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also really like people and get excited and giddy and dorky when talking about anything that interests me, as well as withdrawn and spacey when bored.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

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.