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?

 

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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.

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.)

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.