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Thursday
Sep062012

Notes from the Middle

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

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

Unlike many young people who move to Boston, we didn’t arrive with a set timeline. We felt like pioneers, reversing the typical American journey, driving two thousand miles to New England from a place most Northeasterners still think of as the Wild West. None of our parents or grandparents had ever tried to make a life back east; we were striking out on our own, all our possessions in a Budget truck packed to the top, a new job ahead for my husband and an unknown job market waiting for me. He spent the first six months driving around Boston’s southern suburbs, learning the roads of the towns where he would visit clients for in-home therapy. I spent them riding the subway into downtown Boston, where I walked among bookstores and museums, coffee shops and old winding streets, past trees whose leaves lit my way like orange and golden torches.

When I finally found a job — downtown, in the middle of all that beauty — I rejoiced in my good fortune. I bought a monthly subway pass and sensible walking shoes, and made sure I always had a book in my shoulder bag to last me through my new commute. Walking the downtown streets on my lunch break, taking weekend cruises around Boston Harbor, picking apples with friends in an orchard west of the city, sampling authentic Italian pastries in Boston’s North End, we threw ourselves into that first year, savoring the new pleasures abundant in our new home.

Now, our friends who moved here for graduate school (many of whom arrived when we did) are finishing their degrees, starting to move away. A few have already left. By contrast, we have no fixed end date for our stay here, though I tell people I doubt I can withstand these New England winters forever. What I really mean is that my heart quails at the coldness of New Englanders, in the shops and in the subway and at the office. Most people are polite, if reserved, but after two years of constant attempts to reach out and form friendships, our best friends are still the ones who came with us from Texas. Most of our other friends are fellow transplants from other states or countries who remember how it feels to be strangers in Boston. Searching for friendships here often feels like quarrying the granite for which our town is known. At first, it seemed like an exciting challenge; after two years of trying, I am weary, and often lonely.

If this were the end of our time in Boston, it would be easier to view the past two years as a completed story arc, to sift through the weeks and months for meaning, pointing to certain events as watershed moments. As a writer, that’s what I do, combing back through my experience, making meaning out of everyday occurrences and occasional big, life-shifting ones. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out the lessons of Boston, the particular blessings of our time here. I want to know the reasons for all the loneliness, all the striving, all the struggling we’ve done since we arrived. These lessons would stand out in sharper relief if our time here were ending.

But this is merely an anniversary, a pause along the path. We are no longer at the beginning, nor are we quite at the end. We are in the middle, the place where everything happens before you know why it does. The place where, in my favorite novels, the characters live through all kinds of exciting, meaningful, sometimes harrowing events, without the clarity that often comes at the end. In a story, the middle is both exciting and necessary; in life, it can feel long and frustrating. Things either shift constantly, leaving us disoriented, or they drag on with little change, with aching monotony. And it isn’t yet given to us to know why.

After spending eight years in the same smallish college town, my husband and I were both restless, ready for a change. We did not want to emulate so many people we knew, who came to Abilene for college and never left, living much the same lives at thirty and fifty as they did at twenty-one. We wanted not just to taste life in a different place, but to sit down and make a meal of it, feast on it for a while, learn the flavors and smells of a completely new cuisine.

Two years in, we have gotten our wish, in spades. And while I love tasting the cannoli and clam chowder, treasure the books I’ve collected from local shops and author signings, cherish the memories of red leaves and golden autumn light, I miss my home. The longer I stay here, the more I realize that I am a stranger, that the center of my universe still lies on the drought-scorched plains two thousand miles south and west of here. I miss my family, now that I only get to see them two or three times a year. I miss Tex-Mex food, balmy weather in March, friendly smiles and hellos on the street, the twang of country music, the warm, all-inclusive word “y’all.”

And who, after all, will remember us when we leave here? Will we be just another idealistic young couple from the South who came up here for a few years to have an adventure and then left? Will we leave any mark on our workplaces, our apartment, our city, our friends? Or will all those shift and dissolve too, until the city won’t recognize us as former residents when we come back to visit?

I don’t know. It’s hard to tell now, from here, in the middle.

I don’t know what lies ahead, either in the rest of the middle or beyond it. I don’t know where the middle ends, or where the end begins. I’d prefer the heightened perspective of knowing, without the sadness and uncertainty that often accompany endings. I’d like the clarity without the finality, the direction without the melancholy, so I can sift through the sand of the past two years for a few jewels, trace the winding maze to its X and point to a spot on the road: Here. I’d love to be able to mark and define what we’ve been looking for, what we’ve been working toward, the whole time.

But the process, I know, doesn’t work like that. Instead, I am looking back through my own scattered signposts along the road, rereading journal entries and blog posts, looking at photos, remembering all we’ve seen and known and done in Boston so far. I am breathing a prayer of thanks for the few true friends we’ve made and for the people back home who are still cheering us on, even as they wait for us to come back. And, like any character worth her salt, I will then take a deep breath and step forward into the next year, into the next part of the middle. The next part of the unknown, the next page. The next chapter. The next day.

Photo: Katie Noah Gibson

Katie Noah Gibson is a writer, editor, knitter, and compulsive tea-drinker based in Boston. Born in Texas, she’s a lifelong Anglophile but loves to travel just about anywhere. She blogs at Cakes, Tea and Dreams and tweets regularly.

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Reader Comments (20)

This is a beautiful piece that *almost* made me feel nostalgic about my time in Boston. I spent three years there for school (like many others), and found the city to be rather unwelcoming. I have some friends who stayed there and absolutely love it, but I don't miss it much.

September 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAMB

Katie, this is beautiful. It so perfectly captures the anxiety about leaving a mark on a place, and having a mark left on yourself in return. And the difficulties of living inside that middle space of life. Nothing major on the horizon, the story just going on. Anyways, I loved this. Happy bittersweet 2nd Boston anniversary.

September 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

Perhaps it is city life—people move to the cities to “make it,” to go to fancy colleges and get high-power jobs, but then return to where they came from when they want to settle down, start a family, be closer to their parents. I live in Manhattan and constantly find myself saying good-bye to friends, who were never native New Yorkers to begin with and have decided they’ve gotten what they wanted from city life or want a change or started having babies or want a lower cost of living. This means that by the time you reach a certain age, there are a lot less people around your age living in the city. I think this may be particularly true in Boston, where there are so many colleges. You start noticing that cities are full of young go-getters and jetsetters. So I think a large part of it has to do with growing up. We are no longer in situations where we’re necessarily meeting people our age and seeing people on a consistent basis—that’s another part of city life that is hard: people plan their calendars out three weeks in advance—and then when we finally meet someone we click with, they decide they’re moving on to their next destination.

September 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie Niko

You write so well, Katie. "The longer I stay here, the more I realize that I am a stranger" - that rings so true for me in my Now.

September 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterhootenannie

Katie you are such a gifted writer! It is so enjoyable to sit down and read a piece like this, that makes you feel cozy, remember what home feels like, and causes you to look at your own life and sift through it's purpose. It is especially captivating to me because we just made the move to South Dakota and while we are loving it so far, Texas will always be home and you captured well just what that means.

September 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Katie, this is a beautiful meditation. I've told you myself that I nearly settled in Boston myself, and back then I had the same sensations that you're experiencing now. It's hard to be new there, in a way it wasn't when I moved to the south.

That said: happy anniversary. And from someone packing to move out of a house herself, let me just say that this got to me: I’d prefer the heightened perspective of knowing, without the sadness and uncertainty that often accompany endings. Yes, yes, yes.

September 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKim

I'm in my late 50s and have "just passed through" many towns and cities when we were following my husband's career. Once he became ill and had to go on Disability, we came back home to the Midwest. The land here is my anchor.

However, my daughter married a New Englander and lives in Mass. Although she just texted me that she is at Tea Shop on Cape Cod but I'm not jealous... much. It is a vacation after all. :)

It took a couple years for my daughter and son-in-law to find a great church and fellowship outside of his family. She has said Boston is its' own society and they chose to live inland a bit and her hubby commutes to work. Although now they are thinking of changing their lifestyle to one that does not require commuting.

I loved your writing, it makes me think of my visits to Massachusetts. It is a beautiful place to visit but it makes Chicago winters look mild in contrast.

September 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrenda@Coffeeteabooksandme

Katie,
I just read your post and checked out your blog and I think we could be good friends. My family moved from upstate NY to Austin almost exactly one year ago and we def. marked the 1 year anniversary the way you describe in your post. We've been told that the 2 year mark is where you *know* if you'll ever feel at home. In the meantime, we're soaking up the bright rays in TX.
Thanks for writing and I look forward to following you at your blog!
Tamara

Katie,

I loved reading this piece "from the middle". What a good thing to reflect, not from a place of clarity and finality, but from that place where most of us find ourselves day in and day out. Thank you.

September 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Bernardini

Try Charleston, SC. Another lovely old city, full of history and mystery. But, instead of cold harsh winters you get to choose which barrier island you'll explore next. I don't currently live there, but did as a child. A land of enchantment. You'll eat wonderful seafood, be treated with kindness and warmth. As you know, being from Texas, everyone's family in just a few minutes! There's a growing publishing world there. Lots of inspiration for writing...you know how we love our quirky southern characters! It's a place I'll return to...sometime soon.

September 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

This is encouraging. What you say rings true to my experience, too, though my "What was actually going on there?" time was spent in a smallish Southern mountain town - which actually makes your sentiments all the more resonant; this is an experience that is common, that transcends specific places and lives. "I’d love to be able to mark and define what we’ve been looking for, what we’ve been working toward, the whole time." Yes. Also, your final sentences: beautiful. Inspiring. Thank you!

September 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca D. Martin

Katie,

I loved this post - you are an amazing writer. I migrated from India and I resonated with a lot of things you said on a much more magnified scale! 10 years on, do I still miss my homeland? Yes. Have I made new friends here who are now like my family? Yes. Give life time. Time to become a familiar face that people don't mind bumping into at social gatherings and then slowly move on to the person who people like to bump into. I

As we grow older, our friendships are harder to form - but when we do, they are just as special

September 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSaumya

Happy Boston birthday, beautiful girl. I admire you for conveying what makes it difficult to be here, what the heart longs for even amid the beautiful foliage. I cannot wait to see you soon, share the first pumpkin drink of the fall, and make it all feel a little more like home again.

September 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoxanne

This is a beautiful post Katie! I especially loved these lines: "But this is merely an anniversary, a pause along the path." and "Two years in, we have gotten our wish, in spades." I know the feeling! :)

September 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteralisha

I adore Boston. My daughter is attending Smith College in Western Mass and whenever I visit her (we live in California) I stop in Boston for a couple days first. I can't imagine running out of places to go, interesting nooks and crannies.

I hope you come to make the best decision for you. Its a good thing that you are willing to take a pause.

September 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Jordan Scott

Love the picture of the tree--if all trees in Boston look like this, it might convince me to make my own reverse journey east to Boston! Might. . .

September 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Kate, thank for this beautiful piece and all its richness. I find a sustaining comfort in your lines ""We are no longer at the beginning, nor are we quite at the end. We are in the middle, the place where everything happens before you know why it does." Exactly so. "The place where everything happens before you know why it does." The place where faith must carry us. I applaud your clarity and willingness to pause and reflect.

Blessings to you!

September 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLancia Smith

Katie,

So very well written. I, too, am in the middle: A southern transplant to the Pacific Northwest. As I get older, my perspective about adventure has changed. We've moved so far from everyone we love and who loves us. We've been here 4 years, and are definitely in the middle of this particular journey (as far as we can tell). Our plan is to send the kids back to the South for their college years and figure out a way to join them. Then, we will be near our family again, and perhaps find a way to keep our own little family 'together' through the years. I've decided that THAT is the adventure I want to pursue. Sitting in my mom's kitchen, breathing the same air as her, my daddy, my sisters..... feeling the weight of thick, warm air.... the kind of hug only the South can give. Pure delight.

In the meantime, we make our homes where we are and journey down the roads we are on. We revel in a different kind of sweetness and glean the stuff only the new place could give. This, too, is good.

Blessings,
Kara

September 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKara

Katie, this is beautifully written and oh, how I relate. While Nashville has felt like home almost from day one, I've been at a loss as to why I often feel like a stranger, almost two and a half years later. My dearest friends here are fellow transplants. It's been harder to connect with those born and bred in the South and while I wanted to blame it on the South, it might be truer that this is what happens when we try to form new friendships in our 20s and 30s. It just takes more work. I have a great community now but it still isn't quite like what I had back home. It's been hard to miss out on the usual hometown traditions, especially the holidays I'm not able to go back. This is the middle, even though I don't regret moving here and certainly don't miss the harsh Midwest winters. It's as the song goes: "every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." Fresh frontiers are worth it but it's not quite the same as home.

November 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHopefulLeigh

Oh, Katie, you could have written this for me...I am a Northeast transplant stranded (not really but it feels that way) in California for the eleventh year in a row and I am still waiting for San Diego to feel like home. I think that when the place you are from is such a big part of your identity--as being from NY is for me--no other place will ever really feel quite right. I feel disconnected from everyone here and I worry sometimes that I'm too closed-minded or too stuck in my ways that I can't open myself up to the outstanding qualities of CA. Everyone else around here LOVES it...what am I missing? I'm missing where I'm from, that's what. I think it's a good idea for everyone to leave home and stay gone for awhile, but I also think that most of us are meant to return at some point. I am financially tied to CA, and home--especially after Sandy--is not a good option right now, so I'm to remain here for a while still. But I'll make my way back eventually. I think the meaning of it all will hit me then, when I am at a safe distance and can get some perspective. Give yourself a timetable--another two years maybe, and then go home if that's what your heart is telling you. Maybe learning that you belong in Texas was the purpose of your time in Boston. Maybe it's that simple.

November 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

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