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?

Stretching time

Stretching time

I woke up in Joshua Tree this morning and watched the sun rise over my first camp as a nomad. (It was SUCCESSFUL in that I accomplished setting up a tent and spending a full night inside it. It was THOROUGHLY STUPID in that two young van dwellers parked next to me late at night and proceeded to open and slam doors for hours, seemingly at random, but suspiciously coinciding with THE EXACT MOMENT I FINALLY DRIFTED OFF, which I assume was some elaborate scheme to demonstrate that van dwellers are terrible, horrible, irredeemably bad people on whom I shouldn’t waste an ounce of envy EVEN IF they have sick shelving and dope drawer space. Pretty sure that’s how pronoia works.)

As the sky brightened, I had the distinct feeling time was both speeding past and standing still. It felt like only a moment ago the idea had occurred to me, Maybe after I move out, I’ll camp for a night or two in Joshua Tree, but somehow entire weeks had passed since then. Important weeks, too. I’d quit my job, packed up my apartment, said my goodbyes, and started my journey. How did so much happen in such a blink?

Pinks turned to white on the horizon, and blistering desert heat crept in. Even as the hour evaporated, I felt the memory sneak into the forever part of my brain, the place where that other hour on the beach in Durban lives, with its sand drawings and hand holdings; or the morning in the farmhouse when friends rustled through the kitchen in that pre-breakfast hush; or the first time our knees touched under the bar and the softness of his lips when his hand pulled my face to his.

Some moments stretch for eternity while entire months barely exist. (Can anyone tell me what happened in April? Did I leave my home at all? Was I even a person?)

I’ve created more forever moments—more remarkable and rare and true moments—in the past few weeks than I did in the entire year proceeding them. I don’t know if it will always be like this, or if the novelty will become normalcy, but for now, I’m luxuriating in the way each day stretches miles longer than any day in a routine ever did.

I felt so granola waking up in that tent. Now I’m feeling bougie at this hostel full of hikers covered in mud and stench and scraggly mole hairs right on their cheeks because they honestly Do Not Give a Fuck what you think about their appearance. (Don’t worry, I found a nice almond milk latte, air conditioning, and wifi, so I’m okay.) A simple change in location shifted perspective enough to create the feeling of a lifetime in a matter of hours.

Even if I fall flat on my face, I’ll be glad to have done this. At the very least, I’m changing the shape of me, collecting a pocketful of memories I can pore over for years to come, and warping time for however long this lasts. I hope it lasts.

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.

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.