War of the Selves

War of the Selves

I’m back in San Diego. For five weeks, the sun has been shining, the birds have been chirping, and the streets have been bustling with that calm, buzzing energy I love so well. I’ve been gorging myself on the joys of southern California, delighting in ocean views and desert hikes and incomparable—impossible—produce.

I’m applying for an apartment today. It’s a six-month lease, a mere block from where I lived one year ago, B.N. (before nomad). It has everything I could possibly want in an apartment, with the small exception of a gas stove. (Turns out you don’t need a stove for rice cakes and hummus anyway, so hey.) (Rice cakes are my latest crutch-cum-bad habit because apparently you really do turn into your mother.)

I feel simultaneously elated and concerned. It would be so luxurious to have my own place, surrounded by my own things, following my own rhythms. I could retrieve the boxes of books and mementos I left in a friend’s attic. I could hang art that represents my tastes. I could invite guests to stay—for a night, a weekend, a week! I could spend entire days observed by no one, watching Jane the Virgin with nasty, unshowered hair, covered in rice cake crumbs (seriously, it’s a problem), popping into the bathroom whenever I wanted without having to decide how much sheepish eye contact to make with the person sitting right outside who definitely knows why I’m turning on the fan and hopefully won’t listen to what’s about to happen in there.

Glorious.

But.

Am I giving up a dream? I was supposed to be traveling indefinitely, gradually acquiring fewer and fewer belongings, not settling back down within a year, throwing in the proverbial towel on this identity I hardly had a chance to try on.

I toured another possible living arrangement: three roommates seeking a fourth for their big, beautiful house with large, exuberant dogs and lemon, orange, and avocado trees on a hill overlooking the ocean. I saw the place as the sun set last night, and it was a kind of paradise. Still, as soon I as I stepped into the house with its stained carpet, stray tufts of fur, and disheveled sofa cushions—as I too-firmly shook hands with the young beach people who smelled of marijuana (not a judgment) and work in surf shops—I knew I didn’t belong. My gut told me, “You can’t live here.”

I drove away, fantasizing about the kind of couch I’d buy for my new apartment above the sandwich shop, and realized a dream version of me had already died.

If I were truly the nomad, the detached wanderer stopping in for a medical reprieve, this house would be perfect. Its eclectic inhabitants, warm, welcoming vibe, and social atmosphere would fit beautifully on the person I was trying to be in Maine, the person I thought I could become long-term.

Here is where I feel a deep conflict because I want to dismiss my time in Maine with, “I wasn’t happy there,” but that doesn’t capture the whole story. I was happy when I embraced the beauty of the setting, when I relaxed into the mess and allowed myself to be witnessed, when I took time to get to know and understand my housemates (except for that 70 year-old Pizzagate mansplainer, but he doesn’t count). I had wonderful experiences in that house, even when it was filled with the stench of rotting rats. I loved that I could text a friend about an eerie light in my room, and three minutes later, he was there scoping it out with me. That kind of casual intimacy can fill up spaces in your life you didn’t know were empty.

Now I’m sitting here thinking about not just where I want to live but who I want to be. I feel like I’m on the precipice of casting a significant vote about my character, and I’m not sure I like the direction I’m headed—a magnetic pull toward the bougie comforts I scorn and crave in equal measure, joining the flow of those around me, allowing the current to take me where it may.

Back in B.N. times, when I worked in a cubicle, I would console myself that the energy I saved with structure and predictability would be spent on doing good in the world. Is that something I can make true now, or am I retreating into the familiar, hiding from the painful effort of letting go, needing less, growing smaller?

I’m not sure.

But it’s only a six-month lease. Right?

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Worlds We Traipse Through

Worlds We Traipse Through
Every once in a while, a phrase sticks in my mind, and I often think about the time a friend and I were dining at the top of a tower in Durban, South Africa, in one of the world’s 27 revolving restaurants (fun fact!), where the walls were decorated with disconcerting cherub paintings (how did they get bodybuilder muscles? is there an LA Fitness in the heavens?). My friend said, “There’s something ever so ‘nearly but not quite’ about them, isn’t there?”
 
Nearly but not quite. So far, that describes everything I’ve encountered in Savannah. It’s a strange place that seems to be reaching for something it can’t quite grasp. (I’ve been here a whole 19 hours, so you can take my word as gospel truth.)
 
Also, I can’t believe it took me this long, but I’m finally realizing how much of our country resembles (has it always, or is it starting to?) countries like South Africa or Costa Rica or Colombia with bustling tourist centers surrounded by poverty.
 
I noticed it first in the west, especially in Yellowstone and in areas like the Black Hills, where I mostly stuck my nose in the air about the families rolling through faux Main Streets, spending money on glittering trinkets when there was so much real grit to experience just outside this grinning facade if only they’d pull their heads out of their butts long enough to see it. I’m not proud of the way I was romanticizing poverty by viewing it as something pure and interesting to “experience.” (I’m also not proud of my judgment of middle-class tourists, especially since I am one in my own right, but it’s the contempt of a present self looking upon a past self, which makes it feel earned somehow? Anyway, I think they can survive it.)
In Maine, I began to understand the desperation of impoverished communities begging for tourists’ money. I think living there opened me to the realities of cash flows, and as I drove by so many rainbow “Open” banners waving along the roadside, it began to feel like, “Please, come in. Please, spend your money. Please.”
 
Yesterday I strolled through the riverfront and main tourist area in Savannah, and I felt that familiar disdain for lumbering middle class sidewalk hogs and their entitled tween children, the too-loud conversations of drunk 20-somethings outside some microbrewery, and the predictable stream of candy, T-shirt, and tchotchke shops. When I returned to my AirBNB and tried to buy a healthy meal at the nearby supermarket, I found a tiny selection of withering produce and aisles of canned goods. That’s when it hit. I’m in a classic tourism economy.
 
I don’t know if it’s always been like this and I’m just now noticing, or if things are getting worse, but there is a distinct flavor to these places that’s making me uncomfortable. It’s Haves invading the territory of Have-Nots and everyone just kind of pretending to be okay with it. But it’s in our own country.
You’re not strolling through the streets of a foreign place, where the politics are outside your sphere of influence or awareness. You’re visiting people affected by policies you vote for, from the comfort of your plush suburban home, and you might not even notice you’ve dropped into a fake world created to make you feel at ease, to tease a piece of the pie from your pocket. In a few days, you’ll leave this place and return to your corporate world, where you’ll work to make richer people than you even richer, continue voting to keep more for yourself, and maybe plan your next vacation to a fantasy world tailored to your tastes. Later, you’ll remember this place as a nice town where you once had some great saltwater taffy.

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.

Notes on Places

Notes on Places

I grew up in a cold, flat place. A place where summer explodes into three-month orgies of insects, humidity, and sweat, where winter descends as a cage. A place that prides itself on survival—of weather and of its own obscurity—and on treasures that appear dusty and dull among the glittering jewels of wilder landscapes. A place with boats and beer and biting black flies, with road rage and bigotry and hedonistic culinary delights. A place where time is measured in snowfall and relationships in perceived slights.

When I visit, I’m colder. Meaner. I run along trenches of neuroses and angst, unable to climb someplace warmer, sunnier, calmer.

Maybe environment shapes a person, and interminable months of solitude, daily battles against elements, and vast expanses of nothing—no mountain to change your vantage or sea to carry you away—turn one inward. Maybe it’s easier to harbor resentments in dark, heated rooms, with howling gusts of freeze between you and your nearest neighbor. Maybe a brief burst of green feels important, magical, pride-worthy when it punctuates intolerable gray.

Increasingly, it seems as if every place I go is a variation on a theme. Beautiful sights blend together. Is this picture of leaves any more interesting than this picture of rocks? How is this sweeping panorama more remarkable than the last? Palm trees and cacti or granite and pines, prairie dogs in a canyon or seagulls on a pier, serene Caribbean green or thrashing Atlantic gray—it’s all lovely, all the same.

 

 

My ex-husband is selling the house we bought together. As I scroll through photos of the listing, staged to reflect impeccable realtor tastes, I drift into memory.

I see the dining room floor and remember the muffin tin we filled with kibble for the cat who’d otherwise wolf and gulp. I see the living room and remember those black velvet Craigslist chairs, where we’d perch for Futurama, hot cocoa spiked with peppermint schnapps, and countless rounds of gin rummy. I see the kitchen and remember his meticulous vegetable-chopping, the slow-growing piles of tidy onion cubes juxtaposed with flurries of broccoli florets, pepper seeds, and mushroom bits amassing around me.

I see the master bedroom and remember sleeping beside him, skin to skin, safe. I see the second bedroom and remember hiding, crying, cowering from persistent banging on the locked door, rejecting call after call, pleading, “Please let me sleep.”

I remember weeping to melancholy chords as I moved garments from drawer to cardboard box, and he in the next room, seated in the cheap green chair at the expansive wooden desk where I planned to write and create and flourish, looking out that window, at that enormous tree, for years to come.

What would it feel like to inhabit those rooms now, to drift across old familiar floorboards, across time, into old familiar pain?

 

A pleasant pulse beats in Joshua Tree, and it feels like her comfortable company, her smile after we kissed, the shape of her—impossible—overlooking vast desert. She wore my hat and smiled over her shoulder as I photographed her skipping over otherworldly rocks. A gazelle, my gazelle, and I was falling more than she ever knew.

Months later, her hips would haunt the walls of my tent, even alone, even in the dark, when I could no longer see the sand, the stone, the vast purple sky reminding me of that day. Even then, I felt her. I saw her hips, plain as the coyote’s call—I could bite them—and it felt like falling then, too.

In every hardware store, I’m eight years old. I’m high on my father, on Dad Time and the sugar he would have fed us—my sister’s and my love was as easy as a Hostess cupcake back then.

Rows of screws and lumber, ceiling fans and light fixtures, router saws and siding samples, conjure a giddiness in me. No matter how 32-years-old I am outside those walls, inside I want to run down aisles and scream-laugh until they ask me to leave, like they did that one time in the Fleet Farm Christmas display, even though it was their own fault for creating a wonderland that so seduced and delighted dad-high daughters.

London sinks my stomach. In its streets, I simmered. Resentment boiled. Blackness infected my heart.

An ill friend begged my love—my friendship and understanding—and I spat vitriol in his face.

He loomed like an insect in every corner of the city, a six-foot mantis stalking Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, and that godforsaken bridge. He was everywhere, and I tried to drink him away.

Loud, barking, indiscreet, I martyred myself before our mutual friends. I loathed him and my own self-pitying tears.

Shame crept in slowly, over months and years, as I realized the person I’d become, the vulgar insensitivity I’d displayed in those darkened pubs. I made amends where possible, but no apologies could wash stain of my behavior. It lives deep in the threads of that gray city, and if I never return, I’ll never miss it.

Maybe each new place is a blank canvas, and we paint our emotions, experiences, and memories onto it. Maybe that’s why everywhere feels the same. Exhilarating at first, novelty soon becomes a web of foibles and entanglements. Nostalgia or regret. I drink too much and run off with a Montenegrin here; I drink too much and run off with an Australian there. I climb to this vista; I climb to that vista. Sprawling cities; sprawling wilderness. Him; him; her; them.

 

Last night, I walked into a bar, and the bartender greeted me by name. “Hi, Meghan! How was the drive up from Freedom?” He remembered the town I live in, after meeting me once, a week prior.

Back in Minnesota and California, I stood in conversation circles for months with people who acknowledged me less. I frequented a coffee shop, half a block from home, for years without establishing first-name familiarity. I shared actual walls with people I never even bothered to meet.

In cities of 3 million residents, I grew accustomed to anonymity, to being just another face, another customer, another set of tail lights in a traffic jam.

How strange to be noticed.

Some people’s entire lives play out in a sitcom set of locations. A home, a workplace, a gathering spot. They toil and fight and fall in and out of love, all within familiar walls.

If my life had been smaller, if I grew up among a knowable population, in knowable places—if I were known—would I feel more certain, not only of myself, but of my ability to comprehend the world? Would the complex feel simple, graspable? Would I resent those crying nuance and bias and systems of oppression, had my life been filled not with systems but with people, with Jim at the corner store and Mary at church?

 

Travelers scatter themselves across the globe, snacking on sights and people and frivolities worldwide, dropping crumbs along the way. We flit and pollinate, carrying pieces of places we’ve been, never staying long enough to wear trenches in the ground.

Travel farther, travel wider, experience more.

Maybe in a foreign place, an Asian place, or an impoverished place, I’ll find some answer. High on a mountain or deep in a jungle, I’ll feel whole. If I hear the right life story or find the right community, I’ll fall in love with living and want to keep doing it, year after year, decade after decade. Instead of trudging through an endless string of days, cycling patterns I’m unable to break, or performing existence like a trussed-up actor on an overcrowded stage, I’ll hunger for waking and thirst for another opportunity to breathe, to experience, to be.

I just have to find the right place.

Looking Back

Looking Back

In summer 2016, I took a road trip. Las Vegas (ugh), Zion, Moab, Salt Lake City, and the Redwood Forest—places I’d never seen.

At the time, I sought refuge from an emotional spring. I’d broken up with someone who’d been my best friend for the better part of nine months and terminated a pregnancy we’d created DURING said breakup. While I had no reservations about choosing to treat my fetal infestation, the process was still intense. Not only are you flooded with a mind-addling (SOUL-addling) bonanza of hormones, but you can’t talk about it in polite society. You risk making people uncomfortable, even offending them to their core. I mean, what would happen if your happily pregnant and adamantly pro-life boss found out? How would that affect your relationship?

I thought I was lucky to have a partner in crime, that even though we’d broken up I could still talk to Sperm Guy about what was going on, but that turned out to mostly be me comforting him as he dealt with his feelings about getting me pregnant. (You’d think the person who spends three hours on the shower floor violently expelling her uterine lining and EVERY OTHER THING INSIDE HER BODY would be the one who gets to cry, but no.)

I was angry, lonely, and spent. The road trip was an escape.

As I drove across the desert and its miles of nothingness, passing signs that warned NEXT SERVICE 179 MILES, I fell in love. Expansive landscapes felt promising, like I could disappear into them and the sheer volume of space would overwhelm the thundercloud in my head. Heat enveloped me and made the world immediate. I had no emotions to tend—mine nor anyone else’s—and needed only to deal in the present. Ration your water. Finish the hike before dark. Find a place to sleep. I felt capable and free.

One morning I watched sunrise from the porch of a tiny crossroads motel in the Nevada outback, surrounded on all sides by unmarred horizon, and realized I could live this way full-time. Present. Detached. Peaceful. I didn’t need to go back to my cubicle and spend days jabbering on social media. I didn’t need cities and money and stuff. I didn’t even need vegan Thai takeout. Rather, I needed nature and solitude and reprieve—a quieter place and a slower pace.

Back in San Diego, I became obsessed with moving to the desert. I scoured classifieds in Moab and fantasized about opening a queer-friendly bed & breakfast. I told everyone who would listen about my plans, and smart friends talked me out of them.

In many ways, they were right to caution me, to probe into motives and ask important logistical questions, like how was I going to make money and with whom would I socialize? (I’m not exactly Mormon-friendly, lest the beginning of this post left you with any doubts.) They were understandably nervous and urged me to think through my decision. My therapist suggested I try to compromise, to capture some of that desert feeling in the sturdy, stable life I’d established for myself in San Diego. Maybe all I really needed was more camping weekends.

I heeded their advice (to an extent). I hiked more. I prioritized exercise and wellness. I stopped dating men. I visited new places. I leaned into my routine and tried to take comfort in its stability. I even bought a book called Designing Your Life and performed its life-optimization exercises.

My itch persisted.

In November, the world turned upside down. On the ninth, many of us awoke to a country that hated us more loudly and vehemently than we even knew possible. We felt betrayed, bereft, bereaved. We grieved.

Relationships fractured in the coming months as once-reliable communities struggled to support each other. No one had the emotional reserves to lift up anyone else. We mourned as a collective, and as the horrors of our new reality crescendoed, many of us retreated inward. The tone and tenor of our entire lives shifted in those months, and those of us who were most excited about the history we were about to make, who not only emphatically supported but wholly adored her, were hit hardest.

With my favorite people laid low, I turned elsewhere. I turned to a toxic fling for catharsis. I turned to impulse travel (Colombia is a great place to remind you how lucky we still have it here, to be honest). I turned to booze, binge-eating, and Netflix. I turned to late nights scrolling social media for no reason. I turned to weed. Nothing worked, and the world got darker.

Life in a cubicle became untenable. In true Office Space irony, I achieved more success the less I cared. I’d spend entire days on Twitter, watching rights and protections vanish for the most vulnerable people in this country, seeing our indignation equated with their hatred, and reeling from my own blindness to the gurgling wells of sewage our new leader had so easily tapped. Occasionally, I’d manage an hour of focus to whip together a few recruiting emails, and I’d receive undue praise. They slated me for promotion.

I wanted to leave more than ever.

My mind was stuck on desert moments, the feelings of peace and freedom I couldn’t replicate in day-to-day life. I wasn’t sure how others were handling it, how they could stomach the astonishing indecencies—cruelties—that pummeled us daily. Maybe their families or partners kept them grounded. Maybe they lived in blissful ignorance. Maybe their skin was thicker than mine. I didn’t know. I only knew I’d reached a breaking point, and the only thing that gave me any hope was the prospect of leaving.

So, I left. I put in notice, packed my bags, and drove away.

Fast forward to today. I’m on a porch in rural Maine watching leaves ride a cool breeze to our lakefront lawn, and the question I can’t answer drums a persistent beat: Why?

Why Maine? Why did I even leave? Why would I sever ties with everything and everyone so good in San Diego? Why was a salary and promotion and comfortable workspace not enough? Why do I feel like a whole different person, someone alien and removed from the one who led such a great life in California? Why am I alone?

Somewhere in the chaos of leaving and the trials of traveling thousands of miles across the country, I lost sight of the reality that had pushed me out the door. Instead of recalling the ache at the center of my days and the existential weight of my routine, I romanticized that life into a montage of sunshine and smiles. I started to tell people—and really believed—that I’d been HAPPY in San Diego. In fact, I was so happy, I had to try something else. Somehow that story made sense, and I told it often.

I didn’t realize that by erasing the uglier truths of my life in California, I was heaving responsibility for my pain—which hadn’t magically dissolved the moment I left town—right onto life on the road. Every bad feeling I already had was amplified by regret and a profound sense of loss. I made the wrong choice, as I failed to connect with yet another old friend. If I’d stayed, I’d still be happy, as I cried down wooded trails. Why did I leave such a good life? as I checked dwindling bank accounts.

I’m no stranger to this particular breed of nostalgia. Nearly every relationship I’ve had has been more romantic in retrospect than it ever was at the time (with the notable exception of The Affair, which felt earth-shattering as it happened but looks pathetic and meek in the rearview mirror). I tend to hold moments and minutiae dearer than daily realities. It’s not the hours of Bernsplaining that dance through my mind (yes, I get it, HE WOULD’VE WON, of course, but could you please just take off your pants?) but those three minutes when he played the new Paramore single and danced for me. That was love, as I listen on repeat.

Nostalgia is tricky. While it’s pleasant and seductive to stroll through happy memories, to keep the best of your experiences and discard the worst, you can find yourself disconnected from past realities that got you where you are today. You’re mired in effect without clear insight into the cause. You’re adrift and so convinced your stable, structured life was everything you ever wanted, you think you must be broken to have left it.

Until writing this post, I thought I was broken.

Keeping the good is important, and I think I’ll always be inclined pluck shiny, beautiful moments from piles of gray days, to hover over pictures of a smile in Joshua Tree and wonder why I ever let her go. Held hands, not halitosis. Beaches, not traffic jams. Belly rubs, not litter boxes. I prefer my memories with a rosy tint.

Equally important, though, is keeping your reasons. You stay grounded by facing unpleasant truths that flesh out your narrative, by being honest with yourself about Before Times. Running around with delusions about the past’s perfection is how we end up with unhinged notions like making America great again, as if we should regress to some point in our history instead of striving for a better future.

Histories are lessons, not goal posts.

I may not have it all figured out, but neither did past versions of me. I hope I can remember that.

 

Are You My Self?

Are You My Self?

In 2012, fresh off a marriage that ended in an affair with a married man, out of work and out of money, deep in a torrential storm of men who ranged from unsuitable to actually despicable, consumed by vodka, powered by ramen, and spiraling before a public audience, 140 characters at a time, I started a blog called According to Others. Each entry was a comment someone had made to and about me—an unnerving mix of praise and censure.

A colossal fuckup.

More powerful than you realize.

Beautiful, astonishingly beautiful.

Perpetually aggrieved.

You carry such beauty and sharp language in your ravenous jaw. A tiger without a leash.

You have devoured me and everything I sought to protect. 

Entry upon entry of others’ feedback, impressions, and reactions to me. I hoped the collection would create some kind of whole, that the pieces would gel into a cohesive picture of who I was.

Because I was in such turmoil—and uncomfortably self-aware about that fact—I couldn’t trust my own perception. I was an unreliable narrator, and nothing the mirror or any inner monologue could tell me was sturdier, more certain, or less refutable than the observations of others. I believed they knew something I didn’t.

Somewhere along the line, I stopped relying on others’ opinions of me as gospel. (I started to notice this peculiar thing where different people had their own experiences and biases and agendas that colored their ideas of how I should be, often cramming me into empty spaces they’d carved in their own lives without much regard to whether I fit or even wanted to be there, almost as if they were deeply flawed humans who had even less idea about who I was than I did??? Weird.)

I retired the blog. I sought therapy. I tried to give many fewer fucks.

I also moved and picked up a job, hobbies, and lifestyles that offered labels and easy identity. I wasn’t no one and nothing. I was a financial writer. Comedian. Hiker. Feminist. Vegan. Podcaster. Queer. (Not that my sexuality is a “lifestyle” I “picked up,” but I did come out and start flagging pretty hard.)

Now I’ve added “nomad” to the mix, and frequent travel has made me realize how much more nebulous the concept of self is than these simple labels would suggest. While I’m still a queer-vegan-feminist-podcaster-hiker-comedian-writer wherever I go, I’m different in different places. In Minnesota, I’m neurotic. I’m hyper. I’m pure, gaping need. In San Diego, I’m relaxed. Confident. Adaptable. In Maine, I’m… well, it may be too soon to tell. Mostly, I’m obsessively checking locks and trying not to be bothered by the lamp that keeps turning itself on and off in my room. (THIS BIG COUNTRY HOUSE THAT I’M IN ALL BY MYSELF IS NOT HAUNTED AND EVERYTHING IS FINE SHHHHHHH.)

Each place conjures a different set of qualities, but each quality must be derived from the same pool. Somewhere in me these traits lurk, swirling together in a massive stew, until something reaches in and draws them out.

Mostly, I think it’s people who have this effect, and my reactions to places are reactions to the people in them. People in the Midwest fixate on social hierarchies and strive to fit you in one. People in Los Angeles fixate on ambition and wonder what they might be able to get from you. People in San Diego fixate on pleasure and want to know how much fun you are to be around. People in Maine fixate on… again, I don’t know yet because I’ve been extremely alone in this house for days with nothing but Tinder for socializing and boy, let me tell ya, Tinder in rural Maine is not the thrill ride of groovy, whipsmart sexpots you’d expect. (First housemate arrives tomorrow, praise Cheezus.)

While I know others’ opinions are not the correct place to seek your identity, when I’m alone, there’s no external reaction to throw myself against, nothing and no one to be anything for. I’m not neurotic when I’m sitting on the porch listening to rain, and I’m not charming when I’m kayaking across the lake. I’m neither kind nor cruel, generous nor selfish. I’m effectively nothing but a set of biological functions wandering around and waiting to be fed.

Yet some thread connects the vodka-ramen-fueled Minneapolis serial-dater to the kombucha-sipping San Diego hiker. Both of those people were me, and I carry their memories everywhere I go. Some kissed a tall carpenter on a bridge over the Mississippi, and that same I crunched trail mix atop El Cajon Mountain.

I feel variable, blank, and trapped all at once.

A friend recently said they wished they could travel around, too. “I think I really just want to run away from myself,” they said, and I wonder if that’s possible. In some ways, you’re you wherever you go, haunted by the same ghost-thoughts, burdened by the same past. In other ways, removing yourself from people and places that stir pain—that conjure versions of yourself you’d rather not trot before an audience—can liberate you. You can be a better, or at least alternate, version of you.

When I crossed from Michigan to Ontario on my way to Maine, my trunk once again filled with everything I own, the border guard (border crossings are my new least-favorite place, for the record) said, “You sure move a lot. Running from something?” He seemed to be joking and waved me through without a response, but my mind produced an answer anyway.

Myself.

I may never be able to escape the sting of my past and the selves who hurt, maimed, and devoured, but I can run far from the people and conditions that enabled them. Maybe someday I’ll stumble on a self that feels right, that washes out the dark corners and offers some sense of certitude. Or maybe I’ll keep running, slipping into ever-changing spaces, and carrying old ideas to new places. Maybe that’s all I can hope to do—to be.