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.

 

Just here

Just here

I’ve had an intense few days. I drove from the middle of the desert into the eastern Sierras, through Yosemite to San Francisco, and then north to Portland. My bum hurts from driving. (YES I AM LITERALLY BUTT HURT.)

In the middle of it all, I managed to do some podcast planning with my wonderful co-host, Lis, who always lifts my spirits and makes me feel calm again.

I told her one of the hardest parts of my new nomadic existence is explaining myself. A simple, “Where are you from?” sends me into fits of sputtering confusion. “Well, I, uh, grew up in Minnesota and was living in San Diego, but just, uh, moved into my car?” (I don’t technically live in my car. I live out of it at the moment, but that distinction seems too complicated for small talk.)

Pity overtakes them. “I’m sorry,” they’ll say, and their face contorts to some conflicted cocktail of compassion and dismay.

“It was a choice,” I’ll say, and their pity turns to confusion. Who is this bougie person and why on earth would she choose to live in her car?

I ask myself the same thing every day. Every hour.

For some reason, the crowd in the eastern Sierras really got under my skin. I stayed in a hostel, and everyone there was doing  the Pacific Crest trail or hiking Mount Whitney or tackling a series of 20-mile mountain treks during a single week. I was stopping because it was cheap. While they were dirty, malnourished, and figuring out their next moves through terrifying and deadly wilderness, I was looking for nice cold brew and decent wifi so I could finish this PowerPoint deck.

Why was I even there?

Lis relayed a similar story of a moment she’d had the previous week when the power went out in a coffee shop while she was working. This is normal on the island, and the people around her were unfazed while she was completely thrown off. As her anxiety rose, her brain filled with, What am I doing in Maui??? 

She felt that same sense of being out of place and explained her theory—developed, in part, through conversations with friends—that we feel disconnected from our environments because while other people have a reason for being there, we’re just there. People move to Maui for jobs or adventure or a partner. Lis is just there. People go to the eastern Sierras for hikes and brazen acts of physical endurance. I was just there.

Humans are skilled at creating purpose for themselves, and while Lis and I talk a great deal about purpose in the podcast, the one we’ve created for ourselves is sort of anti-purpose—to exist without agenda and unshackle ourselves from the narratives of progression and accomplishment and achievements stacked like trophies on the shelves of our Facebook profiles.

Not only in our environments, but in our whole lives, we’re just here.

“Not everything needs a reason,” Lis reminded me. Sometimes it’s okay to just be here, to enjoy the experience of being and take each moment for what it is. I don’t need a reason for being in the mountains or the desert or Portland, but I’m here, taking it all in. And I don’t need to explain my existence to anyone.

As for people asking where I’m from, maybe I’ll start saying, “Minnesota,” or, “I just got out of prison,” or, “Here, but I was in a coma for 15 years.” If it’s going to be weird no matter what, it might as well be fun.

New philosophy, perhaps?

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.

Hard days

Hard days

Today is hard. A buyer took my bed this afternoon. I went to the farmer’s market for the last time. Almost all of my belongings are gone. A lady shouted, “Fat-ass!” at me on the street. And photos of my ex-husband’s second wedding are popping up on Facebook.

Normally those last two things wouldn’t bother me too much, but they’re more like salt on already-gaping emotional wounds. My amygdala is going wild. Am I really that fat??? (No, I’m not.) Oh god she’s a much more stylish bride than I was. (Duh. She’s something like 36 or 37, and I was 24. I was a child.)

Because emotions don’t play by logic’s rules, I’m swirling around Self-Pity Town. It’s a grotesque combination of regret, loneliness, and fear. Regret for the past I’ve left behind and all the unfortunate decisions (buying a dress at David’s Bridal) I’ve made along the way. Loneliness of being in transition and having no one else to move through this with me. Fear of failure and uncertainty ahead.

I just want to be held and told everything will be okay, maybe have my hair stroked a little.

Aside from the fact I would never ask for such a thing (it’s one of those great-in-theory concepts that, in execution, would end up with me accepting a single hug, then chattering away for hours until I got hungry and sent the person away so I could eat in peace), who do you even turn to in the midst of upheaval? The people you’re leaving have their own emotions, and if they’re close enough to you to be able to provide any solace, they probably aren’t in the right headspace to tell you that, yes, your departure is a great and wonderful thing. Others are too far away, physically, to appreciate the depth of turmoil. They can’t walk into your apartment and feel the shock of its emptiness the way you do.

Mostly, I self-soothe. I’ve learned many coping mechanisms, and writing is definitely one of them. I also use food (irresponsibly) and exercise to great effect. But the only thing that’s guaranteed to work when I find myself mired in the past is to start planning for the future. Whenever my gaze starts creeping to the rearview mirror, I do something to jerk it back to the horizon.

Today it was as simple as checking in on roadtrip plans with a buddy. Talking about the fun ahead and giving myself something positive to look forward to cheered me up. It helped me remember what I’m heading toward and how lucky I am to have such exciting things waiting for me.

I’m not completely out of the funk, by any means, but shifting focus helped, even if just a little.

I know this is just one of many hard, low, and lonely days ahead. Some days I’ll have more luck than others, but if I have at least a few tools in my pocket, hopefully I’ll be able to pull myself out of despair.

Slowly, then all at once

Slowly, then all at once

In The Sun Also Rises, one character asks another how he went bankrupt.

“Two ways,” he says. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

I feel the same about this move and all the changes I’m making. It’s like I’ve been standing in line for the high dive, watching kid after kid plummet before me, working up the courage as I take one step up the ladder, then another. Finally, I’ve arrived at the top. It’s my turn to summon courage, take a running start, and leap.

People don’t see the waiting. They don’t see you eyeballing the high dive for hours while splashing around with your friends, maybe across several visits to the pool. They don’t hear you float the idea, “I might try that,” then giggle-splash. They don’t see the lead-up to your even getting in line. They see your cannon ball or hear you screech, limbs flailing, on the way down. (This is VERY BAD high-dive strategy, for the record. Keep your arms to your side and try to enter the water as a skinny little plank. You don’t want your arm fat slapping needle-water from such great heights, trust me.)

A common response when I tell people I’m going freelance and nomadic is something along the lines of, “Wow, you’re really going for it.” They feel like I’m doing things all at once because they’re catching me at my running start. They haven’t see the slow, long process that got me here—a year of interviews with Adrift on Purpose guests, tiny little changes to my habits and life setup, extensive planning, and so, so many journal entries.

Like with Hemingway’s bankruptcy, a series of tiny decisions compounded over time to create exponential effects down the line. Unlike bankruptcy, I’m happy with the outcome.

Of course, I’m still terrified of the leap ahead—it’s still surreal to think in one week I’ll be officially without an address—but I’m exhilarated, too. I can’t wait to find out how it will feel to have jumped. (Wedgie. If experience has taught me anything, it will feel like a wedgie.)