From Life

City Guilt: The Way We Encounter the Homeless – And Look Away

It was late at night, and I was walking home from a reading in a strange new city. I was alone; my boyfriend, the only person I had in this new place, was away on a trip, and it was just me. When I turned a corner and found myself under the overpass of the highway, I felt acutely aware of how deserted the streets were, how I’d reached a place where the friendly lights and the sense of safety had suddenly evaporated. Halfway under the long dark passage, I could see a shopping cart and a bundle of blankets. I knew someone was sleeping there that wet night.

I felt the usual rush of emotions that I think many city-dwellers are familiar with. Sadness, and fear. Pity and worry and nervousness all at once. Is it safe for me to walk alone, through this dark passage, me in my skirt and with my purse on my arm? And was it cruel and wrong to think that it wasn’t safe? There’s this twisting-stomach discomfort I feel when I walk by a homeless person. I know I can hardly imagine how difficult that person’s life must be right now; how difficult it must have been for a long, long time to reach that point.

But I’ve also had encounters that made me feel unsafe, that made me worry about being taken advantage of or endangered. Everyone who has been alone on a subway or in a dark alley has had those sorts of experiences, I suspect. Particularly women. I’ve written about the hard face, the indifferent attitude, that city living teaches you to acquire. It’s not just to avoid annoyances. It’s to make ourselves feel safe. It’s because of the strange men who come up to you, who ask you to smile, who want to give you relationship advice, who tell you you’re pretty, who keep following and following even when you walk away.

As women, we’re taught not to invite danger. Not to encourage strangers in the slightest way, with eye contact or by acknowledging their presence. It’s too risky. You think, Please, don’t talk to me. Just leave me alone.

I walked on by the bundle of blankets. Soon I was through the underpass and on to the other side. But later that night, still trying to get home, I found myself alone again, the only person waiting on a dark, cramped subway platform. A woman approached me, pulling a small child along by the arm. She stood too close. I tried to look away, but she was standing too close to me to be ignored. In a low voice she told me the shelter didn’t have any more beds for the night, and that her sister wouldn’t take her in. She didn’t ask for money or for help, explicitly. She just laid that statement out there on the ground between us, and waited for me to do something.

I looked away, and said I was sorry, but I couldn’t help. Normally that would signal to someone to walk away. But she wouldn’t leave. She took a step closer, so that I had to step back. She repeated her story. Again I said I was sorry. She said the same thing again. She didn’t move, she didn’t turn away. I finally did. I walked a short distance down the platform, and waited for the train. I was uncomfortable with her standing so close. The smell was overpowering. And I felt tremendous shame at noticing this, at being put off by such trifling and petty things.

It made me think of my favorite character from my favorite book, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. One of the brothers, Ivan, is a proud and haughty intellectual. He is intelligent and well-read, and claims to be an atheist. This is important to the book’s devoted Christian author. But Ivan is not your typical sneering, cynical charicature of atheists that religious writers often portray. Ivan desperately wants to believe in a loving, compassionate God. He wants to feel love and compassion himself for all human beings. But he cannot reconcile an all-loving God with the hard truth of the existence of suffering in the world. He can’t believe in a God who would let children be abused, who would allow innocents to be abandoned, dirty and forgotten. We at first believe Ivan is coldly distant from the warm beating heart of the earth. But in fact, he is one of the most deeply passionate characters in the book. He is wracked with grief that a world with the possibility of love could also contain such suffering. After describing a real-life case of terrible child abuse, he says to his brother Alyosha,

“Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little tormented breast with her tiny fist in that vile place, in the dark and the cold, and weep her sanguine meek, unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that infamy, my friend and my brother, my pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this rigmarole must be and is permitted?”

Ivan is anguished by the most fundamental question that religions fumblingly try to answer — why, in a world created by a just and loving God, the suffering of innocent people is possible. I think many of us city-dwellers wonder exactly this when we encounter the homeless, when our usual evade-and-avoid techniques are thwarted. I think we wonder why we are here and they are there. We wonder what few mistakes, what small sequence of misfortunes, could reverse our roles. And at the same time, I scorn myself for thinking these things; it’s lofty and cruel to think of the Suffering of Humanity, instead of seeing people as individuals just trying to live their lives the same way I am.

Ivan is bracingly honest with himself and his brother Alyosha about his own shortcomings. Intellectually, he adores the idea of human compassion. The miracle of human communities, the way one person can care for the sick and the lowly with love and humility, is beautiful and true. But he cannot do it himself. He can’t get over the feeling of loathing and repulsion when he encounters someone poor and humble. He says:

“’I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance. I once read somewhere of ‘John the Merciful’, a saint, that when a hungry, frozen, beggar came to him, and asked him to warm him up, he took him into his bed, held him in his arms, and began breathing into his mouth, which was putrid and loathsome from some awful disease. I am convinced that he did that from the laceration of falsity, for the sake of the love imposed by duty, as a penance laid on him. For anyone to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.’”

That’s the shameful struggle we encounter when we encounter someone less fortunate than ourselves. We want, dearly, to feel compassion for such a person. I know part of me wants to embrace that person. But part of me is repulsed by such ordinary, earthly matters as odor and appearance. When we encounter someone in the real world, someone who is hungry and dirty and who insists on bursting the protective little bubble we’ve drawn around ourselves…well? What do we do? What should we do?

Once the train came, I walked far down the platform and got in a distant car so I could be alone, so the discomfort of the encounter with the woman would end. But in a moment, I saw her coming down the aisle. She pushed her way through the adjoining doors of two cars, passing many empty seats. I don’t know why, but she was looking for me. She wanted to sit next to me. And she did. She sat in silence for the whole train ride, and I sat in silence beside her, looking away. I felt suddenly afraid of what she might do, of why she had singled me out. It was just the three of us — me, her, and her child — grouped together on that subway seat. Eventually my stop came and I got off, and that was the end of it.

I don’t know why she sat beside me, why she wouldn’t leave me alone in my armored city bubble. Maybe she wanted to punish me, to trap me there with my decision to ignore her. Maybe she wanted me to feel guilty. Or maybe it had nothing to do with me at all. The position of privilege can give us such an inflated sense of our own significance in the lives of others. Maybe I was a small nothing in her life.

But I feel the need to write about the shame and desire I felt then. Shame for my inability to embrace a stranger; shame for judging a person based on the frays in a sweatshirt collar, or for an odor, for an appearance. That always goes with the desire I have to feel compassion for people. That compassion always goes with the shame that I can’t live up to that ideal. Sometimes, it’s downright dangerous to live that ideal. If a man had stood so close, if a man I didn’t know refused to go away, followed me down a chain of subway cars, wouldn’t fear outweigh compassion?

Perhaps the only way I can show respect in this situation is to remember that the woman has a story that I will never know. That everyone has their own story, that everyone has a right to her own story, and that to assume I know the story is base. Any stereotypical story I can cook up in my mind would be grossly inadequate. As a writer, I think compassion can take the form of respecting the stories I don’t know and that I can only imagine.

Ivan is a beautiful character because he embodies some of the most fundamental struggles we face as human beings. He is searingly honest about the way that we fall short when reaching for our ideals. He also gives one of the most beautiful arguments for a worldview full of passion that has no need for a traditional concept of God. Ivan declares:

“I want to travel in Europe, Alysosha, I shall set off from here. And yet I know that I am only going to a graveyard, but it’s a most previous graveyard, that’s what it is! Precious are the dead that lie there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them…I shall steep my soul in my emotions. I love the sticky leaves in the spring, the blue sky — that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s guts.”

I want to love with my guts. It’s hard, sometimes. My mind, my prejudices, my fears, my intellect, all get in the way. But I still feel that want inside.

Hello from Chicago!

IMG 1276 copyGreetings from the Midwest, readers! As a born-and-bred East Coaster, and a loyal Bostonian since the age of three, I never thought I’d feel at home anywhere else in the country. But I also was always open to the idea of trying out different cities and exploring other worlds. So a job change has me living in the heart of downtown Chicago, eager to explore another city for at least the next year. Two Cities Review will remain Two Cities, but the gap we’ll leap will be much larger, and we’ll be exploring New York and Chicago instead of New York and beloved old Boston.

I’m sure I’ll be missing Boston in the months ahead. The rattling old T, the smell of salt down by the harbor and all the fresh fish on hand, the crusty, belligerent, loveable nature of the city and its people — I’m missing all of that already. But the excitement of exploring a new city has currently seized my attention. I’m all eyes and ears this month, trying to absorb it all, slip into the wide streets and among the giant skyscrapers. To really know the place and make the most of it, I want to go native as much as I can.

Right now isn’t the most opportune time to wander the streets of Chicago, as you can imagine. It’s minus 3 degrees today, with a wind chill that makes it about twenty below. The few times I’ve stepped outside in the past couple of days, the cold felt like a set of razor blades skinning me alive. It was scary how cold it felt. While the cold of Boston can be miserable, this kind of cold can really kill people. I’ll have to be very careful with what I wear and where I go and whether my car has gas.

Beyond that, though, I’m already excited by the vibrations the city is giving me. There’s a sense of culture bubbling on the surface of every street. The Art Institute is massive and world class; there are independent bookstores thriving; there are plays and poetry readings that await. Boston is wonderful, but it always has the feeling of a small town, a knowable, contained world. Perhaps it’s time to step into a larger world, a more husky, brawling city, a city of largeness and cultural depth. If you live in a place that is too knowable, you risk losing all growth and change in your life. I’m happiest when I’m a little uncertain, when I’m dipping my toe into water that’s a bit too deep.

I’ll continue to share my insights into the city of Chicago from the perspective of a newcomer as I start to explore it. What city is closest to your heart, and what city do you want to explore? What city would you most want to be a stranger in?

On the Fringe of the City

Sorry for the hiatus, readers; I’m in the middle of a very transitional period in my life and career, working on a move to a new city and thinking about what steps to take next with writing and teaching. I’ve been hard at work on my own short stories, and I’m excited to report that stories of mine will be coming out in a few literary magazines very soon. You can find one of them, “The Visitation”, up at Narrative Northeast, right here.

A recent move has me living on the edge of the city I used to inhabit, looking in a little wistfully. It’s a temporary arrangement, but for several months, I’ll be driving to work in the mornings, blasting along a major commuter highway to the north shore and through Boston. It has me seeing a different side of the city I know; and that reminds me that no matter how much you can get to know a city, there is always another way to know it. We can always be different people, looking at the city from the perspective of office workers or street dwellers, late night partiers or garbage collectors, suburban commuters or city loyalists. There is always another way to see. And what we writers must know is that there is always another way to look.

As a car-owning commuter these days, I see a lot of traffic. I also see the highways that circle viciously about the borders of most cities; and I see the corporate-and-big-box stores that form depressing haloes around most American cities these days. As I head outward I see the sad strip malls and signs for discount furniture and kitchen and tile and pet supplies and food, so much fast food. I wonder who stops at the restaurants in particular, who would want to sit in the window of one of these places and hear the whine of traffic. I think these places are mostly for people who are tired and lonely, the ones whose dinners have been cancelled, whose spouses aren’t home that night. And then, there’s something reassuring in being able to get something hot and mushy and head home with a box warming the passenger seat of the car.

But I still find these outer rings fairly bleak; like who decided every American city had to be surrounded in the same way? It makes me want to live right in the middle again, where I can avoid such sights. But I also want to avoid such snobbery and disdain. These are quintessentially American sights, after all, and if I want to understand my place, I have to experience it without judgement. When a car cuts me off or speeds rudely by, I remember a writing teacher telling me, Always imagine they’re rushing their sick child to the hospital. I conjure the image, and I feel a little warmer; I’m able to see a story, not just a depressing blankness. In that way, the process of writing and imagining is a fundamentally life-affirming act. It affirms that we all have stories, we all have sympathies and concerns, and we all have dignity, all the ones crossing in and out of the trash-ringed city, hurrying home or onward, with feverish children in the back seat.

On the Move

Readers, I’m moving. It’s been three years here at my sunny, friendly, definitely quirky Cambridge apartment. I’d stay for three more, I think, but I’m also ready to move on as life circumstances change. I’ll be dealing with a very transitional housing situation this fall, and then I’m on to the big city of Chicago. I’m excited!

There’s plenty of time to think about the city of Chicago and all it means in the future; as I navigate a narrow goat path of boxes in my apartment now, I’m feeling nostalgic in these last few weeks. I’ll still be in Boston for the next several months, but most of my things will be in storage and I’ll be preparing for yet another move. I’m looking out the windows at my quiet street, at the restaurants and shops and hard-to-nab parking spaces, and I’m missing Boston already.

Several out-of-town friends have happened to visit lately, and it has given me the chance to do all the touristy things Boston has to offer again. I’ve visited Faneuil Hall and toured the campuses of MIT and Harvard; I’ve strolled over the Mass Ave bridge and seen the Smoots (locals will know this) and passed by Paul Revere’s house and Old North Church. I’ve walked through the Boston Public Garden this past weekend, loving the orderly chaos of green, how every tree is a different species, the unexpected rat-a-tat of a revolutionary-era parade band going by. I feel like I’m living inside the pages of Make Way for Ducklings these days, sweeping benevolently through Boston’s prettiest, oldest places, looking with the eyes of a friend.

It’s an exciting time to be a writer in transition. My family is still here and I imagine I’ll be returning regularly to Boston; but I’ll be trying my hardest to carve out a new home in a strange new city, one that doesn’t hold my childhood in its hand. Walking through Boston on a sunny summer day, I can feel embraced by this place, the sights and smells so familiar (and superior to New York’s summer smell of hot garbage!). I’ll probably be in a state of perpetual nostalgia for this place in the months to come; each time I visit the Boston Public Library or walk through Copley square, I’ll feel the pang that this might be my last time for a while.

I hope I’ve made the most of the time here; but I’m also ready to go. Many famous writers known for their evocation of place only truly captured that place once they left it. Nabokov, forever haunted by the Russia he lost, continued to write about it; under house arrest, Milton wrote of the woods and fields of England in his pastoral poetry. I think the best example of this is Joyce, who only so brilliantly captured Dublin in his novels once he had left it. I think this mournfulness, or nostalgia, is just the complication of emotion we need to capture a place. As I leave Boston, I imagine myself writing about it all the more; and my description will have that extra sharpness of feeling that comes from loss.

Escape from Boston: My Time at Sewanee Writer’s Conference

IMG_0739_2_smallI’m back, readers, from a writing conference that took place in Tennessee, a state I’d never been to and a world unto its own. I had a wonderful time meeting other writers and sharing my own creative exploits, as well as hearing many a reading from some very distinguished southern writers.

What can a writer expect to get out of a writing conference? There are some writers who go hungry for the next big leap of their careers. They’re there to network, to shake hands, exchange cards, find the right person, the right reader for their books. On the other end of the spectrum are fledgling writers unsure of who they are or what they want, seeking permission to be writers for the first time in their lives. And there are all those in between, looking for advice, for validation, for a community.

For those of you seeking these things in your writing lives, I couldn’t recommend a good writing conference enough. It’s a wonderful balm to one’s spirit to be among people who already understand what you’re trying to do and why, who welcome the story of your journey and your work, your trials, triumphs, and frustrations. At the conference I attended, I found likeminded souls eager to share their work; I met poets who loved prose and fiction writers who devoured poetry; I gained a little insight into playwriting, a form I had barely understood. More than anything I felt that it was OK to be a writer; in fact, it was a good thing, an important thing, a quest to enrich my life and the lives of readers.

I also heard some heartening words about failure and patience. It was refreshing to hear award-winning writers like Alice McDermott and others explain how there comes a time in every novel’s life when it feels like the thing is a sinking ship. In that moment, McDermott explained, there’s a choice a writer must make; whether to abandon ship or try to steer the thing to shore, perhaps in a different form than what you thought it would take when you set out. We need to press on, to work through the disappointment, and discover the new surprises on the other side. We need to accept that feeling of a loss of control.

Now I’m back in my office, looking out on a street in Cambridge, still a little stunned that I won’t be plied with wine and cookies each evening anymore. It will take some adjusting to return to the real world; but I’ll carry the advice, the friendships, and the generous spirit of creative community with me.

Memories of Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day, readers! This is one of those holidays that can mean vastly different things depending on who is celebrating it. For those involved with the military or those who have lost loved ones, it’s no doubt a somber day, one of observance and of ritual, of sadness but perhaps also of pride. For all those Americans who don’t have a direct connection to the military, without any disrespect, I think the day has a more festive feeling. It’s a day that usually marks the start of summer, a day of celebration, of cookouts, parades, of facepainting and balloons tied to children’s wrists, of sparklers in the summer twilight. For either group, though, I think the day is still very much tied up with memory.

For the military families out there, the day is of course about remembering what has been lost, the prices paid, the people who aren’t there today. But for the other group, the day is about memory as well; it’s a day in which we remember when we were kids, and the summer traditions we had that the kids of today are upholding; it’s a day of doing what Americans have been doing for generations. Any major holiday has that element of memory to it, but whereas a religious holiday is only for some, Memorial Day is pretty much open to anyone who wants to tap into American traditions and share in them.

Memory, to me, is always a fundamental aspect of the stories I write, and both the unreliability and constancy of memory features prominently as a theme in those stories. I often write stories from the perspective of people looking back at important times in their lives, or marveling at how naive, how fresh, how unsullied they once were before other major life events came crowding in. I think memory is one of those things that simply can’t be avoided in fiction. To assume that memory is fixed and perfect, for example, ends up seeming naive, and denying the fluctuating nature of the worlds we store in our heads. To deny its powerful influence on us at all, on the other hand, is equally naive.

Today is an occasion to mark time, and to think about memorial days past. I remember having hot dogs on the grill with my family, and running barefoot in the cool grass of the shady backyard; I remember the elation that the school year was almost at its end; I remember the little shorts and t-shirts that I wore every day of the summer until they fell apart; I remember summer as a kid. I remember the radio playing through the open door of the kitchen and running to get the cushions off the chairs in the backyard when rain inevitably came. I remember the sound of that rain pinging on the metal air conditioner bolted into the window frame as I lay in bed at night.

What do you remember as part of your summer? What about childhood, or memory, or the person you were, does this day evoke?


Memories of an Old City in the New

Today, I’m thinking about memory as I walk through my city. Twice a week my commuting path takes me through Copley Square, the historic center of Boston, and I walk/jog briskly through traffic past some of the oldest buildings in the area, such as the grand Boston Public Library and the old church that face each other across the plaza. I remember visiting the rare books room of the library and seeing documents from the sixteen hundreds or even earlier, chronicling the journeys of the earliest European settlers here. At the same time, I’m crossing Boylston street, which now has a plethora of other, starker memories demanding their room in my brain, demanding citywide remembrance.

That’s the funny thing about living in a city with any kind of history; there are always so many layers of time and memory super-imposed on each other, constantly layering on top of one another, blurring the lines of past and present. There is the circle memorializing the Boston massacre; and over there, a line of hip new clothing stores that seem to have sprung up just last week. The city keeps changing, but there are always signs of the old wherever you look. There’s the line of hungry cannoli-eating customers in the North End, waiting at Mike’s pastry shop; but the Italian immigrants that made up this neighborhood are largely gone. Where did they go?

I sometimes hear old Bostonians lamenting this change, the way all city-dwellers hate change. A guy I worked with who had grown up in Somerville remembered all those Irish Catholic kids he grew up with, the friendly cops who looked the other way when they were drinking out of paper bags, the saints’ parades down the streets. Now, he complained, there’s a Caribbean cultural parade every year instead, and the neighborhood is “all foreigners.” It’s always unpleasant to hear this kind of talk; after all, go back a generation or two and it was the Irish who were the foreigners. That, of course, is part of the way memory evolves in a city; the people who arrive as outsiders are quick to reject the next generation of newcomers. That’s natural, I suppose. Things even out in the end.

It’s amazing to me how fast cities change, and how the old does endure side-by-side with the new. Buildings get torn down, but the beloved ones become shrines to memory, treasures of common repository. And we say, “That used to be —” and are stunned to see the city growing up around us, and it reminds us that time passes. If anything, the city marks time for us, and reminds us that we grow older. But the memories of what was there before endure. Even on my small street in Cambridge, I see that one shop that seems to change its identity every six months, and already it has gone through three iterations. First it was an abandoned store front; then a trendy cafe with two chairs and only three items on the menu; now it’s a pie shop. I like the pie shop and hope it stays, but I know the odds are small.

Life on the Writing Trail

I’ve been terrible, readers. This spring’s schedule of teaching and keeping up with multiple writing jobs has overwhelmed me and I haven’t been able to keep up with regular posts. But I haven’t abandoned Writerly Life! This blog will still be a vital source of tips and techniques and larger thoughts about what it means to be a writer; but I’ll have to hold myself accountable and devise a posting schedule that is truly manageable. So for the future, let tell you to expect a weekly post, but one with greater length and substance than your average posts. I’ll be working hard on those posts to make sure they’re up to a high standard, and that they get you thinking about writing, memory, life, creativity, and much more. Don’t give up on me yet!

At the same time, of course, I’ll be wearing my other hat of acting as co-editor of my new literary magazine, Two Cities Review. You’ll see me over there, writing about the intersection of writing and city life, and you can expect any relevant post about writing to wander over here as well.

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Marathon Monday


Every other third Monday in April that I can remember, I’ve woken up with a school day or work day off, filled with the pleasurable expanse of the day before me. I’ve turned on the TV in time to see the leading runners leave Hopkinton, and then kept it on to see them laboring through the miles, their honest, miraculous, movement through the towns of Massachusetts. Every year before 2013, I was at my childhood home in Newton, and I’d mosey out to Commonwealth Ave in time to cheer on the runners going by. I’d get a special rush of excitement to see the leaders pass, but there was even more pleasure in seeing the steady wave of runners that followed, the swelling phalanx of people surging with good will, with cheer. The joy of their effort was infectious. I think there’s no better sport to be a spectator at than to be alongside the long miles of a marathon. Some of us participate with our cups of water, and are thrilled when the proffered cup we hold is snatched; and others are sure to cheer the loudest when soldiers in heavy packs go tramping by; whoever is our favorite competitor, we get to see him or her, right there, achieving this startling feat of human endurance. There is no wall between us and them; we almost share in their triumphs. That’s yet another reason why the events of a year ago hurt so many of us on so many levels.

The last week has been a fraught one for the city of Boston; inhabitants have been doing their best to honor the survivors, the victims, and to keep our faces turned forward. I’ve noticed how little mention has been made of the alleged bombers themselves. They do not belong to the future of the city, and so we do not even honor their names in this week. In the coming months the trial will no doubt seize hold of our attention, but right now, it’s the marathon we are intent on restoring. The memorials have been respectful, determined, almost upbeat. We’re not looking back. We’ve got our eyes on the finish line.

Last year was the first year I was living in the city proper and so went to the finish line. I saw the winners round that final corner onto Boylston Street, and felt the waves of good will coming from every direction. I went home hours before the disaster struck. This time, I want to be there again; I want to see that first weary face turn the final corner, and the leading runner suddenly begin to sprint, to float on the deafening crowd. After that astonishing trek, the leaders always seem to have something left for a final battle to the finish line. And for all the weary amateur runners who follow him, there is still enough left to cross the line, to raise their arms in triumph. Where does that strength come from?

Will you be at the marathon this year? The crowds are promising to be legendary. Security will be tight, of course; it’s one of those prices we pay these days to feel safe in a modern city. But I don’t think the spirit will be too diminished. From what I’ve seen, this city is ready to make this event an occasion for joy and uplift once again.