Are You My Self?

Are You My Self?

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.

Perpetually aggrieved.

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 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.

Myself.

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.

 

 

Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes

“I keep looking to see if you’ve written about me,” a friend said. “Where’s my blog post?” He was joking in a way that feels true, like when a partner “jokes” about a forgotten anniversary but it doesn’t quite come out right because VISIONS OF VENGEANCE dance in their heads.

I teased him for needing recognition, for wanting to be witnessed by strangers he’ll never meet, and for having a GIANT EGO I HOPE THIS POST SATISFIES. At the same time, I understood the feeling of existing behind someone’s scenes, of being invisible on the public stage of their world and watching them play their part and take their bows, while waiting—hoping—for a wink and a nod.

I exist behind his scenes as much as he does mine.


Recently, I stumbled across an article on wealthy people’s obsession with endurance sports (tl;dr our lives are so cushy and aimless, we crave PAIN TO FEEL ALIVE, just like every teenager in every middle-class suburb in America), and a particular passage stood out to me:

“The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence has been known to make a man quiet and easy,” writes Crawford, who in 2001 quit his job in academia to become a mechanic. “It seems to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He simply points: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.”

Chattering interpretations. I love that.

Many of us spend our entire days involved in some form of “chattering interpretation” or other. We’re increasingly called upon to present ourselves in filtered images, 15-second videos, and 140-character tweets.

While never simple (I imagine), self-revelation has become a complex and ever-changing puzzle that requires us to adapt at racing speeds—like Tetris at some expert level I never had the patience (or skill) to reach. (Does everyone know what Tetris is? I want to ASSUME it’s part of our shared cultural lexicon, but one time a 19-year-old asked me what Monster Mash was, so apparently nothing is sacred and I am one million years old.) To exist in our current social landscape, we learn to play to audiences and present only pieces of ourselves that create a certain image or mystique.

A casual follower will see the expansive landscapes and remarkable highlights of my cross-country road trip, but they won’t see the unshowered binge-eating, frantic texting, and intermittent crying from a depressive episode last week. They’ll see allusions to romantic moments with ethereal characters, but they won’t see the lackluster lunches, unwashed sheets, and occasional halitosis of real human relationships, which exist outside the frame of fantasy.


In another article, I read today’s teens aren’t having as much sex as older generations. They aren’t spending as much time with friends. They’re choosing their phones over real-life experiences. And they’re more depressed than ever.

No wonder. Before they’re old enough to form their own understanding of the world, of friendships and relationships, they’re inundated with glamorized highlights of others’ seemingly real experiences.

An aimless drive around the city pales in comparison to your friends’ vibrant and seductive selfies. Their eternal laughter mocks you through a single, frozen frame, and you think you must be doing something wrong, that you’re missing some critical element of life and youth and fun, even as music wafts through the cool night air and your friend points out that bench where you once saw a pigeon attack some old lady’s hair. Boring, you think. But look at Shay’s instagram—THEY’RE having fun.


When that friend asked to be included in the blog, what he was really asking was to be recognized as a good part of my life, as something to brag about and make others jealous. He wants to be the loud instagram, not the quiet drive. He wants to be a chattering interpretation.

But relationships, to me, aren’t public. They aren’t labels or declarations. They’re moments, created and shared. They’re the running engine you poured hours into building, and look—you have a thing. It’s not glamorous, but it’s sitting in a room with you. It’s holding your hand. It’s cruising along the parkway humming This Charming Man.


In a world that demands self-revelation and self-definition in public spaces, omissions can feel like erasure—like anything not trotted before an audience couldn’t possibly be real—but I think it’s the opposite.

Chattering interpretations stream past us all day every day. They’re futile efforts to grasp at meaning and make ourselves known. They connect us in only the most tenuous way to some greater humanity, some larger idea about how we should coexist and move through this world. They reveal patterns and help us understand theories, shining light on the concept of being alive.

Actual living is a different thing. It’s tactile and ephemeral and uninteresting to behold. An orange-lit bridge against a gray-blue sky. Bulbous spiders and sugary vodka drinks. Laughter about nothing at all.

A collection of boring details that look like nothing but mean everything.

Life’s best parts happen behind the scenes.

Tribes

Tribes

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent time with dozens of people from wide-ranging walks of life—from my brokest, most liberal friends to my blue-collar, conservative family members, from suburban high school buddies to that one Porsche-driving, senior executive pal (you want him to be an asshole because UGH RICH PEOPLE AMIRITE but then he’s one of the greatest people in the world, which is both infuriating and why he’s one of only two men to be featured on Adrift on Purpose so far), from West Coast to Midwest, from lifelong connections to new acquaintances—and while some interactions leave me full, others leave me depleted.

Especially at home in the Midwest, conversations haven’t felt as fulfilling as I’m used to. I think it’s because I’m talking to so many people outside my tribe—people who, through no fault of their own, aren’t able to relate or even understand me or my experiences.

In California, I surrounded myself with like-minded people who were also queer or liberal or vegan/vegetarian or sardonic or dealing with mental health struggles or just trying to find ways to relax and be happy. I found a lot of laid back, compassionate, and ambitious people. People who sought adventure and were health-conscious and maybe a little woo-woo. People who had a lot of relationships. People who lived to entertain. The people I chose often responded to anecdotes with some version of, “Yes! Me too!”

I’m just now realizing the power of that kind of validation, the way we relate to each other through shared experiences and grow by finding people who bring out certain qualities we want to expand in ourselves and stretch us to become who we want to be. When you share some common ground, the Yes! Me too! helps you feel connected and normal, like you’re on the right path.

Conversations outside the tribe often feature responses like:

  • “Wow.”
  • “Interesting.”
  • “Neat!”
  • “Weird.”
  • “You’re so brave.”
  • “That’s cool.”
  • “Huh.”
  • “What’s that like?”

You end up volleying unrelated stories, interviewing one another, or talking about the most mundane common ground, like other people or the weather. (To be fair, the weather in the Midwest is BANANAS. We’ve gone through three climate changes in the time it’s taken me to write this far.)

Nothing is wrong with this kind of conversation, and it’s an invaluable life skill to be able to talk to anyone at any time (one I’ve certainly not mastered but which I try to improve by forcing myself to creep around the edges of conversation circles at networking events until someone politely lets me in so I can pretend to be equally enthused about the future of automated email marketing). You just can’t expect to get the same kind of connection from an interaction like this as you do from talking with a person who really understands the nooks and crannies of you.

Part of the goal of nomadism is developing a better understanding of the world and the space I want to inhabit within it. While I don’t want to be closed off in one of those much-maligned Liberal Bubbles (terrible places where we RESPECT EACH OTHER and EMBRACE DIFFERENCES), I do want to prioritize time with the tribe. Those are the people who keep me grounded, who help me push forward, who make me feel like everything is okay. Even when I’m adrift in every other area of life, I feel anchored by a simple, “Yes! Me too!”

When you’re understood—really, deeply understood—by another human being, you begin to feel like the world is friendly and you have a place in it. I’ve been lucky enough to experience that feeling, and now I can’t do without it. I won’t.

 

Too Soon to Tell

Too Soon to Tell

My sister gets married this weekend. As festivities ramp up, I’m coming to terms with how much EXPLAINING I have to do about my situation. I keep seeing people I haven’t seen in ages, and they want to know things like how my life is, why I’m a nomad, and what I plan to do next.

If I were being honest, I’d answer:

  • My life is—NOT GREAT. I’m filled with regret over leaving a stable environment and fear that I’ll walk backward into a version of myself I worked so hard to leave behind. Most of the time, I’m thinking about money. Obsessing. Terrified. I miss privacy and being in control of my environment. I still have nightmares in which all of my car windows get smashed in. I miss everyone I left behind. I miss mountains. I miss serenity.
  • I’m a nomad because—I’m an UNSATISFIABLE MONSTER. I had a perfect life in San Diego—perfect—and I was still unhappy. If I understood why, I probably wouldn’t have thrown away every good thing I had just to see what would happen if I did. BUT I DID OKAY.
  • Next I plan to—Is “lie in the fetal position and cry” an option? Because that’s all I want to do, pretty much all the time.

While I know this period of turmoil is part of an adjustment process and things will get better in time, I’m still very much in it right now. This makes small talk deeply uncomfortable. When I hint at the truth of my situation, people are quick to look for the silver lining. “But doesn’t it feel liberating?” If you mean I’m liberated from HALF MY WARDROBE and my SENSE OF WELLBEING, then yes. Very liberating indeed.

When I try to play up the good parts of my life, I can hear the effort and how unconvincing it is. I utter bullshit phrases like, “It’s been really fun and interesting,” while my head screams OH GOD I SPENT ALL MY MONEY and, “Life’s too short not to try it, right?” to the tune of IT BETTER BE BECAUSE I’M ABOUT TO TAP THOSE RETIREMENT SAVINGS.

Surely, they can see the farce. No one believes the plastered-on smiles, the attempts to paint pretty pictures over the crumpled canvases of our lives. It’s like your recently divorced friend telling you about their newfound freedom and purpose when you know underneath their words is I stalk his new girlfriend on Instagram every night while binge-eating Cheetos—DON’T JUDGE ME. (Lord knows I’ve been that friend.)

Going through chaos is embarrassing enough without feeling like everyone can see right through you, without having to dance to some optimistic melody to make your conversational partner feel better despite your both knowing it’s a big stinking charade. Sometimes the only thing you want is to say, “I’m not okay right now. I hope someday I will be, but I’m not yet,” and then not immediately walk it back, not toss glitter on it, not pretend you were JUST KIDDING LOLOLOOOOOOOOL.

I do believe I’ll be okay—at least, I hope I will—but I have no idea whether it will be on this path or not. It’s too soon to tell.

My fantasy for this wedding is that when people ask about my life, I meet inquiries with, “It’s too soon to tell,” thus completely satisfying my conversational partners’ curiosity and causing them immediately to switch to more interesting matters like how great the cake is (it’s vegan-friendly FANTASY CAKE) or which White House staffers got a rose this week and will be advancing to the next round.

Of course, I’ll play my part. I’ll answer questions and accept silver linings and smile through it all like the super-amazing, reliable older sister I am, but deep down, I’ll be pining for a more honest exchange.

“I don’t know right now,” I could say.

And they could tell me, “It’s okay, you don’t have to.”

Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

Not in Love

Not in Love

I went on a date yesterday. Now that I’m stationary for a few weeks and have some breathing room, I’m back on dating apps (okay, just the ladies-only one because dudes are way too easy to stumble upon in the wild and who needs any EXTRA involvement in their weird power plays and convoluted attempts to impress you with asinine chivalry like insisting they walk on the traffic side of the sidewalk as if that very gesture didn’t make you pray for a rogue Town and Country to leap the curb and take you both out then and there). I love dating because OH LORDY THERE ARE SO MANY ATTRACTIVE PEOPLE I WANNA SMOOSH MY FACE AGAINST it’s fun to play by ever-changing rules and make yourself an appealing candidate for face-smooshing meaningful conversation, and it’s such a delight to learn a new person, to get a glimpse into their world, and to try on different possible futures you could have together.

Except that’s not what dating is for me anymore.

As a nomad, I’m no longer a prospect for any kind of future. I am, by the very nature of my circumstances, a transient player in your life—a drop-in character who imparts some new knowledge or shares some mini-adventure or plants some seed of an idea that you cultivate for years to come, unbeknownst to me. Or, who just makes you laugh for an hour and is forgotten by next week.

Whether significant or inconsequential, whatever effect I have on you will happen in my wake. I’ll be gone, onto the next town, the next fling, the next set of sparkling green eyes.

In many ways, this is how I’ve always operated. I prefer short-term contracts to long-term employment, and I make that clear to anyone who enters my orbit. I will leave you. (Giving people warnings is strange because they often fail to heed them, which I say as someone who failed to heed warnings like, “I’m a garbage person,” and, “You will get broken into,” as recently as this month, so NO JUDGMENT HERE.)

Still, as I admired a forest of freckles sprawling over the delicate shoulders sitting across from me yesterday, as I listened to her hopes for a future with children, her impressive resume of service-oriented work, and her efforts to untangle the complex relationship between her upbringing and who she wants to become, I felt remiss. We both knew I couldn’t factor into her life in any kind of real way, and even as affection swelled for this beautiful new (to me) soul, it was tempered by the knowledge that my whispered warning—I will leave you—has become a shout—I’m already gone.

Despite my constant claims to the contrary, I’m a junkie for love. I love being in love, and I do it as often as possible.

Currently, a few distant crushes and romantic entanglements use the best parts of infatuation (mixtapes, mostly) to masquerade as something like love, but there’s no future tense involved. We don’t—can’t—entertain any notion of Together and instead content ourselves with fantastical catharsis, with Wouldn’t It Be Great If and Maybe Someday We Could. I’ve countless “plans” to run away and start new lives with various people, but we all know it’s just play. They’ll continue along their paths, and I’ll continue along mine. Maybe we’ll intersect someday, and maybe we won’t. In the meantime, we have effusive texts and songs on repeat, which is the most “in love” I can hope for at this point.

I feel envious, in some ways, of people who share their lives with a partner. They have a witness. When they’re 87 and refuse to wear their hearing aid and think they’ve heard something related to a vague memory they almost have, they can turn to their mate and say, “Ed, where was that place we stayed with the water leak where ceiling that dropped in on the kids’ room?” and he’ll say, “Albuquerque,” before continuing with his story about sailing Lake Superior.

I won’t have anything like that.

Each life path comes with tradeoffs, and what I’m gaining in adventures and perspective and novelty, in freedom to be and become whoever I want on whatever timeline works for me, I’m giving up in a witness, in a rolodeck of memories shared with someone who was also there. Maybe I’ll regret it someday.

In the immediate term, I’m not as afraid of regret as I am mourning the loss of the romantic possibility that comes with Maybe We Could Be. Without the potential for a future, dating loses a significant portion of its allure. The big question—what could we become—is pre-answered and replaced by a much smaller one—do you want what I have to offer—which is perhaps more honest than I’ve ever been in romance. It creates a new challenge: to be compelling enough to get a HELL YES, to create an interesting enough experience that people are willing to forgo possibility just to participate in whatever moments we can share with one another, despite knowing our limits. I intend to rise to that challenge.

As with so many aspects of nomadism, dating has become another arena in which the mantra is now, “Earn your keep.” I didn’t anticipate this, how much harder I’d have to work to accomplish basic facets of personhood than I did in my cushy little cubicle life, where routine and stability created a glossy veneer that hid countless cracks in my foundation. I’m grateful, though, for the ways in which this lifestyle is pushing me to become better than I’ve ever been before.

If I decide someday to be a settled person, a partnered person, I’ll have this exercise in honesty to improve the quality of that future relationship. For now, I have adventures and mixtapes and fantasy, and while it may not be everything, it’s actually a lot.