Although moving just outside of Boston 12 years ago wasn’t the reason I haven’t been able to write in the last three, the city had a way of being my muse. After I left, the ideas for my personal essays continued to come, but I had to work harder for them. For me, writing and cities are inextricably linked. Some writers may prefer a cabin in woods or a dune shack by the sea, but give me a worn wood table or a soft club chair in the front window of a coffee shop. There I’ve lingered all afternoon nursing one cup of coffee with a laptop or notepad. When I’ve needed to find that one right word, I’ve looked up and had a whole microcosm of inspiration before me — people of all stripes, shades and sizes sitting nearby and strolling past. These cafes are also convenient. When I lived in Somerville, near Boston, I was only a 15 minute walk from four cafes and often tacked on errands to the market or pharmacy on the way home.
This wasn’t the case when we left Somerville. My son was two and the rent went up, so we moved to Revere — a smaller, more affordable city on the ocean just north of Boston. It made sense financially, but my writing life took a hit. I could only find Dunkin’ Donuts there, none within walking distance. Unlike their cafe cousins, these are places built for carry-out volume and noisily hanging out with gangs of teens, moms or seniors. The one cafe I found was in the next town at an industrial crossroads with the TV blaring, making me realize that those ubiquitous city cafes hadn’t managed to cross city limits. Yet, taking the train to Boston’s cafes or driving back to Somerville took at least 30 minutes. For someone with a small child and a full-time job as an editor, I couldn’t afford to waste a precious hour traveling. Eventually I wrote at home, doing my best to manage the frequent interruptions of my young son and the random outbursts of fighting neighbors. As my son grew older, he needed me less. However, my marriage required more — I hadn’t yet accepted that my husband and I couldn’t meet each other’s needs. As we futilely tried to save it and raise our son, my writing time evaporated along with the writing.
For about three years, I barely managed to write in my journal, which I’ve kept since college. I missed writing, but I knew it wasn’t going to be forever. As long I could occasionally have a fleeting thought that might make a good essay, I was okay. After a particularly long jag of no writing ideas, I attended an art event at my son’s school. The art teacher asked me to give a student a ride home — his family hadn’t (couldn’t?) come to see him sing an Adele song. On that ride, I admired his devotion to music despite the obstacles and he reminded me that art is worth fighting for. I was moved to write a short piece about it, which I sent to my friends. They loved it and two said it made them cry — exactly what I’d felt and aimed for.
Finally, I accepted that my marriage was a lost cause, learned how to co-parent and slogged through the painful and tedious process of divorce — including selling our condo in a down market. If all that loss had my writing fire down to the ashes, my move last October to another neighborhood in Revere has stirred the embers and I’m putting on the kindling. The first sign was that more incidents triggered writing ideas, although I wasn’t always able to capture them. I once again started perusing the classifieds in Poets & Writers for motivation. Clearly, I needed an assignment to get back on track. It came in the unexpected form of having to write essays for private high school applications, required for both students and parents. Each one had slightly different requirements, a word limit and a deadline by the end of January. It was a hard, but good challenge to write honestly and succinctly about my son, why I thought each school was a good fit, what I hoped to see for him and define his strengths and challenges. Those essays seemed to have primed the pump. Shortly after finishing them, I started writing on a topic I’d searched for online in vain. I wanted the David Sedaris or Erma Bombeck of divorce to help me laugh through the bleaker moments. I know divorce isn’t funny, but there are funny moments that can happen on the way and I needed to laugh. Since no one else seems to be doing it, I’ve started to write drafts of a future divorce humor blog. I get the fun of writing without the pressure of posting.
When my writing started to come back, it reminded me of yoga intention. Even when you can’t do the pose, having the intention is good enough. I once watched a teacher sit with her legs straight out, arms at her side and lift herself effortlessly off the floor a good inch or two. I sat legs out, arms at my side and pushed my hands into the floor. Nothing. I never left the floor, but my intention worked just as well. When I was younger, intending to write and not doing it were signs of failure. Now, I see keeping the intention to write alive has been the key to success. The intention has turned into writing and the writing has returned me to my true self. This time around the writing feels easier, but that’s because I understand better what writing means to me. It’s not just something I need to do; doing it is core to who I am.
As I recover myself, I’m remembering forgotten habits. I used to get up early to write in my house or leave and write in a cafe before work. It sounds crazy and I feel slightly crazy writing it — how could I forget these basic things? — but you do. Life’s big changes can make you lose your way, but I’m remembering how to sit still in my quiet new place, how to mix, knead and roll out the words in my head onto the screen until they’re good. My new neighborhood — high on a hill — has given me my muse back. I can see Boston’s skyline from my window. I’ve committed to writing with two friends once a month in a Boston cafe. We will be among others who find value in sitting still, watching and writing. After 12 years, I’m finally coming home.