Coping in the Suburbs: Finding Beauty

I miss travel. I miss roaming and exploring new territories—urban, rural, rugged, marine, alpine…whatever they may be. I live somewhere in between the capital of Westchester County, White Plains, and the town of Greenburgh, so close to New York City and yet so far, somewhere neither urban nor rural. Somewhere known as the suburbs. That may conjure up the stereotypical image of square, neat lawns, and houses aligned in an orderly fashion like an inadvertent homage to homogeneity. Yet that is not the case here, in this neighborhood of the Presidents. I call it that because the streets of this neighborhood right across from the complex of garden apartments where I live are named after U.S. Presidents, from Washington to Lincoln. In my local roamings these days, I greet the Presidents. I walk those hilly streets to exercise, to move, to pretend that I am traveling. Since March, I have walked them so often that I recognize their corners, their sweep, the patterns on their pavement, the houses standing vigil, the bushes, trees, and flowers adorning each abode in ways that do not resemble each other. I have followed their awakening into spring. 

No, there is no homogeneity, not in this corner of the suburbs. Differences blossom: in colors, architecture, gardens, landscape, even in the occasional rocks. Front lawns hardly resemble each other. When they do, there is always a twist that distinguishes them from their neighbor, either the fuchsia—or variations thereof—splash of azaleas, the purple irises and orange lilies, the timid pink of rose buds or the translucent white of dogwood longing to reach as high as the trees whose abundant green crowns hold up the sky. Or the arrangements of begonias, red, white or crimson-edged, and cheerful pansies, zinnias, petunias, violets demanding the attention owed them, each with its own personality, if you look, but really look. 

In past springtimes I used to walk in the New York Botanical Garden at lunch, taking a break from my work nearby. This year, I did not get to see the Garden’s spring celebrities: the magnolias, the cherry blossoms, the lilacs, the apple tree flowers, the azaleas, and now the roses in the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. And yet, roaming the Presidents’ streets here, I’m diving into it more and more. Beauty. Beauty everywhere. Some say the devil’s in the details, but I say that beauty is. Or it can be, depending on the willingness to look, to be present. Human beings have always surrounded themselves with beauty, and one of its inexhaustible sources is nature. Beauty surrounds these homes. I see people outdoors, picking at their gardens, nurturing, caring, paying attention to details. This is a rare time—to have the time for details. And the residents of the Presidents’ streets are doing a great service to beauty as to those of us who walk and stare in admiration. 

This is one aspect of coping with isolation in the suburbs. Much happens indoors, thanks to the virtual offerings of performances, exercise classes, cooking videos, educational resources, Zoom, Skype, and WhatsApp reconnections with family and friends, unread books, closets screaming for minimalism, home renovations, new karaoke machines, practicing of instruments and voices, experimenting with self-styled hair, and so much more. Some recreation areas are open, such as the Rockefeller State Park Preserve and the Kensico Dam Plaza, but they are getting increasingly crowded, not just because of all the outdoors lovers but now because of anyone who simply needs to get out of their home for a change of scenery. Online tutoring is much sought-after: I get requests for language tutoring from students living as far as Massachusetts. Most job searches are on hold or canceled, others are moving at a snail’s pace and the occasional recruiter might call, not promising anything, just keeping an ember of interest alive. 

Neighbors here are relatively quiet, patient, biding their time. I see many more people walking around the complex or hiking the Presidents’ streets than ever. People I meet only a few times a year at the pool or supermarket, if then, are now exploring the neighborhood on foot. Diverse cooking fragrances infuse the air, from Indian to Kenyan to Eastern European to unidentified experiments to your basic tantalizing grilled hamburger, all periodically serenaded by the clinking melodies of the ice cream truck—a business that considers itself as essential as the neighborhood liquor stores, and comes by frequently. Shopping is done rarely and in bulk, with masks and gloves on, and dutifully following one-way arrows in Stop & Shop and the favorite neighborhood market, Apple Farm, winding around aisles, scowling at those who come too close, exclaiming in surprise when finding frozen vegetables and toilet paper. Fish seems to be the always-in-abundance commodity at Apple Farm from porgy, pompano, catfish, and Spanish mackerel to wild salmon, branzino, blue fish, Chilean sea bass, and plenty of others, and more customers than ever are exploring the sea food section.   

Daily life can be monotonous, if we let it. It is hard not to remember how many possibilities we had in varying our occupations and scenery: local and international travel, New York City with all of its cultural and sensual offerings, gatherings of family and friends, dates, happy hours, dancing, and freedom of movement in general. But in this corner of the Westchesterian “‘burbs” we can find variety: in the details of our current occupations and our lives, in the subtle changes of nature and of our own daily mindset. And in that variety, there is so much beauty beckoning to us to notice it. I think of how many times, in the whirlwind of activity, I have driven by the Presidents’ streets and paid no attention to the charming invitation at each corner whispering: “Come and walk here. See what people can do with a home and a garden they love.” Now I see that what they do is art in motion. It is a beauty that lives and evolves perpetually. Beauty is right here, accessible in the everyday, from the details of a flower to the (even if virtual) smile of a loved one. All we need to do is look.       

Photos by Maria-Cristina Necula

About Maria-Cristina Necula (38 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives" (performed at Canterbury Christ Church University, U.K.), three poetry collections, and numerous articles and interviews in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." A classically-trained singer, she has performed in the New York City area at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and released four albums, among which two are of her own songs. Maria-Cristina has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, UCLA Southland, the White Plains Library. Fluent in six languages, she honed her language skills at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and obtained her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Besides music and writing, she enjoys traveling, reading, playing tennis, skiing, and spending time in nature.