Quality Over Quantity

Quality Over Quantity

My life has grown smaller in almost every way. Fewer belongings, fewer activities, fewer friends. In most arenas, I’ve combed for necessities and discarded bloat, ever reducing as I make pass after pass.

A slow, tectonic shift is occurring in my values, favoring not options but certainties that feel solid and strong and good. I’m more willing to work on relationships that add value and reject those that drain because I don’t need quite as many tendrils reaching quite as many places as a young me once did. Maybe it’s age. Maybe I’m simply learning what nourishes and which wells run dry.

Still, I reach sometimes, deep into vast emptiness, plunging after something I know must be there, if I just stretch a little harder, extend a litter farther.

My whole life, I’ve plunged. I’ve sought and yearned and chased impossible things—the understanding of my father, affection from people without resources to give it, validation from those who’ve thought little of me. I’ve hit sandy bottoms and withered there, unable to accept the reality of this dearth. This death. Nothing here will give me life, and I cannot leave.

Even with improvement, I occasionally find myself in a wither. I recently chased the receding waters of a once-fruitful friendship, and today I struck bottom, forced to face a drought I should have seen coming. I should have heeded the signs and surrendered long ago, but parts of me resist wisdom, resist the knowledge of better ways to be. They lean heavily into old habits, chasing, striving, wasting energy in dark depths when I could be basking in sun.

Progress isn’t perfect.

Today is a difficult day as I retract another tendril, retreat from yet another well that once seemed bright and alive and promising. Quantity diminishes once more. I am smaller, even than yesterday, and it doesn’t feel like a victory yet.

Over time, that conserved energy will feed me. I’ll learn to heed signs earlier and avoid withers before they begin. My smallness will become hardiness. I tell myself this as I observe all that I lack, the blank spaces around me where others expand. Do they find nourishment in more places than I could, or do they, like a younger me, spread themselves to weakness, looking everywhere for something found only in a few select places? Are they seeking and plunging, too?

Comparison does disservice to growth, I know. It’s another dry well from which I must retreat, more emotional bloat to abandon, wisdom that must be heeded despite every impulse to ignore, resist, press on.

I am smaller, yes, and stronger and surer, too—maybe not than they were, but certainly than I was—and that’s progress.

Peaking and Seeking

Peaking and Seeking

I often wonder if I’ll never be happy. Am I fundamentally miserable, I ask myself in the shower, on the elliptical, in the woods, behind the wheel—a single, simple question cutting through a thunderstorm of anxieties clanging in my mind.

Where others find contentment and peace, I find dissatisfaction, an itch to move, upend, disrupt. I packed a sunshiney life into a car and drove from comfort to uncertainty. At each crest, each summit, each opportunity to pause and bask in what I’ve done, I see a new peak. That’s the view I need.

Contentment feels always just out of reach.

But maybe that’s not the goal for me. Maybe summits aren’t as thrilling as the journey up, the mud on my boots and the rush of passing each obstacle, each scramble, each terrifying cliff. I prefer the labored breathing, strained muscles, and aching joints of a climb to the easy lolling of a peak. Both have their place, and the best photos are of views and elevation signs, of accomplishments, not of sweat. One might think this is my why, these moments of pause, but I climb because I like—I really truly enjoy—the discomfort of burning lungs. I move faster not to get there sooner but to take myself to the edge of pain, where I feel a delirium that’s as close as anything to happiness.

Someone recently described me as “a miserable person who will never be happy.” He was a man I hated—a 70-year-old who spewed racist and misogynistic comments and delighted in tyrannical control. His presence was a cloud under which I darkened.

I shouldn’t value his opinion of me any more than his opinion of, say, Black Lives Matter (which is that they’re “evil,” for the record), but the barb stuck anyway. In those eight words, he articulated my greatest fear, the melancholic strain that hums under every thought and blares in quiet moments. Am I fundamentally miserable.

Dissatisfaction rules me, and I choose pain, over and over and over.

“You choose growth,” a friend said, and I appreciated her generosity. She believes I’m chasing a higher ideal, and she could be right, I suppose. She could see something beyond my ken—the perspective of an outsider often tells more than our little eyes, our little selves locked inside our worn neural pathways, can ever discern. I want to believe her.

Still, it feels as if growth is a byproduct of my preference for ache. I strive not to achieve but because I feel safest pressing against limits, huffing, straining, shedding tears of distress.

Siddhartha eventually settled by the river, taking people to and fro, and glowed in the simplicity of such a small, repetitive life. I’ve met people like that, who shine their peace through wide smiles and warm eyes. They envelop you in their contentment and seem to offer a promise that you could find your own, if you would only allow yourself to rest.

I want what they have. I want my presence to become an embrace, a bosom into which you can sink and feel safe. I want to effervesce.

Funny that the peak I actually yearn for, the only end-game in mind, is not a summit but a valley. It’s the decision to stop scrambling, to ease into comfort, to revel in the simplicity of an un-striving life, and I’m not yet capable of such profound peace. Even at rest, I’m poised on ready haunches, taut, tense, prepared to spring after some next challenge or thrill. My presence agitates.

Yet—yet—we need agitators to fight. If Siddhartha lazed while his countrymen died, what was his enlightenment worth? At what cost did he shine?

I don’t yet have answers or know my role in this life. I don’t know what I’m headed toward. I know only that for the time being, I need to squeeze between boulders and leap over streams; to press forward, press harder, press limits, suppress needs; to pant and sweat and ache and bleed; to strain and never reach the realization of dreams.

Comfort in discomfort is as content as I can be.

New Year

New Year

As we set up my New Year’s party last year—a most beloved holiday tradition—my then-girlfriend and I discussed resolutions. I’ve never made one I haven’t kept. For 2000, it was to read the Bible. 2010: Catch an in-play kickball. 2011: Quit my job. 2014: Leave Minnesota. 2015: Make enough friends in San Diego to throw a New Year’s party. 2016: Date women. I deal in specifics, and I never make a resolution I don’t intend to keep.

But 2017 looked hazy. After the wreckage of the election, I felt unable to see the road ahead. A deep current of change ran through my veins, and I could sense the need for something big, something I couldn’t even imagine in that moment. For the first time in years, I couldn’t articulate what I needed or formulate a plan.

When asked, all I could say was, “Figure out the thing,” which didn’t feel like enough. “And do the thing.” That was as close as I could come.

One year later, my life is more dramatically different than that smiley, glittery-shirt-wearing, undercut-sporting version of me could have foreseen. I lived then in predictable rhythms. Weekdays in the cubicle. Weeknights at open mics. Weekends on hikes, at the farmer’s market, recording the podcast, thrifting, and going on dates. A charmed life full of sunshine and kale. I wanted for nothing.

Now, I’m 23 states (plus D.C.), two foreign countries, five national parks, 6,855 miles (since San Diego), seven roommates, two car break-ins, one nudist colony (I didn’t even tell you about that), 125 days without a period (and counting), four blood tests, one MRI, one or two meniscus tear(s), two conferences, one heartbreak I shouldn’t have felt, two minor breakups I should have felt more, one punch in the face, “millions” of rodent droppings (exterminator’s words), and one dog (future TBD) worse for the wear.

I’ve reduced my life to a few belongings that fit in an astonishingly reliable Ford Escape. It’s still more than many have, and more than I need, but a reduction that felt impossible to a year-ago me. My closet then was bursting, and I loved to adorn myself in bright colors and playful styles—costume jewelry from antique shops, worn or collected by old ladies with unknown histories. Now, I wear the same four or five simple outfits, the same understated jewelry, every day. It’s all I have left, all I need.

I’ve spent time in parts of the country I never understood. I experienced rural life and witnessed poverty that had only existed on paper in my mind. I was invited inside.

I’ve been asked for explanations and accepted as I am. I’ve been a passing stranger and a regular rhythm in others’ lives. I’ve learned more about caring for people—and being cared for—in a single year of motion than in three decades of standing still. I’ve learned who stays and how important they are, the ones who give you strength, who let you travel into darkness and hold the line, ready to pull you back.

I smile less and entertain fewer fantasies. Something flighty in me grew heavy this year, weighted by dustings of disappointment, layered thick on papery wings, which beat now with a dull thud when once they swirled and swooped. I feel solid with this heft, more bound to the earth, less likely to float away. (Others feel sadder about this than I do. They miss a person who made them feel alive, like they might grab my tail and fly with me, like children clapping for a kite, and I don’t miss pumping those people—those men—with hope. I do miss a world that made flight feel possible, one that didn’t trample vulnerable people at every turn, but it existed only in my mind.)

I appear more chaotic, maybe, and hover closer to frightening depths than I did in California. I dip more frequently, thanks, in part, to an underactive thyroid, but I recover more swiftly as well. What once took days now takes hours. I’ve learned to let myself be soothed.

I’ve also learned people want happiness for me, and I want purpose for myself.

Purpose will drive 2018. I feel clarity and certainty when looking to the year ahead, and it’s almost foreign, this sturdiness, these sure feet. After toppling towers in 2017, I’ve cleared ground for something magnificent and powerful, and I’m vibrating with drive to build, create, regenerate. I know what I want from this year, and I see the path forward in vivid detail. I feel ready, almost giddy, to take on 2018.

I can’t say I loved this year or hated it, but I lived it, to borrow a friend’s phrase, really fucking hard. Despite every setback, every tear, every hour spent questioning why, when all is said and done, I don’t regret a thing.