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I also really like people and get excited and giddy and dorky when talking about anything that interests me, as well as withdrawn and spacey when bored.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.

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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.

Lighter and lighter

Lighter and lighter

Approaching the end of my job was a heavy feeling. Like a breakup, the anticipation of leaving cast a cloud over the future I’d imagined for myself. I couldn’t see the horizon and had to keep moving forward, trusting I’d set myself on the right course.

When I left my marriage, I wept while packing. I listened to emotional music and replayed good times we shared over and over in my head. I didn’t think of drunkenly falling to the ground while he stood over me with rage in his eyes. I thought of holding hands on long drives and sipping chocolate on the banks of the Rhein. I didn’t look at our separate beds or text message fights or the fact of my affair. I looked at our cats and the god-awful-but-wonderful armchair we rescued from a church basement one Sunday afternoon.

Hugging him goodbye in that kitchen we shared, I felt crushed under the weight of my decision. How can something this painful be right?

In my new apartment, as I unpacked my belongings and made a space for myself, I began to once again see the future I’d chosen. I felt free, not only to be who I wanted, but from the anguish of staying.

Now, as I pack (throw into a large pile near my door) more and more of this apartment, I’m feeling that same sense of freedom. I’m through the fog and looking back on the unhappiness I felt every day in that cubicle, the way my life had become one big rut, and seeing with new clarity the future before me. For the first time in years—maybe ever—I feel excited about the possibilities at my fingertips and poised, ready, to succeed or fail. No matter what happens next, I know I couldn’t stay a moment longer. Nothing could make this the wrong choice, and I’m luxuriating in newfound certainty.

With each day that passes, each item I hold and think, “I don’t need this,” I feel better, freer. As my load gets lighter, my spirit does, too.

Wiping the slate clean

Wiping the slate clean

Today is my first day of freedom. While others made their way into offices this morning, I slept in. I’ll take a walk in a bit, make a few phone calls, and maybe cook an interesting lunch. Then I’ll settle into my own work on my own schedule, completely unaffected by anyone else’s rhythms. Bliss.

Sort of.

Truth be told, I’m terrified and paralyzed. Every fear I’ve had about freelancing came crashing down this morning. Will I make enough money? How will I socialize? Where will I exercise? Am I even capable of being accountable to myself?

I’ve thought these concerns through, of course, and have plans in place to address each. Still, I’m walking away from a routine I spent two and a half years perfecting—one that answered my every biological and monetary need and kept me functioning at consistent levels—and it feels a little nutty to abandon such a masterpiece. If it ain’t broke, why completely upend your life?

Yesterday a friend told me about Tibetan monks who spend days upon days creating elaborate sand mandalas, then destroying them as soon as they’re finished.

In many ways, my life in San Diego is a mandala, an intricate work of art I’ve poured my heart into getting just so. Unlike when I left Minneapolis in 2014, which was an act of pure flight, I’m wiping away this life because it’s peaked and there’s not much room for improvement. Too well constructed to alter, my routine began to feel like a cage, even though I loved every part. 

I loved my weekly hikes and trips to the farmer’s market, my daily morning coffee and evening hour on the elliptical, my sporadic open mic attendances and hangs with the small handful of people whose company fed my soul. I loved this apartment. I loved the globe and bookends and teal side table I found at antique shops in Ocean Beach. I loved the neighborhood, the banana tree, and the smell that reminded me of an old apartment on Cathedral Hill where my ex and I raised a hamster. I loved this stupid couch, which I bought specifically because it folded into a bed, but which has never once been used for that purpose if for no other reason than that it has these hard little buttons that leave red divots in your skin (stellar design work, really).

Now, I’m starting over. I’m wiping the slate clean so I can begin a new work of art and find new things to love.

But the mandala is an imperfect analogy. Even when you discard your belongings, you don’t rid yourself of the experiences and memories that shaped you along the way. Our lives are less like slabs of concrete from which sand can be swept and more like cast iron skillets that absorb flavor from everything that touches them. The old iterations affect—and hopefully improve—the new.

I’m sitting here among piles of construction paper from a time when I used to make cards and crafts, and I’m coming to terms with two truths:

  1. As much as I want to conceive of myself as an artsy craftsy type, I’m not that person anymore.
  2. Choosing a new path neither invalidates nor erases the ones before it—I always will have been an artsy craftsy type.

(BONUS: If I want to do arts and crafts, I can probably afford to purchase supplies on an ad hoc basis rather than lugging tubs of decade-old crayons across the country just in case I get an itch to scribble in Burnt Sienna at a rest stop along I-5.)

Starting fresh means making dozens of decisions about who you are, who you want to be, and who you’ll realistically become. I’m working my way through the process now and letting go of—mourning—iterations of myself that no longer fit my vision of the future.

I cherish this opportunity to create something new, to painstakingly assemble an as-yet-unrealized version of my life, to unfold it slowly, with intention. I also take comfort knowing all the old flavors will offer seasoning to what comes next—and that I probably don’t need these old rollerblades hanging around to get that.

“This is the time.”

“This is the time.”

Today is my last day of work, and I’m a bundle of emotions. I’m excited and terrified and sad. Even though I know it’s time to move on, I’ve loved this place and these people. I’ve been safe and comfortable here.

When I tell people my plans, the most common response, especially from folks with a few years on me, is, “This is the time to do it.” I’m young enough, they say. I don’t have a house or kids. (Not fully true. TECHNICALLY, my name is still on a mortgage somewhere, and I thank Lady Jesus my ex-husband is the kind of financial Dudley Do-Right who can be trusted to make payments and preserve my precious baby credit score and all the capitalistic privilege that comes with it. Access to over 900 airport lounges worldwide? DON’T MIND IF I DO.)

People almost seem to believe that responsibilities just happen to you as you age. If I were 40 instead of 32, a condo would have befallen me by now. A child would have materialized with snot in its hair and chocolate-stained fingers clutching my stylish and full-pocketed pants (if I don’t have actual human-sized pockets on all my clothes within eight years, my life has gone horribly awry) as it begs for snacks. Probably a dog or chinchilla would be licking its butt nearby.

In some ways, I get it. Life is an accumulation of small decisions that often don’t feel like decisions at all. We’re just living our daily lives, dealing with problems as they arise, and one day we look around to the tune Talking Heads and wonder how did I get here?

Fear of that phenomenon is what keeps me future-focused. Maybe it’s unhealthy anxiety, but I have a habit of extrapolating my current life and choices to their long-term consequences, looking miles down the road and agonizing about what I see instead of living contentedly in the moment. It’s why I’m so quick to leave relationships and why I occasionally wake up on a Saturday morning and think, “Today I’m going to do x, y, and z, and tomorrow will be these other things, and then it will be Monday again, and another week will fly by, and before I know it, I’ll be back here doing this exact same thing next Saturday, and then it will be next year and nothing will have changed, and OH GOD WHERE IS MY LIFE GOING?”

I’m envious of people who can live without that kind of panic. They may envy my risk-taking in turn, but in reality, the risks I take are for survival. I have to make constant change because I’m too afraid of the longview to stay on any given trajectory for too long. In the early phases of something new, everything is cloudy, and you’re forced into a kind of present-mindedness. You can’t focus on the future because you have a million problems to solve right now, today. As soon as the dust settles enough to see a ways down the road, I’m haunted by visions of old age and a wasted life.

People keep saying, “Now’s the time,” and I smile in agreement while thinking, “I wish I could be like you.”

On my last day, I’m longing for the constitution of a person who stays, who can be counted on, who doesn’t need to flee. I’ll go into the office today and hug people I love. I’ll leave behind a perfectly pleasant team and a perfectly comfortable workspace to venture into a frightening unknown. I’ll do it because I have to.

I wish I knew how to stay.

Goodbyes suck.

Goodbyes suck.

I’m a fan of the Irish goodbye. If I have to leave, I like to do it quietly, without fanfare or explanation. Just wait for your moment, then slip away unnoticed. Perfect. (This puts me firmly at odds with my Minnesotan upbringing, which encourages a full goodbye tour of any gathering, hugging and chatting with each person in attendance, prolonging your exit anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. A nightmare.)

Our brains are brilliant self-preservation machines and will do anything to protect us from both the dissonance of being wrong and the pain of rejection. When someone chooses to leave, it’s a rejection of not just our choice to stay, but of ourselves. It stings, to varying degrees, and we tend to go into defense mode. We dismiss the leaver as irrelevant—It is they who are making the wrong choice to leave, whereas I am very smart and good for deciding to stay—and shut them out.

At a party, this isn’t much of a thing. It’s a flash. “Seeya later buddy!” and before you can shake off your awkward half-hug, they’re back to a riveting conversation about the merits of Gladiator vs. Troy. No big.

But when you’re leaving something bigger, like a job or a city, the effect is far more pronounced. You get to see yourself shifted from significance, recalculated from present tense to past. You notice subtle differences in interaction, the way people steel themselves against you. Their brains are building walls to protect themselves, and you’re just hanging around reminding them of your rejection.

I’ve been both the leaver and the left, and I understand both sides. This week, I’m walking around the office watching projects move forward without me, people dropping me from communications, the world reordering itself to account for my absence, and I’m feeling the pain of an outsider. I no longer belong here. I’m just roving cognitive dissonance in sensible flats.

Yesterday, my boss tried to Irish goodbye me. She’s on vacation through the end of the week and had every intention of slipping away without giving me a chance to hug her, tell her how much she’s meant to me, and make her watch me cry. (Look, if you’re going to be supportive and wonderful to me for years, you’re going to have to behold my squished-up, red-eyed snotface when we part ways. THAT’S THE DEAL.)

Fortunately, a coworker tipped me off, and I marched into her office to drop a few tears in her doorway and stumble over the words, “I’ll miss you,” like the emotionally stunted Midwesterner I was raised to be. She took it like a champ.

I understand the desire to disappear and avoid the entire terrible goodbye process altogether. If it were professionally acceptable, I might have left that way. Walking around in the remnants of your departure, offloading work onto people you love and have empathy for, and feeling the pain of disentanglement is a certain kind of hell. It’s like a prolonged and intense breakup, and no one’s having a good time.

I’m in the no man’s land of neither here nor there, haunting a space where I no longer belong. I just keep reminding myself that soon I’ll be on the other side, sipping mimosas (kale smoothies) in style (relative poverty). Just three more days.