Author’s note: Bear with me; this is long. I decided somewhat haphazardly that I miss writing. Specifically essays. And as much as social media is wonderful in that it can capture your attention quickly and consumed just as fast, there are far too few long-form articles out there. So this year, I’m challenging myself to write 12 essays – personal, academic, whatever. Here is my first, somewhat personal musings on Pittsburgh and life lately. If you make it through this whole thing, I owe you cookies or something.

It’s amazing how the right song, and the right lighting, at the right time, can move you to tears. Can lead you to somehow both the saddest realization and the most hopeful feeling that you could imagine and it hits you out of nowhere, just under these certain magical conditions. Like the golden hour for photography turned a time for golden epiphanies.

I cried today.

Driving to the shopping plaza to see Spaceballs, I cried.

I had been rummaging through the CD holder in my car when I found an unmarked disc. With my iPod out of commission, I’ve been finding little treasures in the forms of CDs and mixes that friends have made me over the years. One such friend happens to be exceptionally good at giving me a random mix every now and then; the shiny jewel-blue disc I popped into my CD player just happened to be one of hers.

I’m listening – as you do with CDs – not really sure what’s going to be on the next track. Not having the luxury of seeing the titles of songs displayed on the list in front of me. And from out of the speakers comes a song I never dreamed I’d hear on a mix from said friend: on this mix of hers, I somehow end up with country music blaring from my speakers (I never thought I’d see the day).

The song in question? Small Town USA.

I laughed at that song the first time I heard it. I laughed a lot.

You see, we regarded our small town growing up as a “prison” (the “bubble” to be exact, but the sentiment is similar). Twenty miles outside of the city itself, growing up in a small town seems like it’s miles away from any civilization, any culture, any excitement. Now I realize that this eon-long twenty-minute drive is nothing at all, but I, like any student itching to grow up and move on, became fascinated with Pittsburgh as soon as I had a car and the freedom to drive to wherever I damn well pleased. I became captivated by the tall mirrors of the PPG building; the much too cool and chic streets of Oakland, teeming with college students; the shady pizza joint on Carson Street, and the night view from the incline, and the patches of greenery you could spy between buildings.

I fell in love with Pittsburgh.

But nights of laying on the stairs to the museum, falling in love with the building-top installations quickly turned to disillusionment when I went to the city for college.

I admit now, I never gave it a fair chance. I was in a place where I made some rash decisions that left me living outside of the life I had at my fingertips, and instead of appreciating the beauty in the weird sidewalk garbage, I found myself dreaming of a life that I couldn’t have. I know now that I was wrong.

But it doesn’t change the fact that I fell out of love with Pittsburgh for a period.

It was dirty, inconvenient; filled with reckless students and scummy places; parking was a nightmare and, not knowing anything in Pittsburgh’s various neighborhoods left me feeling isolated and lonely, like my city was a stranger just waiting to leap out at me and scare my soul from my body. I harbored a lot of hate and resentment, a lot of dissatisfaction with myself and channeled it into the city. For that, I apologize, Pittsburgh. You deserved better.

And now here I am, 5 years later, living twenty-minutes outside of the city again. I haven’t really given Pittsburgh The Being a thought since I left college two years ago. Though it had lost its magic, I also had lost my disdain, the feeling instead replaced by not much of a feeling at all – just indifference.

Back to Spaceballs.

Here I am, driving to a shopping plaza not even in the city itself (The Waterfront sits on the outskirts of the outskirts of Pittsburgh and is a weird slice of small-town shopping for the urban suburbs across the bridge) and yet the magic of Pittsburgh hits me out of the blue. Driving past steel mills, churning out smoke that billows through the valley to my right and seeing all manner of bridges whizzing past my window drove me over the edge.

I don’t know where the next steps will take me, or where my feet will land. Will I ever get a job? What if I have to move? Where would I go? Where do I want to go? I love the solitude and quiet of my small town. I love having a parking space that I don’t have to reserve with a chair; I love fresh air and quiet afternoons by the lake. And yet, I love the city. I love walking places, people watching, bustling urban sprawls, and more events than I know what to do with. How do you choose between two distinctly different ways of life?

Here I am, feeling somewhat lost as a twenty-something college graduate, and Pittsburgh comes to speak to me again.

In all of my emotion, the good and the bad, I hadn’t been paying attention to where I am now.

Here is Pittsburgh, this beautiful city, dotted with yellow and blue bridges, smokestacks, and a growing quaint little hubbub of its own. And yet just a mere twenty minutes away, you can lose yourself in the woods by the lake, with a book and a picnic and a quiet afternoon away from it all.

Hearing that silly little song and driving through the city rekindled my love of Pittsburgh, somehow. There is plenty going on, and yet the people are friendly, neighborly. A giant rubber duck comes to the Point. Residents fiercely love their sports teams, to the point of a Steelers windbreaker being a requirement of living here. There are amusement parks, historic landmarks, chain restaurants, unique delicacies, ballets and operas and musicals and plays, green grassy squares downtown and wide open fields out in the country.

I don’t have to choose. I can have it all.

And driving in that blazing light, with those right words, at that right time, made me see the magic in my city again.