What I Learned While I Was Gone

Sign found on a hike this fall.
Sign found on a hike this fall.

I packed up my apartment in May. I packed hastily: clothes wrapped around dishes, pens and CDs mingling with spoons and forks, Christmas lights and candles and pillowcases all tossed into a reusable grocery bag tied off at the top. When you pack up as frequently as me, you know exactly how much stuff you have. I have two skateboards, 86 records, 12 DVDs, 209 books, 8 skeins of yarn, four decks of cards, 11 N64 games—I packed it all into boxes and reusable grocery bags.

Every May, I pack up my home. I get a storage unit twenty miles to the north because I never remember to get one before all the students take them here in town. I plan to leave early so I can get into Kansas City with time to enjoy the town, but end up packing until the last minute and leave in the afternoon. I get into Kansas City after midnight, rocking back and forth in the driver’s seat to keep myself awake while sleepily singing along to whatever musical theater soundtrack I grabbed off my shelf. I sleep for a few hours and drive through Kansas in the morning. I get so sick of the soundtrack by lunch that I toss it out at a gas station in west Kansas (this is how I lost the copy of the Rent soundtrack I had signed by Anthony Rapp, rest in peace dear compact disc). I arrive in New Mexico and I go to the mountains. I go to the mountains and I don’t come back until August.

This year was different. This year I got a storage unit in town. I woke up early and grabbed Hamilton. I got into Kansas City at 6pm and ate real food, not whatever you call those gas station sausages that sit on the rollers all day. I slept for eight hours and got to New Mexico with enough time to visit friends. I went to the mountains and I didn’t come back until November. (P.S. – I still have my copy of the Hamilton soundtrack. Now to get it signed by Anthony Rapp…)

I graduated college in May, a seven-year journey with odds stacked heavily against me. Unfettered by my university schedule, regular employment, or serious relationships in Bloomington, I decided to do some soul-searching in the wilderness. That’s what I do for a few months every summer: soul-searching under the guise of employment at a youth wilderness leadership experience base. One year it was teaching astronomy, another it was playing music, then it was giving tours of an abandoned mine, and this year I directed a living history musical program—my resumé is complicated. The work I do is difficult to describe to people who haven’t experienced the place, but I’ll try. I hike long distances at 9,000 ft elevation to stand on a cliff and look at trees, often alone. I climb mountains and poop on the ground and drink water from streams (away from the poop). I teach high school kids how to be independent and self-sufficient, and they teach me things like how to do the whip and nae-nae (at least, they try). The summer is filled with priceless friendships and wonderful accomplishments, and the smiles of my kids are the fruits of my labor.

This year I watched all those friends and kids leave and I stayed for the fall season. The fall is different. The fall is cold, and there are no kids. I did what I was told. I hiked where I was told. There were no exceptions. It got dark early and I spent a lot of time sleeping. I didn’t have friends, I didn’t fit in with my coworkers—that happens, I turned my energy inward and continued soul-searching, albeit much more self-consciously.

At the end of the fall, I went back to Indiana because that’s the only place I know to go to. Two cars, two cats, six planes, 12,000 driving miles, and eight months later, here I am. Back in Indiana, looking for work, planning the Next Big One.

I’ve had a lot of time for soul-searching since May—there was a lot of alone time that was well suited for introspection and extrospection alike. I learned some things I’d like to share.

1. Happiness is made, not found.

Take it from someone who has bolted every time life flashes the slightest sight of bad news: you can’t run from unhappiness. After a bad relationship ended in 2012, I sold everything I owned and moved to a goat farm in northern California to live what I thought was my lifelong dream. It was warm, we were by the ocean, and there were goats—what more could a girl want? Turns out, it didn’t solve my problems. Why? Because I still had a bad work ethic, I still hated myself, I still had unresolved traumas, and no one was going to drive out to the goat farm to hand me the key to success on a silver platter. You can’t run from happiness, you can’t run to happiness. You won’t find the answers to your problems on the interstate, just like you won’t find them on a goat farm. I’ve been unhappy in 46 different states and never once thought to stop and consider the common denominator: me.

That is, until this fall. I realized that I’d been happy, I don’t know for how long, but the idea was frightening and confusing to me. I don’t know how to be happy! Yet, there I was, happy (I think). When the cold loneliness of autumn set in, I felt this eerie familiar feeling, like walking through a house I used to live in after someone else had moved in. I felt like I should be sad, but I didn’t want to be. My brain argued with my heart: “but you’re so alone! You’re so poor! It’s so cold! Trump is president! There’s no reason to be happy!” But I didn’t cave. I stayed content and made my own happiness, because I could. I realized then that, to some extent, unhappiness is also made and not found. The problems that caused my unhappiness, and my penchant for behaving like a textbook chapter on risk factors for suicide, were under control and I was living healthily and I was not unhappy. That doesn’t mean I had a blast, but hey, I didn’t die.

I know a lot of people who are still running, either toward an unknown happiness or from an unconfrontable unhappiness. I’m not running anymore, and I’m glad I stopped.

2. Community is made, not found, and it’s important.

I spent a lot of time traveling. I had a few periods of time off during my six-month employment, and did a lot of traveling in the two months post-employment. I went to Atlanta to help my mom find a new library, a new church, and a new coffee shop near her house. She’d just moved from Chicago, where she’d lived for the previous 57 years. I went to New York to see Hamilton and also saw friends, Josh Groban, and the Statue of Liberty. I went to San Diego (twice) and watched groups of surfers chat around mini-grills on the side of the 101. In between, I hung out with people on my delayed connecting flight in the Minneapolis airport. I taught a young girl how to play two chords on my mandolin in the Denver airport. I went to a super-cheesy tourist trap in Winslow, Arizona (take a guess) and took pictures of couples decked out in Harley Davidson gear. I went to a McDonald’s in every town and sat for a while, listening, just like Chris Arnade said to do. I learned that these small and sometimes temporary ad-hoc communities are the backbone of American society.

I spent most of my life thinking I was alone, friendless, unjustly disliked, thinking I just needed to keep traveling, keep moving, keep looking for the right people and the right place. This is, of course, insane. This is a function of a narrative I fed myself to externalize my self-abandonment and self-hatred. The same kind of people are everywhere, it’s just a matter of a shift in specific outlets for common interest and a shift in specific habits. Everywhere I went this year had the same kinds of people. Rural New Mexico has the same kinds of people as Los Angeles and San Diego and New York City and the suburban Chicago neighborhood I grew up in: families, people navigating office politics, people buying leeks and potatoes and onions and lunchbox baby carrots, people who do silly things with their friend groups, people who like to have Sunday football potlucks and who gather at the pub to watch the World Series. By abandoning the lie that I wasn’t worth spending time with, I’ve been able to find a temporary community everywhere I go.

It took a lot of painful soul-searching to discover that I was sabotaging my friendships and communities. I was over-committing then stressing out and taking it out on those around me. There are beautiful wonderful people who I’ve completely burned bridges with because I resented them for something I couldn’t control or because I wasn’t willing/able to keep up my end of the bargain. When I left the church in 2009, I lost the greatest and safest community I’ve ever known. Without a community behind me, I’ve been floundering since then. After my alone-time this fall, I’m invigorated to get involved in my community and surround myself with it and do a trust fall into it. It takes work to stay involved and stay interested, but eventually it comes naturally. I’m ready.

3. Never be too polite to accept an offer of kindness.

I was raised in a painfully midwestern household. I learned at a young age the complicated social mechanics that lead to coming to blows over who pays the check at an extended family dine-out event. I learned how to insult an ungrateful houseguest with the quality of my mac-n-cheese casserole (use panko instead of crumbled croutons). I learned to take my shoes off every time I entered a household—this is not a barn and I’m not an animal! Most importantly I learned that, under no circumstances, am I to take anything offered to me by a host, except maybe water if I know the person really well. Likewise, under no circumstances am I to fail to offer everything short of the sole benefits of my living will to any guest that walks through my door.

You see what I’m getting at. Welcome to the pain, stress, and confusion of being from the Chicago area. There’s a club for this, we meet two or three times a week in the warm season, at Guaranteed Rate Field on 35th street.

This behavior is something I had to grow out of very quickly while traveling. When I first started traveling as a lifestyle, I was couchsurfing. People let me stay in their home…for free! I brought food, or wine, or beer, or all three, and when I left I neatly folded my dirty sheets and towels (if I allowed them to give me towels (I’ve taken many showers using a sweatshirt to dry myself)) at the end of my bed. I went through my adult life for years not knowing that my aggressive politeness was…impolite.

Until Erin. Erin was a close friend who had me over for dinner every Sunday with her family. I went, I drank water, I ate modestly, and I aggressively attempted to do dishes in spite of her best efforts to keep me away. One night, she’d had enough. “Can’t I just do something nice for you, without you feeling guilty? Sometimes it’s polite to just take what you’re offered!” This was a major event for me. Now, when someone offers something, I take it. I’m not afraid, because this is part of the trust of friendship. You’ll make you a mimosa today, and I’ll hold your hair back while you’re barfing in the bush next to the Rally’s drive-through on New Year’s Eve. That’s just how it goes. Me saying yes has made people happy, given me opportunities, and pissed off no one. And thus, my Midwestern sensibilities are satisfied.

Part of accepting offers of kindness is letting go of the notion that I’m not worthy, I’m not good enough, I don’t deserve it. We all know that’s bullshit, and it’s a deep dark spiral of pain. Accepting offers makes other people feel like they’re doing something good, and it forces me to accept that I’m worthy, I’m good enough, and someone thinks I deserve it. So that’s cool.

I was able to put this into practice pretty regularly this fall, for the first time since opening my eyes to it. I can say this: it’s a good thing.

4. Don’t be afraid to fail.

A few years ago I tried something out: a friend told me the best way to show someone you admire that you admire them is to simply tell them, unconditionally. Sometime later, I was at a concert (okay, it was the Mountain Goats) and I stood in line at the merch table to talk to the lead singer afterword. People were handing him CDs and shirts and tickets to sign, and he was doing it politely, smiling with the gratitude of a singer-songwriter who makes all his money on tours and merch, and moving on to the next person, completely forgetting about the previous interaction (seemingly, but who am I to personify John Darnielle (actually…)). I wanted to stand out, not for me, but because I really loved him, his music had really touched me, and it was really important to me. I put my phone away, put my CD away, and when I walked up to the table I said “thank you”. I said I loved him, and the music had touched me, and it was important to me, and I thanked him. He hugged me fiercely and thanked me back. After a brief conversation about a shared trauma, he smiled with the gratitude of a singer-songwriter who makes all his money on tours and merch, and we both moved on. We became Twitter acquaintances and share a special smile at shows and I think he remembers me. If he doesn’t, I still think I did the right thing.

Since then, I’ve never been afraid to ask for something, as long as it’s coming from a genuine place. It’s extremely important to be genuine. I asked my employer, off the cuff, for a rare job opportunity and I got it. I wrote the president letters about my post-college anxiety and I got a letter back. Last year I went to LA and asked some comedians I like if they wanted to meet up—they did, and I made some friends. It’s as simple as asking, and part of that is owning failure, accepting failure, and telling failure to go fuck itself.

As many times as me asking for something has been successful, asking has also been unsuccessful. Those opportunities are dust in the wind, and who cares. I’ve made mistakes, too: the goat farm, the trip to San Diego where I blew through my savings, the time I took drugs at a frat party. We all make mistakes, we all fail, but taking that lesson and relaying it into further success is a skill that has to be learned and practiced, and it’s so integral to succeeding.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted one thing—to entertain people. I’ve wanted it so bad I think about it every day. Now I’m 25 and I’m not doing that, I’m a college graduate eating tortilla chips on her couch and who’s also been too afraid to pursue her dreams for too long. No longer. This fall I thought about what I’m still afraid to ask for, what I’m afraid to fail at. Of course, it’s the thing I want the most. Too afraid to fail to even try…what’s the sense in that?

5. I still have no idea who I am, what I want, or what my life should be.

I have a vague idea of what I want to do next. I want to move somewhere warm, write, and act. I don’t know if I want to do it forever, or if I can do it at all. I don’t know if it’s the “right” choice, but it’s what I want to do. It’s what I feel in my heart is the right step. I hope I’m making the right decision, I hope I’m not missing out on a better life as a pharmaceutical rep. I hope I don’t end up in my 50s with no savings and no plan for retirement, and I don’t know if that’s worse than looking back and wondering “what if…” after a life of pursuing security instead of dreams. Ideally, I’d be able to pursue both. We’ll see if that’s the case.

Here’s to owning failures, saying yes, finding a supportive community and (god willing) happiness.