“…and having a sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress called the place Providence, a shelter for persons distressed of conscience.” Roger Williams 1661
Recently I was on the commuter rail back to Providence, going home after another long but fulfilling day of my creative writing residency at Lesley. I was somewhere between day 3-8 ( its all a blur after a while), and I was doing a lot of thinking about the hows and whys involved with place. How do people end up where they are? And why do they stay? Sometimes the answer is simple, some people end up in a place for school, work, or family. While others cite external reasons such as conflict in their homelands or lack of resources.
Others might fall into a third category; actually having the privilege to actively choose where they are in any given moment. Despite the obvious,(I ended up in RI after my mother and I’s escape from Kuwait in the midst of Iraqi bombings in 1990. Seeking safety and familiar faces, my mother followed her brothers’ who were recent RI area college grads.) I’d still like to think I fall into the later category: That where I am is exactly where I chose to be.
Often when people find out I immigrated to the United States, the first question is “why Rhode Island?”
Now, because I grew up in Rhode Island I absorbed my fair share of RI-isms. Including, but not limited to: dropped “r’s… or ‘aahs’, interesting driving habits, and an affinity for coffee milk. I also picked up on the ‘RI inferiority complex’ and took the question as a direct affront to my adopted home state. Whether or not the speaker intended, I couldn’t help but hear a snarky tone that may as well been asking, “of all places, why in the world would you want to come here?’
While I cant speak for all Rhode Islanders, it has been my experience that many of us harbor this inferiority complex that rears it’s ugly head while conversing with those not from RI. We tend to think: ‘our roads are broken, are political system is broken, our school system is broken’…True… but isn’t it like that everywhere?
Although I realize there are some things that make RI truly exceptional (entire district teacher firings that made international news, one of the worst unemployment rates in the country, site of the second highest concentration of Italian Americans (watch out Jersey Shore). There are other things that make RI special too, the capital city is home to a rapidly growing arts and music scene, farmer’s markets make fresh and local food easily accessible to city residents, and overall it is a great place to raise a family.
More than anything, living in Rhode Island has made me a believer in the power of perspective. But, there was a time where even my die hard optimism faltered.
Last year, following my divorce, I went into fight or flight mode, immediately aching for flight. I yearned to move to Boston, after all, I was attending graduate school there, (albeit a low residency program), I already had a few friends there and it was close enough that my son could maintain regular contact with his father’s family. More than anything I craved new scenery. I wanted nothing more but a complete physical break from everything familiar. It didnt help that my ex and I were deeply embedded within the very fabric of Providence. We were Rhode Island College sweethearts. He was a Providence native and a community organizer on the south side and I was a teacher at a school nearby. We often interacted with the same families. The same students that gave him a hard time, softened once they realized that the guy who made them cleanup the playground was married to one of their favorite teachers. It often went both ways. We were drunk off of feel-good community involvement.
We were going to change the world.
Till he got laid off and our already fragile young marriage started ripping at the seams. He wanted to follow his dreams of travel and joined the navy. I was scheduled to start my long put-off creative writing program…now while raising a one year old on my own. I fervently believed that getting away from Providence would be the perfect jump start necessary for a new life. But it was one dead-end job interview after the other. Soon I had to face the fact that I wasn’t going anywhere. I spent the better part of the summer skulking around feeling stuck in a suddenly too large apartment.
Friends and family stepped up, offering whatever they could to help ease the transition; babysitting, shared meals, hours of their time consoling me on the phone. Despite my sullenness, a new life began to take shape. I began singing backup in my friends R&B band, reading more, catching up with old friends, things I never would have had the time for when I was married; when I was busy taking care of everyone except myself. Suddenly, I was enjoying uninterrupted ‘me’ time since my ex and I shared custody–something I would’ve felt much too guilty to take before. I hated to admit it, but I was starting to appreciate being ‘stuck’ in Providence and all the new associations I was making with the city. It turns out that I always had the choice to leave, but I didn’t have to go anywhere in order to start over, to find a safe haven.
I think about how much life has changed for me this past year as the train leaves South Station. Vibrant new memories take the place of painful ones, new people and experiences enriched my life in ways I never imagined. I watch the cityscape give way to dense tree cover as we approach Route 128 and Canton Junction. I allow my mind to drift over the blurry tree tops as I redefine my dreams, clarify my intentions. The forest melts into rusty industrial parks and mill cities at Mansfield and the Attleboro’s, reminding me of the power of perception and of my seemingly endless choices. The train skirts alongside route 95 when the conductor announces, “now approaching Providence”, but I already know I have.