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“Oh there’s another bend in the road at their end,” answered Anne lightly. “I’ve no idea what may be around it—I don’t want to have. It’s nicer to not know.” – L.M. Montgomery
There’s this cemetery in New York that you can see from the highway as you head downtown from LaGuardia. It’s massive. Big enough that you can’t help but watch out the window as you drive by. It’s filled with tall, spired headstones in stark hues of black and white, like towering chess pieces; delicate and ornate enough that you know they’re not modern.
And as weird as it might sound to say it, that’s how I knew I was going to like New York overall as a place – from this graveyard ‘welcome’ of sorts. I’ve had this affinity for cemeteries since college. Not a love of the morbid and spooky variety, as you might imagine, but something much more nerdy and romantic and poetic from my childhood.
Growing up I was obsessed with the PBS Anne of Green Gables TV special from the 80s that came on at least once a year. I just loved the way she exaggerated everything and lived in her head daydreaming and said what she thought and had a terrible temper. I couldn’t get enough of Anne, so I read books about her too. She was everything I wanted to be as a little girl, and quite a bit of what I ended up becoming as an adult.
At least I like to think so.
But in my favorite book of the series, Anne of the Island, she goes away to college and lives right across the street from a graveyard, as did I in my college dorm. And like Anne, I probably wouldn’t have decided to take a stroll through it without the assurance that there was “scope for imagination” in it, but stroll I did at the opportunity to emulate my literary idol.
The thing about Anne’s Old St. John’s and my very real life campus cemetery is that they were both old enough to not feel morbid. The same awe and wonderment Anne felt looking at tombstones from the 1700s, is how I felt reading the names of students and teachers who had lived through the Civil War. It was somehow peaceful.
You were just struck by this overwhelming sense of the continuity of life. All of these people, actual people, with actual lives, who lived so long ago, not in a history book or a black and white film, but in the actual world. People with problems and struggles, with things they wished for, and cried tears over. People with dreams and aspirations who lived and died.
And while all of the specific details about each person I imagined were lost to me, and to time, being surrounded by death reinforced for me the idea of what makes up a life. These things we all experience. The wonderful, amazing things like joy, infatuation, love and hope, and the paralyzing, painful things like resentfulness, fear, longing and disappointment.
Each of the lives memorialized in that cemetery, colored by all these universal feelings, made me feel less alone in a new place, like I was a part of something that had always been and would go on continuing to be. But I was alone, the only living person on the grounds, and that realization, instead of being frightening, knowing we’d share even more in common one day, was liberating.
Whatever problems these people experienced, whatever anxieties or heartbreaks, distress or dismay, didn’t matter anymore. Whatever enormous pressure they felt to do or to be something, to make decisions, to make the right decisions, was over for them. It just didn’t matter. And one day it wouldn’t matter for me either. Not in a nihilistic way. In a way that I looked my own insignificance in the eye for a moment, and it was incredibly freeing.
It wasn’t going to matter in another hundred years if I had too much to drink and talked too loud at a party or if I wrote a bad paper or zoned out in Atmospheric Science 101. Free from the burden of my own ego, of that overactive tendency to worry about life and question every little thing around me, including myself, okay – myself most of all, I would leave the graveyard with no other expectation than to just live my life the best I could. To experience it all in its entirety, the beautiful ugliness of my own mortality.
New York gives you that same feeling. I’ll never forget my first time walking down the street there. Traffic was so bad that I had to get out of my Uber in order to make it to my appointment, and there I was, alone in New York City – not in a photograph, or a TV screen, but in real life, and I was overcome by the sheer size of it.
I didn’t matter here either, or any of my worries. I was just a girl walking down the street. One of god knows how many others that day. But there’s this other feeling that’s just as liberating as our own insignificance. Anonymity.
No one cared about who I was or what I did, where I came from or where I was going. Because no one knew me. Like the Anne books that progress along as her geographical ‘world’ expands, from her home Green Gables, to the town of Avonlea, to Prince Edward Island in its entirety, I had reached a new stage in my own life – Nicole of New York, even if it was just for a visit.
It had been years since I had experienced newness to this degree on my own. Not even traveling to Montreal by myself had made me feel like this. Like the same old fish in a much bigger pond. Fuck, this was an ocean. Going away to college had once felt like this. And starting high school before that.
But this time, I wasn’t looking for a blank slate like I did when I was younger. I wasn’t looking to start over. To be someone brand new. To run away from my problems. To pretend they never happened. I didn’t want to press a restart button on my life.
Instead I walked down the street with my baggage, literally and figuratively, with my personality and my stories full of my memories, surrounded by people just like me, pumping with blood; alive. The pulse of it, all that life in one place, so many people I could get to know, with all of their baggage and personalities. There was potential on that street. Endless possibilities. What stories could they have for me? What memories to share?
I felt for a moment that I had nothing to lose; no one to impress, no way to embarrass myself. I felt for a moment that I could put myself out there in ways I had been terrified to try for so long. I felt that I could.
I felt that I should.
And I wrapped that feeling up in a bow and took it home with me. I brought it to a bar and bought it a few drinks, let it push me gently and lovingly to sit next to a perfect stranger and start a conversation. And I listened attentively for over an hour and asked sincere questions and had the time of my life with just that – life. Reaching out and touching someone else’s. And even though I will probably never see them again, that moment mattered. Moments like these are the only ones that do.
The moments that make up a life.