Tag Archives: city life

The Measure of a Place

Today, I walked into a gift shop and cried.

No, let me try that again:

Today, I walked into a gift shop and teared up.

The woman behind the counter cocked her head a bit in sympathy — she’d only asked if she could help me find anything. I’d spent a good ten minutes picking something up, putting it down, and picking it up again.

“I’m moving away,” I explained, blinking.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “Where are you moving to?”

“It’s not even that far!” I laughed a little, swiped at my eyes. Ugh, internal eye-roll. “I’m just looking for something from Somerville, you know.”

“Sounds like you need something from over here.” She gestured to a box on the floor filled with artwork. I knelt down and thumbed through them. I was only sort of looking; I’m picky about art, and I don’t usually drop $35 on something unless it speaks to my soul.

But there it was, about eight or nine pictures in, a framed painting of Mike’s in Davis Square.

In it, two men in hats are sitting outside under an umbrella. A young man with his hands in his pockets saunters out (probably a Tufts student), and there is just enough hidden for me to imagine me and Sally sitting at a table over a beer and buffalo chicken calzone.

I have found this extremely hard to write about. It has something to do with the mixed emotions, the excitement, the sadness, the change. When Gabe talks about all the things he won’t miss about this place (and there are definitely some I’ll be saying sayonara to), I mostly think of things I love:

On my way to work, how the door opens to the world and I actually feel like the female lead in some romantic sitcom.

The way the light pours into my bedroom and wakes me up (sometimes against my will).

The sunset from my bedroom window, how it makes me want to write bad poetry.

The green couch on the porch surrounded by a string of globed lights, red wine, and long conversations that leave us lighter, happier, no matter how heavy the talk was.

The bike trail.

So many delicious restaurants.

Nathan Tufts park and the bench on the slope where I sat and read and talked to my mom on the phone.

Waving to the gas station owner as I walk by, his big smile. “We should respect teachers more,” he says in his Middle Eastern accent. “They are teaching our children how to be good citizens!”

Sitting at True Grounds, trying to write but mostly watching, sipping iced coffee, anonymous.

But mostly I think I am saying goodbye to the woman I was when I came here.

As I handed the woman my credit card, she asked: “How long have you lived in Somerville?”

“Two years,” I said. She looked surprised.

“But that’s enough,” she said. “I would never want to leave.”

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Three-Year-Old Freedom

She sits in front of me on the bus, her dark head barely visible over the blue seat. Pink bows keep two small braids from unraveling by her face, and her head turns swiftly as she tries to take it all in through the window.

I am on my way to church — not necessarily against my will, but most definitely against the yearning I feel to roam all day in the sunshine and write with my friends by the Charles River. But I made plans with another friend (in part to make sure I did indeed get up and go), so here I am on the bus that will take me to the T station. I have been audacious enough to ask to be blessed, to ask that God would somehow bless this thing that I find so difficult to do in this season of my life.

With an old man at the next stop enters the hot stench of an unbathed body, and I bristle, both at the smell and at the rudeness of the girl next to me, covering her nose, pouting. The old man looks at me, and I smile — a peace offering — because it won’t be long before I, too, offend people with aging.

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It is the Sunday after a trip to the midwest and the Sunday before I jump right back into all that I left behind. I performed a makeshift grocery-run on Saturday, I diligently did my laundry, I celebrated a friend’s engagement with champagne, and I realized I hadn’t read half as many pages of my stack of books as I had planned. At choir, I leaned in and whispered: I feel like I’m in college choir again. Like those days when I was at the beach but had to come back to campus for practice, and I can’t focus and all I can think about is the ocean and the sun.

I was giddy with something (holiday-high, maybe?), and I sang but I also laughed through rehearsal. Sally and I topped it off with our classic buffalo chicken calzone, and here I am, the next morning, praying that choosing this church to call home, at least for now, is right.

The little girl reaches out and touches the back of her father’s thigh. Her hand is small and her fingernails are perfectly-shaped crescents that I imagine her mother carefully clipping after a warm bath. The girl gazes up at her father’s face. He does not look down, and I realize she is merely checking in. She doesn’t need acknowledgment, only presence.

I am captivated.

We funnel off the bus and onto the T. I do not mean to, but I am sitting directly across from her. Now she stands, her little body full of the confidence so many of us grown-ups lack. She knows to grasp the T pole with both hands — she knows the world loves her.

I snap a picture.

I feel guilty, a thief. But I am spellbound and I can’t explain it.

When we reach my T stop, I get off, knowing I will never see her again. I had wanted so badly to reach out, to cup the top of her head with the curve of my palm, but her ease and wonder would not be possessed. She unselfconsciously took in the world and demanded that it love her.

And I did.

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Whirlwind in the Windy City

Chicago has a way of tricking me into thinking I could live in the midwest.

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The lake really is quite huge. You can’t see to the other side of it and it slaps against the edge and even has whitecaps in the wind.

The L is just as bizarre as the T. Actually, that’s probably not true. At least it’s cooler because it’s above-ground.

The Chicago Institute of Art is one my favorite museums.

There’s good coffee everywhere.

And as of right now, I have two good friends living out there, and the numbers seem to be growing.

I finished Andre Dubus III’s memoir Townie on the plane. I closed the book and cried (just a little, no one noticed, but there were tears nonetheless), and even though I tried to put words to it (like kinship and desire and maybe someday) there was no way to separate the reasons that book hit me.

I landed in Chicago to the arms of the friend I met teaching English last summer. Her hair was just as wild in March as July and the weather was no better than Boston.

We wandered the Art Institute (and this time I didn’t take a nap in the park).

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The most beautiful sculpture that my blurry pictures don’t do justice to. My first thought was Adam and Eve, before and after the Fall. I wasn’t far off, together and not together, to know each other but still not fully know another person.

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I met a good friend from high school, and she took me to Wilde Bar and Restaurant. That’s right, Oscar Wilde, complete with quotes. I saw her condo and she showed me the bus system and I navigated it just fine, thank you very much.

We got dressed up to pumpin’ tunes. I dumbly forgot my contacts, so I took on the challenge to look sophisticated and Friday-night-out-worthy wearing glasses.

I greeted the boys, our dates, our city-chaperones, with the charming:

“Can I help you find your reference materials?”

(They said no and took us out on the town.)

Heard of dueling pianos? Check out Howl at the Moon and get ready for some loud singing and great piano.

Take a taxi to Navy Pier and attempt to get on the ferris wheel. Accidentally crash a wedding reception while your date steals the show, find the ferris wheel closed, then awkwardly walk back through that same wedding reception.

Have two taxis stolen right out from under you.

Sit at the Drake with new friends and newer friends, drink a classy cocktail, and wish you could sing along with the Frank Sinatra crooner and baby grand.

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Take a walk in the sunshine on your last day and wish that everyone you love lived in the same place.

Chicago1And be grateful for airplanes.

London Awaits

This very moment I am awaiting my plane to London, England.

I am sitting at the terminal, surrounded by people, but I am alone. This is my favorite way to travel.

“Catherine, is anyone going with you?”

“Yeah, S is meeting me in London, but I still get to fly alone.”

My grandmother does not understand my phrasing – “get to” – and most people don’t. There’s something about the separation – the ability to exist without the confirmation of anyone else – that reminds me who I am.

C. S. Lewis wrote that it is only when we look at the other that our Self is able to be. I agree with him…mostly.

There is another Self that materializes at the Gate, and this Self is just a little different from the others. She doesn’t need to do anything. She doesn’t need to be anything for anyone else. All she has to do is be. Oh, and do what she’d like, of course. Which is write this, at the moment.

My bag is filled too full with books (check out the What I’m Reading to see what I brought), and as you can tell, I decided to bring my laptop after weeks of internal debate. Of course I could just write in my notebook, but the moments flit by so fast, I know I’d lose them.

I sit, eager and calm, ready and not ready, because I’ve learned that after each trip, I come back just a little different than before. Not in big ways – I don’t dye my hair or pierce body parts or change my name – but the landscape of my mind shifts. It grows. It changes. And the places my mind wanders in down moments now includes the place I’ve just come from, with all its colors and shapes and sounds.

Here I come, London.

Practicing Fearlessness

Every time I head for my first class after the weekend, I get a little hiccup of fear.

What if I forgot how to teach?

What if the weekend gnomes ferreted away any knowledge or skill I had, and I’m about to walk into a classroom filled with expectant children, and I’ll have nothing to offer them?

I go through this nearly every week. It’s ebbed a little since the fall, as I’ve gained experience and more confidence, but it’s still there. Every week I feel this bizarre fear, and every week I teach my classes. My teaching ability doesn’t seem to atrophy over the weekend, but still, I feel it.

This past week was April vacation, so you can imagine how large this irrational fear has grown in anticipation of Monday.

I can only imagine what it will be like in September, after a glorious summer!

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Fear has immobilized me before.

I let a chick drown when I was eight because I was too afraid to reach and scoop its down-covered body from the water.

When I was nine, I stood screaming while a dog attacked my hens, tearing at them with his hunters’ teeth.

I felt small and insignificant and stupid when I walked by Richdale. I was in middle school and the boys hanging outside Richdale were in middle school and it was terrible.

When I was sixteen, I wouldn’t dance. My fear of looking foolish – of not knowing how – pinned me to the edge of the dance floor. I watched them spin and laugh and flap their arms and I was filled with envy for their freedom. I had the courage to wear a polkadot dress, but not to let the skirt swirl around me while I shimmied.

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I was short with my mother as I moved quickly through the house. Throwing stuff in my purse, brushing my hair, making sure I still had money on my Charlie card.

“Do you want me to drive you in?”

No, no I don’t, because I am seized with fear and I can’t be.

Because I’ve worked too hard not to make choices based on this darkness, and I can’t stop now. Because my friend lives there – daily she has seen the results – and I am a child protected by distance and trees.

Because there is a concert I bought tickets for, and I am going.

I got on the train, settled into the seat, and breathed deeply.

The city is like…

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The city is like a wide open field. A weekend cracks open the world to me and reminds me that life is big. I am small and life is big and because of grace I am full.

A small apartment that will never be mine is brimming with love and friendship. Just a few hours sprawled on couches, sprawled on floors, and mutual friends make comfort. We open the windows because even in the March coldness the heat is too strong, and the purple curtains flutter against the walls.

We talk about Lent and its strangeness and we rejoice at its shaping of us. Mine has been less than amazing – but I hold even that up as a sacrifice. I’ve decided it can’t all be emotion; I can’t always be in the throes of feeling. Praise God for that.

It wasn’t easy getting down here. I got lost, mapquest serving as much as a hindrance as a help. I got turned around and turned around and when I finally met up with K I couldn’t even smile. But it wore off quickly. We read each other’s minds: So I was thinking we would drop our stuff off and head out for dinner. Great, me too. And then get coffee before the cello recital. Great, me too. 

And we hit the town with our black and brown boots and feel free.

We sit in a Starbucks window, watching the lights and people passing by. I tell you you’re terrible for redeeming a free treat coupon and only getting tap water, but that doesn’t stop me from splitting the brownie with you. A man stands on the brick, smoking. He leans against the iron railing and watches the cars. Our faces are reflected in the glass, and I say, This is our life, and you laugh at me. But it’s true, and we are blessed. We are sitting right now in a coffee shop and there is nowhere we are supposed to be and nothing else we are supposed to be doing.

Fifteen minutes on a church’s cold stone steps and we laugh because sometimes it’s the only answer to the bizarrity of life (I know, ‘bizarrity’ is not a word, but that’s what it is). Three friends linking arms because it’s warmer that way, and that’s one of the reasons I’ll never really fit in – things are too posh and sophisticated and modern. We part at the street-corner, promising to see each other soon, but none of us really know what will happen.

The shower is running and I am writing and Sunday stretches before me empty and full.

This week of Tech Week and Alice in Wonderland and Good Friday and Easter seems far off.

[The cello rises over the room full of people, and I am transported back to four years spent studying practicing singing. Nostalgia fills me until I am dreaming of both those years and the years to come. The Dvorak makes me want to dance, the Beethoven makes me want to read, and the Barber makes me want to fall in love.]

Trying to Beat the Winter Doldrums

IMG_1342A rainy afternoon in one of my favorite towns with some of my favorite people.

We made two coffee stops, because that’s how we roll. It’s called “I have a giftcard to this place,” and “But I want to go to this cozy, independent coffee shop!”, so instead of fighting we did the only logical thing: we went to both.

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IMG_1336Cousin-love. A shout-out to my college-stuck cousin. It’s weird – I kept counting wrong when we were making plans. It just feels wrong without her.

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My mocha was BY FAR the best drink at the table. Sorry, guys.

We wandered aimlessly around Banana Republic. So much pretty! I made a mental list for later…

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It was rain-snowing, so our walk down the brick walkways was short.

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[Isn’t this great?! If I ever open a store, I’ll probably stress out more about the name than anything. I should start brainstorming right now. Except it kind of depends on what type of store we’re talking about.]

On the ride home, we listened to Fleet Foxes, John Mayer, and the Lumineers. It was a good day, even if we didn’t see a ray of sunshine.

Reading and Trains and the Beauty of Timing

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I bought another book I didn’t need today. It called to me from the stack at the used bookstore. I popped in (against my better judgement and against the wisdom of my wallet), thinking I could poke around and leave without buying anything. I should’ve known better.

It was a paperback copy of Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood.

I reasoned for a moment: You’ve already read this. You do not need to buy this.

But I knew even as I held its soft covers in my hands that I would buy it. That I should have my own copy. You really shouldn’t keep recommending a book that you don’t own. At least, that’s what I told myself as I went up to the cash register.

When I think of this book, I see myself on the train. I’m holding a hardcopy from the library, and I’m reading as the brakes squeak and smash me against the side of the train (this happened only a few times, I’m sure, but in my mind it was a constant interruption). I consumed this book with a fervor that surprised me; I’d tried reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek the year before and I’m pretty sure that I will never get further than three pages into it.

There is something to be said for timing.

Dillard’s book spoke to me from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where a little blonde girl discovered the world and her place in it. I was a barely-bigger blonde girl, interning at a large publishing house for the summer before heading back to college. I rode the train every day, and every day I thought Is this what will happen to me? as I watched middle-aged men and women silently board the train, silently ride the train, and silently get off. Was this what life had in store?

“I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again”
― Annie DillardAn American Childhood

[a poem wrote itself hurriedly on the back of a receipt from lunch. it was about being little and memories and contradictions. it was born out of Annie Dillard and the receipt is still in a book somewhere.]

The train moving forward, the hardcover book in my hands, my feet propped up on the runner. My stomach growling because I hadn’t packed a big enough lunch (again!), and my mind wandering to my senior year of college and what the heck am I doing and what the heck am I gonna do? The city slowly slipping away behind me and Annie’s world opening up.

“In short, I always vowed, one way or another, not to change. Not me. I needed the fierceness of vowing because I could scarcely help but notice…that it was mighty unlikely.”
― Annie DillardAn American Childhood

There was too much of me in her and it scared me. How important is it to be unique? I started hoping it wasn’t too important, because my uniqueness was being written away.

Every day I went into the city and every day I worked in a little gray cubicle. The words began to blur on the screen, blur on the page, blur in my mind. I longed for my lunch hour when I could take my little peanut butter and jelly sandwich (yay for cheap meals!) and eat in the gardens and watch poor unsuspecting people and yell at audacious squirrels. I loved words. I loved learning about publishing. But not talking for eight hours a day WAS KILLING ME.

So I escaped to Annie.

“As a child I read hoping to learn everything, so I could be like my father. I hoped to combine my father’s grasp of information and reasoning with my mother’s will and vitality. But the books were leading me away. They would propel me right out of Pittsburgh altogether, so I could fashion a life among books somewhere else.” ― Annie DillardAn American Childhood

Annie Dillard was to my 21-year-old self what Joan Didion was to my 23-year-old self. It’s all about timing. Who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t love either of them if they’d switched places.

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So I bought another book I didn’t need. I think I bought it for the memories as much as anything; they’re all wrapped up inside. The book’s sitting beside me without a line or mark in it. Who reads their own paperback without marking it up? I don’t understand it. I can’t wait to get my hands on a pen.

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[Weekend Thoughts]

How do you know when you’ve read a book that’s changed your life?

You want to give a copy to all of your friends.

Unfortunately, that isn’t financially feasible for me at the moment, but here’s a shameless plug for a book that’s probably out of print (and therefore deliciously difficult to find among wobbly stacks at little used bookstores):

“Decision Making by the Book” by Haddon Robinson.

Ignore, if you can, the horrendous title and the equally ugly book jacket, because let me tell you, IT’S WORTH IT. The whole time I was reading, I thought of moments in my life when I wish I’d already had this sucker in my back pocket.

What if “What’s God’s will in this situation?” isn’t even the right question to ask?

What if “How can I glorify God?’ is a much better one?

I wish I could force my friends to read it, but my powers are only so strong.

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Went to a museum Saturday with my city-friend. We got lost on the way (Surprise! I stink at directions!), but we didn’t panic, which is a vast improvement and I think shows that we’re maturing. They asked if I were a student, and for a second I thought, Yes, and then I realized, No, and had to pay the entrance fee. No photography was allowed, but we furtively snapped some photos of the cool bathroom. So retro.

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This afternoon, I went to a coffee shop to get work done, found a too-tiny table without a plug nearby, and plunked down, hoping to get at least some of it finished. Sent some emails about the musical (Alice in Wonderland, Jr., by the way!), and was able to just start writing my midterm exam for Latin I when WHAM! my computer died. So sad. But I thought I’d truck on, using good old pen and paper, when a girl’s tiny voice rose above the din and said, “Just so you all know, we will be closing at 3:00.” She paused. “That’s in two minutes.”

Oh well.

Headed home, made some Genmaicha tea, sat down to finish writing the midterm…and started writing this blogpost instead.

So now, according to the bizarre countdown on pbs.org, I have roughly 3 hours and 31 minutes until “Downton Abbey” starts. Can I finish the test?!?! We shall see.

A Perfect Day

Five weeks is too long to go without seeing a good friend. Especially when that friend lives only forty-five minutes away. What is it about driving in and out of the city that seems so daunting?

But it was finally remedied this Saturday, with a train ride, a car ride, and a stretched-long day. It was the sort of day where you never stop talking, and then, as dinner gets closer, you’re exhausted by the talk. We looked at each other, and we were speechless. Finally.

What does it take to make the perfect day?

  • Coffee shops – with strong coffee, an array of hipsters and business people and grandmas and grandpas talking about who was making the green bean casserole for Thanksgiving.
  • People watching – this can be done in silence or with conversation, depending on your mood.
  • Long walks – around a slightly unfamiliar city, discovering used bookshops on side streets, down to the harbor, around and around until your feet are sore and you forget for a moment what it feels like to sit
  • Used Bookshops – these are a must. Find a beautiful hardcover about W. H. Auden for $8 and carry it in your purse for days because you hope to find five minutes to read it.

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  • Roast beef and reuben sandwiches – duh.
  • Random parades – run to watch the parade of cars, trucks, police cars and screaming people. Because winning the state championship for your high school football team is pretty awesome, and yelling out your car, blasting your horn, and feeling like you own the world are the best ways to celebrate.
  • Sitting in fake wooden boats – yes, do this, even though it seems odd. It’s best to sit in said wooden boat until it gets dark, laughing so loudly that the people walking by raise their eyebrows. Tell each other they’re jealous of your joy.

Too much can happen in five weeks to be talked about in one day.

But there’s never too much to laugh about.

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