We all have stories we tell ourselves. We tell ourselves we are too fat, too ugly, or too old, or too foolish. We tell ourselves these stories because they allow us to excuse our actions, and they allow us to pass off the responsibility for things we have done — maybe to something within our control, but anything other than the decisions we have made.
[...] It is past time, I think, for you to stop telling that particular story, and tell the story of yourself. [...] There are times in our lives when we have to realize our past is precisely what it is, and we cannot change it. But we can change the story we tell ourselves about it, and by doing that, we can change the future.
—The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown
I reread Eleanor’s lovely novel this spring, and this quote (near the end of the book, after one character has finally faced up to her mistakes) has stayed with me. It struck me the first two times I read The Weird Sisters, but on this, my third read, it lodged in my mind and has remained there. And only now, months later, have I figured out why.
For the first two years of my life in Boston, I told myself this story about it: Boston is a strange, difficult, often lonely place to live, full of beauty, history and culture, but far from my home and the family and friends I miss. I will have a hard time truly belonging here.
My six months of unemployment and my subsequent first job here gave me few reasons to change this narrative, even as I fell in love with our apartment and our church. I clung to Abi and Shanna, my two treasured friends who moved up here when we did, and to the few new friends we made. I also spent many (not unhappy) afternoons wandering the city by myself, but I eventually came to believe that carving out a place for ourselves here was not only difficult but impossible.
The last seven months have completely upended that narrative, forcing me to rethink the story altogether.
Part of the change is simply a result of the passage of time. After three years, we know all sorts of things we could not have known as Boston newbies: how to navigate the subway system, how to decipher the New England accents, how long it takes to get to church and the mall and the grocery store. We have library cards and parking passes, a detailed mental map of Boston and its environs. We have established a number of traditions: apple picking, July 4 fireworks, Turkeypalooza. We own down coats and CharlieCards and Massachusetts drivers’ licenses. We have built, slowly and over many months, deep friendships that did not exist before we came here.
We also know larger, intangible things: how it feels to move two thousand miles away from family, how difficult and freeing it can be to strike out on your own in a totally new part of the country. How much it costs to fly, at various times of the year, from Boston to Dallas or Boston to West Texas, and how and what to pack for those trips. How it feels to ache for the community you left, and how to do the slow work of building a new one. We are no longer as lonely as we were, and I cannot tell you how grateful this makes me.
The surprise factor in changing my narrative about Boston and New England is my new neighborhood, the job I now hold at one of Harvard’s schools and the transformation it has wrought in my workdays.
I had convinced myself, after months of experience to that effect, that Boston’s landscape of friendship might be as gray and barren as its physical landscape in winter. And though I started my new job in the dead of winter, the camaraderie in my new office burst onto my internal landscape like a garden of spring flowers.
Since February, my relationships with my colleagues have bloomed, sometimes slowly, but steadily, and they provide daily color and light where before I had little of either. The work itself is another important factor: it suits me better, personally and professionally, than my former position. And the chance to explore Harvard Square on my lunch breaks, and attend Morning Prayers at Memorial Church, is no small thing.
As a result, the story I tell myself, about both my past and present experience in Boston, is changing. I am learning to see the first two years for what they were: a challenging but valuable transition into a new city and a much different way of life. I am newly aware of how long it takes to truly feel at home in a place, and newly accepting of the ways in which I may always feel like an outsider. But I no longer assume that the people I meet will prove brusque or uncaring. I am more open to new experiences, new friends, new projects and possibilities.
I am creating a new story to tell myself. And it feels good.