Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fitting in


"When we spend a lot of time with our body doing one thing while our mind is on vacation somewhere else, it means that we aren't really present for much of our life. When we aren't present, it makes us feel vaguely but persistently dissatisfied. This sense of dissatisfaction, of a gap between us and everything and everyone else, is the essential problem of human life. It leads to those moments when we are pierced with a feeling of deep doubt and loneliness."--Jan Chozen Bays, from How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness.

I'm coming on five years of living in the Boston area, but somehow it doesn't feel like home yet. I keep waiting for that moment when ta da! I feel one with my surroundings. Like if I've been away and I come back, it's almost a relief because I'm in familiar territory--the city I love, the place that embraces me and welcomes me back in the fold.

Is it that the place you lived when you were young will forever feel like home? When I moved to Boston in the summer of 2006 I was moving to be with my future husband, but I also saw it as an opportunity to grow. I didn't want to be the person who stayed in one place their whole life.

I remember when I spent my first night in the new apartment, our apartment, the first we had owned. Mike had moved up to Boston ahead of me and for the past couple of months we had only seen each other on weekends. Now this was my home, too. I brushed my teeth in what felt like someone else's bathroom. There was a hand towel of questionable origin hanging from the rack near the sink. The only toiletries were Men's products: Speed Stick, cologne, a razor with black hairs in the blade. There was a light brown soapy film covering the sink.

This was not unlike the scene four years before when I moved into Mike's apartment in Astoria, Queens. I had to find a way to squeeze myself into the space that before had been your typical bachelor pad (except without the leather couch and neon Heineken sign, thankfully.) At one point, when I was removing some decoration of Mike's that he had in the kitchen and replacing it with something floral and pink, Mike said, "You're removing every trace of me!" A slight exaggeration--why would I want to remove every trace of the person I loved? But I could also see his point.

But in this new apartment, in this strange city, moving in wasn't as easy as putting my collection of Belle Epoque advertising signs on the walls and clean and fresh hand towels in the bathroom. For the first four months when I hadn't found a job yet and so had lots of free time I went to work with Comet and a sponge, removing the former occupants trail and introducing our own. I thought that if I could make my mark on the apartment, I could do the same in my new city.

Of course it wasn't enough to unpack my collection of coffee mugs and martini glasses, bottles of skin lotion and pretty guest soaps. Even when my books were side-by-side (but not mixed together--never!) with Mike's, when I went outside in my neighborhood it always felt like I was just visiting, a subletter using another person's couch, coffeepot, bed, until the owner returned. It wasn't Mike's fault--he encouraged me to explore the town and take writing classes and make new friends. This city was somewhat new to him, too. He was from Massachusetts, sure, and had gone into Boston for Red Sox games. But he's from a small town an hour west of here. In a way, even though he had family nearby, this was all new for him, too.

Maybe if I was of college-age when I moved to Boston it would have been different. The city is chock-a-block with young people. Walking around town is like walking on the biggest college campus you'll ever visit. I found myself swamped in nostalgia for overpriced textbooks, world literature lectures, Thursday night bar crawls.

But as a woman in her mid-thirties I felt marooned. Where could I fit into this picture?

Since that in-between summer in 2006 I've been striving to answer that question, making lists in my head of favorite local restaurants, stores, open markets, art house theaters, etc. I started learning and writing about mindfulness, staying present, appreciating where you are right where you are. It has been a slow process, and ongoing.

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