The Fragility of Time

March 1, 2024

Graphic by Victoria Porter 

Savoring a summer of change in the Museum of Modern Art

I was on 53rd Street, but the woman leaning against the wall was elsewhere. Her upper back rested on peeling brick as she toyed with a cigarette between her fingers, occasionally bringing it up to her blush lips. A slow stream of smoke swam up and into elegant, tangled webs. It gave no care for which directions it traveled. I do that, too, I thought. I exhaled an extra breath, letting some of my heaviness dissipate into gray. She smiled. I stepped inside the museum.

The front desk receptionist handed me a map that detailed major sights to peruse on the five stories ahead of me. Remnants of my old self crept into my ear, urging me to strategize my hours, minutes, and seconds in each corner of each floor, demanding that I organize my free time so that it no longer felt free. Absolutely not. I stuffed the map in my backpack, turned a random corner, and trailed up the stairs.

Standing before Georgia O’Keeffe’s Evening Star No. III, I absorbed a sea-meets-star romance. Two thick strokes of Teal and Denim flirted beside each other and kissed at the end of their journey. They united in uneven elegance, and I remembered the vitalizing potential of uncertainty.

Oh, how so much can change in four months. It was August now, but in April I sat on the edge of a cracked bathtub. The bones in my back curled into a question mark as I sought answers I didn’t have. For three years, I canceled plans to write scientific reports and spent weekends hunched over literature reviews. In between meetings and manuscripts, a sneaky voice — one I’ve nurtured into my voice today — would whisper, this isn’t what you want. Confronting that would mean change. Change meant starting over, and starting over meant wasted time. So instead, I searched for satisfaction between the lines on my resume, attempting to manipulate esteemed research awards into meaning.

But you can only sustain lying to yourself for so long. With my life thrown into two suitcases and three plane tickets in hand, I left. No return ticket, not yet. I’d never traveled like this before and I wouldn’t return the same.

Inside the painting, Scarlet floated on top of Teal and Denim. Although most of her body was anchored down by intimate familiarity with blues, she nervously ventured higher. Her sides flirted around Tangerine, and I joined her in exploration.

Leaving home gifted me with a mental and physical distance from a scholarly identity that I mistook for my entire identity. Thoughts of research papers, project next steps, and emails to send were replaced by directions to the nearest bakery shop, the funny-yet-natural feeling of my feet on cobblestones, and which backpack pocket held next weekend’s train tickets. My notes app evolved into a best friend with whom I shared every discomfort and discovery. I found myself with more space than I knew what to do with. So, I grew into it.

Graphic by Victoria Porter

I traversed Rome’s winding streets without an itinerary, letting my intuition and a few Google searches guide my days. Intoxicated by newfound freedom, I let foreign fingertips entice me onto dance floors. We twirled and laughed and spilled. For the first time, I didn’t hyperfixate on what tomorrow looked like. Instead, we melted into each other’s eyes while saffron skies turned to charcoal. Although this time was fleeting, I gave myself permission to relish temporary tenderness.

I breathed in the chilly Himalayan mountains and exhaled it into a journal. I learned to gift patience and care to my body, as the winds did. But again, it’s just a body. That’s liberating: to know this vessel is only a chamber for who you really are. I began to embellish mine with local-made jewelry, a shiny nose stud, and five fewer inches of hair (and then two less). Still, it’s just a body; I simply feel more of the person inside it now.

I mirrored New Yorkers. In the middle of millions, every foot forward was a statement: It’s not easy to be here, and I choose it every day anyway. Central Park became my exercise ground for this mindset, literally. I started running. Every day, I ran a little longer and a little more than my legs and lungs wanted me to. It wasn’t easy, and I chose it every day anyway.

I don’t mean to romanticize my travels. I tripped often, leaving each place with more bruises than I arrived with. But every time I pulled myself up, I went a little farther before I fell again.

Embraced by Scarlet’s touch, Tangerine gave warmth to Cream, who enveloped Sun. I found myself doing the same.

When they told me that I was unstable and steered off the road to a good life, a life of science and certainty and security, it hurt. Badly. They said financial and social prestige would launch me into my old ways. And when I didn’t rebound, they worried. But I couldn’t look back, not now, not after I’d finally found the confidence to change course. I choose to marinate in the unknown, to glean comfort and inspiration from it. Even though I don’t know what I’ll find at the end of this road, I know I won’t regret trying to find out. ■

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