Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith
Extraordinary passages of light shine out of the poet’s memoir. Here’s one that made me blink. It’s the author as a college student, on a trip to New York City, and back to Cambridge: a young person, finding herself, forming herself with ideas, finding comfort in movement at night along a most populated corridor.
I made a trip to New York [from Cambridge] one weekend….my aunt Carla had given me a tour of the Harlem neighborhoods, weaving along the blocks of Striver’s Row and, farther north, pointing out the abandoned buildings that had once been magnificent, too, but that now stood like doll houses on burnt-out blocks. After dark, as we were heading back down Lenox Avenue, I’d pointed to the silhouettes warming themselves around garbage cans whose contents had been set aflame…There was something about it that delighted me, something real…
“When I graduate, I want to come here. I want to live in Harlem, with all these beautiful black people,” I announced. It felt like a homecoming. The little sliver of blackness I’d known growing up in California, a sliver that sat inside the walls of our family house, or inside the silence of my mind, leapt in joy to know that there was an immense realm whose facets gave back occasional glimpses of itself.
On the Greyhound back to Boston, signs everywhere told me how much further there was to go…Moving over ramps and bridges, and back and forth across lanes, I relaxed my grip around the confusion, the sorrow, the independence, the wanting, the shifting allegiances, the insatiable wondering that fueled so much of my life. High above the ground, watching the bus’s shadow skimming north on Interstate 95, I felt vacant, expansive, subjective, far away. Like a cloud pushed along by the wind.