Manchvegas, the Social Introvert, and the Soul

I’ve fallen into a pattern of walking the main streets of New Hampshire’s major cities whenever the weather is nice and I’m able to find a good-enough excuse.

A pattern of parking just far enough outside of the downtown area that I avoid the meters, walking until I’ve blistered the parts of my feet that meet the edges of my shoes, and eventually returning back to the real world, exhausted and filled and achy and whole.

On Thursday, the weather is predicted to jump as high as the 50s.  Practically unheard of, especially for New Hampshire in February.  This time two years ago, we were shoveling ourselves out of yet another blizzard.  Two years later, we’re watching the snow melt into muddy puddles.

I have an appointment with my therapist early in the morning on Thursday.  After 45 minutes of revealing insights and tearing up about things I didn’t think I’d tear up about and having my therapist interject when appropriate (one of the many reasons I have stuck with her for the last few years, even when I thought I was going in circles with her: she doesn’t coddle, she’s willing to interrupt, she’ll call me out when I need calling out), she asks how I’m enjoying the sudden turn in the weather.

“It’s amazing,” I say, in between figuring out the logistics of scheduling out our next session. “I’m actually going over to Elm Street after this, getting a walk in before I return to the real world.”

It’s exactly what I do after I leave.  Her office is barely a 10-minute drive in city traffic to Elm Street in Manchester, and I park just enough into the residential area that I avoid the meters (One-Hour Limit, the sign warns, however).

I step out and immediately take off my jacket.  The air is still cold but the sun is warm enough to hint at how quickly the temperatures will rise.  I take off in the direction of the downtown area, headphones in my ears, my stride in sync with the music.

These walks echo back to my walks around Boston – something I cherished then and cherish now and perhaps will cherish until the day I am no longer able to and can no longer remember.

I cannot tell you anything about the neighborhoods of Manchester.  It took two years living in New Hampshire before I even learned that Manchester’s main street was not called Main St but Elm. But I can tell you exactly what areas remind me of what neighborhoods in Boston.  How the strip of redbrick apartments with rounded, jutted-out walls hearkens back to a strip of apartments in Mission Hill.  How one road reminds me of JP, while another reminds me of Allston.  How one collection of buildings is like Beacon Hill’s kid sister, or how a certain block is a replica of Roxbury.  How the Merrimack River is like the Charles’ vivacious cousin.  How the thriving parts of Manchester remind me of the thriving parts of Downtown Crossing – and how the decaying parts mirror back just a little too acutely.

I shiver slightly in the shade and bask when I’m back in the sunlight.  I maneuver around the fellow pedestrians, the construction workers, the mounds of snow that never got plowed out.

I am content to walk the sidewalks with nowhere to go.  Content to be surrounded by people coming out of stores and restaurants, walking by me on the streets.  It fills my soul in a way that nothing else can – not even the best, most refreshing hike.

If an introvert is supposed to gain energy by being alone, then there’s something faulty in my wiring.  I’ve joked before about being a walking contradiction – a social introvert.   Constantly wanting to interact, but never knowing what to say.  Seeking out social events while still carrying deep social anxiety.  Adoring people but also becoming drained by them.

I can never explain it adequately enough, and the only people who really get what I’m saying are fellow social introverts.  That I live for concerts and comedians and theatre because I’m quite literally surrounded by people – and people that I know, in some way, are here for the same reason I’m here.  That I don’t go silent in social situations because I’m bored or unhappy; I go silent to observe.  That I will dive into the deep waters of conversation with people I’ve only known for a little while, if only because I abhor the shallow pleasantries – that, really, the only part of socializing that exhausts me is the casual chatter, the adherence to the social script.

I loop around Elm Street and wander down the side streets and make my way to the Merrimack River.  At this spot, the water churns wildly over rocks and edges.  Not even a few miles south, it will calm down dramatically.  By the time it hits Nashua, it will appear as serene as a lake.  But, up here, it moves in violent ways, ways that threaten anything that dares to be in it.

There are countless symbolic avenues one can go down with such an observation.  But sometimes it’s just nice to observe.

One-Hour Limit.  That’s what I remind myself.  Another voice points out how lax the meter maids are in that area of town, how many times I’ve gone over limit with no tickets or citations.

Another voice reminds me that the One-Hour Limit is not just about parking.  I have things that need to get done.  The real world awaits.  That same voice is annoyed that I’m even doing this in the first place: how will I ever Learn to Adult if I keep blowing off work in favor of wandering around.

The sun has made good on its promise.  The weather is now warm enough that I’m starting to sweat, even in the shade, even in just my long-sleeved shirt and yoga pants.  I start bargaining with myself – okay, get these assignments done, get this bit of homework done, email these set of people, then you can drive down to Nashua early and walk Main Street before your evening class.  In some ways, that bargaining is the only thing that forces me to drive home and not up north to Concord, to lather, rinse, repeat in that city, too.

I drive with the windows down, my music now playing through the Bluetooth in my car.  I chuckle at myself, reminded of a passing conversation the day before about music and how I’ve been trying to become more okay with silence – that I don’t always have to be playing music.  But apparently today is not that day.  The songs on my phone are filling the spots that the walk might’ve missed.  It’s too perfect of a complement to give up.  Tomorrow can be a day I tackle silence again.

I get home and eschew everything to write.  To my right is my anatomy textbook – a thick, dense monstrosity, in some ways the bane of my existence for the last 5+ months.  A perennial sword of Damocles, hanging over my head, no matter where I am in the assigned reading.  A book that makes me wish I could throw myself into the future – a future where I have read it, cover to cover, and miraculously absorbed all of the information.

How am I going to Learn to Adult if I keep blowing things off in favor of writing.  Perhaps I’ll never learn to adult.  Perhaps that struggle between what I know I should be doing and what feeds my soul will constantly rage on, as violent as the Merrimack as it passes through Manchester, or as deceptively quiet as the Charles as it passes through Boston.

Three or Four.

On Valentine’s Day of 2006, I got stood up.

I remember the scene with the type of vivid detail that makes me suspect I’ve started filling in the blanks that inevitably occur as the years go by: I remember waiting in the lobby of my dorm hall, watching as the agreed upon meeting time came and went.  I remember sending texts to the boy in question, asking him where he was (and this was back in the days when you had to tediously find your letters on a number pad in order to text).  I remember the half-hearted excuse he would eventually send, hours after we were supposed to go out for dinner.

This would be the second time this particular boy stood me up.  Just a week before, he had stood me up for a casual dinner date.  When I confronted him about this, he gave me a matching set of flimsy excuse and flimsy apology – with an equally flimsy promise to make it up to me with a perfect Valentine’s Day date.

Looking back, I shouldn’t have been shocked that he would leave me stranded a second time.

But, then again, I’ve never been one to catch on quickly.

I remember returning to my dorm room – mercifully empty, with my roommate off on whatever Valentine’s Day adventure she had with her boyfriend – and bursting into tears.  I was officially done with the treacherous, treasonous world of dating.  I was sick of getting hurt, time and time again, by boys and their careless hearts.  I was sick of my own little heart and all the ways it kept getting broken.  I had other things I needed to focus on.  I had a scholarship to maintain.  I had plans to go abroad.  It was time to put a moratorium on guys and love – for the remainder of the semester, potentially for the remainder of my college career.

Four days later, a scrappy MIT boy would hop into the empty theatre seat next to me, stick out his hand, and say to me:

“Hi!  Would you like to be my new friend?”

I think back on that version of me: that 19-year-old girl who was serious about her moratorium – who, for the first time in her young life, had said, “Romance is the worst!” and didn’t immediately look around for a guy to prove her wrong.  A 19-year-old who remained highly guarded of the MIT boy, expecting to never hear from him again, expecting the other shoe to inevitably drop.  A girl who didn’t even believe him at first when he talked about where he went to college.

I think about 19-year-old me, and how she consistently gave the MIT boy every reason to drop things and run.  A girl who didn’t want a relationship, who never wanted to get married.  A girl who couldn’t be trusted to disclose the full story or even tell the truth if the truth could be construed as bad news.  A girl who still thought romance was the worst, that boys were fascinated by her but would never truly be in love with her.

I think about the way that 19-year-old moved about the world, the way her behavior was motivated by something she didn’t have access to – and, in some ways, would continue to not have access to, not for another decade.

I think about 24-year-old me, getting married, even after saying things like, “Marriage is what people do when they want to make each other miserable.”  I remember going into my own marriage still harboring that distaste and disdain for the institution – not yet getting that you can’t hold that contradiction for long without inevitably destroying yourself.  That you couldn’t follow the guidelines while simultaneously hating them and not eventually kill off pieces of your soul.

I think about those past versions of me a lot these days.  In many ways, life has been and continues to be a gigantic retrospective.  Getting to the bottom of things in order to make necessary changes to those movements and motivations, before it’s too late.

I’m not the 19-year-old version of me.  I’m not the 24-year-old version of me.  I’m sure as hell not the 27-year-old version of me anymore.  But, at the same time, I know that those versions are still a part of me – that their origin point is identical to mine.  That it’s important to retrace the path back to the trailhead and see exactly where I went off the map.

I think about them as if they were a separate girl.  In some ways, they are.  I look back on old pictures and journal entries and feel like I’m being introduced to a distant relative.  This is someone I should know well, and yet, I don’t.

I think about their mindsets and logic, and how it evolved over the years.  I think about how it took everything blowing up all at once for her to finally wake up, to see the roots of all her behavior, to realize the way she had been blazing her trail forward had been completely unsustainable.

I think about how she shifted: how she went from the girl who wouldn’t even speak about her parents to the MIT boy unless it could be condensed into digestible, bit-sized chunks to the girl who would dump the consequences of such a chaotic upbringing in the MIT boy’s lap, as if to say, “I call your bluff.  You’ll learn I’m too messed up to be loved.”

I think about the lowest points, when I’d lay the ugliest parts of my soul at his feet, revealing the demons I swore I’d be taking to the grave with me, and going, “You would be better off with anyone else but me.”

And I think about the strong and comforting reply, time and time and time again: “It’s a good thing I get to choose for myself what’s good for me.”

It makes me think of a line in a poem I saw online recently: In the end, his love roared louder than her demons.

“The average person will have three or four serious relationships in their life,” the lady in a TED talk once told me.  “Some of those relationships will be with the same person.”

This is not the relationship of two kids living on opposite sides of the Charles.  Nor is it the relationship of two as-good-as-kids high off of honeymoon adventures and wedding debt.  This isn’t the relationship that existed while my father was alive, when I thought I knew exactly how the future would play out, when I swore I knew exactly how I’d respond in every single situation.  The same way life continues on with stops and starts, deaths and rebirths, things having given way, but having also created room for something new, something better.  Another evolution in the constant shifting winds of life.

On Valentine’s Day of 2017, I’m eating homemade, heart-shaped mini-pizzas while watching an absurdly wonderful Michael Bolton special.  I spend the evening cuddling into the MIT boy on our comically large sectional sofa, attempting to watch the pilot episode of a new show.  I’m asleep within the first 10 minutes – the sound type of sleep that I only seem to get in the arms of that MIT boy.  The same arms I would snuggle into on nights when insomnia would leave me hysterical with exhaustion.  The same arms that found their way draping across my shoulder during that fateful night in 2006.

Why, yes, I would like to be your new friend.

New Paths Forward

We were shown the nature paths when we first toured the house.

The first two acres were technically our own, before it went off into the wild west of the woods.  According to the realtor, the paths could lead you all the way up to Canada.  We’d learn later that it wasn’t hyperbole: the paths actually linked up with snowmobiling paths – which did, in fact, snake their way north until they hit the Canadian border.

The paths became as much my home as the house itself.  There were times, even, that the paths became more of a home than the house itself – when the woods offered escape during times when it felt like the walls were closing in on me.

I took the paths selfishly and lavishly and with abandon.  I took them when I wanted to soak in the good weather and I took them when I need a desperate ringing out.  They were my breaks from assignments, studies, stress, the weight of the world.

Yesterday afternoon, I gave myself one of those post-assignment breaks through the woods, soaking up the abnormally warm weather before the sun would set and it would be too late for a walk.  I cut through what was technically my 2 acres and continued on down the trails.

A few minutes into the wild west, and a clearing of land boldly interrupted the path.  A strip of churned up dirt and fallen branches and stumps now ran perpendicular to the trail I knew by heart.  To the right of me, it dead ended fairly quickly.  To the left of me, the path led up a hill that once housed so many trees that you could barely see the sky.

Now, that’s basically all you can see.

Five more minutes down the path, and there is no more path.  A second logging path, combined with a substantial clearing of trees, had obliterated whatever remained of the trail.  I could hear the machines in the distance, sawing away at whatever trees still stood.

It was in that moment I understood why people chain themselves to trees and throw Molotov cocktails at bulldozers.  There was something so profane in what was happening.  I felt like I had been invaded.  It felt like marauders had ransacked my village and took away what was most precious to me.

Those were my paths.  Those were the woods I went into when life couldn’t stop blowing up.  They were reassuring routes forward when it felt like all I was taking were wrong turns.

And now they were gone.

Barely twelve hours later, the temperature dropped and a blizzard hit.  The northeast temporarily shut down.  Schools had closed.  Government officials told their residents to stay home.  The world was put on temporary pause.

So I laced up my boots, put on my winter coat, and ventured back out down my nature paths.

I was going to return to the scene of the crime, to see what it looked like with a fresh coat of snow over it.  I was going to see what it felt like to take new paths forward.

When life had settled down a bit, I had cherished every possible change to my schedule, my routine.  I welcomed new classes and gleefully dropped old ones.  I watched some places go out of business while new places opened up and took me in.  I hopped on every chance to shift things around.

It was as if the imprint of my life’s upheaval had been so deep and so dark that the very places I frequented during those times had become vessels for the feelings themselves.  And I knew that my woods held as much of those old feelings as they did my source of comfort.

In the midst of the anger and sadness and frustration, I acknowledged the symbolism in my beloved woods getting cleared out.

My old paths were gone.  It was time to forge ahead with what was new.

I returned back to where the old trail ended, mangled beyond recognition by the logging path.  I hung a right on this new road and followed it down, assuming I was the only one in the woods.  The world had temporarily shut down, after all.  Everyone must have been inside.

The path was too clunky and clumsy for pedestrians, especially with the fresh snow that lay on top of it.  I did my best to keep my footing, slipping over branches and stumbling over hidden stumps.  All the while the Weepies played through my earbuds, remarking on how the world spins madly on.

The background music of the song started to shift, mimicking muffled, if not slightly screeching noises.  I took out my earbuds to realize it wasn’t the music at all, but a logging vehicle hard at work.  In the distance, I could see its large crane lift up at a tree before pressing forward.  Another tree down.  Another area of the forest cleared.

I sighed and turned back.  The snow was picking up anyway.  I needed to get back – my classes had been cancelled, but that didn’t necessarily mean I had the day off.  Projects and assignments and deadlines loomed over my head.  The sooner I got them done, the better.

I turned and walked against wind.  I was so eager to return home, and the wind obscured so much of my vision, that I misjudged where the logging road intersected with my path.  Misjudged so much that I didn’t even realize that I had missed it entirely — going so far down the opposite way that I stumbled across a second set of vehicles, clearing out a different area of the forest.  I turned around, hoping to find my old footsteps and follow them back.  But the snowfall had filled in my tracks, and whatever clearing I thought I had seen between the path and the road was gone.

All that was before me was woods.

I turned off my music and started using my phone as a glorified compass, inching my way back to my neighborhood.  There were no landmarks to guide me.  I couldn’t even rely on where there were clearings.

Now that the densely populated trees were gone, I was surrounded by clearings.  Every opened spot looked like a path, especially in the snow.

In this upheaval, I was making my own path home.  How absolutely daunting it was, knowing that all my old safeguards were gone, that there was nothing from the past to guide me, that the sheer number of directions I could go was infinite and dizzying.

The metaphor was not lost on me.  It’s never as simple as digging up the old paths and blazing new trails.  It’s never as simple as changing the scenery and leaving the old landmarks behind.  Sometimes burning it all to the ground leaves you with nothing but bewildering ashes and a sense of unease.

Sometimes thinking you can leave it all behind leaves you lost in the woods.

I continued to follow my phone, walking eastward until I came to the backyard of a neighbor’s house.  I kept to the edge of the property until I made my way out and onto one of the roads of my neighborhood.

The world was still as vacant as the forest, even with pavement and houses replacing clearings and stumps.  The roads had barely been touched, let alone plowed.  No one was going anywhere.

I returned back, down a road I knew well.  A road I used as part of my runs so many times that I could tell you how every single bend in the road equated with a certain level of fatigue.  The falling snow quickly muffled the sound of the saws and trucks, and the world was bathed in silence once again.

How good it felt, to get back home.  I peeled out of my winter gear, so heavily coated in snow that I looked like I had created my own mini storm by the welcome mat.  I cozied in to my well-worn spot in front of the space heater, two content cats asleep right behind me.  I eventually got up to heat up some leftovers and some apple cider and to watch the snow pile up outside.

Within a half hour of returning, the snow picked up to whiteout conditions.  And I remained happily indoors, protected by the steady walls of my home, as the blizzard continued to make its way through the cleared out woods and the world spun madly on.