’d much rather be needed than to need anyone, though honestly I like being my own, mostly autonomous unit.

My friend is a beautiful blessing in my life. Her boyfriend thinks the same. I admire her so much for both her hope and her fear, for understanding herself this well, for giving me a few words to better understand myself as well.

Update: Their wedding was fun and poignant and lovely and loving.