Quality Over Quantity

Quality Over Quantity

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.

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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.

 

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.

Performing happiness

Performing happiness

My favorite days on the trip so far have been those spent in other people’s homes. A few friends have been kind enough to let me crash on their sofas, and dropping into the warmth of a place where people actually live—with its personality and memories and myriad little markers of daily life—has been such a welcome respite from the sterility of places where people stay.

Each time, I’ve left completely refreshed and on high, even when I’d thought the only thing I could stomach that day was isolation in the form of snack-scarfing and an epic Netflix binge. (God that sounds good right now.)

 

Earlier this week, I hit a low. Through a series of events that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with circumstances in someone else’s life, a person I love cut me out. It was done swiftly, unceremoniously, and without warning. This person had been among the most important people to me this past year—someone whose presence had direct and profound influence on my growth—and I’m left with a hole where friendship and unshakable faith had lived. My week was a thundering cloud of betrayal, grief, and heartache. I wanted to hide from the world and nurse my wounds in private, not roll around playing Happy Tourist for Facebook.

Still, the road needed to be driven. Work needed to be done. And people needed to be visited. I had no choice but to rally.

When you drop into someone’s home, you can’t bring a stormcloud with you. You can’t show up and mope and cry and complain about how DEVASTATINGLY AND UTTERLY UNFAIR it is that someone turned their back on you. I mean, you can certainly tell your story—and believe me, anyone who would listen this week heard mine—but you can’t wallow. You have to be alert to the moods and rhythms around you and try to contribute something positive, or at least be an innocuous addition, to the environment you’ve been welcomed into.

In the throes of my pain, the energy required to be even neutral seemed impossible. I remember sitting in my car in Portland before meeting a friend for dinner, which would be followed by a night on her sofa. Fatigue pulled my face into a sour droop, and I felt hollow. As I sipped the coffee required to work up an ounce of enthusiasm, all I wanted to do was curl into a ball and cry. I couldn’t imagine actually socializing like a human. I was a PAIN GOBLIN.

But then a funny thing happened. I did it anyway.

I went to dinner and behaved in a decent, verifiably human way. (I think? Maybe she has a different read on it, and I was unwittingly goblining it up.) We had nice conversation and went to her home, where her wife and children were so bright and beaming and lovely, my heart burst into a million pieces.

At some point, the effort to perform happiness turned into actual good feelings. I left elated, ready to face the world again.

A similar thing happened in Seattle. I was one again reeling from The Drama™ (look, I, too, thought I was too old for the phrase “blocked me on Snapchat” to feature into my life in any kind of way, much less elicit real tears, but here I am, MILLENNIAL AF) and didn’t necessarily want to take a ferry out to a remote area to stay with someone I barely knew. But I went. And I put on my happiest, most charming face, because the less you know someone, the more value you have to offer to earn your place on their sofa. Plus, I was determined to have a good time dammit.

You know what? We had THE BEST TIME. We enjoyed a lovely dinner overlooking the harbor, reveled in being the only two single women in a bar full of hilariously thirsty men (my favorite was the dude who approached and said, “My name is Lee, what’re yours?” then shook our hands and said, “Okay, I’m drunk, that’s all I’ve got,” before scurrying off to steal someone’s drink from the table next to ours), and visited a farmer’s market in the morning. The entire stay was a delight, and I once again left on high.

I’ve seen the concept “fake it till you make it” applied to happiness, notably from Gretchen Rubin, and I think there’s truth in it. Part of what I liked about corporate life is that it forced me to present as someone calm and put together, and in a way, I started to become calm and put together. I don’t know if it works the same for everyone, but I seem particularly susceptible to performing my way into an emotional reality.

On the road, when you’re alone for long stretches of time, it’s easy to let yourself become consumed in the emotions swirling around your own head. You don’t have anyone to fake it for.

As I plan my journey (and life), I’ll have to make a point of adding Performance Touchpoints along my path—time spent in environments that force me to behave like the person I want to be. To wit, I’m on my way to Vancouver for Design & Content Conference, where there will be friends and warmth and at least three full days of performing my Networking Best. I imagine I’ll leave there an emotional camel with a hump full of happiness that will carry me all the way to Minnesota and the comfort of my family.

As for The Drama™, I’ve mostly managed to put it out of my head. I’m coaching myself to remember that betrayal doesn’t erase all the good that came from a relationship. I’m still allowed to hold onto that and to the moments we shared. Whether or not we ever speak again, those belong to me, to us, and that’s all I can comfort myself with right now.

 

Belonging, leaving, and imagining rejection

Belonging, leaving, and imagining rejection

I never learned how to belong. That miiiiight have something to do with why I like to leave. Staying would mean doing the work required to fit in, and that’s just not something I’m equipped to do.

From my earliest days, I was an outsider. Our family was the one on the block whose parents didn’t drink, whose kids wore ill-fitting garage sale clothes, and whose cars were driven well past 200,000 miles. Sure, we owned a boat, but it didn’t have a Below Deck like the other families’ in our suburban paradise. We didn’t even take it to “sand bars” where adults could binge-drink while kids splashed around on floatie chairs with built-in cupholders. Instead, my dad did weird-ass things like take us tubing and skiing and drive us safely and soberly for entire afternoons as if he actually cared more about providing his kids a good experience than drinking away his problems with other alcoholics. Freak.

I kid, but you know how children are. That kind of thing really did make us freaks in that Not Like Us and Therefore Bad and Wrong kind of way.

Plus, I’m just a weird person. I’m slow at social cues and deeply invested in my inner world, but I also really like people and get excited and giddy and dorky when talking about anything that interests me, as well as withdrawn and spacey when bored. (Fortunately, I’m pretty interested in the inner lives of others, and it’s never too hard to get people talking about themselves. What if I were only excited about things like stamps or sea wolves that can swim 7.5 miles to an archipelago? I’d be toast.)

Relating to me as an adult who’s spent decades learning to bear a passing resemblance to normalcy is hard enough. As a child, I must have been incomprehensible.

Without throwing anyone under the bus (yet—just wait for my memoir JENNA), I was unceremoniously ousted from several friend groups in my youth. These rejections, combined with never quite fitting in in the first place, have left me with sort of a peculiar relationship to belonging. I simultaneously crave and fear it. I’ve spent years in therapy working hard to learn how to belong but still run away at the first signs of success because I believe—deep in that place where irrational childhood beliefs live—that I neither deserve nor am capable of it.

Imagine my surprise, then, when leaving San Diego presented irrefutable evidence I’d been accepted and loved and wanted around. People shed actual, wet tears and said the nicest things about how much they’d miss me and how much I mattered to them. It’s almost as if I wasn’t just tolerated but, like, enjoyed? What.

Still, I find myself focusing on the people who didn’t reach out, the friends I thought were close who let me leave without even trying to grab lunch or coffee or six shots of tequila and an ill-advised makeout. The pain of their rejection feels much more familiar than the outpouring of love from so many others. I know how to be rejected. I don’t know how to be loved.

Or maybe I don’t want to be.

Part of me wonders if a nomadic life is just a way to escape the responsibility of belonging, of being loved, of answering to the rules of relationships and communities that look you in the eye and say, “Your actions matter, and this is what’s expected of you.” On the road, everyone I meet will know I’m just passing through and likely won’t bother expecting anything of me at all. And if they get attached, it’s their own damn fault. I’m pre-absolved of any effect I might have on people who commit the unthinkable sin of actually liking me.

(I know that’s not how humans work and may have already had my first taste of erring on this front. It’s entirely possible you can’t just drop in on people and expect them not to feel any kind of way about it? Trust me, I’m as surprised as you are.)

Who knows if this will work, if I’ll be happier shirking belonging altogether than striving for it and fumbling once I have it. Maybe this lifestyle won’t fit or fulfill me. Maybe that craving for acceptance will eventually outweigh the fear of achieving it. Maybe I’ll end up wanting to settle and do the hard work of mattering. But it’s too soon to tell.

For now, I’m in the desert, holed up in a very hot, very isolated hideout, reveling in absolute silence, planning my next moves, and shrugging off a nagging fear I left behind the one thing I’ve spent my entire life chasing.

Trust the process, I tell myself. There’s no failure, only information. And, of course, you always have an exit.