Looking around Philadelphia, finding myself

    Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about change — and also, a lot about my life in Philadelphia.

    When I first moved back from my brief college stint at Temple, I moved into a rickety little two-bedroom apartment in University City. My roommate and I moved in rather impulsively and, frankly, late in the rental game. Neither of us attended Drexel, and we learned very quickly that college parties made up the bulk of the social scene there.

    Being displaced in West Philly felt really strange to me. I didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood. I felt like I was just going through the motions of relocating to the city, despite my many objections to the state of the apartment.

    The metal in the doorknob had visibly been cut. It rained from the ceiling in a rotting bay window over exposed electrical outlets. The windows had no screens, and hot water was always an unreliable luxury. But we moved our furniture in anyway, without batting an eye at broken blinds and dated utilities.

    Like many displaced suburbanites, I was running from an identity. My life in Lansdale had quickly exhausted itself. I told the same stories over and over again to anyone who would still listen, all of them centered around my own selfishness and  disappointed victim mentality. I worked a job that I couldn’t stand. I stopped reading. I continually “dated” a guy (we’ll call him “Brian”) who admitted he didn’t really care for me or find me particularly attractive. I had two interests in life: wasting time at the local sports bar and hearing myself make excuses about why my life looked so abysmal.

    In short, I just let myself disappear.

    I have experienced this pattern before. It’s a coping mechanism I had used over and over again to reconcile what I thought I deserved and what I actually had. Only now can I really see how entitled and defeated I behaved.

    Same actors, different channel

    I didn’t move into my endearing, cheap apartment and suddenly feel new. I spent the first three months indulging this disappearing pattern. I let Brian drive up 76, usually drunk, to my apartment and crash on my mattress on the floor, eat out of my pathetic pantry — and everything else you’re not supposed to let people do.

    Fortunately for both of us, I made up my mind one day to simply not call Brian, which didn’t seem to affect either of us too much. He made no effort to call me back, either, and that made things easy for me. It was a cheap way to handle the situation, but it’s one cop-out that I’ll never really feel sorry about.

    I spent the next four months licking my wounds inside my rickety apartment. I didn’t explore the neighborhood. I didn’t check bars and restaurants off a list. The nights I did go out, I’d typically overdo it and embarrass myself in a series of uncomfortable text messages to a litany of ex-boyfriends. I turned my nose up at college kids and took the same bus route over and over again on the way to work.

    Change is as good as a rest

    Obviously, I was still not much better than my suburban self, but a few months in, something very suddenly changed. I switched my commute to work from a 15-minute bus ride to a 45-minute walk — something I thought nothing of at the time. It sounds so much simpler than it really was, but actually seeing people living their lives started to course-correct everything wrong that I was feeling.

    In the morning, I’d stroll down Spring Garden, looking forward to seeing the early runners skipping up and down the Art Museum steps. I would smile and say “Good morning!” to them in my head. I’d greet the groups of tired-looking people waiting for the bus and salute the bikers kickin’ it around the traffic circles. I’d walk in step to whatever I was listening to, laugh at the tourists takings pictures at the Rocky statue, and smile at the little kids playing in the fountains on hot summer days.

    It was the most love I had felt in so long, and I knew that it was silly — to love so many people I’ve never interacted with. It taught me about indulging in small pleasures, and it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

    Loving the city, loving myself

    By the time I moved again, into a row home in South Philly, I was bolder and less uncertain of what I wanted. I stopped fearing being left alone and chose to go places with me, myself and I. I ordered game meats at a local bar and ate the cheese from the Italian Market. I played music. I read books. I watered my roommate’s tomato plants. I ate way too many ravioli at my neighbor’s house. I walked around. I sat in B2 on East Passyunk and daydreamed for hours.

    I gave in to my impulses and started focusing on writing about other people instead of myself. I interviewed everyone and anyone that I could. I talked to them about their lives and what they loved, what made them feel joy and what made them feel alive.

    And I remembered what it was like to truly feel joy.

    It was only very recently that I learned how to identify that feeling again. I was so caught up in meeting all of these exciting people that I neglected to realize that I was becoming a person that I liked. I just remember, fairly recently, sitting in a room, alone, and feeling suddenly very awake — and then, realizing that I had felt that way for some time.

    The city had very slowly healed all of the wounds and excuses I was holding onto so closely.

    Colleen T. Reese is a publishing and bourbon junkie, a Geekadelphian and a lover of books.

    A previous version of this essay was published on the blog Philly Love Notes.

    Correction: The author of this essay was incorrectly identified as Colleen T. Smith. We regret the error.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal