On Some Road
You know those toys they sell in the Discovery Channel store, those small, spiky plastic spheres that when you pull the edges expand to the size of your entire body? And then when you give it a little tap with your finger it immediately shrinks back down to the size of your hand?
When I had to leave Boston at the end of the summer to go back to Wesleyan, it felt like an enormous blossoming world had suddenly shrunk back down to the size of an acorn. After tasting independence, after finally having left small-town Texas suburbia and insular Connecticut college campus bubble and coming to the city alone, after finding my own job and my own friends and my own way through the rush-hour crowds and the winding criss-cross streets of Cambridge and the crazy, eccentric people, after going running and getting lost in the rain eight miles from home and having a ride offered to me at the gas station by a nice truck driver who told me about his college days and wished me luck in my writing, after drinking cans of PBR at poetry readings and seeing an ex-boyfriend for the first time in years and really putting it all behind me, after dancing till my feet were too sore for shoes and laughing till my sides hurt like hell and my hair shook loose and after watching the sun set on the Charles River as I sat floating silently in a sailboat, safety felt unreal. Predictability felt stifling.
Nights during the first few weeks of school I sat on my balcony smoking cigarette after cigarette, feeling more alone than I had in years. I couldn't get out of this place now even if I wanted to. Where was the T? Where was that silver trolley that came rumbling around the corner like distant thunder every morning, wheels gleaming and glinting as I squinted into the sunlight? That godforsaken, slow-as-hell train I'd cursed day after day, being already late for work, vowing to murder the person who thought it would be a good idea to have the green line stop at every goddamned street on Commonwealth Avenue...now, I wanted that train back. I wanted my freedom back. I wanted my Charlie Card, my ticket out. But I was stuck. Over the summer I'd made friends who were a few years older than me, people who were hacking their own paths through the world's grasslands with their own hatchets. I met writers and poets, graduate students, environmental engineers and chemical engineers and architects, computer software programmers secretly in love with literature, publishers, painters, and retail managers. They all fascinated me, all of them had something to teach me, and despite the fact that I was younger than most of them, they showed an interest in me too, they gave me rides and drinks and invited me to parties and encouraged me to keep writing, keep following my dreams. And coming back to school, I felt like I'd lost all of that. I felt like I'd tasted something that most of the people around me had not. They seemed so content, so satisfied with an insular existence. I was dismayed at the limited scope of their conversation topics: getting drunk, getting high, going to parties and occasionally the library. I couldn't connect with anyone, not even my friends from last year. Something had happened. No interactions seemed real anymore.
But time passed and eventually I figured out that what I had experienced in Boston didn't have to stop at school, and besides I was getting tired of being judgmental all the time, so I started talking to people, people I had never met before, people I'd only talked to briefly once or twice, people I'd normally pass by with at most a "hey, how's it going," those were the people I stopped to talk to, stopped dead in my tracks and looked them in the eye and asked them another question and another until I had pushed past the awkwardness just a little, loosened the bolts not all the way but just enough to make some breathing room for the next time I ran into them, and bit by bit each of these small, individual efforts paid off. Before I knew it I barely had a moment to myself, because I was meeting E in the kitchen later for coffee, but I'd also told D that we would go swimming together, and moreover I was going to hang out with K and M and J before the parties started, at which time I said I would stop by Q's apartment complex and B's suite on the eighth floor. It wasn't like I had become popular overnight, no, it was more like I found myself suddenly surrounded by people with fascinating ideas and unbelievable stories and astonishing secrets, and I felt now that there was never enough time, never enough opportunities to be with them, follow them around so that I could absorb by osmosis everything they had to teach me. And so it goes. What started out as a miserable wreck of a semester turned out to be perhaps the best four months of my college life, if not my entire life thus far.
Essentially it was this one question that catapulted me into the stratosphere of intense friendships, immense growth, and unprecedented self-confidence:
What Do You Have To Lose?
Part of the reason why I think I was able to meet people in Boston pretty quickly was that every time I felt shy or insecure about going up to someone I didn't know to strike up a conversation with them, I would ask myself that question, what do you have to lose? It is a good question to ask yourself whenever you are in a vulnerable position or situation. Look at what you have now, and look at the possible outcomes of the risk you're about to take. More than likely, if it goes well your situation will improve, and if it doesn't go well your situation will stay the same. And so having come to a city where I knew no one and thus had no reputation to tarnish, no established friends to lose, and no social ladder to fall down, I really didn't give a damn whether I came across as awkward or silly or strange or whathaveyou. If the person perceived me that way, then they would probably give me some sort of hint that indicated they weren't interested in getting to know me, and if so, great, more than likely I'd never see them again. Having this realization I became a less afraid human being. Because the other thing I realized is that in life we are almost always in a vulnerable position, in one way or another. So really, this question "What do I have to lose?" you can ask yourself at any point in time and find that, nine times out of ten, the answer is "Not that much."
When it comes right down to it, fear is a rather strange emotion in that it creates this thin, filmy layer over the mind, clouding those faculties that enable you to look at a situation critically. Or fear is kind of like that toy at the Discovery Channel store; it starts out rather harmless, a neon orange plastic sphere small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, but give it a little tug at the edges, a slight nudge and a nod and magically, in a split second or maybe less, the thing has expanded to the size of your head, or maybe even bigger, big enough for you to climb inside and roll around in like a hamster trapped inside one of those "exercise" balls. Well, you get the picture. The point is that fear holds you back by preventing you from thinking through things clearly, and if you don't catch it at its early stage, which is anxiety, it grows bigger and bigger, infecting everything around it like a tumor or a cancer, slowly spiraling out of control until it degenerates into its final stage, doubt, which then seeps out of your pores and leaves you immobile, bedridden, and paralyzed.
I still don't consider myself a naturally outgoing person. There are some people I watch in social situations, and it seems like making conversation is such an unconscious thing for them. They don't even think about it, words just flow out, they don't hesitate and they are perfectly composed, perfectly articulate and eloquent and calm and coherent. I envy these people so much. It takes me much longer to really be able to talk to someone comfortably and casually, and even then it never really becomes second nature. I feel like I'm painfully aware of how I look and what I'm saying and how it's coming across and sometimes I think it would be so much easier if I weren't so focused on these things but I don't really know how to un-focus my attention from them.
One of my favorite writers said in a workshop this summer, "Oftentimes in good fiction the author describes the physical characteristics of a place in order to describe the people who live there, and vice versa, because really the two are interchangeable." I've thought about this and really it's a very comforting thought because essentially what he is saying is that the person, to a certain extent, creates the environment because he is part of the landscape and the landscape is part of him. When I think about going to a new place, about whether I will fit in there, whether I'll adapt to the lifestyle, etc. etc., I am essentially viewing the situation through an angle in which I am at the mercy of the place when really that's not true at all, when really as soon as I get there I will BE the environment as much as any other random person that is already there, as much as any tree or house or tricycle that is already there. Which means that I will inevitably be an active participant in shaping that environment, in writing it, in transforming it merely through my physical presence, the simple fact of my being there.
Four months ago I thought my world had shrunk and withered because the physical perimeters of my inhabited space were drastically reduced. And then it bloomed again, from the center out. Like the expanding universe toy. I guess all things bloom and wither, expand and contract, inhale and exhale. It's a sign that I am alive, that my heart is beating, that my blood is pulsing through my veins.
words: Lisa Reade, Boston (the vigilant lily)
image: Molly Sutton Kiefer, Minnesota (blog & photos)