and how far others must come at times

For the last few days, I’ve been dog-sitting, which really is to say that I’ve been on a paid writing retreat with a sweet side of dogs. It’s basically perfect, except for the dogs’ notion of what constitutes acceptable personal space when I’m trying to sleep.

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The house I’m in right now is in a cute little borough adjacent to mine, a bit further removed from downtown and a bit more rural. Over the weekend, I needed to put something in the mail. By the miracle of modern smartphone magic, I was able to locate the nearest postal branch, about three miles away. Being from Phoenix, Arizona, I barely registered the distance. That’s nothing by car in a city of flat, straight grids. That would practically still be inside my neighborhood.

I proceeded to follow the disembodied robot voice’s directions for those almost three miles – down backroads, between hills, under bridges, across three towns each smaller and older than the last – finally to a small blip of a borough that literally consisted of little more than a steel factory, a very interesting Eastern Orthodox church, and the brick post office. With every wooded downhill bend past yet another sign welcoming me to the township of _______, I felt ever more acutely how far I am from the place that spawned me. It wasn’t a feeling of homesickness, exactly, because I very much do not want to be back there. But it was definitely a realization of just how far I am outside of what I’m familiar with in this place. A kind of environmental culture shock.

It was, in the moment I was able to articulate the nature of the weirdness I was feeling, surreal and disorienting. It was a moment I didn’t want to be having, my intense hatred for where I came from and my breathtaking relief to be where I am now coming at one another from strange directions and doing battle upon the field of my contentment.

I’ve been remembering that feeling at odd times since then, the sense that I am in a foreign land and just a little bit lost here, and reminding myself that I haven’t even left the country I was born in.

Defensive Softness

Ever since coming to Pittsburgh, I’ve been so excited about everything that it’s been a real bear not to write about it all the time. Did you know there are seasons here? And that there’s water in the rivers? Did you know it’s possible for animals that aren’t lizards, snakes, or skyrats to appear within city limits? That architecture can be beautiful as well as functional? I didn’t – certainly not from living in Phoenix! I’m finding out for the first time in my life that it’s possible to really love your surroundings and be pleased to be where you are.

Actually, I had a very strange moment of realization while taking the curve in the road that brings me out of the woods and onto the bridge toward home, when I became aware of the flutter in my chest and the grin on my face: what I feel sometimes as I’m getting to know my new home is the jittery glow of an emerging romantic love for a place.

There’s a coffee shop just on the corner (that sells really reasonably-priced tea, I might add) where I often go to do my writing or editing if I feel like stepping out for a bit. The attitude here is different from what I’m used to. I’d have to characterize the in-public atmosphere of Phoenix as capitalistic. You go in, you buy the thing, you leave. No loitering. Hanging around long after you’ve spent your money is rude. Here, it’s absolutely, Hey, pull up a chair, have a drink, stick around. You’re working on something? Check it out, that guy’s working on something too. Let’s all work on things together. On Wednesdays they have a rotating schedule of food trucks on the street outside. This week was baked mac-n-cheese with lobster.

In the fall, I watched the leaves turn for the first time. (That’s also a real thing that happens, apparently!?) There’s basically a forest in my back yard, thanks to the giant park and conservation area that’s within walking distance from my place. (Oh, also, it’s possible for things to be close enough to walk to. Another facet of reality one would never pick up on in Phoenix.) I get to walk to the forest any time I like to enjoy the leaves of autumn, or the winter snow. (Snow!) There are always dogs having their walks too. Actually, there are just a lot of dogs in general in Pittsburgh. It’s wonderful.

When I make my daily drive into downtown, the view of the Golden Triangle and the river and the bridges when it swings into view around that one bend is always breathtaking. It still makes me happy every time I see my elf tower. At night, the lights on the Monongahela are magical.

There are squirrels in the trees behind my building. On days when I do my writing outside on the porch, I am often witness to some pretty intense squirrel fights. They make this chittering noise when trash-talking each other that still takes me by surprise every time I hear it. I did not know squirrels were so intensely angry.

Moments of First keep happening all the time. My first snowfall was an indescribably beautiful one, alone in the silence of a world asleep in the hour before dawn.

And I’m learning, as I continue to discover how I fit within this new world, that I’m maybe not the person I’ve always thought I am. That maybe some – or most – or all – of my hardness has been the hardness of the desert, of defense. This might be a midlife crisis if I thought discovering softness within myself was something to be worried about. Ten years ago I would have. The human I’ve been trying to become has other concerns. I refuse now to apologize for my capacity to feel.

I love living in a place that doesn’t ask me to.

Let’s concentrate on the good news

The good news is that autumn is here and I got some incredible photos at the park this week, and I’m loving the hell out of getting to actually watch the season change.

The bad news is that I paid for those photos with a nasty fall resulting in some pretty severe road pizza.

So let’s look at these pretty photos of Pittsburgh in autumn while I gargle this hot salt water and apply a fresh coat of antiseptic to what used to be my face.

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the last shot before I quite literally face-planted

Totally worth it.