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.

 

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.