Today, on my way to work, I was sitting on the Downtown 1-train staring at my shoes and noticed that I had a small scuff on the tip of my left shoe. It held my attention for an unusually long time—especially for such a tiny scuff—because I realized I have that same tiny abrasion on each of my left shoes. Every one. I thought to myself, “When did that happen? How did that happen?”
My day went on like a blur because that’s how New York City really is, especially on a Monday: Moving too fast for the parts of me that are still wanting to go back to those lazy Sunday strolls through Central Park with Etta, missing the quiet. Tuesdays are not any easier. I put in a half-day before I run out the door, trying to squeeze in a workout at my overpriced gym before flying down the subway—back on that Downtown 1—to my piano lesson in Chelsea before I run back to Columbia for my doctoral seminar, flying uptown on (you guessed it) that 1-train.
But that piano lesson is a holy time. I’m not required to take lessons, but it’s something I wanted for myself. Amongst other things, I’m working on Träumerei (translates to Dreaming) by Schumann. It’s a favorite of mine—you’ve heard it as offering music over the pandemic—and every lesson, while I stumble through, all I can hear is Shan playing it from that beautiful Steinway, making it sing in a way that keeps me just on this side of atheism. That memory of her, and that profound stillness in the Sanctuary—our Sanctuary— after she finished the postlude lives in my mind rent-free. (If only New York was rent-free!)
There is so much of my life now that feels like I’m dreaming. I’ve spent a night dancing with my friends on a boat, circling Manhattan, and sailing past the Statue of Liberty. I was invited to Carnegie Hall before it opened its doors to the wider public and heard the first music in that hall since March 2020. I’ve biked through Times Square at 4 AM, when there was not a soul in sight. I am curating concerts, conducting a children’s choir, and teaching courses at Juilliard. I walk along the Hudson at sunset every chance I get. My apartment is gorgeous. And then I remember how hard it was: How hard it was to leave home, my school, and especially you, dearest Emerson; how hard it was over the summer, counting down the Sundays; how hard it was to close my laptop after my last service… no Shan at the piano. I remember that profound stillness, too. I thought to myself, “When did that happen? How did that happen?”
But I know exactly when it happened. It happened that day I decided that I wanted this wild, precious life. It’s something that I wanted, chose for myself. Instead of putting one foot in front of the other, I took a leap of faith. I said, “Yes,” to life.
And I know how it happened.
It happened slowly and in small ways. It happened when Katy would leave me treats, or we’d snicker at an inside joke during a staff meeting, or she’d check in on me knowing that I was running (on fumes) from job to job. It happened when—as a section leader—I feverishly took notes about loving and being loved during Becky’s sermon. It happened when Ale said, “It’s okay,” after I forgot to respond to an email (again!), always in her sweet cadence that reminds me of my family in the Rio Grande Valley. It happened when Bill Tackett reminded me not to take life so seriously. It happened when I wept through Mark’s memorial missing his jokes, and when I could make Karen laugh in a way that I’d like to think only I can (just after she’d give me a look only she can give). And it happened when Michelle told me I was a unicorn.
But more than anything, it happened with the choir, every Wednesday and every Sunday for over a decade. Those were the holiest days of my life. Sacred. They shaped me in ways I will never be able to fully express. They enveloped me in a love that I didn’t know I needed. They put me back together. They believed in me when I couldn’t and didn’t stop until I did. Without them, I would have never known how tall I can stand, how deeply I can love, or how hard I could laugh.
This letter is way overdue, dearest Emerson, and for that, I deeply apologize. Michelle asked me in May to write this, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’m not good at “Goodbye.” But it was so much easier when I realized that this was the best chance I’d have to say, “Thank you.” So much of what I am most grateful for in my life in this big city was made possible by our time together, Emerson. There are so many times when I want to pinch myself to make sure this isn’t all a dream. But then I remember you always taught me to dream. I grew into my own, grew my wings in that Sanctuary—our Sanctuary—and it’s not long before we see each other soon. Your roots, our roots, hold me close.
With all my love,