A trip back in time

In May 2008, I put my furniture on a moving truck, loaded everything else in my car, hugged some friends goodbye, and drove from Atlanta to Maryland. It was two weeks after I graduated from college.

I followed a guy there. Of course I did! I was as directionless as ever, fiercely un-independent, basing all my decisions on stupid things and other people’s opinions.

He and I had been on-again-off-again for a couple years, and everyone said I could do better but I didn’t believe them. And I mean that. When you hate yourself like I hated myself, you flail blindly, holding onto what seems attainable and rejecting what sounds too good to be true.

In Maryland, we lived in a town called Frederick. It had a lovely downtown, historic and populated with an odd mixture of what I would classify as people whose families had probably lived in the hills and mountains of Appalachia forever and people who were early versions of hipsters.

But we didn’t live downtown and we rarely went downtown. We lived in the sprawl of strip malls and apartment complexes that surrounded it, and our apartment complex was a particularly unappealing breed, situated behind an abandoned mall, save for a department store I’d never heard of. That town would become my home but that summer I felt adrift and utterly alone.

I remember crying in the empty apartment while he was at work and I did part-time jobs from home before I started the teaching certification post-bac at the local college. I cried because I didn’t know how I’d ended up in a state I knew nothing about with a guy I didn’t see a future with about to go into a career that had always been Plan B.

I only stayed in that apartment for about seven months.

I next lived in the spare bedroom of a young married couple’s condo. They were attractive Maryland grads, chipper and energetic in demeanor, polished and disciplined in routines. They asked me to leave after six months when they decided to have a baby and needed my room for a nursery. I associate that bedroom with a feeling of necessary numbness, the way you need to dull pain to survive past it. I was really alone at this point.

I then lived in a one-story ranch-style house up by the college, one occupant of maybe five, though I’m not sure who all paid rent at that house. It was a group house, mostly community college students, and the weeknight parties lasted until I woke up at 5 am for my teaching internship. The carpet in my bedroom was blue, and the wood-paneled walls of the den next to my bedroom were covered by iridescent posters depicting fairies having sex. I stayed there six months.

After that, I needed to be more in control of my living situation. It seemed likely I would stay in Frederick and be a high school teacher. I was on this path and was being propelled forward by inertia I didn’t understand. My coursework and internship were coming to an end and it was perhaps time to play at being an adult, whatever that meant. Although the chaos and loneliness of living in the group house had pushed me to get back together with my ex, if only to have his clean apartment to escape to, once I had a quiet, clean apartment of my own, with a roommate of my choosing, and I had met someone nice in my new teaching job, I left the ex for good in 2010.

I stayed in that two-bedroom apartment for one year. My roommate and I were friendly, and our dogs got along. She paid bills on time. But the group of friends that I’d been adopted into lived downtown, and we went out downtown, and I was tired of parking downtown and driving back to my apartment after having a few drinks and worrying I’d get pulled over and lose my teaching job. There was a big snowstorm that winter that got school canceled for two weeks, and I remember being stranded at my new boyfriend’s apartment downtown and he asked me what I wanted on my pizza, and it seemed like the first time someone had asked me that. Whenever I think of that winter, I hear the song “Roslyn” by Bon Iver and St. Vincent playing in my mind.

The last place I lived in Frederick was the second floor of of a white clapboard house with black shutters that had been converted into apartments. All by myself. I had a bedroom, a kitchen, a living room, a bathroom, and a small closet all to myself. It was a short commute to work and even closer to be out with my friends.

That house meant a lot to me. It was a symbol of something, but I can’t say of what.

When I left that house, it was for Arlington and Georgetown, and now that I live in North Carolina, Georgetown is the last place that exists in my memory, and the emotions and rationales for what happened in Frederick become murkier with every passing year. I left for Arlington in August 2012, four years and three months after I’d arrived in Frederick. It’s still the longest I’ve lived anywhere besides my hometown.

Some veil of mystery still hangs around Frederick for me. I was 22 when I arrived and nearly 27 when I left. The things that change in us, the turbulence we undergo, in those years is astonishing in its breadth and depth. In my mind now, I was a child then. I’ve talked to countless other people about their “roaring twenties” and I never once considered the place where I spent mine might have had such a significant impact on me.

I was back in Frederick this weekend. I saw it through my current partner’s eyes– objective and unfamiliar–which I think helped clear away some of my fog, which is why I’m now writing about it on here. In her book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Kate Bolick has this wonderful sentence on page 45: “How do you embark on your adulthood when you don’t know where you’re headed?”

And it’s true. How do you? And my further question is how does anyone figure out where they’re headed? I realized in Frederick this weekend that I didn’t really feel like an adult until sometime this year. I just turned 32 but I don’t think age has anything to do with it. For me, I think it has something to do with feeling like I know where I am headed and starting to figure out who I am. No, who I am really; not, you know, all the interpellations and social constructs. There’s no more blind flailing and hoping something sticks. It has to do with the fact that I don’t hate myself anymore, that I know what I like and don’t like, and that I no longer evade the daily experience of living.

This blog stands as evidence of the process of how I got here. And Frederick was an important stopover on the journey.

The town and its inhabitants are very dear to me. I was extraordinarily depressed for a great deal of my time there, and yet I belonged to a social network of people unlike any I’ve had since, and larger, who still invited me out and sat with me. They were supportive and kind, and they never abandoned me, no matter how grisly my sadness became. A warm glow of nostalgia will forever surround my twenties in that town. I drank so much and was brutally unhappy, but I also laughed a lot and felt safe in my confusion, and I suppose that’s the way it goes when one doesn’t know where one is headed. It was the best of stopovers. This weekend, I had a visceral urge to rewind time and go back, just to remember the glow of being so young and having such myopic vision.

I knew I had to leave because a plan started to take shape, a vision of where I might be headed. And last year, I knew something more had to change because I had got as far as the vision had extended and I felt the nagging sense that something was wrong. And that’s when I started this blog.

This passage in Marion Milner’s A Life of One’s Own (you see the pattern) perfectly describes what happened to me in the time between leaving Frederick, starting this blog, and widening my vision:

All I can see as I look back is a picture of myself going about my daily affairs in a half-dream state, sometimes discontented but never trying to find out why, vaguely ‘making the best of things,’ rarely looking ahead except casually, almost as a game dreaming of what I would like to happen, but never seriously thinking how I could set about to make it happen. Usually I lived with a general feeling that all would work out for the best, but this would be broken by occasional outbursts of misery in which I felt quite definitely that everything was hateful. These moments never lasted very long. Usually after a night’s rest I would be back again in my vague optimism, never considering that my life was my own to live, that if I did not manage it as I wanted it no one else would. Into this smooth surface of taking things for granted there began to emerge an awareness of certain mental discomforts which up till then I had not known, only suffered.

And later, she writes, “I had opened my eyes to the fact that my life was not as I would like. But what was I to do about it?…If my life was not satisfactory as it was, in what way was I to change it? By what standard was I to guide it?”

In my case, I knew simply changing what I had for breakfast would be too little. But I also knew dropping everything and moving to Portland was too grand.

Milner recognized a few things about herself:  the things she seemed to be aiming at were “being good at one’s job, pleasing people, being popular, not missing things, doing what’s expected of one, not letting people down, helping people, being happy.” My list was identical.

Milner also realized she was “drifting without rudder or compass, swept in all directions by influence from custom, tradition, fashion, swayed by standards uncritically accepted from my friends, my family, my countrymen, my ancestors.” And she asks, “Were these reliable guides for one’s life?…But what else was there? If I was neither to do simply what other people did, nor just what was expected of me, what guide was there?”

I asked the same question, and she and I came to the same answer. It’s intuition. Well, a healthy mix of intuition and reason. And if we shut up and off, it’s there, quietly whispering. But it can be frustrating because the intuition doesn’t say, “Do this and everything will be fine.” It says something more like, “Try this on for size.” The more you use intuition to find out what it is you really want and like and value, the better it gets at mapping and the less you have to try several things. But the nice thing is that the intuition also tells you if something doesn’t work, there’s a reason and a better option.

I told my therapist last week that one of my greatest fears that lingers from childhood is being perceived a selfish. She made me define it. I don’t want people to think I think only of myself, that I don’t consider other people’s needs. So a great portion of my life’s decisions can be traced to my desire (read: overlaying my fear) to make someone else happy, to not offend. If that was at the expense of my own comfort and well-being, so be it. And that’s how I found myself in so many strange situations, wondering what it is I actually do like and want.

It’s why I had to untangle from the whole damn mess, and come face to face with this fear that someone somewhere might think I’m being selfish. But you look at people who are satisfied with their lives, who feel fulfilled and content, and they did this. They figured out what they wanted and they made a plan to get it and they are consistent. And no one thinks they’re selfish.

My therapist says, “Why don’t you take up space? Why don’t you stomp around? Why don’t you ask for what you want?” What she means is why don’t I just be myself. I’ve been a tip-toer, a whisperer, gliding through rooms along the walls, smiling and nodding, staying silent. And since that I’ve spent the last year figuring out what I want and like, now I’m trying to figure out how to do it in relationships with other humans, some of whom have figured out what they want and like and others who haven’t.

Milner writes, “For the things I was prompted to keep silent about were nearly always the things I was ashamed of…” Which is precisely why I had to start this blog a year ago. These entries are what I have been ashamed of. That it took me this long to figure out. That I was 31 years old before I decided I wanted to find out what I like and value.

But Milner also says, “For what is really easy, as I found, is to blind one’s eyes to what one really likes, to drift into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people, and to evade the continual day to day sifting of values. And finally, let no one undertake such an experiment who is not prepared to find himself more of a fool than he thought.”

And she is right. Your discomfort might stem from evasion. I had to put these thoughts out in the world because I wanted others to know it took me this long but it’s never too late for anyone to wake up to your own life. You do have to be ready to see how foolish you’ve been at times. But then you can delight in the lessons. And you can forgive yourself.

In Frederick this weekend, my partner could offer objective observations. But he could not see or feel who I was when I lived there, how lost I was, and how that town and its people cradled me until I was ready to ask for something I wanted. Only I could remember that. And I was so grateful.

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