The Pulse of a City

push pin Boston

I hear sirens as I’m walking up from the subway onto Tremont Street.  I turn my head and see the blue and red flashing lights of an ambulance. Instinctively I know that the ambulance is heading to Tufts Medical Center in the heart of Chinatown. If I had seen those same lights on Storrow Drive I would know that it was heading to Massachusetts General Hospital. If on the Arborway, it would be heading to the medical area at Longwood.

I know these things just as I know the bus schedule, the subway schedule, where the homeless hang, and when traffic will be gridlocked around Boston University Bridge.

I know that on September 1st you don’t want to go out at all, because students are moving in and couches, chairs, and stuffed animals, symbols of a childhood that passed too quickly, fill the streets. I know when there is a Red Sox game, or a Bruins game. I know that the best night to go get cappuccino and canolis in the North End is Monday. I know the best Pakistani restaurant and the worst coffee places. I know the subway stops where I need to watch my back, and others where I could go on the latest train and be completely safe.

I suddenly realize that I know the pulse of this city like I know my own pulse. This city has become my city. The realization brings panic and assurance. Panic, because I’ve never lived anywhere this long before. I’m always the one who is leaving. When you’ve had a lifetime of moving, it’s not easy to stop. Panic because I’m not ‘from’ here – and I don’t want to be ‘from’ here. Assurance because I love the familiarity, I love the city, I love the early morning walk from subway to work. I love the evening walk from subway to home. Comfort because there is a sense of belonging that I never imagined I would achieve. Assurance in the friendships I have formed and the strange sense of community that I sometimes feel.

This is forever the third culture kid story – assurance and panic; belonging and not belonging; native and alien; comfortable and uncomfortable. We feel grief and loss with movement and we feel guilty and restless with stability. We are always living a paradoxical life.

How do we work through this paradox and continually adapt to where we have been placed?

I wrote this in a piece called “Homelands” and I stand by it today:

We learn to listen, to look outside of ourselves, to see others and remember it’s not all about us. We learn to grieve well, to use that holy gift of laughter and laugh hard, to cry when we need to. We learn that it is not disloyal to love two places at the same time. We learn the art of entry. We learn that ‘homelands’ can change, and we can adapt to them, adapt with them. 

We learn the pulse of a city. 

2 thoughts on “The Pulse of a City

  1. Lovely piece, Marilyn. I too feel at home in Boston, even though I finished college there nearly 50 years ago (!) and had already left my hometown in western MA when in high school. Whenever I return to Boston for a visit, I feel surrounded by my personal history, enjoy the meandering walks along the former cow paths, and drink in the sense of national history that emanates from the cityscape.

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  2. I love this as I love your city, Boston. four years of college there, our first year of marriage in that first home, a tiny 3rd floor furnished apartment created by the landlord in the attic of a 2-decker, also plumbed and electrified by him. I loveit when we visit you and Cliff drives us around those old memories. Next time we need to find that Jamaica Plain house and show it to you.

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