I pass a McDonald’s on the way home from the gym every day. Its golden arches glow like a beacon, promising the comforting familiarity of a greasy, salty quarter pounder with cheese. That damned little disc of a pickle. Those french fries. And oh my god, the dollar sundaes.
I don’t remember the last time I ate McDonald’s, but it was certainly longer than two years ago, when I first went vegan. It was likely many months, maybe even years, before that. It’s not something I even want, really, unless I start thinking about how I can’t have it.
“Can’t.” Probably the least useful word I use far too often.
Like so many things, veganism is completely arbitrary. The boundaries I set for myself exist nowhere but my own mind, and I could absolutely go order a Big Mac or decimate a Chinese buffet if I wanted. Still, I sometimes find my mind wandering to the constraints, obsessing on all the things I “can’t” have, as if they’re kept behind some magic forcefield, rather than readily available items I simply choose not to consume.
At those times, veganism feels like a cage, and it’s when I’m most likely to indulge in some other deeply unhealthy snack as a way of comforting myself for my loss or limitations. (If you think vegan foods are all healthy, allow me to introduce you to my friends Oreos Dunked in Peanut Butter, Entire Bag of Mixed Nuts in One Sitting, and Doritos in the Purple Bag.)
By focusing on constraints—on “can’t”—I put myself in a scarcity mindset. My brain, an evolutionarily perfect survival machine, gets into Gorge Mode, and I act out with desperate behaviors.
It’s not just with food, either. I see this in virtually every area of life. Recently, it’s with my new dog, whose presence has imposed wildly inconvenient limitations on me, and I sit around thinking about all I’ve given up, all the solo camping and long-distance driving and easy traveling I can no longer do because I’m anchored to this anxious little mutt. I work myself into a frenzy of resentment and self-pity, as if this dog just materialized in my life and was not a choice I made gradually, over many months of consideration and research.
Even for circumstances I haven’t chosen, like when people broke into my car and stole my jewelry, obsessing over the loss, the negative, is a great way to foster even more negativity. If I think about that white gold necklace my godfather gave me and how I’ll never again see its delicate strand sparkling against my skin, I become angry. It’s a useless anger that has nowhere to go, so it radiates from me toward everything in my path. I’m angry at the coffee machine, my clothing, the work I have to do that day. This anger over something I can’t control, long in my past, is tainting every interaction with my present. It’s making me a worse person.
Conversely, when I focus on the positive, when I force myself to switch attention from that which I lack to that which I possess, I’m able to arrest that scarcity mindset and reframe to an attitude of abundance.
In most cases, the shift is from feeling powerless and constrained to reminding myself I’m in control of my choices. For veganism and the dog, it’s about remembering why I do what I do. I want to feel healthy and like I’m acting in accordance with my values (or as close as I can get given our current food system), or I want a healthy outlet for my caretaking impulse (as it turns out, romantic relationships are not the ideal place to parent [I have discovered after a decade of therapy]).
Whenever I find myself fixating on a limitation, I conjure up that Grand Why, think about all that I’ve gained from this choice, and cycle through options I still do have. Usually it looks something like:
- Step 1—Admit I can have a Big Mac if I want one.
- Step 2—Do I really want a Big Mac? How will it make me feel? How do I want to feel? What could I eat instead? Do I really want a whole bag of chips and guacamole? How will that make me feel? What would make me feel best?
- Step 3—I’m excited to eat a nice, healthy salad, full of foods I love, because it aligns with my values and goal of nourishing my body to feel its best.
I understand how cheesy that sounds. It’s genuine, though. I really do think absurd, dorky thoughts like that about health food. Sometimes I even go through that process multiple times a day, and more often than I wish, I fail somewhere in the middle of Step 2. That’s when I end up in a binge.
Similarly, in cases where I have less choice or control, in which I’m dealing with involuntary loss, I run a list of all that’s still available (I have my favorite octopus ring and bullet necklace!), celebrate the strength that comes from doing without (in cases more serious than missing jewelry), and look forward to the new fillers of that now-blank space. As much as possible, I try to see opportunity rather than loss.
More popular parlance would probably call this gratitude. I prefer thinking of it as abundance because it specifically combats scarcity mentality, which is the mother of so many evils. While a part of the process is appreciation, the bigger focus is on shifting attention away from loss and toward gains.
I’m by no means perfect—or even proficient—at this. I still get caught in cycles of anger or resentment or self-pity because I have far more training in those lines of thinking than I do in the alternatives. Negativity is a stronger reflex. Reframing requires a ton of mental bandwidth, and I have to keep constant check on my own thoughts and physiological states to do it well. Sometimes I have no idea I’m in a spiral until I realize I’ve been brow-furrowing and tab-switching for hours, or the dog barks and I yell just a little too loud. (Or I find myself elbows-deep in a bag of popcorn.)
That said, when I do catch myself and reframe, it’s like unzipping a heavy, matted monster suit and letting it fall to the floor. I feel light and fresh. I see the dog not as a burden but as a source of joy, adding enormous value to my life. I see the constraints in which I operate as welcome guardrails that help me feel the way I want to feel. I see blank spaces as opportunities to find something new. I’m able to act with intentionality instead of desperation.
My goal is to keep applying this to more and more areas of my life until it becomes second-nature. I’d love to approach the world with an abundance mindframe in every possible circumstance, keeping useless feelings of anger or competition or self-pity at bay. I don’t see any value in such thoughts or any reason to allow them to fester. They’re borne of a false sense of scarcity, of feeling limited, when there’s always something available.*
As always, I just have to keep working.
*Note: I understand some scarcity is extremely real, and the flip side of acknowledging my own false sense of lacking is compassion for desperate behaviors borne of genuine scarcity. For example, stealing to feed a family. Abundance reframing can certainly help one cope with real adversity, but it should not be an expectation of people dealing with serious issues. This post and advice, if it can be called that, is intended for minor strife and the daily limitations we perceive for ourselves. Its scope is limited.
My life has grown smaller in almost every way. Fewer belongings, fewer activities, fewer friends. In most arenas, I’ve combed for necessities and discarded bloat, ever reducing as I make pass after pass.
A slow, tectonic shift is occurring in my values, favoring not options but certainties that feel solid and strong and good. I’m more willing to work on relationships that add value and reject those that drain because I don’t need quite as many tendrils reaching quite as many places as a young me once did. Maybe it’s age. Maybe I’m simply learning what nourishes and which wells run dry.
Still, I reach sometimes, deep into vast emptiness, plunging after something I know must be there, if I just stretch a little harder, extend a litter farther.
My whole life, I’ve plunged. I’ve sought and yearned and chased impossible things—the understanding of my father, affection from people without resources to give it, validation from those who’ve thought little of me. I’ve hit sandy bottoms and withered there, unable to accept the reality of this dearth. This death. Nothing here will give me life, and I cannot leave.
Even with improvement, I occasionally find myself in a wither. I recently chased the receding waters of a once-fruitful friendship, and today I struck bottom, forced to face a drought I should have seen coming. I should have heeded the signs and surrendered long ago, but parts of me resist wisdom, resist the knowledge of better ways to be. They lean heavily into old habits, chasing, striving, wasting energy in dark depths when I could be basking in sun.
Progress isn’t perfect.
Today is a difficult day as I retract another tendril, retreat from yet another well that once seemed bright and alive and promising. Quantity diminishes once more. I am smaller, even than yesterday, and it doesn’t feel like a victory yet.
Over time, that conserved energy will feed me. I’ll learn to heed signs earlier and avoid withers before they begin. My smallness will become hardiness. I tell myself this as I observe all that I lack, the blank spaces around me where others expand. Do they find nourishment in more places than I could, or do they, like a younger me, spread themselves to weakness, looking everywhere for something found only in a few select places? Are they seeking and plunging, too?
Comparison does disservice to growth, I know. It’s another dry well from which I must retreat, more emotional bloat to abandon, wisdom that must be heeded despite every impulse to ignore, resist, press on.
I am smaller, yes, and stronger and surer, too—maybe not than they were, but certainly than I was—and that’s progress.
I often wonder if I’ll never be happy. Am I fundamentally miserable, I ask myself in the shower, on the elliptical, in the woods, behind the wheel—a single, simple question cutting through a thunderstorm of anxieties clanging in my mind.
Where others find contentment and peace, I find dissatisfaction, an itch to move, upend, disrupt. I packed a sunshiney life into a car and drove from comfort to uncertainty. At each crest, each summit, each opportunity to pause and bask in what I’ve done, I see a new peak. That’s the view I need.
Contentment feels always just out of reach.
But maybe that’s not the goal for me. Maybe summits aren’t as thrilling as the journey up, the mud on my boots and the rush of passing each obstacle, each scramble, each terrifying cliff. I prefer the labored breathing, strained muscles, and aching joints of a climb to the easy lolling of a peak. Both have their place, and the best photos are of views and elevation signs, of accomplishments, not of sweat. One might think this is my why, these moments of pause, but I climb because I like—I really truly enjoy—the discomfort of burning lungs. I move faster not to get there sooner but to take myself to the edge of pain, where I feel a delirium that’s as close as anything to happiness.
Someone recently described me as “a miserable person who will never be happy.” He was a man I hated—a 70-year-old who spewed racist and misogynistic comments and delighted in tyrannical control. His presence was a cloud under which I darkened.
I shouldn’t value his opinion of me any more than his opinion of, say, Black Lives Matter (which is that they’re “evil,” for the record), but the barb stuck anyway. In those eight words, he articulated my greatest fear, the melancholic strain that hums under every thought and blares in quiet moments. Am I fundamentally miserable.
Dissatisfaction rules me, and I choose pain, over and over and over.
“You choose growth,” a friend said, and I appreciated her generosity. She believes I’m chasing a higher ideal, and she could be right, I suppose. She could see something beyond my ken—the perspective of an outsider often tells more than our little eyes, our little selves locked inside our worn neural pathways, can ever discern. I want to believe her.
Still, it feels as if growth is a byproduct of my preference for ache. I strive not to achieve but because I feel safest pressing against limits, huffing, straining, shedding tears of distress.
Siddhartha eventually settled by the river, taking people to and fro, and glowed in the simplicity of such a small, repetitive life. I’ve met people like that, who shine their peace through wide smiles and warm eyes. They envelop you in their contentment and seem to offer a promise that you could find your own, if you would only allow yourself to rest.
I want what they have. I want my presence to become an embrace, a bosom into which you can sink and feel safe. I want to effervesce.
Funny that the peak I actually yearn for, the only end-game in mind, is not a summit but a valley. It’s the decision to stop scrambling, to ease into comfort, to revel in the simplicity of an un-striving life, and I’m not yet capable of such profound peace. Even at rest, I’m poised on ready haunches, taut, tense, prepared to spring after some next challenge or thrill. My presence agitates.
Yet—yet—we need agitators to fight. If Siddhartha lazed while his countrymen died, what was his enlightenment worth? At what cost did he shine?
I don’t yet have answers or know my role in this life. I don’t know what I’m headed toward. I know only that for the time being, I need to squeeze between boulders and leap over streams; to press forward, press harder, press limits, suppress needs; to pant and sweat and ache and bleed; to strain and never reach the realization of dreams.
Comfort in discomfort is as content as I can be.
As we set up my New Year’s party last year—a most beloved holiday tradition—my then-girlfriend and I discussed resolutions. I’ve never made one I haven’t kept. For 2000, it was to read the Bible. 2010: Catch an in-play kickball. 2011: Quit my job. 2014: Leave Minnesota. 2015: Make enough friends in San Diego to throw a New Year’s party. 2016: Date women. I deal in specifics, and I never make a resolution I don’t intend to keep.
But 2017 looked hazy. After the wreckage of the election, I felt unable to see the road ahead. A deep current of change ran through my veins, and I could sense the need for something big, something I couldn’t even imagine in that moment. For the first time in years, I couldn’t articulate what I needed or formulate a plan.
When asked, all I could say was, “Figure out the thing,” which didn’t feel like enough. “And do the thing.” That was as close as I could come.
One year later, my life is more dramatically different than that smiley, glittery-shirt-wearing, undercut-sporting version of me could have foreseen. I lived then in predictable rhythms. Weekdays in the cubicle. Weeknights at open mics. Weekends on hikes, at the farmer’s market, recording the podcast, thrifting, and going on dates. A charmed life full of sunshine and kale. I wanted for nothing.
Now, I’m 23 states (plus D.C.), two foreign countries, five national parks, 6,855 miles (since San Diego), seven roommates, two car break-ins, one nudist colony (I didn’t even tell you about that), 125 days without a period (and counting), four blood tests, one MRI, one or two meniscus tear(s), two conferences, one heartbreak I shouldn’t have felt, two minor breakups I should have felt more, one punch in the face, “millions” of rodent droppings (exterminator’s words), and one dog (future TBD) worse for the wear.
I’ve reduced my life to a few belongings that fit in an astonishingly reliable Ford Escape. It’s still more than many have, and more than I need, but a reduction that felt impossible to a year-ago me. My closet then was bursting, and I loved to adorn myself in bright colors and playful styles—costume jewelry from antique shops, worn or collected by old ladies with unknown histories. Now, I wear the same four or five simple outfits, the same understated jewelry, every day. It’s all I have left, all I need.
I’ve spent time in parts of the country I never understood. I experienced rural life and witnessed poverty that had only existed on paper in my mind. I was invited inside.
I’ve been asked for explanations and accepted as I am. I’ve been a passing stranger and a regular rhythm in others’ lives. I’ve learned more about caring for people—and being cared for—in a single year of motion than in three decades of standing still. I’ve learned who stays and how important they are, the ones who give you strength, who let you travel into darkness and hold the line, ready to pull you back.
I smile less and entertain fewer fantasies. Something flighty in me grew heavy this year, weighted by dustings of disappointment, layered thick on papery wings, which beat now with a dull thud when once they swirled and swooped. I feel solid with this heft, more bound to the earth, less likely to float away. (Others feel sadder about this than I do. They miss a person who made them feel alive, like they might grab my tail and fly with me, like children clapping for a kite, and I don’t miss pumping those people—those men—with hope. I do miss a world that made flight feel possible, one that didn’t trample vulnerable people at every turn, but it existed only in my mind.)
I appear more chaotic, maybe, and hover closer to frightening depths than I did in California. I dip more frequently, thanks, in part, to an underactive thyroid, but I recover more swiftly as well. What once took days now takes hours. I’ve learned to let myself be soothed.
I’ve also learned people want happiness for me, and I want purpose for myself.
Purpose will drive 2018. I feel clarity and certainty when looking to the year ahead, and it’s almost foreign, this sturdiness, these sure feet. After toppling towers in 2017, I’ve cleared ground for something magnificent and powerful, and I’m vibrating with drive to build, create, regenerate. I know what I want from this year, and I see the path forward in vivid detail. I feel ready, almost giddy, to take on 2018.
I can’t say I loved this year or hated it, but I lived it, to borrow a friend’s phrase, really fucking hard. Despite every setback, every tear, every hour spent questioning why, when all is said and done, I don’t regret a thing.
I grew up in a cold, flat place. A place where summer explodes into three-month orgies of insects, humidity, and sweat, where winter descends as a cage. A place that prides itself on survival—of weather and of its own obscurity—and on treasures that appear dusty and dull among the glittering jewels of wilder landscapes. A place with boats and beer and biting black flies, with road rage and bigotry and hedonistic culinary delights. A place where time is measured in snowfall and relationships in perceived slights.
When I visit, I’m colder. Meaner. I run along trenches of neuroses and angst, unable to climb someplace warmer, sunnier, calmer.
Maybe environment shapes a person, and interminable months of solitude, daily battles against elements, and vast expanses of nothing—no mountain to change your vantage or sea to carry you away—turn one inward. Maybe it’s easier to harbor resentments in dark, heated rooms, with howling gusts of freeze between you and your nearest neighbor. Maybe a brief burst of green feels important, magical, pride-worthy when it punctuates intolerable gray.
Increasingly, it seems as if every place I go is a variation on a theme. Beautiful sights blend together. Is this picture of leaves any more interesting than this picture of rocks? How is this sweeping panorama more remarkable than the last? Palm trees and cacti or granite and pines, prairie dogs in a canyon or seagulls on a pier, serene Caribbean green or thrashing Atlantic gray—it’s all lovely, all the same.
My ex-husband is selling the house we bought together. As I scroll through photos of the listing, staged to reflect impeccable realtor tastes, I drift into memory.
I see the dining room floor and remember the muffin tin we filled with kibble for the cat who’d otherwise wolf and gulp. I see the living room and remember those black velvet Craigslist chairs, where we’d perch for Futurama, hot cocoa spiked with peppermint schnapps, and countless rounds of gin rummy. I see the kitchen and remember his meticulous vegetable-chopping, the slow-growing piles of tidy onion cubes juxtaposed with flurries of broccoli florets, pepper seeds, and mushroom bits amassing around me.
I see the master bedroom and remember sleeping beside him, skin to skin, safe. I see the second bedroom and remember hiding, crying, cowering from persistent banging on the locked door, rejecting call after call, pleading, “Please let me sleep.”
I remember weeping to melancholy chords as I moved garments from drawer to cardboard box, and he in the next room, seated in the cheap green chair at the expansive wooden desk where I planned to write and create and flourish, looking out that window, at that enormous tree, for years to come.
What would it feel like to inhabit those rooms now, to drift across old familiar floorboards, across time, into old familiar pain?
A pleasant pulse beats in Joshua Tree, and it feels like her comfortable company, her smile after we kissed, the shape of her—impossible—overlooking vast desert. She wore my hat and smiled over her shoulder as I photographed her skipping over otherworldly rocks. A gazelle, my gazelle, and I was falling more than she ever knew.
Months later, her hips would haunt the walls of my tent, even alone, even in the dark, when I could no longer see the sand, the stone, the vast purple sky reminding me of that day. Even then, I felt her. I saw her hips, plain as the coyote’s call—I could bite them—and it felt like falling then, too.
In every hardware store, I’m eight years old. I’m high on my father, on Dad Time and the sugar he would have fed us—my sister’s and my love was as easy as a Hostess cupcake back then.
Rows of screws and lumber, ceiling fans and light fixtures, router saws and siding samples, conjure a giddiness in me. No matter how 32-years-old I am outside those walls, inside I want to run down aisles and scream-laugh until they ask me to leave, like they did that one time in the Fleet Farm Christmas display, even though it was their own fault for creating a wonderland that so seduced and delighted dad-high daughters.
London sinks my stomach. In its streets, I simmered. Resentment boiled. Blackness infected my heart.
An ill friend begged my love—my friendship and understanding—and I spat vitriol in his face.
He loomed like an insect in every corner of the city, a six-foot mantis stalking Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, and that godforsaken bridge. He was everywhere, and I tried to drink him away.
Loud, barking, indiscreet, I martyred myself before our mutual friends. I loathed him and my own self-pitying tears.
Shame crept in slowly, over months and years, as I realized the person I’d become, the vulgar insensitivity I’d displayed in those darkened pubs. I made amends where possible, but no apologies could wash stain of my behavior. It lives deep in the threads of that gray city, and if I never return, I’ll never miss it.
Maybe each new place is a blank canvas, and we paint our emotions, experiences, and memories onto it. Maybe that’s why everywhere feels the same. Exhilarating at first, novelty soon becomes a web of foibles and entanglements. Nostalgia or regret. I drink too much and run off with a Montenegrin here; I drink too much and run off with an Australian there. I climb to this vista; I climb to that vista. Sprawling cities; sprawling wilderness. Him; him; her; them.
Last night, I walked into a bar, and the bartender greeted me by name. “Hi, Meghan! How was the drive up from Freedom?” He remembered the town I live in, after meeting me once, a week prior.
Back in Minnesota and California, I stood in conversation circles for months with people who acknowledged me less. I frequented a coffee shop, half a block from home, for years without establishing first-name familiarity. I shared actual walls with people I never even bothered to meet.
In cities of 3 million residents, I grew accustomed to anonymity, to being just another face, another customer, another set of tail lights in a traffic jam.
How strange to be noticed.
Some people’s entire lives play out in a sitcom set of locations. A home, a workplace, a gathering spot. They toil and fight and fall in and out of love, all within familiar walls.
If my life had been smaller, if I grew up among a knowable population, in knowable places—if I were known—would I feel more certain, not only of myself, but of my ability to comprehend the world? Would the complex feel simple, graspable? Would I resent those crying nuance and bias and systems of oppression, had my life been filled not with systems but with people, with Jim at the corner store and Mary at church?
Travelers scatter themselves across the globe, snacking on sights and people and frivolities worldwide, dropping crumbs along the way. We flit and pollinate, carrying pieces of places we’ve been, never staying long enough to wear trenches in the ground.
Travel farther, travel wider, experience more.
Maybe in a foreign place, an Asian place, or an impoverished place, I’ll find some answer. High on a mountain or deep in a jungle, I’ll feel whole. If I hear the right life story or find the right community, I’ll fall in love with living and want to keep doing it, year after year, decade after decade. Instead of trudging through an endless string of days, cycling patterns I’m unable to break, or performing existence like a trussed-up actor on an overcrowded stage, I’ll hunger for waking and thirst for another opportunity to breathe, to experience, to be.
I just have to find the right place.
Yesterday I received news our (extended) family’s cabin burned down overnight. The place we spent summers as children with the bunk beds where we giggled to each other in the dark. The shower that spurted spiders and rust when you first turned the faucet. The kitchen with so much bustling, morning pancakes and evening potatoes. The big, round, wooden table where we squeezed two to a bench and played countless rounds of Hearts. The deck where inchworms crawled beside sweating gin & tonics. The rocking wicker chairs from which Grandma and Grandpa oversaw our days. The phone that told of arrivals and news from the world, like the day Princess Diana died. The stairs we had to crawl under, among spiders and other creepy-crawlies, to retrieve the spare key. The window wells where we found countless toads and frogs. The daybeds we turned into forts, from which we watched Disney VHSs, the same wholesome tales for years. The reliable old hats and sweaters we borrowed to ward off horse flies or chilly evening breezes. The placemats and straw paper-plate holders and toaster that had almost certainly been there since my mother’s childhood. The marks on the wall showing my cousins’ yearly growth. The sliding screen door that slammed all day as people moved from deck to kitchen to deck to dock. The old cowbell they used to call us from the lake for dinner, ironic and earnest all at once. The walls that absorbed decades of our family’s comings and goings, whispers and shouts, laughter and tears. All ash.
I’ve been thinking lately about spaces and the way they paint themselves onto us as much as we paint ourselves onto them. Generations of children made this place a happy one, and whatever comes next will surely develop a personality of its own, but it can never replicate or replace that which burned in the night. At the same time, no flame can consume the totality of a place that lives in pieces scattered across so many hearts.
Gone, never forgotten. RIP beloved cabin.