In 2012, fresh off a marriage that ended in an affair with a married man, out of work and out of money, deep in a torrential storm of men who ranged from unsuitable to actually despicable, consumed by vodka, powered by ramen, and spiraling before a public audience, 140 characters at a time, I started a blog called According to Others. Each entry was a comment someone had made to and about me—an unnerving mix of praise and censure.
A colossal fuckup.
More powerful than you realize.
Beautiful, astonishingly beautiful.
You carry such beauty and sharp language in your ravenous jaw. A tiger without a leash.
You have devoured me and everything I sought to protect.
Entry upon entry of others’ feedback, impressions, and reactions to me. I hoped the collection would create some kind of whole, that the pieces would gel into a cohesive picture of who I was.
Because I was in such turmoil—and uncomfortably self-aware about that fact—I couldn’t trust my own perception. I was an unreliable narrator, and nothing the mirror or any inner monologue could tell me was sturdier, more certain, or less refutable than the observations of others. I believed they knew something I didn’t.
Somewhere along the line, I stopped relying on others’ opinions of me as gospel. (I started to notice this peculiar thing where different people had their own experiences and biases and agendas that colored their ideas of how I should be, often cramming me into empty spaces they’d carved in their own lives without much regard to whether I fit or even wanted to be there, almost as if they were deeply flawed humans who had even less idea about who I was than I did??? Weird.)
I retired the blog. I sought therapy. I tried to give many fewer fucks.
I also moved and picked up a job, hobbies, and lifestyles that offered labels and easy identity. I wasn’t no one and nothing. I was a financial writer. Comedian. Hiker. Feminist. Vegan. Podcaster. Queer. (Not that my sexuality is a “lifestyle” I “picked up,” but I did come out and start flagging pretty hard.)
Now I’ve added “nomad” to the mix, and frequent travel has made me realize how much more nebulous the concept of self is than these simple labels would suggest. While I’m still a queer-vegan-feminist-podcaster-hiker-comedian-writer wherever I go, I’m different in different places. In Minnesota, I’m neurotic. I’m hyper. I’m pure, gaping need. In San Diego, I’m relaxed. Confident. Adaptable. In Maine, I’m… well, it may be too soon to tell. Mostly, I’m obsessively checking locks and trying not to be bothered by the lamp that keeps turning itself on and off in my room. (THIS BIG COUNTRY HOUSE THAT I’M IN ALL BY MYSELF IS NOT HAUNTED AND EVERYTHING IS FINE SHHHHHHH.)
Each place conjures a different set of qualities, but each quality must be derived from the same pool. Somewhere in me these traits lurk, swirling together in a massive stew, until something reaches in and draws them out.
Mostly, I think it’s people who have this effect, and my reactions to places are reactions to the people in them. People in the Midwest fixate on social hierarchies and strive to fit you in one. People in Los Angeles fixate on ambition and wonder what they might be able to get from you. People in San Diego fixate on pleasure and want to know how much fun you are to be around. People in Maine fixate on… again, I don’t know yet because I’ve been extremely alone in this house for days with nothing but Tinder for socializing and boy, let me tell ya, Tinder in rural Maine is not the thrill ride of groovy, whipsmart sexpots you’d expect. (First housemate arrives tomorrow, praise Cheezus.)
While I know others’ opinions are not the correct place to seek your identity, when I’m alone, there’s no external reaction to throw myself against, nothing and no one to be anything for. I’m not neurotic when I’m sitting on the porch listening to rain, and I’m not charming when I’m kayaking across the lake. I’m neither kind nor cruel, generous nor selfish. I’m effectively nothing but a set of biological functions wandering around and waiting to be fed.
Yet some thread connects the vodka-ramen-fueled Minneapolis serial-dater to the kombucha-sipping San Diego hiker. Both of those people were me, and I carry their memories everywhere I go. Some I kissed a tall carpenter on a bridge over the Mississippi, and that same I crunched trail mix atop El Cajon Mountain.
I feel variable, blank, and trapped all at once.
A friend recently said they wished they could travel around, too. “I think I really just want to run away from myself,” they said, and I wonder if that’s possible. In some ways, you’re you wherever you go, haunted by the same ghost-thoughts, burdened by the same past. In other ways, removing yourself from people and places that stir pain—that conjure versions of yourself you’d rather not trot before an audience—can liberate you. You can be a better, or at least alternate, version of you.
When I crossed from Michigan to Ontario on my way to Maine, my trunk once again filled with everything I own, the border guard (border crossings are my new least-favorite place, for the record) said, “You sure move a lot. Running from something?” He seemed to be joking and waved me through without a response, but my mind produced an answer anyway.
I may never be able to escape the sting of my past and the selves who hurt, maimed, and devoured, but I can run far from the people and conditions that enabled them. Maybe someday I’ll stumble on a self that feels right, that washes out the dark corners and offers some sense of certitude. Or maybe I’ll keep running, slipping into ever-changing spaces, and carrying old ideas to new places. Maybe that’s all I can hope to do—to be.