Was it a long year or A REALLY F%!$ING LONG YEAR? Almost everyone I talk to—whether we’ve only just met and or known each other forever—has been going through some major changes. For instance, in 2018, I learned what it means to stan something and how to be more myself, whatever that might mean. You may know me as the Duchess of Allston, First of Their Name, Vanguard of Kind Mischief, or as the former editor of the Hassle’s film section (I could not be MORE PROUD of how the FILM FLAM has evolved under the inimitable Oscar Goff!). Perhaps you don’t know me at all, which is quite alright.
Rather than give you yet another list of great films or bands to check out (plenty of brilliant minds on this site can help you with that), I’d like to share the best places that I felt most alive in a mostly chronological order. Places where, for a moment, I could sense the magic of what it means to live in this world. Please excuse me for taking so long into January to gather my thoughts. If you don’t want to read a feel-good-personal-essay or if you’re not about cleaving through the everyday rules be damned, then this article is not for you.
I invite you to make use of this list for all of your emotional breakthroughs and intention setting in 2019. Most places listed will be in Allston, my very own duchy, though I did do some traveling this year. Do your best to explore the ones you like. (This article is not meant to offer alternatives to seeking professional help—please, if only because I’m asking you to, do not hesitate to ask for help because (limited) services are available to all of us!)
AND REMEMBER: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELVES, BBs. I LOVE Y’ALL.
#10. The Rolling Corporate Hills of Renewed Balance — Near Mass Pike, Allston, MA
When I first moved into my current home about three years ago, I had a lovely big sky to gaze longingly at just down the street. Unfortunately, the development of a giant shoe-shaped spaceship and several towers near it soon absconded with that view. All is not lost. Many are the times that I’ve wandered around this corporate complex late at night, my heart torn asunder yet again. I’ve booted and rallied here. I’ve posed seductively here. My best friend and I “rescued” a spinning chair from here. Every and any place can become meaningful.
Particularly, I cannot get enough of the sculpted bumpy lawn right near the largest building’s entrance. I’ve rolled around on each of these grassy bumps. Heck, I remember throwing up all over one of them a few years back (see above). In early February ‘18, I was caught in a hurricane of defeat for several weeks and, finally, just wandering around this landscape during a gentle rain raised my spirits tremendously. It landed me safely on the ground.
This was the beginning of becoming who I’d always wanted to be: an artist whose primary partner was themselves. An independent and truly positive person.
#9. At the Feet of Frog the Advisor — Behind Jackson Mann, Allston, MA
On the eve of my birthday (Feb. 24), I finally cleaned my room then went for a walk to visit one of my dearest friends: a kind yet stoic statue of a frog (henceforth referred to as Frog) that presides over the gem of Allston: Ringer Park. Where else in Allston can you encounter an ACTUAL owl or join a certain pack of moon-worshipping ‘wolves’ howling around an illegal bonfire? Only in Ringer!
Frog is a delightful green buddy to have and has offered many a comforting inanimate ear to me in the past. During the day, they are an excellent companion for watching the dogs at play in the nearby baseball diamond. At night, however, Frog becomes much more—an introspective pal who is quite skilled at helping one think through their concerns. Right around midnight, moments before I entered my 26th year of circling round the sun, Frog helped me to put together a list of aspirations for the year. Looking at it now, I can’t help but burst with pride at how much I’ve accomplished. Here are a few things I’m most proud of:
- – “Let yourself be more aloof and let yourself get weird around others.” (This is the year I finally freed my laughing snort from its long imprisonment)
- – “Write three songs and learn one cover.” (I only just learned how to write songs PERIOD this year and I’ve already written more than TEN songs and played more than THREE SHOWS!)
- – “Buy gum (or quit smoking).” (I DID THE LATTER // SO CAN YOU!)
- – “Be careful with your heart—you only have one—for it is a powerful force and like other magic must be used with discernment.” (THIS. IS. SO. IMPORTANT! NOTHING. IS. MORE. IMPORTANT. THAN. THIS!)
Hopefully, this next year is the one in which MA finally passes legislature to allow me (and countless others) to select an alternative gender option on IDs and I can cross another item off this list.
As you can see, Frog is quite excellent at helping with this kind of thing. I sincerely encourage you to speak with them if you need some assistance with FIXING your life.
#8. A Sailboat Marked with the Number 13 — Along The Charles River, Boston, MA
Not far from the BU Bridge (the renovation of which was finally completed in 2018), there is a very special place where the freight trains cross the river. A few years ago, one could hop a fence here and walk along said tracks, being extra careful not to disturb the geese nesting on the opposite shore. That feat is much harder these days (a pox on all fences; no borders, no masters), but bring your attention right past the wooden walkway below said bridge to a little outpost where one can rent a canoe during the day or whatever it is tourists do there.
Some of the boats here are left on the water overnight. If you really wanted, you could probably get away with taking one of these vessels, but I don’t suggest it. You can do a more minor crime and just sit in one with somebody you care about, being extra careful to not let the wind blow the sail into them with brain-smashing force. Y’all can then look out at the glimmering moon and barrelling trains with delight as the river gently rocks you back and forth, perhaps sharing stories about the hurts you’ve weathered, perhaps sharing the monumental ways in which you’ve healed yourself since then.
Here you will remember that you are capable of great tenderness and that kindness is its very own reward.
#7. Under the Waterfall at the Wading Pool — Also Along The Charles, Brighton, MA
On the other side of Soldiers Field Road from the Star Market is perhaps my favorite stretch of the Esplanade. You might know it for the outdoor amphitheater where you can often find a live performance in the warmer months or do your best to respect the space of one of our houseless neighbors year-round. You might also know it for the ‘wading pool’ for kids that is here. This year, I took the leap—literally—over the fence and, with a dear friend, experienced the fun of such wading for myself.
You might be noticing a theme of my disregard for trespassing laws to which I’ll respond thusly: how could magic be possible without breaking a few rules? When it gets hot out once more and you’re feeling brave and the idea of running through slightly chlorinated waterfalls erupting out of metal noodles sounds like a great way to cool off, this is the spot for you! Just promise me you won’t mess with my own plans by getting caught.
Never forget that the thrill of feeling as alive as when you were a teen is only a quick jump away.
#6. In the Adirondacks on the Banks of Chandler Pond — Brighton, MA
I won’t go overboard telling you about the multitude of bodies of water the Boston area has to offer us. I don’t need to tell you how important it is to walk along the Esplanade at least once a month. I don’t need to tell you how refreshing it is to see the sun or moon reflected in Jamaica Pond or how invigorating making the trek out to Turtle Pond is in the summer. Instead, I’ll offer you a slightly more serene place to sit by the water and FEEL THINGS.
That’s right, I’m talking about CHANDLER FLIPPING POND or as I call it, for no particular reason other than it being my ducal right to do as I please, Simon’s Tear. Even better than the solitude offered by this tucked away spot is the fact that there are often two Adirondack chairs (honestly the best invention to come out of New England) placed along the shore by the good folks at the DCR. Is there a better way to cry it out in public than while seated in one of these bad boiz? No. No, there most certainly is not.
Next time you’re feeling low (or just need some midday peace and quiet), pack a book and some fruit then head over to Simon’s Tear. If you’re lucky, you’ll even spot some of the local wildlife like a heron or elderly person from the nearby retirement home. Either can provide you with the insight you need to process your emotions.
#5. In the Observation Car of the SW Chief — Between Chicago, IL & Los Angeles, CA
How long has it been since you traveled just for you, on your own? How long has it been since you took a big risk for nobody but yourself? Is getting three thousand miles away from home far enough to pour your heart and brain into your writing? Is it far enough to see all of your big feelings, always bigger than you’d hoped for, in a different light?
These were the questions swirling through my head when I decided to spend the summer in LA. At just about the same price as a plane ticket—cheaper if you pack food accordingly—taking the Amtrak all the way west sounded like the most excellent adventure. What better way to calibrate myself for being so far away from the things I love by spending pretty much three days on my own with a bunch of strangers in a giant silver tube speeding across the country? What better way to get a little taste, just enough to whet the palate, of places all across the country?
Many of us are working on the terrifying problem of learning how to be comfortable on our own. By the time I was taking in panoramic views of a desert storm in New Mexico at twilight from the quiet comfort of the Southwest Chief’s Observation Car, here’s what I had learned:
- – Compared to the impersonal swiftness of flying or the restlessness of buses, traveling by train seems to actually bring people together rather than shuttling them quietly to their respective destinations.
- – The kindness of strangers has not been torn out of every American, despite a quick scare at the blunt questioning of an intoxicated passenger about why I paint my nails. (They were drunkenly eager and enthusiastic to learn that I do this to feel good about myself—crisis avoided!)
- – My new friend Cecil, a former U.S. Marine Medic and a talkative (!!!) Scorpio, gave me this wisdom: “I don’t want to talk to anyone who refuses to acknowledge that people are just animals.”
- – America, with its sordid history and present, is a country full of beauty both natural and man-made; I just have to recommend this to you as an excellent way to experience that beauty and maybe reframe your own hurts in its shadow.
#4. The Monthly Talent Show at Studio 526 — Skid Row, Los Angeles, CA
I could write you a whole essay (in addition to the one you’ve so diligently read up until this point) on July and August 2018 in Los Angeles. Instead, to at last bring this article a little closer to the exploration of art spaces that drives the Boston Hassle and BRAIN Arts Organization, I’d like to tell you about Studio 526. Formerly known as the Lamp Arts Collective, this is a community space in Skid Row that views access to art and culture as a fundamental human right. We’re going to get a little serious for a moment.
Here on the East Coast, television and other media can lead us to think of Skid Row as one street in Los Angeles where the houseless gather. The houselessness problem, as is obvious to anyone who has spent more than couple hours in LA, is far more serious and widespread than that. There are literally scores of people every summer whose feet are being cooked by the concrete because they don’t have access to footwear (bother me later this year when it starts to heat up and I’ll put you in touch with a friend who runs shoe drives to help with this). Places like Studio 526 not only help their neighbors get access to shelter, food, and medical resources but also remind us that the need to express is something universal that transcends all class barriers.
A way in which this space accomplishes that is by hosting a free monthly talent show where longtime participants in its programming and visitors alike can share with each other. Earlier, I told you about starting to write and perform music. Playing at this show was unlike any other art event I’ve ever been to—it was a powerful reminder of the manner in which even the least polished or most erudite art ultimately acts to brings humans together. It was the first show in which I felt that the audience and performer, who came in a variety of skill levels, were responding to each other with only joy and gratitude.
If you’re in LA, I implore you to stop in and show your support. Or even: next time you’re booking a show or just showing up to one, I urge you to remember that the performers on stage (even if you happen think they’re talentless hacks or just not nice people in general) are being truly human. They’re being brave enough to share themselves with the rest of us and that is a gift much more valuable than someone thinking you’re cool.
#3. At the Temple of Pink Sounds — Somerville, MA
Right around this time last year, I made my first ever friends through Instagram: the leonine Terra then soon after their partner Dan. I had waltzed blindly into 2018 feeling friendless and furious; it would have been nearly impossible to have made it this far (and with this much optimism about the future) without these two new bright flames in my life. This article isn’t directly about those friends though you can count yourself lucky if you meet either. Rather, I’d like to tell you about Dan’s recording studio and show venue Pink Noise Studios.
You may be familiar with this space already. In fact, it has already been written about it here. As Tory wrote, the number of venues that artists can access in the Boston area has dwindled. It always waxes and wanes, but it certainly seems exponentially quieter than it did in my youth. What’s truly incredible about Pink Noise is how welcoming, open to experimentation, and just plain joyful Dan makes it. Furthermore, it’s a reason to venture into Somerville and we all know how stuck in our neighborhoods people in this city can get. So keep your eyes and ears open for the next celebration at this wondrous temple.
Whether you’re there to record an album, flip through a photobook of a large teddy bear in a series of compromising poses, or sing karaoke with a room full of new friends, this is a shrine that just might tickle you pink. It might even remind you, even in sadly transient New England, of what being a part of a artistic community is supposed to be.
#2. The Second Best Place in Boston to Cry: The Aquarium — Boston, MA
With one of the most robust wildlife conservation programs in the country and a plethora of marvelous creatures housed within (and outside) its walls, the New England Aquarium is hands down my favorite place in this city outside of my room (see below). I might be just a little biased. When my family immigrated to East Boston, we went here almost every other weekend and it’s likely why I still struggle to eat any kind of seafood. It’s also likely why I had crushes on not one but two aspiring marine biologists when I was an undergrad.
Speaking of which, who can count the number of times I couldn’t sleep in college due to being crushed by my emotions and walked all the way to the harbor to confide in Atlantic Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina) that live in a tank right outside the aquarium’s doors? These magical buddies often SLEEP AT THE BOTTOM OF THE TANK yet seem to have an extrasensory perception for knowing when a sad egg has come to visit. You haven’t truly felt understanding until you’ve locked eyes with one of these cuties! Protip: Although the harbor seals are free to view at any time, entry to the aquarium proper can be a little pricey. If you plan ahead and have a library card you can request free passes at the BPL from September through June!
In 2018, after many years away from this incredible place, I got to take not one but three people I truly care about to see it. With one friend, I gained the confidence to be more open about my overwhelming love of animals. I not only helped another friend face a childhood fear via the Shark and Ray Touch Tank but also proved to them that the neon colors they love so much certainly DO exist in nature. Most importantly, I got to show my favorite place to my favorite person: the one who proved to me, for the first time in my life, that I am absolutely deserving of total and world-shattering love. Each time I go to the aquarium (now numbering in the hundreds of times) I find something new. With this final person, I learned that penguins bow to each other when they really really really like each other.
If you visit the aquarium this year, I hope you leave with the same takeaway as me: never be afraid to bow ever so slightly to the people who love you.
#1. The Best Place in Boston to Cry: My/Your Room — Allston, MA
As with other cities, Boston is a difficult one to afford living inside of; living anywhere with roommates is a massive headache. I’m fortunate to have fought tooth and nail to stay in my home and to have rescued my room from all of the messed up bullshit I experienced inside of it. This is the room I shared with my first really serious partner (I wish them well, but I probably could have been a little more communicative about my boundaries before they started consistently ignoring them). This is the room where I, first freed from the financial chains of my family, foolishly shared space with a writer who turned out to be a monster to almost everyone else in my life. A person who, although I again wish well, provided an excellent example for everything I don’t want to become. This is the room that I finally won for myself.
I am beyond lucky to have been able to stay in the same place in Boston for this long—several years now! It has been such a rare pleasure to finally feel like I have my own home given that we moved several times when I was a kid and that my mom’s house was being renovated for most of high school. I can’t count the number of important life-changing experiences and conversations I’ve had in my room as I’m sure you can say of your own. What I can do is unequivocally say that I have made my room a magical sanctuary and all I want now is to invite others to come visit me and bask in its energy. As a part of me begins (very, very slowly) gearing up to move away, another part of me acknowledges that the thing I am most thankful for in 2018 is having a room I love.
With my final entry in this now massive essay, I’d like to invite you to give thanks for your space if you are lucky enough to have one (if you don’t, I sincerely believe in your ability to find one!). You are, of course, welcome to come visit me in mine if you’d like! Before I leave you, I’d like to share a final piece of wisdom that I failed to take to heart yet again in 2018, but hope to implement in the coming weeks and months.
It is, as many great thinkers tell us, impossible to find closeness with others without there ever being any conflict. We’re all hedgehogs, etc. What truly defines a close relationship is not the avoidance of conflict but rather how we respond to it. My good friend Generoso, when I was still a sophomoric sophomore at Northeastern, gave me the advice of taking arguments with loved ones outside of your home whenever possible (e.g. his wife and he would sometimes drive out and park under a highway underpass to have these big talks). Indeed, your home and, more importantly, your room is a sacred place. Do your room and your self the honor of trying to go somewhere else when you find yourself fighting inside of it, even if it’s over text. Maybe, just maybe, this way it will be a place that becomes overfilled with only memories of love.
— Ari Shvartsman, (They, Them), is a young writer of fiction and plays as well as an amateur (amo, amare, amavi, amatum) musician; like many warrior poets, they’re scared of Other People and even more frightened of Being Alone, but they’ll never back down from a kiss or a fight.