Making it home

My neighborhood, on lockdown

My Coolidge Cor­ner neigh­bor­hood, on lockdown

On Mon­day, the bombs exploded. On Fri­day, the city was put on lock­down, and on Sun­day I boarded a plane to fly across the coun­try to a place I’d never been.

It was a trip I’d planned for a long time to a place – Port­land, Ore­gon – that I’d long wanted to visit. At the same time, as I fin­ished up my pack­ing and man­aged a last few errands, I found myself wish­ing that I wasn’t going any­where at all. What I wanted was nor­mal­ity – a return to the usual rou­tines of writ­ing, work, and friends.  It was then that I real­ized, with some sur­prise, that this place I’ve been liv­ing since Sep­tem­ber has come to feel like home.

For my friend Jan, the Boston/Cambridge area has felt, from the very begin­ning, like where she was meant to be. “Cam­bridge is the first and only place I’ve felt like I belong and where I’m entirely com­fort­able in my own skin,” she wrote last week, in the dizzy­ing days after law enforce­ment staked out the Cam­bridge res­i­dence of the alleged marathon bombers.

My own rela­tion­ship with the area has been both slightly longer and far more fraught. It began back in 1978, when I arrived on the Har­vard cam­pus at the age of 18, a seri­ous, shy Mid­west­erner abruptly cat­a­pulted into a for­eign land. In the 20th–cen­tury intel­lec­tual his­tory class I took fresh­man year, our pro­fes­sor lec­tured on the 1897 novel Les Dérac­inés, about seven young provin­cials who lose their way after arriv­ing in Paris, the price of hav­ing been torn away from their native tra­di­tions. That word stayed with me— dérac­iné, unrooted. I cer­tainly wasn’t liv­ing in France at the turn of the cen­tury.  Still, I knew what it felt like to be alone and unmoored.

I did not cope espe­cially well. I went to a lot of par­ties, and I began a drink­ing career that would last through my mid-30s. I recall a cou­ple of half-hearted vis­its to Har­vard Uni­ver­sity health ser­vices with no notable results. Some two decades later, Melanie Thernstrom’s Halfway Heaven would chron­i­cle a murder-suicide in one of Harvard’s under­grad­u­ate houses. An Ethiopian stu­dent, lonely and unsta­ble, stabbed her Vietnamese-born room­mate to death then hung her­self. Read­ing Thernstrom’s account of the sys­temic fail­ings of Harvard’s psy­cho­log­i­cal ser­vices, I would nod my head think­ing, yes, this is what it was like.

Being young, con­fused, and far from home, bereft of sup­port structures—it’s never been a recipe for hap­pi­ness. Yet why do some tri­umph against all odds, while oth­ers self-destruct, while still oth­ers lash out vio­lently with trag­i­cally hor­rific results?

By all accounts, the eth­nic Chechen Tsar­naev broth­ers were con­sid­ered friendly and well-liked. What series of events led to them to mutate from seem­ingly assim­i­lated immi­grants to mur­der­ous bombers? While the answers may never be fully known, a his­tory of uncer­tainty and dis­lo­ca­tion is unlikely to have helped.

Wher­ever you go there you are. The more I reflect on that neat apho­rism, the less true it seems. For many of us, and for many dif­fer­ent rea­sons, home is not a place to which we return, it is some­thing we cre­ate, and that act of cre­ation takes energy, resources, and sup­port, along with that unde­fin­able and elu­sive thing called luck. When I moved back to Boston this last time, I had all of these. I know what it’s like not to: It’s really, really hard.

Per­haps the most iconic photo to emerge from the marathon bomb­ings is the image of a man in a cow­boy hat leap­ing to the aid of a crit­i­cally injured vic­tim, hav­ing beaten down flames and tied a tourni­quet to one of his par­tially sev­ered legs. We now know that the res­cuer is Car­los Arredondo, a 52-year-old peace activist who’d already faced more than his share of per­sonal tragedy. Nine years ago, on learn­ing that his 20-year-old son had been killed by Iraqi snipers, he doused him­self with gaso­line and set him­self on fire. Two years, ago a sec­ond son com­mit­ted sui­cide, hav­ing never recov­ered from his brother’s death and father’s result­ing meltdown.

How do we account for this sort of gor­geous alchemy? If Arredondo had become a ter­ror­ist, we would have no short­age of ready expla­na­tions. But instead his anguish fueled a pas­sion to save and res­cue. “Cities are not resilient, peo­ple are. And, some­times, they are not,” wrote Boston jour­nal­ist Elaine McNa­mara. The jour­ney from despair and loss is both pro­foundly per­sonal and unpre­dictable. Wrong turns hap­pen. Not every­one makes it back.

Wherever you go there you are? Not necessarily


A year ago today, I was pack­ing up my Cam­bridge apart­ment a stone’s throw from Har­vard Square and prepar­ing to return to Northamp­ton, the bucolic west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts col­lege town where I’d pre­vi­ously lived for two years in the early aughts.

I’d been in Cam­bridge for six years, and a hard six years it was. I’m still not quite sure why. It was the third time I’d lived in the sto­ried edu­ca­tional mecca, home to Har­vard, MIT, and count­less bril­liant minds. I’d been there twice as a stu­dent. This time I was back for a job at Har­vard Law School, where I ulti­mately wound up writ­ing speeches for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice) Elena Kagan.

It was a pretty great job in a pretty great city, but for some rea­son my life never really came together there.  Most difficult—and puzzling—of all was the fact that I couldn’t seem to make friends. Being sin­gle, my friends have always been espe­cially impor­tant to me, and not hav­ing any good friends close at hand—well, it was quite a challenge.

In fair­ness, by the time I moved, I’d man­age to col­lect a hand­ful of inti­mates, but given the time and effort I put in, the results were pretty pal­try.  Was it me? I won­dered. It had to be me. After all, who wouldn’t like Cambridge?

This was pretty much the way my thoughts were going when my boss decamped for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and my Har­vard job abruptly ended in the spring of 2009. At the time, it seemed to make sense to just stay put. I had a strong pro­fes­sional net­work in the Boston area, and even with the Great Reces­sion upon us, the region’s job mar­ket was still rel­a­tively robust (at least com­pared to other places).

Over the next year-plus, I picked up free­lance projects and other short-term work, but more and more, I found myself pin­ing to return to west­ern Mass. While I’d last lived in Northamp­ton a decade before, I’d made fre­quent trips back to see friends, and I loved my week­end vis­its. Still, I sternly reminded myself, mini-vacations are not real life. Mak­ing a move wouldn’t change any of the very real dif­fi­cul­ties fac­ing me. I’d still be job­less, look­ing for work, still finan­cially strained. I’d still be sin­gle (which is great if you choose it, but the fact is, I had not).

Also: I already knew from expe­ri­ence that just because I thought a change would make my life bet­ter didn’t mean that it would. Psy­chol­o­gists have a fancy name for this—affec­tive fore­cast­ing error—the idea being that we humans are noto­ri­ously poor pre­dic­tors of what will make us happy.

Wher­ever you go there you are. The say­ing stuck in my mind. Every­one knows that you can’t change your life by sim­ply chang­ing your surroundings–and lest you have any lin­ger­ing doubt, research bears this out.  In one often-cited study, researchers found that peo­ple who believed they would be hap­pier liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia actu­ally would not be. I couldn’t help but sus­pect that Northamp­ton might be my per­sonal Cal­i­for­nia (albeit a far chill­ier and less sunny one).

And so it went until my unhap­pi­ness reached the point that even an unlikely option seemed worth the risk. I didn’t know what else to do. Plus, I couldn’t help thinking—or at least hoping—that a move might serve as a jump start.

I was encour­aged to find some sup­port for this notion in jour­nal­ist Mal­colm Gladwell’s Out­liers: The Story of Suc­cess. There, Glad­well recounts the story of Roseto, Penn­syl­va­nia, a bustling self-sufficient town estab­lished in the nine­teenth cen­tury by immi­grants from a sin­gle Ital­ian vil­lage. In the 1950s, a physi­cian dis­cov­ered that the town’s res­i­dents enjoyed aston­ish­ingly good health, with men over 65 dying from heart dis­ease at half the rate of the United States as a whole, and with death rates from all causes 30% to 35% lower than expected. After sig­nif­i­cant research aimed at con­trol­ling for variables–diet, genet­ics, exercise–researchers con­cluded that, remark­ably enough, res­i­dents’ health could be traced to noth­ing more than the fab­ric of town life, with its rich social bonds and traditions.

Maybe I was grasp­ing at straws, but this seemed promis­ing. It seemed to sug­gest that while “mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia” might not in itself boost hap­pi­ness, the sense of belong­ing to a vibrant com­mu­nity could have a pro­found impact. The more I thought about it, the more con­vinced I became that this made total sense. After all, wasn’t it likely that I’d be hap­pier in a place that I knew and loved, sur­rounded by peo­ple I cared about and who cared about me?

More­over, I was able to gar­ner research to back me up. Again and again, close rela­tion­ships with fam­ily and friends have been shown to be one of the strongest proven pre­dic­tors of happiness.

Reader, I moved.

And as I approach my one-year anniver­sary in Northamp­ton, I’m delighted to tell you that I am indeed far, far hap­pier than I was before. While the move cer­tainly hasn’t fixed everything—I’m still look­ing for work, still look­ing for love—I’m deeply grate­ful for my life here. Along with the wel­come infu­sion of human warmth and con­nec­tion, I cher­ish the tex­ture of daily life: stop­ping by the farm down the street to pick up eggs, play­ing board games with my friends’ kids, work­ing with Friends of Chil­dren and Tree­house, local orga­ni­za­tions doing cutting-edge work aimed at trans­form­ing the nation’s fos­ter care sys­tem. The list goes on.

The moral of the story? Chang­ing your sur­round­ings won’t nec­es­sar­ily change your life. But then again: It might.