For so long I’ve wanted to write something, to be able to say something about what it’s been like to move from upstate New York down to Atlanta, Georgia. To leave a stable and rewarding job as an art teacher to resume waitressing with a big old backpack weighted down with student loans–for no reason except that I had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right, and that I wanted something different: mainly, whatever allowed me more time and energy to make and write. I wish I could write about this in some sort of formal, orderly way, but, I can’t seem to follow a thought long enough. There are too many thoughts, too many nuances and shifts and ups and downs to capture it all. In stages of transition, I’ve learned, my brain relies heavily on pictures, and less on words.
My first week in Atlanta was followed by five days in Copenhagen punctuated by two long, transatlantic flights. The week in Denmark, and my return to Atlanta, was followed by a few days of minor nervous breakdowns: HAD I CHOSEN THE WRONG PLACE!? WHY DID I PICK THIS CITY WITH AWFUL TRAFFIC!? AND WHAT THE FUCK WAS I DOING IN THE SOUTH!?
But ultimately, those breakdowns were freeing. They untied me from any expectations of what Atlanta could or should be, and allowed me to tumble more swiftly and courageously into whatever this phase of life might be called; an ambiguous in-between, perhaps.
I have yet to experience much “success” here. I have days when I want to throw in the towel but I can’t–I don’t have the money required in order to give up. I have days when I question my logic in moving to a car-obsessed southern city. I have days when I miss my students and wonder if I’ve made a huge mistake.
But most days–even on my worst days–I also have something I haven’t had in years:
That feeling like I belong in my skin. Like I’m re-becoming myself. Like I’m learning how to be Katie, again, after years of trying to be something else. Like I’m free and alive in a way I’d forgotten how to be. Like I give far fewer fucks about things that just don’t matter–but that used to keep me up at night. Like I can’t sleep some nights–because I’m so excited about what the next day might bring.
And Atlanta is teaching me a lesson I’ve long done my best to avoid: be present. Not because of anything glamorous, but because Atlanta is changing and reinventing itself alongside me as I reinvent my own life. I cannot predict what living in this city will be like in five years because it’s simply not known. Instead of racing into the future in search of solid forms to hold onto, something I’m accustomed to often doing, I have to first simply say “I don’t know!” and then stay put in today, in this very second. Maybe I can think about next week or month, but that’s it. And really, it’s quite refreshing; life distilled and expanded all at once.
Sometimes there are moments of magic when I realize where I am–in this strange city that I’d never imagined I’d ever live in, and piecing together a life, slowly and with very small pieces, but making the effort nonetheless. I’ll be biking along, more confident in my place on the road than ever before, and I’ll smile when I think about all of the new faces I’ve learned, the new voices I’ve heard. People I could have never imagined. People who are twenty-one, fifty-two, and most of those other ages in between. I marvel, a little, at how much of this city I’ve seen and explored; I especially enjoy the fact that I spent my first month here in a neighborhood many Atlantans make a point to avoid. But I liked it. I like my new neighborhood too: with its huge, towering trees, its tiny bungalows with porch lights, its hills and winding roads. At night time when I go out for strolls, it feels like some kind of magical fairy wonderland. At least to me.
I think maybe I had to slide off the rails a little. I had to try to be something I wasn’t. Because despite the fact that getting through my day-to-day in Rochester was such a struggle (for five long and aching years), it seems to be the only thing that makes this process even possible. I’m thirty-three–already “too late” to quit a full-time job to give more attention to my art. I’m single. I have a negative net worth. I have no mortgage, no promise of children, no cord I can follow from here into the future. The future, instead, feels like a distant cloud–I can’t imagine it yet. I know it’s out there, but I don’t know what shape it will have turned into by the time it rolls in over head, once I’m in it. I used to obsess over “never meeting someone”. I used to freak out when I thought maybe I’d never get to have kids. I felt like I was dying when I imagined my future doing what I was doing. But I think I am learning that what I really want is perhaps not formulaic. Is perhaps not what I have been told I should want. Is not what I thought I was supposed to run after.
The other day I wrote a five page poem about someone I’ve never met. Tonight I started writing a poem about air. I’ve written a rough draft of an essay about fear of flight. I’ve become a tad obsessed with the idea of gravity, the idea of falling. I wrote other rough drafts of poems about magic, about death that looks like a fish under water, about the colors blue and purple. I’ve started sketching out a series of possible paintings–the faces that haunted me for years returned, but with greater clarity and seeming purpose or direction. Maybe everything I’m thinking about and starting to make is total crap, but I don’t care. To exist again, as a sort of a fountain, almost feels like enough. The ideas never stop flowing, and I’m never bored, and with the exception of worrying about money, I never feel trapped. I feel like I can move through the world, and my life, freely again. I feel like I’m finding the courage and confidence to not only be myself, but stand up for myself, and to face my worst fears more holistically, to figure out how to make peace with them.
I have realized this, though: I’m happiest when I’m constantly surprised. And not like, big surprises, just little ones. Anyone can live this way. You just have to give up planning a little, and let life happen to you a little, and there will be surprises every day. Many are good, some are not so good–but if not-so-good surprises are a required part of the deal, I’ll take them–it’s certainly better than never being surprised at all.
Will Atlanta work out long term? Will I stay forever? If I don’t, where will I go next? What will my next career move be? Will I meet the love of my life? Will my art be successful? I know none of these things. All I know is since I’ve arrived, since I made the decision to leave formal teaching and pursue my art and writing, I’ve felt better and better, even if I have days where I am freaking out about money or because I can’t exactly imagine a solid future.
The other night I took uber pool home from work. My driver, the other passenger, and myself all immediately bonded–each of us had made the decision to leave our careers in the past year. The excitement in the car, between us, was palpable. The driver said, being the oldest and likely the wisest: “The biggest thing is just letting go. Once you let go you realize that the unknown is where it’s at. It’s where you find out who you really are. It’s where life is the best.” The other passenger and myself were basically cheering at his saying this. Because, as these past few months have taught me: every word of that is true.
So, I don’t know what Atlanta will bring. I chose it for its forests and insects, for its diversity, for the plethora of artistic and social justice movements happening on the ground level, and for its seeming adoration of surprising everyone, including itself. We’ll see where those lead me. But for now, I have some projects to work on, some magical forests to explore, some fears to encounter, and lots of other work to do. If you ask me for a five year plan, I can’t give you one. If you ask me where I want to end up, I’ll give you a loose and rather nebulous description. I just want to live really, really well. I want to love well. I want to be good to others. I want to do the work I’m on this planet to do (which is: to make/write art, to share it, to teach it). And I’m so happy, most days, to be here–and so happy I found the courage to let go and fall freely out into the world, into the great and wide unknown, every single day.