In summer 2016, I took a road trip. Las Vegas (ugh), Zion, Moab, Salt Lake City, and the Redwood Forest—places I’d never seen.
At the time, I sought refuge from an emotional spring. I’d broken up with someone who’d been my best friend for the better part of nine months and terminated a pregnancy we’d created DURING said breakup. While I had no reservations about choosing to treat my fetal infestation, the process was still intense. Not only are you flooded with a mind-addling (SOUL-addling) bonanza of hormones, but you can’t talk about it in polite society. You risk making people uncomfortable, even offending them to their core. I mean, what would happen if your happily pregnant and adamantly pro-life boss found out? How would that affect your relationship?
I thought I was lucky to have a partner in crime, that even though we’d broken up I could still talk to Sperm Guy about what was going on, but that turned out to mostly be me comforting him as he dealt with his feelings about getting me pregnant. (You’d think the person who spends three hours on the shower floor violently expelling her uterine lining and EVERY OTHER THING INSIDE HER BODY would be the one who gets to cry, but no.)
I was angry, lonely, and spent. The road trip was an escape.
As I drove across the desert and its miles of nothingness, passing signs that warned NEXT SERVICE 179 MILES, I fell in love. Expansive landscapes felt promising, like I could disappear into them and the sheer volume of space would overwhelm the thundercloud in my head. Heat enveloped me and made the world immediate. I had no emotions to tend—mine nor anyone else’s—and needed only to deal in the present. Ration your water. Finish the hike before dark. Find a place to sleep. I felt capable and free.
One morning I watched sunrise from the porch of a tiny crossroads motel in the Nevada outback, surrounded on all sides by unmarred horizon, and realized I could live this way full-time. Present. Detached. Peaceful. I didn’t need to go back to my cubicle and spend days jabbering on social media. I didn’t need cities and money and stuff. I didn’t even need vegan Thai takeout. Rather, I needed nature and solitude and reprieve—a quieter place and a slower pace.
Back in San Diego, I became obsessed with moving to the desert. I scoured classifieds in Moab and fantasized about opening a queer-friendly bed & breakfast. I told everyone who would listen about my plans, and smart friends talked me out of them.
In many ways, they were right to caution me, to probe into motives and ask important logistical questions, like how was I going to make money and with whom would I socialize? (I’m not exactly Mormon-friendly, lest the beginning of this post left you with any doubts.) They were understandably nervous and urged me to think through my decision. My therapist suggested I try to compromise, to capture some of that desert feeling in the sturdy, stable life I’d established for myself in San Diego. Maybe all I really needed was more camping weekends.
I heeded their advice (to an extent). I hiked more. I prioritized exercise and wellness. I stopped dating men. I visited new places. I leaned into my routine and tried to take comfort in its stability. I even bought a book called Designing Your Life and performed its life-optimization exercises.
My itch persisted.
In November, the world turned upside down. On the ninth, many of us awoke to a country that hated us more loudly and vehemently than we even knew possible. We felt betrayed, bereft, bereaved. We grieved.
Relationships fractured in the coming months as once-reliable communities struggled to support each other. No one had the emotional reserves to lift up anyone else. We mourned as a collective, and as the horrors of our new reality crescendoed, many of us retreated inward. The tone and tenor of our entire lives shifted in those months, and those of us who were most excited about the history we were about to make, who not only emphatically supported but wholly adored her, were hit hardest.
With my favorite people laid low, I turned elsewhere. I turned to a toxic fling for catharsis. I turned to impulse travel (Colombia is a great place to remind you how lucky we still have it here, to be honest). I turned to booze, binge-eating, and Netflix. I turned to late nights scrolling social media for no reason. I turned to weed. Nothing worked, and the world got darker.
Life in a cubicle became untenable. In true Office Space irony, I achieved more success the less I cared. I’d spend entire days on Twitter, watching rights and protections vanish for the most vulnerable people in this country, seeing our indignation equated with their hatred, and reeling from my own blindness to the gurgling wells of sewage our new leader had so easily tapped. Occasionally, I’d manage an hour of focus to whip together a few recruiting emails, and I’d receive undue praise. They slated me for promotion.
I wanted to leave more than ever.
My mind was stuck on desert moments, the feelings of peace and freedom I couldn’t replicate in day-to-day life. I wasn’t sure how others were handling it, how they could stomach the astonishing indecencies—cruelties—that pummeled us daily. Maybe their families or partners kept them grounded. Maybe they lived in blissful ignorance. Maybe their skin was thicker than mine. I didn’t know. I only knew I’d reached a breaking point, and the only thing that gave me any hope was the prospect of leaving.
So, I left. I put in notice, packed my bags, and drove away.
Fast forward to today. I’m on a porch in rural Maine watching leaves ride a cool breeze to our lakefront lawn, and the question I can’t answer drums a persistent beat: Why?
Why Maine? Why did I even leave? Why would I sever ties with everything and everyone so good in San Diego? Why was a salary and promotion and comfortable workspace not enough? Why do I feel like a whole different person, someone alien and removed from the one who led such a great life in California? Why am I alone?
Somewhere in the chaos of leaving and the trials of traveling thousands of miles across the country, I lost sight of the reality that had pushed me out the door. Instead of recalling the ache at the center of my days and the existential weight of my routine, I romanticized that life into a montage of sunshine and smiles. I started to tell people—and really believed—that I’d been HAPPY in San Diego. In fact, I was so happy, I had to try something else. Somehow that story made sense, and I told it often.
I didn’t realize that by erasing the uglier truths of my life in California, I was heaving responsibility for my pain—which hadn’t magically dissolved the moment I left town—right onto life on the road. Every bad feeling I already had was amplified by regret and a profound sense of loss. I made the wrong choice, as I failed to connect with yet another old friend. If I’d stayed, I’d still be happy, as I cried down wooded trails. Why did I leave such a good life? as I checked dwindling bank accounts.
I’m no stranger to this particular breed of nostalgia. Nearly every relationship I’ve had has been more romantic in retrospect than it ever was at the time (with the notable exception of The Affair, which felt earth-shattering as it happened but looks pathetic and meek in the rearview mirror). I tend to hold moments and minutiae dearer than daily realities. It’s not the hours of Bernsplaining that dance through my mind (yes, I get it, HE WOULD’VE WON, of course, but could you please just take off your pants?) but those three minutes when he played the new Paramore single and danced for me. That was love, as I listen on repeat.
Nostalgia is tricky. While it’s pleasant and seductive to stroll through happy memories, to keep the best of your experiences and discard the worst, you can find yourself disconnected from past realities that got you where you are today. You’re mired in effect without clear insight into the cause. You’re adrift and so convinced your stable, structured life was everything you ever wanted, you think you must be broken to have left it.
Until writing this post, I thought I was broken.
Keeping the good is important, and I think I’ll always be inclined pluck shiny, beautiful moments from piles of gray days, to hover over pictures of a smile in Joshua Tree and wonder why I ever let her go. Held hands, not halitosis. Beaches, not traffic jams. Belly rubs, not litter boxes. I prefer my memories with a rosy tint.
Equally important, though, is keeping your reasons. You stay grounded by facing unpleasant truths that flesh out your narrative, by being honest with yourself about Before Times. Running around with delusions about the past’s perfection is how we end up with unhinged notions like making America great again, as if we should regress to some point in our history instead of striving for a better future.
Histories are lessons, not goal posts.
I may not have it all figured out, but neither did past versions of me. I hope I can remember that.