Posts Tagged ‘transitions’

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

longfellow garden radcliffe yard

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.

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For almost exactly two years, I have worked in downtown Boston, across from the two green spaces that are the beating heart of this city. I climb up out of the subway station in the morning to the tune of the church bells at Park Street (if I time it just right), and I walk across the Common with a mixture of students, dog walkers, businesspeople, morning runners, even homeless people. I watch the trees bud and bloom and leaf out, and in the fall I pick up red leaves and put them in my pocket, and take photos of the glorious spread of color.

boston common maples autumn leaves red orange

I spend many of my lunch breaks roaming the Public Garden, smiling at the ducklings (both the statuary and live versions), or browsing the indoor shelves and outdoor carts at Brattle Book Shop. I have a bank branch, a post office, a favorite Starbucks, a favorite local coffee shop. I can direct you to three used bookstores, several consignment shops, a dozen cafes. When it’s warm outside, I walk down to the farmer’s market every Tuesday and most Fridays.

carrots peaches farmers market summer fall

Next week, though, I’m trading all that for a new neighborhood, when I start a new job at Harvard.

Instead of getting off the Red Line as it rumbles under the Common, I’ll ride it across the river, to the beating heart of Harvard Square. I’ll trade the Common and the Public Garden for Harvard Yard and Cambridge Common. I’ll walk down Brattle Street every morning instead of Boylston Street, pop into Tealuxe for a cuppa instead of Thinking Cup, eat tomato soup at Crema Cafe instead of Panera. The Harvard Book Store and the Grolier Poetry Book Shop will stand in for the Brattle and Commonwealth Books.

crema cafe cambridge ma hot chocolate

As a newcomer to Boston, I’ve been thrilled by the chance to work down here in the heart of it all, to learn the rhythms of this new city by spending my days in its very center. But I’m also excited to be learning a new neighborhood, absorbing a different vibe. Harvard Square and I are already acquaintances, but we’re going to be good friends.

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Recently, my husband and I reached the two-year anniversary of our move from West Texas to Boston. The first anniversary felt both weighty and giddy; we could hardly believe we’d survived a whole year in our new home. We had left blistering heat on the West Texas plains for a greener, more erudite land where summers were milder and fall was a riot of color, scented with apples and woodsmoke. Our first winter was long and bitterly snowy, but we learned to shovel snow and wear layers, and we felt deep pride in having stuck out an entire year in a place so divertingly unlike our homeland.

This two-year anniversary, this second milestone, feels different.

orange leaves boston common fall

I’m over at the Art House America blog today, sharing some thoughts on our two years in Boston. Head over there to read the rest!

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This week, my dear friend Shanna will pack up her car and head to Atlanta, to begin a Ph.D. in Irish literature. We’ve been friends since our undergrad days, when we took an Irish lit class (and several others) together. I enjoyed the class, especially the poetry of Seamus Heaney, but where I got fed up with the absurdist dialogue (Beckett) and strange spiritualism (Yeats) and seesawing from clarity to utter confusion (Joyce), Shanna was fascinated. This is now her literary niche. (I salute her for this. You’ve got to be made of strong stuff, and have a stalwart sense of humor, to balance all the tragedy in Ireland’s history.)

We had a few friends over on Friday to wish her bon voyage. And because Shanna is into superheroes, and because she is a superhero, Abi bought superhero paper goods:

superhero plates cupcakes party

We often joke that it was Shanna’s idea to move to Boston, because she was the first of our Abilene crew to apply to graduate school here, get accepted and decide to make the move. Then Nate also got accepted to graduate school and J got a job offer, so the four of us (and a few other Abilene folks) made the journey. For two years, we have sung on Sundays, gathered weekly for coffee and chitchat, explored various tourist attractions, and navigated the joys and frustrations of life in Boston together.

We had known each other a long time, but not very well, before we came to Boston. There were many hellos and brief conversations on campus, hugs on Sundays at church, and one memorable afternoon watching Sunset Boulevard at her apartment for a film class (and being utterly freaked out by Norma Desmond. Those eyes!). But since moving here, Shanna has become one of the people I call first, to celebrate or mourn or simply talk through all the layers of building a life from scratch in a beautiful, maddening, complicated city far from home.

We are West Texas girls, she and I, lovers of wide-open skies and blazing sunsets and salsa so hot it burns your mouth even while you long for more. We share a wide circle of loved ones back in Abilene, and when Boston has felt cold and unfamiliar, we have reminisced about the warmth of West Texas and found that same warmth in each other’s company. We are unabashed lovers of young adult literature who can spend hours discussing Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. We love potlucks and board games and hours at a coffee shop, nursing hot drinks (or cold, depending on the season), and we always find rest and grace and laughter when we are together.

shanna katie beach

Shanna & me at our beach

She has been a part of every celebration here, every birthday and Turkeypalooza and that rain-soaked Fourth of July we had recently. But she is also one of those friends who fill in the cracks, someone you can count on, any time, to rejoice or mourn or sympathize with you. She is wise and empathetic and funny and loving, and oh my, I’m going to miss her.

When Shanna’s mom, Pam, heard we were moving to Boston, she grabbed me in a hug at church one morning, exclaiming, “Y’all are the answer to my prayers!” She was so glad, she said, that Shanna would have some ready-made friends in Boston, some people who knew her already, as she ventured into the great unknown.

I smiled and nodded, but I didn’t tell Pam that it was actually the other way around. Shanna, whose idea it was to embark on this Northeastern adventure, was the answer to my prayers.

I can’t go with her this time. But I’m hoping she finds some friends in Atlanta who will be for her what she has been for me.

Godspeed, friend. Come back and visit – we’ll take you to Mike’s for a cannoli.

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boots pine needles amherst ma

Boots and pine needles in Amherst

I had a pair of boots re-soled recently, after both heels and one sole developed cracks (a result, no doubt, of my pounding the Boston pavement in them several times a week this winter). These are the black riding boots I bought in the fall – good quality, though still on the inexpensive end of the boot spectrum. I am used to buying cheap shoes at Payless, wearing them to death within a year or two and repeating the cycle, which is unsatisfying, not to mention wasteful. (I also hang onto worn-out shoes for a long time. A few years ago, my dad offered to buy me a new pair of black dressy boots if I would just let him throw the old pair – cracked, broken-heeled, beat-up faux leather – in the Dumpster.) So I splurged on these, feeling both grown-up and virtuous, hoping they would – will – last me for years.

Needless to say, I was disillusioned when the heels and then the sole developed wounds, and after the cracked sole left me with a soggy sock from walking on damp pavement, I bit the bullet and paid to have them re-soled. I was shocked at the price tag (more than half what the boots cost), but I want to keep wearing these boots, and I did not want to simply go buy another pair (I can’t afford it, and also Micha’s post about shopping responsibly and wearing our clothes humbly is still pricking at me after a whole month).

I got them back last week, still feeling virtuous, and put them on Thursday morning to wear to work. And before I had gone five steps I noticed: these soles are not the same.

Well, of course they’re not, said the voice in my head. What did you expect?

The new soles are thicker, of a slightly different material (which will probably hold up better as I continue to walk my daily miles in them). They feel heavier, which made my ankles ache a little as I lifted my feet; they give the toe box a slightly different shape, though probably no one but me will notice the change. They are the same boots, with new soles – which means they are not the same boots at all.

I was expecting, subconsciously, to pick up the same boots from the repair shop, minus the cracks and fissures. I was expecting them to be repaired, but not changed, by the process. This is disingenuous, maybe, but it occurs to me: I often expect the same thing from my life.

We have been in Boston nearly two years, and I keep expecting, subconsciously, for something to shift and click into place, for a life similar to my life in Abilene to spread out before my eyes. I keep expecting, despite all evidence to the contrary, the same life in a new city – the same kind of relationships, the same way of being, the same assurance that I am right where I’m supposed to be. As you may have guessed, I’m not getting any of that.

This new life still feels like a worn-in boot with a stiff, slightly clunky new sole. I am the same person who moved here from Texas, and yet I am not at all. I live and move through Boston in different ways than I lived and moved through Abilene, or Oxford, or Midland, where I grew up. I cannot expect the new life to look like the old, though it is made from similar material and occasionally feels the same.

This new life, and these semi-new boots, often leave me uncomfortable, standing in my stocking feet wondering how to wear them. Sometimes I’d rather opt out of wearing either one. But in the end, I put on both of them and head out the door into this still-unfamiliar world, because both the boots and the life are mine. They are the ones I chose, and the only ones I have.

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I love surprises of the everyday variety; I don’t always relish big life surprises. But here, a handful of the most delightful:

1. Loving my first job out of college – an admin job on campus – as much as I did.
2. Bethany moving back to Abilene, for a year and a half of wonderful “borrowed time.”
3. Finding another family in Abilene (and staying there as long as I did).
4. Becoming a total tea addict. (I never touched the stuff until college.)
5. Interning in Hawaii for a month one summer. (Surprises every DAY.)
6. Learning to navigate traffic on a bike in Oxford, and loving that, too.
7. Moving to Boston – the difficulty and the richness, and lots of other things besides, have surprised me.
8. Actually writing a novel in a month in 2008.
9. The surprise party Jeremiah gave me when I turned 21. (Yes, I was totally surprised.)
10. Singing a brief solo in the Les Miserables medley during a choir concert in college. (I was so sure I hadn’t gotten it – but I ended up with a solo from “On My Own,” my favorite Les Mis song.)
11. Writing a cover story for Radiant magazine – how surprised I was to be asked!
12. Being told (not asked) to learn to play the piccolo for a high school band concert in London.

How about you? Any wonderful life surprises to share?

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Last month, I wrote about my need for a neighborhood – and how the smallest church I’ve ever been a part of, with the simplest, most stripped-down services, is becoming my place of home, of rest. Felicity commented (on that post) that she’d heard of city churches stripping down their production values to appeal to overstimulated city dwellers. And the more I think about that, the more it fits. That isn’t why we chose Brookline, but it’s certainly part of why we’ve stayed.

I’ve been a part of three big churches in my life (plus more, when I was a kid) – and all of them are high-production in some way. My parents’ church has an organ, a choir, an occasional orchestra (in which I used to play flute), and a big, extravagant Easter pageant every two years. (I sang and acted in said pageant half a dozen times, and loved it.)

My church in Oxford, though it follows much of the liturgy of the Anglican church (particularly for prayers and communion), has a praise band and snazzy PowerPoint slides and lots of events every day of the week. If, during my time in Oxford, I’d wanted to be at St Aldates every night, I could have. (And as an expat student – often a lonely one – I adored the community there.)

Finally, my church in Abilene, though perhaps simpler than the other two, is high-production in the way of most big churches. There are a lot of details to iron out when you’re serving a congregation of two thousand or so. There are baptisms and baby blessings and Senior Sunday every May, and Wednesday night events and praise teams and semi-annual church retreats and oh my, it’s no wonder my husband used to get a little stressed when he helped organize worship and plan events. Make no mistake: we loved it, and we miss it. But since moving to Boston, I’ve become so grateful for simplicity.

Brookline is housed in a small brick building, whose graceful blue-gray walls, vaulted ceiling and large windows let the light in (and recall its original existence as an art gallery). Our services contain almost no flash – but they bespeak a quiet sincerity I find restful. We certainly don’t all agree on matters of theology (or other things, I’d wager), but most folks seem more inclined toward thoughtful discussion than toward argument. We all pitch in to make the service happen, wash the dishes afterward, bring snacks before worship, bring food for our monthly potluck. And no one has any interest in making things complicated or fancy for their own sake. Which, in a city where life often requires a lot of complicated effort, is a balm for my soul.

I’m working on making our apartment into a similar kind of haven – look for a post on that soon.

Where do you find haven and quiet space in your life?

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Some people switch out their home decor when the weather warms up: lightening the color palette, swapping cozy winter fabrics for fresh summer ones. I have a friend who changes bath and body products with the seasons; several of my girlfriends trade out their candle scents. Me? I swap out my teas.

I’m a year-round hot tea drinker, though I’ll admit it sounds better when it’s 30 or 50 degrees out than when it’s 90. (Abilene summer mornings, I’m looking at you.) Despite being Southern, I don’t really like iced tea, and I want something warm and comforting in the morning, to help me wake up (and ward off the chill of office air-conditioning). But the blends I drink do shift when the mercury starts to creep up.

In the winter, I drink black teas flavored with citrus and spices, and names like Holiday Tea, Hot Cinnamon Spice, Cranberry Autumn, Spice Imperial and Spiced Chai. They’re dark, strong and fortifying; they help warm me to my toes when said toes are shivering in thick tights, cozy socks and sturdy boots. (These are also the months for chai, hot chocolate and cider – the last preferably simmered on the stove and sipped around a fire, or in the glow of twinkle lights.)

My summer teas are also black and flavored – but fruity. Blackberry Sage, Ginger Peach, Apricot, Raspberry Earl Grey – the fruits on display at the farmer’s markets often pop up in my morning cuppa.  They still give me a little caffeine boost, but they taste lighter, brighter, and go better with freckles and sandals and painted toenails, sunny mornings and bare legs under flowy skirts.

According to the calendar, it’s nearly time for summer teas. Colleges are out! Schools will be out soon! Trees and flowers are blooming, visitors are coming, weddings are approaching, and I’m craving all the delights of summertime. But Monday’s high here in Boston was 50. Yesterday’s was 55. The forecast for this whole week? Rain, rain, rain.

So, dear readers, what should I do? Order the fruity teas, sip them blithely and pretend it’s summer? Or try to enjoy the last few weeks of perfect Hot Cinnamon Spice weather, and wearing the new tights and long-sleeved tops I found on clearance the other day? Leave your wise advice in the comments, and tell me how you weather these pesky seasonal transitions.

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Spring is playing with us here in Boston, sending us alternating blasts of wind, rain, snow flurries (not a funny April Fool’s joke!) and sunshine. Every morning I wonder if it’s warm enough for a light coat, or flats instead of boots, and except for two glorious 65-degree days and some warmer temps this weekend, the answer so far is always no. (Sometimes I cheat the weather by wearing my wellies through the puddles, and carrying my ballet flats in a bag. But the commute through chilly subway stations still requires some gear.)

While it is warmer than January and February (thank heaven!), the chill wind against my face feels raw, often wet, a little cruel. (Yes, I now know why T.S. Eliot wrote “April is the cruelest month,” though I still think February equally deserves that title.)

Winter, especially midwinter, is a season to hunker down, to “wrap up warm” as my friend Jo always says, to hide away in our warm houses with candles, tea and soup, and I’ve done plenty of that. No one can blame you for hibernating when it’s 20 degrees outside for weeks at a time. (Particularly when you are unemployed/freelancing.)

But spring invites us out into the light, with fewer layers than we’ve been wearing for months (or the promise of them). As Sarah said recently, “tender green shoots are not the only ones emerging from the safe darkness and into the unforgiving light.”

Spring is a season of new hopes – of planting and planning, of wee crocuses and other flowers poking their heads out of the ground, of bravely budding branches and a gradual coming back outdoors. Spring calls for shedding protective covers, opening the windows, stepping outside bareheaded, trusting the sunshine (while still dealing with the rain). It’s exciting, but it does make us vulnerable. It calls for some bravery instead of the comfort we’ve been wrapping up in lately. (No coincidence that these are my words for the year – one a holdover from 2010, one my focus for 2011.)

I’ve often felt raw and vulnerable, during this long winter in a new place – all the comfort in the world hasn’t changed that fact. But I’m stepping into a more hopeful vulnerability as the days lengthen and warm, and the flowers start to bloom. I’m hoping to step out of my posture of retreat, peel off a few layers, and come forward bravely – though still feeling a bit exposed – into the sunshine.

How are you dealing with – or throwing yourself into – the seasonal transition?

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cold around the edges

You know the feeling. The one that sneaks in when the nights start to turn chilly, when you begin to reach for a bathrobe in the mornings and a cardigan or slippers at night, when going barefoot on wood floors no longer sounds appealing, when drafts start to creep in around the windows. Winter is coming. You’re not frozen at the core, not yet; it’s not time to pull out the down coats and wool hats, but you’re chilly around the edges.

After the long months of snowy days and frigid winds and seeing your breath in the air every single time you go out, the air begins to thaw a bit. You still bundle up in the thick coat on some mornings, but most of the time now you reach for a wool coat, even a lighter jacket on occasion. You don’t always have to wear a hat or gloves when you walk outside at lunchtime. You stop in the park and turn your face up to the sun, and just for a moment, you are really warm.

But at night, when you’re home and the blessedly longer evenings have eventually turned to dark, when tiny stars pierce the clear, sharp sky and the wind whistles around the eaves of the house like a moaning ghost in a campfire story, you still reach for that cardigan and those slippers. You pull a blanket around you as you sit on the couch, knitting or reading or watching an episode of Friends. And you’re only too glad to huddle down under the covers, the chilly tip of your nose peeking out above them.

It’s not deep winter any more; the snow has all but melted and the trees are covered with tiny, hopeful buds, the size of wheat kernels, red and gold germs of promise. The high temperatures are twice what they were a month ago. And you are grateful.

But it’s not time to shed the jackets yet, or to bare any skin besides your face and hands. You cannot yet afford to leave the house without putting on a few layers, tucking a scarf or cap into your bag. The spring winds may be fresh, but they carry a chill. For now, at least, it’s still cold around the edges.

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