From Life

What Will You Do with the Joys of Spring?

I know I’m counting my chickens before they’re hatched, readers, but this weekend felt like spring was in the air in Chicago. The air had that special mild feel; the wind that blustered about me was warm, and the sun was bright enough to make me squint. More than these little rises in the thermostat, though, I just felt that extra burst of energy that spring brings with it. I walked all over town, glad to make up errands and excuses to get outside. Before the week was out, I had filled the coming months with excited plans. I’ll be fitter! I’ll eat better! I’ll write outdoors and go to cafes and and and…

I know I won’t be able to accomplish all the excited plans on my calendar, but just having the excitement of planning is enough right now. Spring always gives me a boost of hopeful energy. And before you tell me not to get my hopes up, I know; as a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I know April has a way of having late snowstorms. My heart is hard and ready for this little taste of spring to fade. But once nature gets a foothold, it never seems quite as bad to dip back into winter for a while.

This also means that I’ve almost officially survived my first Chicago winter. I thought it would take extra strength of character, but it honestly wasn’t too unbearable, except for a few extreme days. And of course, this has me thinking about what the change of season means for our creative lives. Will there be more time, somehow, for writing? Will we be able to sit out in the sun and jot things down in our notebooks, or just think and plan and work on dreamier things? It’s hard to say. But we can certainly set ourselves up for success by seizing the joy of spring.

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Expressing Your Point of View Is a Lifestyle. Are You Living It?

WRITERS ARE LUCKY. We have a built-in desire to communicate; it’s a need within us. That’s true of all human beings, but we’re lucky because we, unlike many others, have the tools to do it. But all too often, we smother that impulse and those means, preferring the safety of silence.

I was a shy kid.

 Shy with a capital S. So afraid of meeting with someone’s disapproval that I would keep silent in the most extreme of situations. My first day in preschool, I recall with a sting of shame, I wet my pants because I was too shy to ask where the bathroom was. Yes, it was that bad. Sometimes I look back and breathe a sigh of relief that nothing too terrible happened to me, because if it did, I’m sure I wouldn’t have spoken up about it.

Looking back on that terrified little kid, I wonder what was going on in her head. 

Nothing had traumatized me into this silence; it was just part of my personality. It was extremely difficult for me to speak my point of view. When I went over to another kid’s house and the parent asked me what snack I wanted, I wouldn’t say for fear of insulting them or seeming greedy. And when friends angered me or hurt my feelings, I bore those feelings in silence, afraid of losing that precious relationship. 

I suspect more kids than you think were like this.

There are the loud talkers, the needy kids, the showoffs, and way in the back are the shy ones, desperate to speak up, but scared to. As an adult, I can shake my head and see how much better life is in every way when you risk criticism, and when you speak your mind. Through experience, through growing just a bit older, I can see how speaking your mind becomes a powerful need. 

Once I got through the agonies of middle school, I was surprised to discover that speaking up felt good. It still does! There’s nothing worse than quietly seething when someone has offended you, or a job isn’t being done right; and there’s nothing more satisfying than expressing your point of view. This applies to relationships, friendships, coworkers, teachers — you name it. There is always a respectful way to tell the truth; and you are always entitled to feeling a certain way. Once I realized this, I became hard to shut up. I was always the big talker in class. I went on and on. I shared. I overshared. It can be intoxicating, to find yourself listened to and understood. I probably overdid it a little, but I was making up for lost time.

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In the Heart of a Chicago Winter

THE HIGH IS THREE DEGREES IN CHICAGO TODAY, AND I’M NOT EVEN TELLING YOU WHAT THE WIND CHILL IS. I’ve arrived in this Midwestern city at the perfect time to see it at its worst; the winds are howling off the snow-covered lake, and it’s so cold that it’s dangerous to go outside. I’ve stood out on those elevated train platforms now with my nose tucked into my scarf, shivering under the measly little heat lamps while that wind howls close to my skin. It’s a creature with teeth, a mugger wielding knives. It is a physical presence with a cutting brutality on your face, your eyes, your hands.

Seriously, I grew up in New England, but this cold is a whole different level. This is the cold that people can die in. Homeless or drunk people get locked out at the wrong time and die every year.

And with all this extremity around me, my hometown has STILL managed to best Chicago this year. Again, my timing was perfect; I left about a week before the first snowstorm hit Boston, and it’s been nothing but piling snow ever since. At first, snow is beautiful and delightful. Bostonians I knew were sending gleeful messages about another day of canceled class, another snowman built. Giddy photos popped up online of people making snow angels, sledding down Beacon street, skiing down Comm Ave.

But the snow is overstayed its welcome. With no days above freezing temperatures, the snow has stayed, even as more and more has piled up. Trains are stopped. Buses are spotty. Most roads have become one-way. People with real jobs, people with kids to take care of, are desperate. Snow days and piled sidewalks have become one more thing that a few are privileged to enjoy, and most must suffer. 

In the way that we all think the universe revolves around us, I can’t help wonder what Boston is trying to tell me with this howling gale mere days after my final departure from my home. It makes me feel like I was essential to the place, somehow, and now once I’ve left, there’s an icy void in my place. Maybe the city is expressing its rage that I’m gone. Or maybe I belittled Boston too often. I’ve told too many people that it’s really a small town, barely a city. You don’t think I’m a city? Boston is retorting. Well how about this?

I’m being silly, of course; nothing is more impervious to human beings than weather, and yet we insist on taking it personally. On a Chicago day when the winds are so strong that I must take shelter behind a building, in the lee of the wind, I wonder what I did wrong, what I did to deserve this. Am I up to Chicago’s mettle? Do I have what it takes? I don’t know yet, but I’m trying. I’ve leaped into the icy deep end of what Chicago has to offer. For the next few months, you can picture me feeling around in the black waters of the unknown here, struggling to survive.

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We just cannot handle it right now. But we have to.

Ever have one of those days? How about one of those weeks, or those semesters? Yeah, we’ve all been there. Sometimes we go through a stretch where everything seems to be piled on top of us. There’s homework and college applications and relationship troubles and fights with friends. There’s band practice and clarinet practice and oh my God, did she really say that about me online? There’s the constant buzz of tension that being alive and stressed and a bit confused brings. Sometimes we just want to throw up our hands and give up; we don’t even know what to fix first in our lives. Then our parents come into the room and ask us to take out the trash and isn’t that just the last straw? We just cannot handle it all. We CANNOT.

If you’ve ever felt this way, don’t you worry; all the rest of us have too. Sometimes life gets overwhelming, particularly in our busy modern day and age. We want to do a bit of everything, and Facebook and FOMO isn’t exactly helping. But the secret is, there IS a way to get stuff done; not everything, but enough to feel Okay about it all.

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The secret begins with something my dad always says to me. He would tell me when I was a kid, “You can have anything you want; you just can’t have EVERYTHING you want.” This is simple advice, but you wouldn’t believe how helpful it is when you start applying it to your choices in your everyday routine. You want to Ace that big paper that’s due this week. But you also want to watch five hours of television while eating butterscotch cookies. It’s okay, I don’t judge. We’ve all been there. The truth is, if you pause to think about your priorities, you’ll realize that the choice is pretty simple; given that you can’t have EVERYTHING you want, it’s pretty easy to see which thing you want more. Which reward will be more lasting — TV marathon or getting a good grade on that paper?

This can apply to pretty much any situation in life. So you’re having a fight with your friend. You want to be in the right; you want the pride and superiority of saying “I told you so.” But you also want your friend. You want to maintain that friendship that has meant so much to you. When you weigh one want against the other, and understand that you can’t have both but you <i>can</i> have one, the choice becomes clear. It’s time to apologize, and let whatever that was go.

It’s all about taking a moment to assess your priorities, and be mindful about what you really want. What do you want today, and what do you want six months from now? How are you going to get closer to that six month desire?

I think the first part of my dad’s saying is equally crucial. You can have anything you want, he always assured me. That opened tremendous doors of possibility in my kiddish mind. You want to be an astronaut, an engineer, the coolest kid in school? Whatever it is, you can achieve it if you work for it. The world is your oyster, kid. But if you keep sacrificing those big wants for smaller, pettier wants along the way, you’ll never make it. You’ve got to keep your eyes on that big, real want looming on the horizon. 

So what do you think? What are your little wants and what are your big wants, and how do they stack up against each other? When life is getting in the way, when you just <i>cannot handle it right now</i>, it’s time to think about <i>what you really want.</i> Do you want to succeed in that super-hard class in school? Do you want to resolve things with your friend? Do you want your family to respect you more? What’s most important to you? And what steps can you take toward that want? Take it one step at a time. Head firmly in that direction. And you’ll be able to handle it just enough to get by.

4 Reasons Anonymity Will Take Over the World

You’re on YikYak, right? It seems like everybody is on either this or Snapchat or both. On these trendy new services, people can send brief, anonymous missives to the larger world. It’s like Twitter, but safer and more fun, because it doesn’t have to be tightly associated with you, and it doesn’t last forever. We’re always warned that what goes on the internet is there forever, but that’s not always true. There are a few big reasons that services like YikYak and Snapchat are tapping into our most deeply held impulses as human beings, and these are why they will probably take over the world — if they haven’t done so already.

1. The lure of anonymity. That’s the big one, of course. Things like Facebook demand real identities. That makes it just a little bit harder to delve into our darker selves. But anonymity allows us to indulge in all sorts of secret human desires. We don’t have to be polite; we can be as rude and nasty as we want; we can snipe and backbite. We can say the things we’re afraid to say in public. That’s the beauty of anonymity; so many of us have things to say, but a major roadblock is having those words stuck to us like a nametag. We’re able to be braver, both in good and bad ways, with the help of anonymity.

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2. The lure of ephemerality. The other thing that makes services like Snapchat feel safer is their promise that messages and photos won’t last. It encourages us to be bolder when we know the image or words will fade with time; it assures us that no matter what mistakes we make, time will forgive us. That, again, can push us to both the best and worst of our nature. If the consequences of our actions are only short-lived, it’s far easier to say what we really mean — or to say the ugliest thing we can think of just for the sheer excitement of it.

3. We love gossip. Let’s face it; no matter who you are, if you’re human, you like gossip at least a little bit. Did she really –? Did he really? What did they say when they were at the party? And do you know what happened next? No matter how much you scorn gossip as lesser entertainment, it is still objectively entertaining. As human beings, we are endlessly nosy and curious creatures. It’s what makes us capable of learning and insight, after all; it is the uncurious who never learn or step outside the small sphere of their own knowledge. So in a funny way, gossip can be both good and bad, just like all these other very human impulses.

4. We want a voice. As young people, it can be hard to find a space to give our opinions. We don’t control where we live or where we go to school or what we’re required to do. It can be so hard to not have a space to hear your own voice. The magic of online sharing services like Snapchat and YikYak are that they give us that experience. They let us have a voice and say whatever we want. That, again, is tapping into a very human impulse: the creative impulse. We want to speak, to communicate, and to tell a story. We want to <i>make</i> something, and we want that something to be unique. So it’s no surprise that sharing services are so wildly popular; they are giving us an opportunity to be our best selves, which are creative selves. As with all these other very human traits, it can encourage us to be our worst selves, too. It can cause us to spout cliches or trendy phrases just in the urge to find popularity. It can cause us to be the <i>opposite</i> of creative. And yet…it still taps into that creative instinct. Services like YikYak and Snapchat may have already taken over the world, because they’re allowing us to be exactly what we want to be: human, warts and all.

5 Ways to Keep Regrets from Weighing You Down

Possibly one of the most universal human emotions out there is regret. We wish we had done something we didn’t do, or that we hadn’t done something we did. We wish the universe had tilted just slightly in that other direction. We feel shame about mistakes we made, and no matter how hard we try, we can’t change the way things turned out in the past. Regrets can feel like an anchor on your body or a shackle around your leg; they’re almost physical weights that hold us down, that prevent us from doing good work in the present or feeling joy about the future. In short, regrets suck.

The problem is, wallowing in regret really doesn’t get us anywhere, as anybody who’s tried it knows. There’s just no good reason to keep feeling embarrassed about what’s happened in the past, and yet we just keep doing it. Maybe there’s something almost comfortable about lolling around in the past, like a pig in the mud. It’s comfy here in our memory and our regret; it’s colder and scarier out in the world of the present, where new choices are being made and new consequences are being experienced. So how do we break out of the habit and get out of the mud? Here are a few ways to keep yourself looking forward and free of all those cumbersome weights.

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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.