“How’s the nomadic life going? It looks pretty great from the outside.”
It is, I agreed, about 80 percent of the time. The parts that look great, are. I love waking up in different beach towns, connecting and reconnecting with friends all over California, speaking at meetings where a presentation may result in actual, measurable change for the better – or a least defense against further harm. Can you imagine? Who gets to feel all this so regularly? I work among brilliant, passionate colleagues who treat me like I belong. I hang out with similarly brilliant and passionate people who don’t even do this for a living – they volunteer their minds, hearts, bodies because they care and believe in doing the right thing, in making that tangible difference. In between all this is surfing, hiking, eating tacos, taking photos. I may fall to the ground and weep with gratitude at any given moment. I am never not appreciative for where I have landed in life.
But that other 20 percent – shadows linger. Traces of childhood resentment, adult anger, a grief that not even the brightest moments can wholly chase away. Some of what keeps me awake at night is reasonable – the state of our country, my children’s futures, staying close to my husband when we’re so often far apart, the water that’s been trapped in my ears for months now, the endless parking tickets I need to pay. True, nighttime tends to amplify reasonable worries into obsessive ones – but I’m far from alone in that.
Still, knowing you’re not alone only goes so far. Loneliness can still settle into you. In fact, being lonely, it turns out, has little to do with being alone. I am solo and happy, often. Then there are the other times.
For example, after three confidence-boosting days of good surf at a home break, I paddled out at a less familiar place near where a work trip had landed me. Confidence accompanied every stroke. Sunshine glittered off glassy Central Coast peaks. Happy and emboldened, I took off on a wave later than usual. I’d thought my mental game was the only thing keeping me from making late drops, but turns out my knees have something to say as well. Stiff from driving and sitting in a meeting all day, the mental image I’d channeled of a sweet ride tucked against the face of a fast left gave way to the reality of my board’s nose slipping underwater and my own face slamming temple-to-jaw into the rail of my board.
It really hurt.
I mean, wow, did it hurt.
Like, I wanted to cry, it hurt so badly. (I did cry.)
I touched my head to find a goose-egg-sized lump had already emerged. This, as waves continued to crash against me in the impact zone. Dizzy, I stumbled through the water toward shore, kelp clinging to my leash, better surfers happily enjoying an epic day behind me.
I don’t know which was more injured, my head or my pride.
Memories of every kook-like experience I’ve ever had flooded my brain. Which, I considered, may have been concussed. Certainly my morale had taken a hit. What was wrong with me that I didn’t even have a friend to take care of me in this time of need? I did not shout, “WOE! Woe is me!” out loud, but self-loathing and self-pity definitely accompanied me to the car, where I didn’t have the stomach to pull off my wetsuit and so drove back to the hotel still in neoprene, bawling at Siri to look up “symptoms of concussion.” I parked, fearing someone would see me weep and fall to the ground not in gratitude this time, but in pain and embarrassment. Luck had decided to return, however, and ushered me to safety.
A few minutes in, a colleague texted that she was unlikely to go to dinner, that she had too much work to do. “Understandable,” I responded. “I think I’ll stay in, too. Had a bit of a wipeout, smashed my head into my board, not feeling great.” My pathetic cry for help was answered with immediate concern and – critically – Advil and an ice pack. I was not alone after all. And when I told her how incredibly stupid I felt for falling, she looked at me like I was a crazy person – “Are you sure you don’t need to go to the hospital?” – and waved that sentiment off like one would a fly. “Don’t worry about that.”
Truth be told, I did feel a little crazy, stunned not so much by the blow – I was confident I did not have a concussion at this point – but that someone would have immediate and focused concern for me. For me! It’s not that I feel unloved – I’ve too many dear friends and a husband for that – it’s just I’m so used to being the person who takes care of me that when someone else takes the job in hand, it nearly undoes me. Which speaks to, maybe, having had parents who stepped away, or of owning a brain in which certain patterns exist inherently. Researchers and artists alike have made careers out of trying to answer the question of why we long for what we long for.
The day after the wipeout, I parted my hair more toward the middle to hide the bump on my head, smudged makeup over the forthcoming black eye. Spoke in public like nothing had happened. Rolled my eyes when I did tell the story like I found it hilarious.
Several days later, I explained to a friend why it hurt to eat, that my jaw ached when I tried to take a normal-sized bite. I held her hand and ran it along my temple to feel what swelling remained. The bruising on my face had reduced to shadows, nearly unnoticeable unless you knew to look closely.
This same friend lost her mind when I mentioned I’d picked up hitchhikers along the way to our lunch date. I don’t normally, I defended myself, but they were right there! At my stop sign! Young! Like my own kids! With accents! Which kind of made me feel worse – what kind of person am I that I’ll allow young men with open smiles into my car, but pass up the clearly ill and aging lest they dirty this vehicle I’m still making payments on? “Don’t worry about that,” my friend said. “Worry about getting shot.”
She wasn’t being paranoid. She’d lost someone who’d stopped to help some fellow humans stuck on the side of the road.
Meanwhile, the days snowballed in the usual combination of work-family-friends and because life is what it is, that included finding myself keeping my son company at St. Joe’s ER because he was throwing up and when you have Type 1 diabetes, you go to the ER when you’re sick because it could mess you up in ways “normal” people don’t have to worry about. I stayed until 2 a.m., was so wrecked the following morning, that I did a thing I don’t usually do, which was to take a sick day in response.
It was the honest thing to do. My ability to work was clearly compromised. But still – I’m the person who has answered emails from hospital bedsides for decades. Who can bring home the bacon (technically, seitan) and fry it up in a pan and never, never let you forget that I will show up at work under any and all circumstances prepared to meet deadlines and kick ass along the way.
Did I mention the amazing thing that happened? That an exceptionally kind person sent me a note praising my work, sympathizing with my recent financial outlays and enclosing a check as a thank you for my efforts to do good in the world?
I fall to my knees in gratitude.
The 20 percent that is hard feels so hard. I give money to Planned Parenthood, to those who defend DACA recipients, to Puerto Rico. I can’t keep up with the causes. I speak to a class of aspiring journalists and the most optimistic thing I tell them is that we try really hard, we can probably eke out 50 maybe okay years before climate change destroys us all.
I think I am the worst – and then find myself fending off some random dude on the street who has decided he wants to date me. I’m exhausted by random dudes.
But this 80 percent. My husband made the bed extra cozy for me so that when I came home from the hospital I could go straight to sleep. Three different friends made time to meet me today. The bay glistened full in the sunlight. The evening slowed down enough to provide me time to write this. My forthcoming itinerary includes Marin, San Francisco, San Diego, the entirety of California. The sunsets are so fucking beautiful. The 15-year-old me wanted all of this so badly. Here, I tell her. I stroke her hair, pull her to me. Take it.