When the snow falls in Burlington, it does so silently. I’m walking up Church Street, the city’s main drag — a pedestrian-only, red-brick thoroughfare that’s currently pedestrian-free. It’s only 11:30 at night, but this is the type of city you can have to yourself at certain hours. Guided by the glow of the street lamps and the twinkling reflection of holiday lights in the store windows to either side, my dog, Lilly, and I meander up toward the road’s northern terminus, where the lone spire of its namesake church stands guard. Tomorrow, this will all come alive again. Shopkeepers will return from their day off and flip their dangling Closed signs back to Open. Families will duck into coffee shops to escape the chill for a moment, turning down the hoods on their new winter coats as they step inside. But for now, all remains still. The quiet of the night hangs heavy as we pass through.
Lilly and I loop around the city’s massive Christmas tree before heading back to the apartment. Letting out a deep exhale, I watch the swirls of my breath mingle with the falling snowflakes. That’s when I realize how much I miss this.
This past December, I flew home for the holidays, but not to the home I always knew. Over the summer, my parents put our family home in northern Massachusetts on the market and signed on an apartment up in Burlington, Vermont. We all loved that Newburyport house, with its red shutters and white exterior, its rickety 19th-century staircases, its tiny kitchen whose floor always seemed to have a tile loose.
We moved there when I was eight days old, so it’s quite literally where I had all of my formative experiences, from watching my first R-rated movie (“Stripes”) on the television in the living room to overcoming my fear of showers in the second-floor bathroom (I didn’t understand how you were supposed to breathe with the water raining down on you). My sister and I became best friends in that house and that town, spending weekend mornings biking downtown to walk along the sea-sprayed boardwalk. We’d check out books from the library to read in the hammocks in our backyard. We’d pick up a dozen bagels from the local shop, Abraham’s, and lay them out on the kitchen counter for the family to share.
Most importantly, that was the house we’d return to. After summer vacations camping in the Adirondacks or escaping to a cabin in Maine, we’d pile into the car for the long trip back and wake up to the crunch of our gravel driveway under the tires, knowing we were home. Following my first semester at college, the longest I’d ever spent away from Newburyport, my dad and I spent 15 hours driving back from Ohio. When we finally crossed the bridge over the Merrimack and drove past Market Square, I gawked to see a new public sculpture erected along the waterfront — how could this town move forward like that without me?
My parents have always adored Burlington, which — with its brick foundation and quaint, but bustling town center — might as well be Newburyport’s sister city. So, when I graduated from college this past spring, it seemed time for us all to move on, a natural conclusion to our 22 years in Newburyport. My sister’s lived in Manhattan ever since her freshman year at NYU, and I was getting ready to start my new life elsewhere. A new family chapter had begun.
My section of that chapter has been set in Los Angeles. The city caught my eye when I first visited during my junior year of college. It wasn’t just the sparkling beauty of the metropolis sprawled out between the mountains and the sea, its soothingly slow pace, or the way it stands in sharp contrast to the aggressive East Coast atmosphere that always made me anxious and claustrophobic. It was the city’s intoxicating energy that seemed to charge the air. People come to LA with dreams, with big hopes and ideas, and you can feel that in every conversation, in every laptop-clacking coffee shop, in every plane landing behind the letters at LAX. I wanted to be a part of that. As I finished my last year and a half of school, my mind often drifted west. I’d watch TV shows set in LA and imagine myself walking down Sunset with the lead characters. I’d gaze out over the cornfields of southwest Ohio and dream about what lay beyond, wishing I could hop in the car and not stop until I reached Mulholland and pulled off at an overlook to see the city glittering below. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be one of those LA people, annoying others with their local geographic references like I’m doing here now.
Now that I was in Burlington and pacing a snow-covered Church Street with Lilly, I thought for the first time that maybe I chose the wrong city. My parents had lived here for less than six months, and I’d been in town for just four days, but it already felt more like home than LA. I was struggling out west. I didn’t know many people, and it’s hard to make new friends when you work from home. Money was tight. I didn’t feel like I had the means to go out and do everything I wanted to, to truly experience that energy the city had to offer. It was depressing. You can’t dream of a life in that land beyond the horizon when you’re already living there.
I spent much of the fall lamenting the warm weather, scrolling longingly through Instagram photos of New England foliage and friends from home donning thick flannels to go apple-picking. As snow started to cover the northeast, my winter coat and hockey skates stayed packed away, deep in my closet. More and more Saturday mornings saw me sleeping in. I was rarely willing to push myself out of my comfort zone. This new life wasn’t panning out as I’d hoped, and the more I dwelled on that, the harder it became to even try.
In Burlington, I realized that I had an opportunity, an out. Why not move here for a while? I knew I felt at home walking along that red-brick lane. I knew I loved living in small cities, where you can carve out little moments like those, just you and the quiet of the night. I remembered how comfortable I had been the day before, Christmas Eve, when my dad and I walked down to the waterfront and watched the sun set behind the snow-capped ridges of the Adirondack Mountains across Lake Champlain.
But if I did move back, how long would it be until I started to look west again and wonder what lay on the other side of those peaks?
The next day, I went hiking with my former college roommate, who happens to live in the Burlington area. We looped around Colchester Pond, an easy three-mile trail through the Vermont woods. The pond was frozen, which made me think about how much I missed hockey — not just the game, which I can find a league for in LA, but the way its intense atmosphere pushed me to be better and take control over my environment. As a goalie, I had to learn quickly to not dwell on failure. Whenever I let up a goal, I had to forget about it and move on, having no choice but to throw my blinders on, block out all criticism from the crowd and (more importantly) from myself, and will my mind into a world where I was still on top of my game. It was a crazy sort of mental magic, and the more I practiced it, the more it seemed to work — both on the ice and off. Even when I was forced into uncomfortable situations, I could effectively change the reality of the world around me simply by perceiving it differently.
Making the final turn around Colchester Pond, I realized that with the constant comfort my life in LA had provided — the nonstop sunshine, the temperature that rarely dips below 50°F in the winter, the ability to work from home and never change out of my pajamas — I’d grown too content. Maybe the city wasn’t living up to my expectations because I’d forgotten the power that discomfort generates.
Maybe the LA life I’d dreamed was just a little dose of mental magic away.
I used to think that home is where you feel the most comfortable. Now I wonder if it’s wherever you’re willing to make yourself uncomfortable.
When I first started college, I was terrified, viewing the unknown years ahead like a thick wilderness I had no idea how to navigate. The day I graduated, I looked back and saw a single path. Dotted with good friends, beautiful memories, tough falls, and countless wonderful experiences, it was the only trail that could have led me to where I stood.
I flew back to LA — that land beyond the mountains — on the 28th, just a few days before the new year. My 2019 resolution was to get out and try something new every week. On the plane, I’d started a list of things my perpetual comfort had kept me from doing: taking an improv class, biking along the Santa Monica coast, signing up for a membership at the bouldering gym in Hollywood. What stood ahead of me again felt like wilderness, but I told myself that one day, I’d turn around to see a clear, single path once more.
Grabbing my suitcase off the carousel, I threw my blinders on and stepped outside, into the warm December air.