Urban Anxiety

For 10 years, we lived in what I would describe as an “urban residential area.” Located North of the Columbus downtown area, the walk to restaurants, the grocery store, the library, the farmers market was an easy endeavor. At the same time, we were nestled into a wooded ravine, keeping us cocooned and creating separation from city activity. We spent a year a few miles further North where there was less separation, but also a little less busyness. Now, we live on one of the busier streets in Chattanooga in an apartment with a balcony that oversees it all. The view of the downtown skyline is fantastic–I love keeping the blinds open so I can look out over the park across the street, the bridges over the river, and the cityscape. Being in walking distance of the majority of the things we want or need to do every day is also a big plus. But it’s definitely different.

For us, it’s a small step from where we lived before, but the noise has been an adjustment. Fireworks at the baseball stadium across the river sounded like they were going off right outside our window. We learned about the summer concert series across the river because we thought a band was playing in our living room. When large trucks go by during the day, I have to mute my phone to avoid disturbing conference calls. And, perhaps most surprising to me, sirens scream by every single day. I had no idea there could be so many fires in a town with about 300,000 residents!

We recently met a young guy who told us he had moved here about a week before we did from some small town in Tennessee that I had never heard of. He told us the name of the “big city” he had to drive to as a kid in order to see a movie. The “big city” was another small town I’d never heard of. Walking with him across the street, when I went to push the button for a walk signal, he thought I was walking off the wrong direction. When I explained my intention, he laughed and said he was from such a small town that it never occurred to him he was supposed to push a button to cross the street. I imagined a small town where he could step out in the street unassisted by lights and if a car happened to be going by, they would stop to say hello. This must be a completely different world to him.

While adjusting to the noise is a bit of a challenge (and may have something to do with why I’m only sleeping 4-5 hours a night these days), I wouldn’t give up our location. Convenience is a great benefit. For one, we can see our new bank from our balcony, which has made setting up new accounts a lot easier. We try to take a walk each morning along the riverfront between my first burst emails in the morning and settling down to work steadily for the rest of the day (and, more often than I would like, the evening). The other day, as we were strolling by the bank, our new banker was arriving. He stopped to chat with us for a minute. I can’t remember ever having a banker whom I’ve met once and then seemed like a friend the next time I ran into him. I think of my small-town acquaintance and how nice it feels to be recognized as part of the neighborhood.

As far as feeling like being part of the community goes, we haven’t made a lot of progress there yet. Working from home doesn’t lend itself well to meeting new people. And working a lot limits the time available for activities that promote making new friends. It’s easier to just jump on my bike for a ride whenever I can work it in than it is to have to be somewhere at a specific time. This leads to watching people more than being with people. Part of my problem is putting work away. It was easier to stop working when my office wasn’t across the room 24×7. Now, I think of something I forgot to do and I go do it. Once I get started, I find other things I need to do and soon, hours have gone by. Work often consumes me.

I also have a new anxiety about my career. I worry that because no one sees me answering emails at 5AM, on a conference call at 11:00PM, creating presentations at 8PM, etc. that if I step out to go get lunch late in the afternoon and miss a call, an email, an instant message, people will think I’m slacking. I’m not sure who I think would see me if I were in the office at those times, but I worry all the same. It makes it harder to put work away.

On the plus side, I can take my laptop out on the balcony for as long as I can stand the heat and enjoy the view unobscured by windows at any time of the day (as long as I’m quick with the mute button since I seem to be on the phone at least 8 hours a day). It’s a tradeoff, but I’m adjusting.

But people watching is interesting. Lots of visitors wander the streets. Chattanooga attracts people from all over. Plus, it’s summer time and the ever-blowing breeze from the river attracts people to the waterfront all on its own. I am not the only one watching. Cameras lace the park areas, observing secluded corners from lamp posts. I always wonder who is watching me as I walk by and what they think I’m up to. Security seems to be a primary concern. Cops patrol on bicycles, Segways, foot, and in cars. Between the cameras and the police presence, I find myself wondering if I’m in danger. Funny thing how security can make you feel insecure. Perhaps the anxieties that motivated people to hang cameras and hire extra cops taps into my own anxieties?

I told myself before we started this venture that I had to remember that no matter where we moved, I was still taking myself with me.  Trying to avoid the disappointment of expecting a new life along with a new place, I coached myself that I couldn’t expect to be a new person.  Yet, I find that I secretly hoped I would leave my anxiety back in Columbus.  My husband once told me when we were planning our great escapade that he worried that even if I didn’t have a job, I would still be me.  He didn’t really mean this as an insult.  🙂  He just meant that I can get obsessed and anxious about anything.  I can take the most enjoyable pastime and turn it into a stressful burden in no time–I’ve even managed to do this with learning relaxation techniques.  It’s a skill I don’t take pride in, but it comes from a lifetime of believing hard work is central to character.  The lesson I continue to try to learn is how to relax into the work.  The philosophy of enjoying the journey as much as the destination comes hard for me.  I constantly remind myself to be where I am, to experience fully what I’m experiencing, and to let the next moment take care of itself.  After all, right now is all we have.  But goals loom large and distract from the joy of each step along the way.

I take a deep breath.  I look out over the view.  I remind myself that I am here, sitting on my balcony, my feet pressed against warm concrete, cars rolling by below, writing purely for the pleasure of writing.  Chattanooga is a beautiful place.  And I am in it.  The early morning light highlights the yellows in the trees, giving the scene freshness.  Birds sing loudly enough to hear them over the traffic.  The breeze still holds the coolness of the night and delivers it to me in soft waves.  I think briefly about the work I didn’t finish yesterday, but bring my attention back to now.  I finish my coffee and put my laptop away far less anxious.

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