I know I’m in for some kind of life reckoning every time I turn to Wild. It’s my favourite book, one of my favourite movies, and Cheryl Strayed is one of my favourite authors. She’s honest, she’s straightforward, and she creates a space that’s as terrifying as it is warm and safe, because that’s the way life tends to work. Scary as hell! Also: the fucking best!
There is nothing more exhilarating than deciding to change the way you live. Working up to that point is tedious and painful and messy, but once you’re there, it’s like a straight shot of enlightenment where for the first time in as long as you can remember, you can see things clearly. “I need to change my life!” is what you realize and think, basking in the glow of revelations and progress. It’s amazing to identify that who you are and what you’ve been doing haven’t been working, and then more amazing still when you make the declaration: I’m not going to do it anymore.
Earlier this summer, I announced plans to break up with hustle culture. I hated it! I’d hated it for a very long time! And as real life began to eclipse the types of lives we were claiming to live on social media, I finally felt ready to embrace my unhappiness. I didn’t want to define myself by how busy I was anymore. I didn’t want to have to do a million things to feel relevant. (Relevant to WHOM, even?) I was tired of spreading myself so thin to prove how hard-working and-boss like I was. My dreams got smaller. I just wanted to live, you know?
And man, the rest of the summer felt amazing after that. I worked enough to pay my bills, but thanks to the combustable industry that is, well, most industries right now, I chose to pack up my apartment and move back home where I’d basically been living since March, anyway. (And even for a pretty long period before that. I like my family! What do you people want?) It made me sad to say goodbye to what had symbolized independence and “successful” adulthood (ew), but it made me feel better to know that now I could hunker down at the homestead, contribute when they needed me to, and spend time with my mom and dad. It’s a pandemic, you know? I just want to hang with people who love me.
But then I turned 35. And then September started. And then my delusion that pumpkin spice latte season (JK JK) might dull the sting of watching the wee baby children on my street head off to school with masks and face shields began to crumble. (FYI I love masks and face shields! BE SAFE, EVERYONE. Wear a million! Please! I beg you! But man, how much does it suck to watch them in practice, particularly on children who don’t get to have the same kind of kindergarten memories we did? Those tiny sizes! WE LIVE IN HELL.) And then my belief that recognizing I needed to change my shit was as good as actually changing it began to melt. And the novelty of thinking being around family would squash the questions I had about my future disappeared. And then the only thing left was me and the awareness that I actually had to do something. Which, I would like to state, is one of the loneliest feelings in the world.
I bought into the myth that you are what you do in a way that I now know was super unhealthy. And unhealthier still was the way I tried to dodge that feeling: through more and more work. I told myself that I wanted to be “successful” which obviously meant “recognized for my work in a way that I hoped would emotionally and mentally fulfill me” (guess what: that shit doesn’t happen!!!) and I pictured a big (BIG!!!) life for myself. One that was busy and glamorous and full of awards and accolades, which I claimed didn’t really matter but totally did because dreams tend to develop lives of their own when they become defined by the way you want other people see you, not the way you see the world or yourself. This was who I WAS, goddamn it. It’s what I used to deflect questions about my personal life (saying “I’m so busy!” is a great way to answer questions like, “Are you seeing anymore?” when the real answer is “I’ve made terrible dating choices through most of adulthood, and now I finally refuse to settle for any man that doesn’t make me feel fucking fantastic, but this question makes me feel vulnerable so let’s just push past it”) or to make myself feel like I could compare to pals who were married with kids, when I was actually building an army of neighbourhood cats. It was battle armour, baby, and I poured myself in and took on its shape and then BECAME it. I was what I did. And that shit feels terrible.
Especially when a big part of your life revelation is “Oh! I need to change!” followed by “Oh my God, how do I change?” Last night, I was talking to my mom and very dramatically laid down next to the cat on her bed and announced, “I don’t know who I am anymore!” Which, for the record, feels exactly as overdramatic as it reads. But it’s true: without identifying myself 100% as a writer or some busy tornado-person, I have to trust that the person I am without the shield of my career is enough. I have to trust that wanting a small life is okay. I have to believe that it’s possible to help people and to try and make a difference in my tiny corner of this realm is something I can do. I have to identify the performative aspects of my personality and differentiate between the high of making people feel less alone or making them laugh (such a fantastic high! I LOVE DOING THESE THINGS) and putting my life on display to make it seem like I’m more interesting than I actually am so that I’m not forgotten. I have to trust that if I actually incite the changes that I want to make (write because I love to! stand by my small-ass life! realize that real friends love you for you, not for what you can do for them!) I will still be me.
Because, the truth is, I like this me. She’s tired and scared and sad (these are the default emotions for 2020, AND YET WE KEEP GOING GODDAMN IT, SO HELP ME GOD, KEEP GOING) and currently sitting on a lounger outside with one of the neighbourhood cats, swatting away wasps, but she’s pretty okay. At her core, I’d say she’s fine.
But that doesn’t mean I have any idea what rebuilding myself actually looks like. Jesus Christ. Here’s what I know: I do love to write, as evidenced by me willingly writing this newsletter on a day where I don’t have any real writing to do. I love to read! I love to think and to learn. (Hello, I am again a part-time student at Wilfrid Laurier, how are you?) I love to make people feel less alone. I love to make people laugh. I love my family. I love the way my room looks right now. I love trying to help where help is needed. I love using the platform I have to elevate people who deserve platforms 25295825 x bigger than mine. I love that the neighbourhood cats genuinely like me (Fran and Beautiful Screaming Lady, both of which I’ve named). I love my friends! What this means for the future? I haven’t a clue. Therein lies the work. TBH, I hate the work. I would just like someone to come along and say, “HERE is where you will be in a few years. THIS is the person you are going to be. BEHOLD: your small, shitty, wonderful life! Own it! Stake your claim, you beautiful bitch!”
Alas, no. Instead I will have to re-learn to interpret gut feelings. Start asking myself why I’m making the choices I am. Be kind to myself. Be gentle. Accept that part of this whole “I gotta change my shit, y’all!” process is accepting that I’ve become more emotional, a little softer, more empathetic, more willing to reconnect and accept apologies and/or acknowledgements of things having gotten weird due to misunderstandings, etc. Less judgemental of the certain (CERTAIN!!!) choices of people who are not me. Open the door to the possibility that beyond it is a giant question mark. Accept that I am not what I do. That I never was. That I don’t want to be. Let go a little bit and walk unafraid. You know, like in Wild.