I have seen more snow this winter than I have ever seen before. That is excepting Colorado in winter, but its snow was already on the ground, not coming out of the sky. When I tell friends anywhere outside of Boston than our total snowfall for the year currently sits at 7.5 feet and that the weathermen are telling us there is no reason to expect an end yet, the first thing they gasp out is, "Are you surviving?"
Let's just say... I'm so incredibly glad I'm not one of the early Puritans coming to America. I understand better now their death rates. I find it almost unfathomable to think about how they did survive with pretty much woods shacks and zero food. I feel like I'm going to die with my nice centrally heated apartment and a well-stocked grocery store 5 minutes away.
The real question, though, is not how are we surviving physically, but rather, how are we bearing up in our spirits. We've had a blizzard every weekend for the past 4 weeks. I'm guessing that for people from places like Canada and Erie that's no big deal, but it's a huge deal when you had no expectation of living according to the whims of the weather vortex that suddenly decided to land on your city. The mental taxation is amazing as almost every aspect of public life suddenly becomes very frustrating and complicated.
Frankly, I understand why depression rates are higher in colder climates. As the physical world caves in on life, bringing with it darkness and confined quarters, it's only natural that our souls respond in kind. Our souls are intimately connected to physical reality; they can't and don't survive aloof from outer realities.
What has been necessary for me to survive is finding the presence of the Lord in it. All of my friends know that I struggle with busyness. My life often feels hectic and chaotic and overly full of people. But this crazy month of snow has taken much of that away. Every week as my world is once again turned into a living snow globe, I am allowed to step back and retreat from the pace of life.
In many ways, I have found the last month to be one of the most spiritually healthy for me in a long time. The slower mornings and evenings have allowed me to take care of myself in ways I often struggle to do. I've exercised my body more consistently and generally taken more time to plan meals (though I feely confess that recent days have been an exception). I've read more than I have in maybe years and I've made some good headway on a quilting project I started last fall. My husband is teaching me how to play video games. I know for some that may not seem like a healthy use of time, but for me, it's trying something new (always a good thing), I find it better than watching TV (yay for active relaxation!), and it helps us do something together that doesn't stoke my competitiveness (growing in marriage... always a good thing). I can count more things I'm either doing for the first time or picking back up after a long hiatus in last month than in the whole last year.
To my biggest benefit, though, I have started my mornings more quietly than I have in a long time. When you're life is suddenly this quiet, there is only so much gooning out on Facebook you can do before it starts to turn your stomach and so I've been more consistently reading scripture with breakfast than I have in a long time. It is deeply refreshing. I guess if my spiritual growth requires the mental fatigue of 7 feet of snow, I'll take it. I long for spring and sunshine and any shoe that's not a boot, but more than any of those things, I'm thankful for the monkish solitude of cancelled meetings and closed public transportation.
One of the books I've enjoyed reading these recent weeks is Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God. I'll leave you with the following passage:
"If sometimes he is a little too much absent from that divine presence, God presently makes Himself to be felt in his soul to recall him, which often happens when he is most engaged in his outward business... My God, here I am all devoted to thee. Lord, make me according to Thy heart. And then it seems to him (as in effect he feels it) that this God of love, satisfied with such few words, reposes again, and rests in the fund and center of his soul. The experience of these things gives him such an assurance that God is always in the fund or bottom of his soul that it renders him incapable of doubting it upon any account whatever.
Judge by this what content and satisfaction he enjoys while he continually finds himself so great a treasure. He is no longer in an anxious search after it, but has open before him, and may take what he pleases of it.
He complains much of our blindness, and cries often that we are to be pitied who content ourselves with so little. God, saith he, has infinite treasure to bestow, and we take up with a little sensible devotion, which passes in a moment. Blind as we are, we hinder God and stop the current of His graces. But when He finds a soul penetrated with a lively faith, He pours into it His graces and favors plentifully; there they flow like a torrent which, after being forcibly stopped against its ordinary course, when it has found a passage, spreads itself with impetuosity and abundance.
Yes, we often stop this torrent by the little value we set upon it. But let us stop it no more; let us enter into ourselves and break down the bank which hinders it. Let us make way for grace; let us redeem the lost time, for perhaps we have but little left. Death follows us close; let us be well prepared for it; for we die but once, and a miscarriage there is irretrivable.
I say again, let us enter into ourselves. The time presses, there is no room for delay; our souls are at stake. I believe you have taken such effectual measures that you will not be surprised... Those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep. If the vessel of our soul is still tossed with winds and storms, let us awake the Lord, who reposes in it, and He will quickly calm the sea."
Trey and I just had the best weekend. We went on a "workcation" to an island off the coast of Maine. Trey took his homework and I took some personal projects I'm working on and we hung out in a beautiful renovated barn. Every morning we woke up to the sound of crickets and seagulls out the windows. We opened up the french doors to look out on our host's luscious garden while cooking bacon and eggs for breakfast. After dinner we drank wine and listened to jazz. It was great.
Now we're home and for the past couple of hours, I've been really struggling with disappointment. We're anticipating next year holding a lot of changes for us as Trey wraps up his degrees and works while I become a full-time student. For the past couple of months, I've been trying to figure out exactly what I'm going to study and where. But it's all so complicated and it seems like every day I have a new plan. And plans can be very dangerous things for me.
Part of the joy of this last weekend was that the seclusion and disconnect from reality gave me space to think and dream. I have so many ideas about my time in school and I think they are good ideas. A weekend of reading and contemplating and hashing things out with my husband was so exciting. My imagination could just run with its thoughts.
But coming back home and regaining cell service and unlimited internet access reawakens reality. I'm confronted with costs and time constraints and professors retiring and all I can feel is disappointment seeping in. Reality is not bad and I know it, but I still feel frustrated and let down.
As I descended into the pit of self-pity this evening, a thought occurred to me and challenged my disappointment with the situation. Here was my thought: I am going to be the same person after this degree as I am now. Such freedom accompanied this thought! Going back to school is going to be a really good thing. Getting to study and write about my particular interests would be a really great thing. But none of it is going to magically alter my life.
It's so easy for me to see these changes coming my way as something that will make me happier. I look forward to getting to do what I want to do and developing certain skills I believe I have. But none of that is going to change who I am at the center of my being. Wanting change is not a bad thing. It's just that I have to ask myself, am I wanting the right change? Maybe school will enable me to do certain things, but it's not what will make me a better person. If I'm tired of myself now, relief won't come through avoiding disappointing circumstances, but rather through changing my heart.
Going back to school won't somehow make me the person I've always wanted to be. It won't save me from let down and disappointment. Seeing myself through the eyes of Jesus will turn me into the person my soul longs to be. For in him I can find satisfaction not only with the ups and downs of sunrise in Maine and sunset back in my home office, but most importantly, with the person he has made me now and the person is making me to become.
I now have one book down in my Boston reading project. The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro was a pretty good start to the year and if everything I read is as enjoyable and quick as it was, I may be able to start calling myself as avid a reader as my husband.
The Art Forger follows a young female artist's decision to forge a fictional member of the stolen Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum paintings. I won't give any more details on the plot because it's pretty intriguing (I couldn't put it down!) and decently written (keeping in mind the gratuitous sex scenes), but for anyone who loves the art world both present and past, this book is pretty terrific. It's light reading and though I was able to predict the closing twist fairly quickly, it was entirely fascinating. The book seamlessly blurs history and fiction, allowing the reader to step into two worlds embellished with imaginary details by the author - the late 19th century world of Isabella's Paris and the early 21st century world of the forger's Garner Museum, Newbury Street, and MoMA.
As I'm hoping to use literature to influence and inspire my view of Boston, The Art Forger was perfect for my reading project. From the moment I first arrived in Boston, I regrettably lacked an awareness, and therefore appreciation, of what everyone else seemed to believe was Boston's "charm." My family members, close friends, new acquaintances, and anyone with any experience of the city constantly talked about how cute, beautiful, and mostly "charming" it was. But for some reason, all I could see was salt weathered buildings and trash on the sidewalks. Nothing about it captured my imagination or my fancy, not even Cambridge! Everything looked old, but not in the good way, and run down, but not in the hipster-picture worthy way. The city may have been historic, but it felt dreary.
What The Art Forger gave me, though, was interesting characters to populate the city. Shapiro's cast is believable and she describes places beautifully and accurately. With almost every page, I found myself thinking, "I've been there. I know what she's talking about!" or "I totally walk past that person every day!" And instead of seeing the boring Boston of my first impressions, through The Art Forager I started to see a story I wanted more of. Listening to her describe the poshness of Newbury Street, the innards of the Gardner museum, and the transitioning streets of South Boston all helped give both a familiarity and mystery to these places I encounter. Though it may seem silly, what especially drew me in was her description of the misery which calls itself the MBTA's Silver Line. I have had so many horrific experiences with that sham of a subway line and to read that those experiences are very much a part of the fabric of the city helped make it not only somewhat more bearable, but almost poetic.
After all, what are cities if not shared experiences? The past and present gets all mixed up and twisted together in the space you share every day with your neighbors. If you can see the beauty of those shared experiences and spaces, or at least the mystery of them, then you are bound to develop a heart for that city. Finally, after a year of waiting for it, my imagination has been sparked and I am seeing in Boston a whole host of things worthy of my attention and appreciation.
Next up: Poems and Other Writings, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
My paraphrase of the back page synopsis: Lots of emotional and legendary old poems by an epic American Romantic. This will be interesting since I've never before been able to get into poetry. Hopefully the Charles River will inspire me as much as it did Henry!
Why I'm excited to read it: While I've had a hard time with poetry, I really do want to understand and love it. Longfellow is one of the best known Cantabrigians, so I think I owe it to the area to give him a shot. Plus, Trey and I found his grave the other day and nothing inspires one to read old dead poets like an old dead poet's grave!
I'm commencing a year long Boston and New England reading project.
NPR inspired me to this reading project a few months ago. One day at the beginning of the summer, a bunch of talking heads were discussing and recommending newly published novels about Cambridge. Most of what they had to say was pretty snooty in that special Boston way, but some of it was really fascinating and quite intriguing. The truth struck me for the first time that I live in a place "important" enough I actually could create a reading list based off of it! I jotted down a few of the recommended titles and added them to my Amazon wish list.
A few weeks later, my inspiration grew when I finally made a long overdue trek to the Louisa May Alcott house. For some reason it never really settled into my brain that this childhood idol was a local, or that many of her stories take place in the area. Additionally, I had never known how close knit the Alcott/Emerson/Thoreau crowd was, but driving down the streets of Concord and watching famous house after famous house pass by, it's pretty obvious the American Transcendentalists were a bit inbred. My reading list doubled in size as I considered the area's rich literary history and added countless historical works to the list.
Last night, I launched into the growing list. I walked into the Harvard Book Store without any certain idea of where I would start or really of what I hoped to accomplish by reading books set in Boston for a year. As I scoured the shelves, I kept seeing other titles about far away places that piqued my interest. But I carried with me a vision and decided to stick to it. I finally found a book I remembered being recommended and decisively purchased it.
With my newly acquired treasure in hand (for the weight and smell of a newly purchased book always feel like a treasure despite whatever hesitations accompany it), I stepped out of the bookstore into Harvard Square. Now, I don't do well with change and after moving to the Boston area, I've struggled with my surroundings for the past year. In particular, I've really struggled with not judging the city and its inhabitants and I would venture to say I've never struggled with a judgmental attitude more strongly than since moving here. As I walked to my bus stop, my tendency to judge once again loomed large. These people are ridiculous, this people are snobs, these people are rude, these people are fake... and so on and so on and so on. Truly, my heart is vile when it comes to sympathizing with my neighbors.
Amidst these subconscious thoughts running amok, I contemplated my new reading project. And as I simultaneously judged the people around me and gloried in the charm of New England's sweet night breezes, I realized that this reading project isn't just an interesting idea, or some fun way to blog about my self-appreciated opinions; no, this project is something I need. I need these books to tell me about this place and I need to let them show me things. The only lens through which I need to read these books is the one that enables me to learn something about my city and its people.
So, in the coming year I hope to share with you what I take away from each book concerning Boston, New England, and its people. And hopefully, at the end of the day, my heart will be softer, gentler, and generally more at peace with this place.
First up: The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro
My paraphrase of the back page synopsis: A young artist makes a deal to forge a famous painting in exchange for a one-woman show at a famous gallery. Intrigue ensues.
Why I'm excited to read it: It centers on the mystery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist and talks a lot about the art world, two things that intrigue me deeply. What on earth could make a more exciting novel???