Who are you to tell me how to keep myself afloat?
A few weeks ago I noticed my brain doing something weird. I was in Iceland at a Steed Lord show with two of my favorite Icelandic tech lady friends, and we’d had a few beers and a shot they call a “magic carpet” (Redbull and Amaretto, actually pretty good). I was in a crowded room and knew nobody, but those two, had never seen the band before, but I kept thinking that the performer’s look and everything about her was terribly derivative of Lady Gaga.
I started thinking about the fact that the people of Iceland really did not give a fuck about Lady Gaga, just like very few Americans probably knew who Steed Lord was except for maybe some of the Williamsburg types I used to order coffee from. I contemplated how where I was was as west as I would be, geographically and otherwise, for the next 10 months; that as I carried on eastward, my surroundings and cultural references would become dimmer and more removed from the reality that I’ve known my whole life.
As I surveyed the crowd of dancing bodies, singing along with lyrics that I didn’t know, my eyes caught on someone who looked like a friend of mine, tall with dark hair piled on top of her head in a loose bun. She has a face that’s unique when you’re the only half-French, half-Chinese chick in NYU, but in Iceland that kind of Bjorkish facial structure is quite common. I realized it wasn’t her in a split second, but the disappointment lingered. Because in my previous life, it could have been. Even though there are 8.2 million people in NYC, I developed patterns of behavior similar to so many of the ones I liked the best such that by the end of my time there, I ran into someone I knew almost every time I went out.
For the rest of the set, everywhere I looked I saw someone who could have been someone I knew, fully knowing that it wasn’t, that it couldn’t be. Some logical part of my brain had grasped my new-found geographical estrangement, while some mechanical pattern-abiding part couldn’t yet accept it. It was sad, exhilarating and scary all at once. Could I really last 10 months without seeing a familiar face in familiar places? I’d have to, so yes. I remembered that I went through the same thing when I first moved to New York. It took time, but gradually that strange and intimidating cesspool of human struggle and triumph transformed from an overwhelming blur into something so normal I couldn’t be bothered to look out the window of my airport cab upon returning home from a short business trip.
In that club, the reason I saw my friend in that setting is because she would be in a setting like that. Thinking about it now, the brain does this in so many ways — it looks for people and things to fill the roles we expect of them. It didn’t take too long to stop expecting to see my friends in Iceland, and to focus on meeting new people in the moment. So now I realize I have quite a bit of unraveling of expectations to do on many levels. The whole world is at my feet right now, and I can redefine my expectations of new people however I see fit. And so can anyone, no matter where they are. It’s all a matter of perspective. Because hey, I take spontaneous and sloppily planned trips to Iceland to encounter fake Lady Gagas and write about it so you don’t have to.
I leave for Iceland tomorrow. My AirBnB just fell through so I only have my first night’s stay planned out of 5 total. I guess this is where my problem-solving abilities will need to kick in. I’m not feeling super comfortable. I’m tired from sleeping in various unfamiliar (though lovely) places for the past 10 days. I feel like when I get there, I’ll be fine, but right now the prospect of the unknown is looming over me like a dark cloud. I just have to keep remembering that this is the easy part of my journey. This is touristy Iceland, not the middle of the desert or the jungle in the Central African Republic or any place high on the human suffering scale.
I’m thinking about why I’m doing this in the first place (venturing so far from home, just because), and I’ve traced it back to a conversation I once had with one a documentarian friend. I told him I had been thinking about being a foreign correspondent for a while. And he looked at me and kind of chuckled and said: “If you want to be a foreign correspondent, go somewhere foreign and correspond.”
It was such a simple statement, one of those realizations that’s just so true, but the precipitating logic that finally causes the thought to take hold is so rare. Also, I just watched Inception so now I’m thinking about all the reasons people have told me to see it over the years and am trying to remember what they were trying to tell me in telling me to watch it. I think it must be the part about the way ideas take hold once they are seeded. I tend to grab hold of good ideas and run, consequences be damned. I mean, I hope that I will continue to run to good places where I don’t have to worry about consequences.
This is the easy part. I must not fear.
I’m almost ready to emerge from my writing prison! So close, I can taste it, and it tastes like the entire jar of raw honey I ate over the past week.
In related news, I love my @LadyBits! Seriously, I’ve somehow managed to assemble the best group of writers ever. I’ve never been so all-in with a project before, and it’s awesome to see it grow.
Also related, I’m working on one of the craziest feature stories I’ve written to date. I won’t say what it’s about quite yet, but I will tell you that it’s tangentially related to this oldie but goodie: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/09/i-am-a-cyborg-and-i-want-my-google-implant-already/63806/
Soon, all will be revealed.
Growing up as an only child, I spent a lot of time alone.
I was the youngest person in my class, and therefore the last person to get my driver’s license in November of my junior year. In high school I kept a hand-written list of phone numbers tacked to my bulletin board. Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons I would go down the list, contemplating the likelihood that each number could provide an escape from my teenage prison. Methodically, I would pick up my translucent, purple cordless phone, hold my breath, and dial.
Occasionally a friend would drive over and pick me up, and we would gleefully attempt all the debauchery we could fathom (which usually amounted to no more than a car ride in search of phantom parties casually mentioned in notes passed by boys desperate to impress us). Most nights though, I would sit alone in my room with my books and my TV/VCR combo and my journals.
It was in these moments of agonizing boredom and loneliness that I began to really process the world. It was also in those times that I allowed my mind to spiral into the pits of despair, taunted by the false certainty that everybody else was out doing something exciting and I was the only girl in the world steeped in isolation. Other factors compounded what some might call “normal teen angst” and at times I resigned into pure hopelessness, unable to anticipate the freedom that I now enjoy, certain that I would be alone forever.
So I wrote, and I poured all my anger toward my oppressors, my disbelief at the lack of justice in the world, my innocent but burning desires into the blank pages that I would hide in the deepest crevices of my 100 square-foot bedroom. My mother would periodically hunt them down and read them, then use their contents as evidence for why I should sit and stew in loneliness for my own protection. “You’re your own worst enemy,” she would say. One day after I discovered this violation I burned an entire journal and buried the ashes in the backyard (since igniting any type of flame, including the stove, was an offense punishable by further imprisonment). “Never write anything you don’t want other people to read,” she would taunt me, dismissing my outrage. Even at age fifteen my insomniac habits were fully-formed and I would stay up all night writing fictional tales of the life I imagined I was supposed to be living at the moment while catering to an imaginary audience of nosy and sadistic adults.
When I left home for college at seventeen, my writing habits stayed with me. I would pour over journals with all the bottled-up intensity of a shaken jar of kombucha, reflecting on my youth and disregarding all lessons of discretion my mother had advised. The only person I cared about reading what I wrote was her because she was the only person with the ability to censor me in the pre-production phase of writing. After a few successful stints with literary pseudonyms, I finally decided to live my life as an open book (which isn’t to say that I don’t have my secrets but they’re only secrets because I haven’t gotten around to writing about them yet).
I never set out to be a writer. It’s always just been something that I’ve compulsively done. But now that I am a writer, I won’t permit those moments of torturous youth to have been in vain. Though I am now surrounded by friends who gladly remedy my slightest twinge of loneliness with the greatest of adventures, I make it a point to isolate myself every now and then, mining that past agony and tapping into it only so much as to benefit my current productivity. It’s taken a while to hone it, and I’m sure I haven’t yet completely, but I’m getting closer. I think that soon I’ll be able to control it entirely, whereas once it controlled me. It’s washing over me now, and it’s divine.
My mother always shunned the idea of having a home. “Home is where your stuff is,” she would often say when mocking my childish want to be rooted somewhere. I’ve internalized this idea throughout life, trying to not get too attached to one place. For this reason, I’ve always despised the question “Where are you from?” because it implies a sense of home or having had a home at one point. But after a few years of consciously peeling off all the warped layers of perception from my upbringing, I’m getting a little more comfortable answering this question. If there was a place I’d call “home” irrelevant of the presence of any personal belongings, it would be Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’m from Ann Arbor.
I’m here now, and I am content. Happy, even.
Upon arriving in Detroit today, I was picked up from the airport by an old college friend and promptly whisked to Ann Arbor. Matt lived across the hall from me in the dorm freshman year and burned me a Postal Service CD the first week of school. I took him to lunch to thank him before he dropped me at my residence for the next few weeks. I suggested Zingerman’s, the deli that townies are tempted to describe as “overrated” but never do because it really is that good.
While in the grocery part of the deli, I was overrun with the impulse to acquire local honey. It’s something my health-conscious friends in Brooklyn would always suggest, as I am prone to allergies and local honey is rumored to soothe them. But I never went out of my way to get it. It’s not just that I was skeptical about the medicinal claim, but the thought of consuming a biological biproduct of New York City bees made me frown. New York, I love you, but you’re pretty gross sometimes.
Being back amidst the rolling green hills of Ann Arbor felt like a bear hug, but I wanted more. I wanted it in my veins, internalized. So I bought a $15 jar of local honey, provided by the bees of Petoskey wild flower fields. Matt delivered me to my residence for the next two weeks, a townhouse of literary solitude belonging to a dear family friend who so generously offered this haven to me out of the blue. After 10 minutes of sitting and just staring out the window into the yard, watching the little sparrow that landed on the railing of the back stairs, I went into the kitchen and scooped a huge spoonful of local honey.
It hit my mouth like a silver-screen flashback:
I was 4 years old, outside during recess at Perry Nursery School, reaching my little arms through a chain-link fence, reaching as far as I could toward the periphery of the sprawling wildflower field on the other side, trying to grasp all the purple flowers I could. There were Queen Ann’s Lace stalks and Black-Eyed Susans too, but they were prevalent on my side of the fence as well. I needed those purple ones to complete my collection, if I could only reach a little further… It was so vivid a memory for an event that occurred 22 years ago. The taste became the intoxicating smell of being there in that moment of childlike determination, totally free.
Being here in this place is exactly what I need right now. Stability, solitude, comfort before I slingshot myself around the globe. Everything is quaint. There is a vegetable garden and a footbridge over a creek in the back yard. Everything inside the house is set up for all the things I might want to do. There’s an exercise ball, and a glass desk with a touch-sensitive lamp; half a bottle of wine, and a robe hanging in the closet with a bird embroidered into the back. Every cleaning product smells of “soothing lavender” and on the bathroom counter is a towel folded and laid out just for me.
I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around the fact that this loveliness is my present life, but I am so, so grateful to be here. It feels like home.
My mother was a true nomad. She could never stay in one place for very long, and it forced me to learn to quickly adapt to new environments. I find myself drawn to other adapters. In New York I would sometimes wind up in a small group of virtual strangers, having the best conversation ever into the wee hours of the night, and someone would casually mention that “…because I moved around a lot as a kid…” Then someone else would chime in “no way, I moved around a lot as a kid too,” and before we knew it the whole group would realize that we were all nomad progeny.