How to do stuff alone

In the last year, I have figured out how to do stuff alone.  The secret is that there’s nothing to figure out. You just buy one ticket to that concert and then show up. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. So easy that the next time you go to a concert with someone, you might look over a couple times and say, “I keep forgetting you’re here.”

I have always been good at being alone, but doing stuff alone is quite a bit different. There were just so many things I wanted to see and do, and I couldn’t wait around anymore for someone with my identical interests to show up and go with me. I have awesome friends, but they don’t like all of the same things that I do, especially to the degree that I like them, and after years of buying two tickets and dragging a willing friend along to something they didn’t care that much about, it seemed like it was time to learn to go alone.

That was the thinking that motivated it, but as soon as I started doing stuff by myself, I realized that it has its own rewards.  I get to see amazing concerts without worrying whether the person next to me is enjoying it.  When I'm traveling, I'm able to make every decision last minute, and when I like something, I can just stand there and stare at it until I'm cold, even if that means catching a later train.  I can be spontaneous and buy a ticket the night before to something I’m not even sure that I will like, get an excellent seat because they have random singles left, and then just go.

I have cried at the last two concerts I have attended. Both times I was completely surprised by the feelings that found me and I don’t think I would have been as open to them if I hadn’t felt anonymous in a crowd.  I sing my heart out without turning to tell my friend that this is a song off of their first album and it’s a really big deal that they’re playing it, but they’ll probably get to the singles soon so don’t worry. Also, the tears, they’re no big deal. I’M FINE.

I have discovered by going to movies alone that I love movies. Nothing unsettles me like sweeping images and surround sound.  I love the freedom to sit by myself in the theater and behave like a complete weirdo, crying buckets of tears and slouching low when I know something bad is about to happen. I go see whatever I most feel like seeing, I buy my popcorn, and when the attendant says, “Enjoy the show,” I always accidentally reply, “You too.” I lose myself for a couple hours, and then I walk outside with a tear-stained face and squint when the sun hits my red eyes.  I look forward to it all week.

But that's all secondary to the simple truth, which is that I am an introvert, and some of my most meaningful experiences have been alone. It has been really important for me to take that out into the world instead of always enjoying my alone time in isolation. The most honest answer I could give to the person who, not understanding, asked why I liked to travel alone was that I just do.

I am not to the point yet where I don’t sometimes still feel awkward showing up to things by myself.  You are never more likely to receive a text from me than about 8 pm PST when I am sitting in a crowded theater waiting for a show to begin. At first I wanted to say to strangers who weren't even concerned with me, “I do have friends, you know,”  but when I went to see The Lumineers, the girl sitting next to me asked, “Are you alone?” and I happily replied, “Yes!” I had one of those, “should I be offended by that question?” moments, but I figure if you have to talk yourself into being offended, you might as well just be happy instead.

Most things I have read about doing stuff alone say enthusiastically and right up front, “it’s a great way to meet people!”  For the people excited by that idea, I just want to say that it’s totally true.  But that doesn’t have to be the reason you do stuff by yourself.  Meeting new people is not my motivation and it’s not how I judge whether I had a successful night.  You can go alone and have a good time alone.

The beauty is in contrast.  When I’m not traveling alone, I’m usually traveling with close friends, and we are almost never away from each other from the second we tackle hug to our sad goodbye. I love that just as much as I love traveling by myself.  After spending a ton of time alone, I look forward to being with people, and after a weekend with friends, I look forward to being alone. When the balance is off, when there is no contrast, I feel it.

The exciting thing about all of this is that I have seen more live music and live comedy in the last year than I had in the previous five years, and I taught myself something about not waiting around for other people in order to do what you want.  When I started going to things alone, I thought it was the next best thing to going with friends and better only than not going at all, but now I have had all of these solo experiences that I would not trade.  The only problem is that I’m the only person who holds those memories and words have sometimes failed me in putting them into writing.

You’re not missing out on nothing (in semi-defense of grad school)

I never know how to write about grad school, because I have been here so long that I no longer know what it looks like from the outside. I also don’t know how aware the general public is of the criticism that grad school receives. When I tell people I’m a PhD student, I never know how they’re going to react. I have even less of an idea when I say I study theology. I never defend grad school against the criticism it receives, because I don’t disagree with most of that criticism, but I also never say how I feel about grad school, which is that you are not missing out on nothing.

Some of the criticism of grad school, and especially PhD programs, comes from within the academy. It is thoughtful professors warning students that there aren’t any jobs. They are the voice of reason to students who think that if they just follow this specific path, they will walk right into a job and a corduroy-jacket wearing, scotch-sipping scholarly life. An effort to counteract the professors who are either out of touch or unwilling to acknowledge the crumbling ground on which they stand--the kind who advise students to get PhDs as a way to bolster their own legacies. I’m working with stereotypes here, because I haven’t encountered a single professor like that in four years of undergrad and seven of grad school.

That’s what bothers me about some of the criticism: the idea that grad school is a big conspiracy and that no one is telling the truth about it. For a long time, I figured I just got lucky in getting advice from humanities professors who were willing to tell the truth. One of my favorite undergrad professors told us that his son who dropped out of college made more than he did as a tenured professor; I went to a small enough college that I was invited into my professors’ homes a number of times, and I could see the kind of lives they were living. Some of them drove cars older than mine, and I was driving a 1990 Civic. They were honest about what it meant to get a graduate education, and they still happily wrote me letters of recommendation.

I thought I was lucky, too, when I started grad school and I was required to take a class called Vocational Discernment where each week a PhD student or professor would come in and talk to us honestly about their experiences. A classmate of mine was offended when one professor said that if we wanted to make political change, we would be in DC and not in grad school. I was grateful to him for saying that, because it forced me to think again about why I was there. Now I don’t think you have to be lucky. There is enough information out there for you to make a smart decision about grad school. Enough caution signs warning you not to come here.

I once heard a comedian say that when people ask him if they should get into comedy, he always tells them no. It’s a hard life on the road, it takes years of embarrassing yourself on stage every night before you’re any good, and there is a very low chance that you will ever be successful. It’s the people who do it anyway who should be in comedy. There are a million reasons not to go to grad school. Getting a PhD is incredibly impractical.  It’s the people who, knowing that, do it anyway who should be here. As one doctoral student warned me before I got started, you’re going to need that kind of self-determination to finish a PhD.

I don’t want to romanticize those of us who choose to get a PhD. Some regret it and a huge number of people never finish. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I started grad school at 22, and I have changed a lot even since I decided to get a PhD at 25, but I knew that I was making a decision and I took responsibility for it. I tell all prospective grad students, whether they’re friends or strangers, to read every argument against grad school before making a decision. But, if you want to do it, then do it. Like most dreams, it’s probably not smart, it’s going to be way harder than you thought, few people are going to understand, and you’re going to doubt yourself along the way. If you’re willing to jump those hurdles (or, more likely, repeatedly fall and get back up again) then keep running.

The only criticism of grad school that bothers me is the one that suggests that you read some novels and travel instead. I read and travel as much as I can, and I think both are invaluable in the making of smart and compassionate human beings, but they aren’t a substitute for grad school.  I have spent most of the last two years traveling and reading, when I wasn’t working, and the second I got serious about school again, I realized what I had been missing in not facing seemingly impossible intellectual challenges on a consistent basis. I start feeling like a smart person, and I realize I’ve distanced myself too much from grad school, where I am constantly being reminded of how little I know.

College completely changed me as a person. It woke me up from apathy and gave me the tools to make sense of the world as a stupidly sensitive person. In the middle of my junior year, I discovered theology (it found me, really), and I was sent into a crisis that I felt I could only handle by going deeper into the problem and questioning all of my beliefs. I added religion as a second major, but by the middle of my senior year, I knew I wasn’t done studying theology. I also knew that reading on my own would not be enough, which was different from how I felt about going on to study literature, so I applied to grad school and came straight here after graduating.

The nature of what I study means that it would have been hard for me to keep grad school from changing my life. In college I learned how to think critically and in grad school I developed a worldview. It turns out that you can learn to recognize subtlety, slowly by reading and faster by having people much smarter than you challenge your every assumption. It is a privilege to sit in a classroom and talk about ideas and it is also a choice. It means not choosing other things like free time (especially if you also work a full-time job) and a more stable financial future. There have been many points where I thought maybe this time was wasted, where I felt like grad school was swallowing my whole identity (see: the creation of this blog), and one moment in particular where I found myself in class talking about thermodynamics and thought, “What am I doing here?” But there are also moments where I remember, as if I've forgotten, that I am fascinated by what I study, that it is important enough to demand all this time, and that this is exactly where I belong.

Sometimes I like to make people uncomfortable by admitting that the deal I have with myself is that I don’t have to use my PhD, but I have to finish it. It is not just a piece of paper and I'm sorry anyone would think that way about education. The return on investment never had a chance of making financial sense, so I could never pretend that is why I chose to get a PhD.

Grad school is hard. I try to have perspective about it, but not too much, otherwise I would talk myself out of studying theological German, which I have to do to get to work that I find more meaningful. I was talking about what I was struggling with to a friend who was having her own struggles with grad school, and someone asked us why we don’t just quit. Nobody ever asks me that about writing, and all I do is talk about how hard writing is, but that question made me realize that the passive way I accept the criticism that grad school receives means that I’ve been too quiet about the effect that grad school has had on my life.

While my relationship to grad school is complex, I won't hesitate to repeat that I also love it. That seems trite to say and inadequate in describing my depth of feeling, because the truth is that grad school has been part of my becoming, and I don’t know who I would be without it, what I would be writing, where I would be living, and what my relationships would look like. It’s too much a part of me to separate myself from it, but as I get older, I find myself more grateful for this experience and not less.

The universe conspires

I am having no easy time writing this. That’s not even the first time I have written that sentence. I wrote it once and then deleted it to try several other approaches and here I am again. I took a short time off from writing essays and now I have forgotten how. I have plenty of ideas, but not the patience to sit down and write about how I feel.

This while my thoughts about writing have been going in a completely different direction. I finally saw the Salinger documentary this weekend, and while it was not well made, it still gave me plenty to think about. Salinger had that same confidence as David Foster Wallace and the same dedication to his writing that lights a fire under me. He felt that his characters were real and their stories had to be told.

Salinger also felt that his work was meaningful, and that is something I have been wrestling with a lot lately, even though it embarrasses me to take myself that seriously. When I feel anxious, my mind goes very quickly to getting a lot done and there is no greater sign of that than having books written. But I doubt very much that a body of work will really calm my existential anxiety. To date, it hasn’t. And I have a lot written.

You can point to a book and say, “this is what I have to show for my life,” but I think life is more about creating meaning than proving you worked hard. There is meaning in hard work, but I struggle to define it and fear it will prove to be empty. I am sounding unapologetically (okay, somewhat apologetically) of my generation right now.

A lot of feelings about writing have surfaced for me lately. It feels like this growing monster in my life that demands more and more attention, leaving me feeling both like I am never writing enough and that it is selfish to be so preoccupied with writing. None of the questions I ask myself stand up to critical thought, but they haunt me anyway. I never know that I am doing the right thing and sometimes lack Salinger’s sense of purpose.

I have been thinking about making the work itself more meaningful. That was Salinger’s conclusion at the end of his life, that’s what David Foster Wallace talks about in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and that was the lesson I learned from Writing Down The Bones.  If I thought the universe had any autonomous power, I would assume it had conspired to make this point.

There is this quote from Infinite Jest that I wrote about two years ago and have been quoting ever since: "That concentrating intently on anything is very hard work." It is an idea I keep coming back to, but I still haven’t really done the work of training myself to sit and write. Before reading Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, I was missing the larger point, which is that it’s not about productivity so much as it is creating meaning for yourself in writing. Making your life about that instead of what may come from it.

I suspect this is all very obvious, but to me it is significant. A necessary shift in perspective. The important work I do is here at my desk. Of course this was the point of Zen in The Art of Archery as well--I get it, universe!

What I have to do is show up every day to do the work. To treat writing like a practice instead of a magic act I hope to repeat. To do whatever I can to find joy and meaning in the work. The demands are higher now, but I feel like I know what to do, and that is the significant part. You can find me at my desk. Or a desk. Sometimes in the library. Occasionally in a coffee shop. Also in airports and on planes.

Although of course you end up becoming yourself

Last week I read Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I bought a couple years ago thinking I would read immediately and instead let sit unread on my bookshelf gathering dust. I have a rule about only buying books when I travel and I haven’t been traveling much lately, so every book I read has already lived a long and neglected life in my apartment. Perhaps no book deserved my attention more than The Sun Also Rises, which had been living with me for ten years by the time I read it this month. Hemingway got his revenge and the book split in two before I could finish it.

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is a conversation with David Foster Wallace that took place shortly after Infinite Jest was released.  David Lipsky was sent by Rolling Stone to do a profile on David Foster Wallace.  The profile was never written, but in 2010 this transcript of their conversation, which took place during a road trip, was published. This is not a book I would recommend if you’re not already interested in David Foster Wallace, because you have to be dedicated to read 300 pages of conversation with repetition and breaks to talk to Denny's waiters. What I’m saying is that there is a lot to sort through in the search for pieces of brilliant insight.

Though the article was never written, or at least published, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself does have a few bracketed asides that reminded me why I hate magazine features. I do not trust that a writer can go spend a couple days with a celebrity and then write something that gets to the heart of who they are. There are always descriptions of what they ate, which I think is supposed to say more about a person than it does. And then you have the writer telling you what this person they have just met and who knows they are being written about really means when he says something completely different. Years ago I was reading Chuck Klosterman’s profile of Britney Spears while flying home for Christmas and I was left with this anxious feeling that being a person is impossible if some dude in glasses can show up and tell the world who he thinks you really are. I still don’t know who Britney Spears is, but I have a better idea of Chuck Klosterman.

I was more interested in what David Foster Wallace had to say about himself. Most of what you can pick up by reading his spoken words, like near debilitating self-awareness, he points to himself eventually. He says “um” and hasn’t read everything and considers TV his greatest addiction, if any of that makes you feel better about yourself. Here are some of the passages I want to keep and think about for a while:

Well, I think being shy basically means being self-absorbed to the extent that it makes it difficult to be around other people. For instance, if I’m hanging out with you, I can’t even tell you whether I like you or not, because I’m too worried about whether you like me.

After a lifetime of being shy, I had this realization about shyness a few years ago, but I didn’t know what to do with it. There’s a weird thing about being shy where you desperately do not want to be noticed, but that feeling comes out of another one, which is that you think everyone is concerned with you there holding up the wall. Elsewhere he refers to shyness as being arrogant, and that is not my experience, but it is self-involved absolutely. I try to combat it, coincidentally or not, with a quote from Infinite Jest, “That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

It is a bit like depression where depressed people are so consumed with their present state that they can’t seem to get out of it. They probably would feel better if they could focus on other people for a while, but that is not something you can shame or push someone into. Right knowledge is not an escape from depression or shyness. But it is something--maybe a small beam of light. When I feel most shy, I try to remember that no one is that concerned with me, and I try to support other people instead of making them carry the full weight of the conversation. They are no less weird or human than I am--equally lost in their own heads, thinking more about themselves than me.

There’s an unbelievable arrogance about even trying to write something—much less, you know, expecting that someone else will pay money to read it.

I read this the night before releasing my collection of essays and I wished I’d had it before, because I said the same thing less eloquently in making the point that you cannot give in to our culture of irony and cynicism, because it requires a certain level of earnestness and arrogance to actually create anything.  Even more to charge money for it!

Arrogance is a topic that comes up a lot in this book. David Foster Wallace had that arrogance that seems unique to a certain kind of young man where he thought he knew better than anyone and had to be humbled by life and learn that other people were smarter than he gave them credit for. This has never been my experience, and perhaps as a very example of it, instead of patting myself on the back for always having perspective, I kept thinking of how useful that kind of arrogance might have been, especially when I was younger.

I don’t know about you: My life and my self doesn’t feel like anything like a unified developed character in a linear narrative to me … If your life makes linear sense to you, then you’re either very strange, or you might be just a neurologically healthy person—who’s automatically able to decoct, organize, do triage on the amount of stuff that’s coming at you all the time.

This was an interesting point that came up because he was being interviewed by a writer who was going to turn his life into a necessarily oversimplified and incomplete narrative. But that’s not how we really experience life, at least before we create our own narratives. This is relevant to my dissertation.

If the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is. Is to wake the reader up to stuff that the reader’s been aware of all the time.

I am embarrassed by how many times I have said, “I had that thought too!” But, here’s why: that’s what David Foster Wallace was trying to do. Articulate thoughts you already have, bring to light things that you have buried, and remind you of how smart you are.

We sit around and bitch about how TV has ruined the audience for reading—when really all it’s done is given us the really precious gift of making our job harder. You know what I mean? And it seems to me like the harder it is to make a reader feel like it’s worthwhile to read your stuff, the better a chance you’ve got of making real art. Because it’s only real art that does that.

There is a lot of talk about TV in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and I like the repeated challenge that instead of being threatened by TV, writers should take it as an opportunity to do better work.  I prefer this to the alternative, which means dismissing TV as if that will make it go away.

I decided that I wanted to think of myself as a writer, which meant whether this got published or not, I was gonna write it.

This is my biggest takeaway from the book: after a very low point in his late 20s, David Foster Wallace became serious about treating writing as work. But not just as work--as work he enjoys. Infinite Jest was a very big deal when it was released and he’s precious about how he handles that, because he knows the meaning for him has to be in writing. Infinite Jest has always seemed impossible to me; it’s incredibly long and dense and smart. The secret to how he wrote it is that he worked very hard for years. I don’t know why this seems so profound to me and why it has changed my mind about both studying and writing. After years of doing both, I have more recently started to find them very lonely activities, and I was having a hard time imagining a lifetime of sitting alone at a desk, scrambling to find meaning elsewhere. I think there is more meaning to be found in the work itself, but you have to teach yourself to sit alone at a desk. I am more committed to that work now.

That the fear is the basic condition, and there are all kinds of reasons for why we’re so afraid. But the fact of the matter is, is that, is that the job that we’re here to do is to learn how to live in a way that we’re not terrified all the time. And not in a position of using all kinds of different things, and using people to keep that kind of terror at bay.

I read this just before watching this video of Louis CK talking about how we use our phones to distract ourselves from everything, including real sadness and the happiness that follows a moment of deep feeling. It relates to the idea of sitting at my desk to work even if it feels lonely and meaningless. That you can’t run or distract yourself from those moments, at least not to a positive effect. Ah, the humanity of just sitting with yourself.

And I will leave you with:

The only way we really learn things is the hard way.

The end of Summer

Summer is over and I have returned to working nights in the library. This is a change I could not be happier about, but it came with a reminder that I am getting older. To my memory, I used to be able to shift my schedule without any repercussions, but this time I spent an entire week feeling exhausted.

I wanted to hit September running, but instead September asked that I sleep nine hours every night, feel hungover all day, and then take a nap if I didn’t have to go to work. It wasn’t a normal kind of exhaustion, the kind you can fight through, but a deep exhaustion that felt so bad it almost felt good. One day I was so tired and it was so hot outside that I felt like I was dragging myself around campus with my backpack as a weight holding me down.

I kept thinking that one more night of good sleep or one more solid meal would set me right, but by the weekend I had grown discouraged and mildly concerned. I tried to at least get one thing done, so I started on my essay for that week, but what came out revealed a pessimism that felt both true and not. A couple hours after I finished it, I knew I would never publish it.

Not feeling well started to affect everything. When I am limited in any way, I notice as if I never have before that I live alone and far from my family, and I get nervous that I might actually have to ask someone for help. I started getting nostalgic, looking back at my Summer and wondering where it had gone. Reading things I wrote in June and feeling like I could not relate.

Just when things were really getting weird, I started feeling like myself again. The first day I felt like a human being, I nearly died from happiness. The next day I felt better than I even remembered was possible, and I skipped being grateful in favor of being excited. I was struck by how quickly everything could change. Tired but optimistic turned into exhausted and discouraged in only a few days. All of those feelings were replaced the minute I felt better.

There are far more dramatic ways to start Fall, but this one managed to shift my perspective in a way that only seems interesting now that I am not too tired to think about it. I mentioned previously that I keep accidentally reading books about Zen. This Summer, I read The Dharma Bums, Zen in The Art of Archery (I knew this was about Zen, but didn’t pick it up for that reason), and Writing Down The Bones. They all made me question my very Western ideas about how things get done, how much control I have, and more than anything, where I should focus my time and energy. I started thinking more about practice and less about conquering the world. I realized that what I take to be absolute and obvious truths leave plenty of room for debate.

I still probably would not have slowed down if my body hadn’t forced me to. Not feeling well interfered with all of my creative goals, making it impossible to do any more than what was required of me. I am used to doing the bare minimum to feel like a reasonably healthy person, and it frustrated me the minute bare minimum was not good enough. I was focused on all of my external projects, but I couldn’t finish them without taking care of myself. My mind was left to wander.

I was bothered to look back on the year and have no sense of it. I wondered how that was even possible when I write so much. With effort, I could remember events, but there was no narrative. I cannot play dumb about this when I know where to find continuity: it’s in reading my journal and this blog. Revisiting my writing gives me a stronger sense of myself than anything, making me feel like a real person, if that is not too bizarre.

I knew I should have been doing that work, but it is time consuming and I have been preoccupied reading fiction and writing essays. When there were things in my recent past that I did not want to dwell on, I developed the habit of focusing on the future, moving forward as fast as I could. I lost the patience for encountering myself in old writing. I valued only what new I could accomplish. It would seem impossible to avoid yourself and write about yourself at the same time, but actually the two go very well together, one acting as cover for the other.

After reading Writing Down the Bones, which emphasizes writing as a spiritual practice, and listening to several of David Sedaris’s audiobooks, where he talks about his own practice of keeping a diary, I started thinking about changing the way I journal. I want my journal to be less about expressing the big feelings when I have them and more about getting all of my thoughts and feelings out. I want to see everything on the page and revisit that writing regularly, so that I can answer to it and build upon it.

I have always liked the idea of blind ambition, but I have never managed to escape my feelings long enough to focus that intensely on anything. And as I get older, I realize that a movie montage set to inspirational music is not how most art is created. If I ignore my body in order to focus on creative work, it will catch up to me and quickly. If I ignore myself and the feelings that occupy me daily in order to write only about the big and sweeping, then I’ll start to feel less like a person and lose my sense of self. Knowing all of this, of course I do ignore everything until I can’t anymore, and then I get to work doing what I should have from the beginning.

I don’t want days to pass without my notice. I don’t want to lack the energy to create. I want to regularly encounter myself in writing. If that’s not enough, I’ll listen to “Eye of The Tiger” while I do my work.

I am grateful to anything, planned or unplanned, that shifts my perspective. Sometimes you don’t realize you are trapped in a pattern of thought and behavior until you’re sidelined for a while or someone new enters your life or you encounter a piece of art that disrupts everything.  Here’s to the end of Summer.

I never arrive until I do

I have noticed this pattern in my life where I never arrive until I do. I can have all of the information and the answer can be plainly obvious, but for whatever reason, it’s not right for me until it is. I’m sure I’m not unique this way, but it’s a subtlety of life I don’t often hear discussed.

When I was in first grade, I was put into remedial reading class. Every afternoon I was pulled along with a few of my classmates into a special room with a giant (so it seemed at the time) paper mache dinosaur (it was the Read-a-saurus Room) to receive special lessons. I didn’t know to be ashamed of this on my own, but the message I got from my brother and sister was that it was a shame to the whole family that I was behind the rest of my grade in reading.

I caught up the next year, but the threat of returning to remedial reading lingered throughout the rest of Elementary School and didn’t really die until sixth grade when I developed a personal interest in reading. Though I eventually became a dedicated reader and student, those remedial reading classes left a mark, making me feel like an impostor for years afterward. My brother still calls me Forrest Gump sometimes and compares my escape from the Read-a-saurus Room to that scene where Forrest is running from his bullies and his leg braces fly off.

In college I had to write a literacy autobiography, and in gathering information, I asked my mom about my early struggles with reading, and she insisted that I just moved at my own pace. The way she remembers it, she always knew I would get there and was never seriously worried I’d be stuck forever under that paper mache dinosaur. I was not prepared to have an obstacle in my life dismissed quite that easily, but she was right, as she usually is, and I have noticed ever since that I seem to run on my own schedule.

It sounds pleasant the way my mom describes it, but I more often find it frustrating. I am not a patient person, least of all with myself, and I never trust the way my mom does that I’ll get there eventually. Eventually takes too long. How about now and preferably yesterday? I’m like someone who marches to the beat of her own drum, but I’m always off step, because even I can’t hear the beat.

My learning style is to get things all at once, whether that happens immediately or weeks after pretending I understood. There’s always a moment when the key turns and the door opens. Then I understand. I think this is related to being a feeling person. I know by feeling, which means that knowing and KNOWING are different for me.

I was a terrible driver until the moment that everything clicked--hours before taking my final test of driving school! My instructor, who did not throw around compliments and who looked a lot like a serial killer, told me I was the most improved student he’d ever had. Looking back, I’ve won a lot of awards for Most Improved. Not exactly as brag-worthy as Most Awesome, but it’s an award that always comes with a lot of encouraging words.

I feel this strange pull as a person where my mind is always tens steps ahead, but the rest of me lags behind. I can gather information very quickly, but I cannot make sense of it immediately. I can put things together logically. I can force conclusions. I can even make a decision. But really knowing and understanding does not adhere in any obvious way to those points. All of the information might lead to an obvious answer, but I won’t know it’s right until I do.

It’s like everything coming together at once. It’s like puzzle pieces fitting together. But the reality is that not everything did come together at once and the puzzle pieces don’t fit perfectly. It’s not freedom from doubt either. It’s just a gut feeling that makes it possible for me to commit to making it work no matter what. It is full-body knowing.

This carries into all areas of my life. What to do. Who to trust. When to travel. The time I decided to get out of debt and knew from that moment that nothing would stop me was not the first time I tried to get out of debt and it certainly wasn’t the first time I realized I was in debt. Even just recently in mundane blogging details, it finally made sense to only post once a week, though that’s not exactly a surprising idea. Writing essay collections made sense when I realized, “five essays and not ten!” I’d been stuck on that, trying to write ten and instead writing zero, for almost a year.

I like to imagine I will one day learn to have patience with myself. But for now I seem more interested in making things happen as quickly as possible, and despite how many books about Zen I accidentally read, I still believe that things only happen when I make them happen. I would like to think that the real kind of knowing only comes as a result my hundred other attempts to get there.

While I wait on patience, I’m trying to at least be more forgiving of myself when long after I should have been ready, I am ready. The four previous attempts I made at writing this post are unimportant now that I am writing it.  Sometimes I want to offer apologies for myself and how it takes me a while to come into my own in new situations. Or kick myself for not being able to act on what was right in front of my face. But those thoughts only hold me back further.

I have been dragging my feet on finishing my PhD ever since I finished coursework. I worked so hard through all of that that I needed a break when it was over, but a break turned into getting lost for a while. I am suddenly wondering what I have been doing for the last two years. The answer is writing, traveling, and working, but that’s not really important. I am here now.

I can beat myself up about what I should have done or I can get to work now. I can criticize other people for not seeing what is plainly obvious or I can acknowledge that we all operate on our own schedules. Few of our decisions adhere strictly to reason, despite the stories we come up with later. We get there when we do.

“The things that make us feel the most alone have the greatest power to connect us.”

One of the first things Ze Frank said when he got on stage at VidCon was, “The things that make us feel the most alone have the greatest power to connect us.” When I was writing my collection of essays on authenticity and impostor complex I kept running into the fact that my deepest insecurities succeed most at isolating me. I insist beyond all reason that no one feels the way that I do when the reality is that I am surrounded by people who feel the same. For instance, impostor complex is very common among female academics, and I have spent the last seven years in grad school with female academics, thinking I am the only one who feels like a fraud.

Ze was talking about the power of sharing our experiences through video to make other people feel less alone.  That might seem like a very tall order. How do you make someone feel less alone? But the answer is very simple: talk about what makes you feel most alone. Maybe someone else will identify and then you with both feel less alone. Maybe not everyone will relate personally, but just their acceptance will be enough to make you feel like you belong. This is a lesson I have learned from the internet.

On day 21 of #VEDA, we talked about our insecurities, and I was thinking about my insecurity that everyone got the manual on human interaction the day I was home sick from school, and then a few minutes later, Ze tweeted about his new video that was exactly on this subject (the idea that things come naturally to other people while you are just going through the motions). In the past, I have claimed that I feel like I am an alien, observing people from another world and trying to pick up on what is normal.

This is really at the heart of impostor complex, though I have never made the connection before. The feeling is that everyone else is genuine and you are just pretending. In a weird intellectual reversal, you feel ashamed that you are conscious of your every move when you assume that other people are just reacting naturally to experiences. You are embarrassed that you don’t know what to do. That you care too much. That everyone must notice the way you don’t fit.

Impostor complex I have experienced all of my life and in most areas of my life, but nothing has exacerbated this feeling that other people got all the secret information when I was out of the room quite like trying to figure out friendship in my twenties. Fiction makes me believe that childhood friendships have the capacity to be very complex, but nothing I experienced as a child, even with my small number of very good friends, prepared me for friendship as an adult.

It has always seemed kind of magical to me the way that people make friends. How they know what to do and say once they have friends. How they manage to be themselves. How they, especially, manage to be their totally imperfect selves without fearing their friends will run away. How they create boundaries. If they create boundaries. When they fight, if they fight. This all seemed very new and foreign to me, and I assumed everyone else had learned this in grade school or had always known.

I was faking my way through, assuming I was going to be called out at any moment, and not understanding why people wanted to continue being my friend when I was obviously so bad at it. Don’t you notice, in a metaphorical sense, that I never know what to do with my arms?!

In 2011, my new complex friendships, which I was still trying to figure out, hit some turbulence that can best be described as real life. My friends went through real things and I had to try to be there for them. I have described it previously as being thrown into the deep end.  I had to confront that my preoccupation with being a good friend who tried to pass for a totally normal person was actually distracting me from being a good friend. I didn’t want to be the person hugging you and thinking, “Is this what I am supposed to be doing?”

In much of the time that has passed since, I have tried to figure things out on my own and asked for advice and searched for answers. What always comes back to me, though I have been reluctant to accept it, is that no one else knows what they’re doing either. They actually did not all receive secret information when I wasn’t there. They don’t know, they doubt themselves, they fail, and they don’t have the answers to my questions. They are not great at saying how they feel, which is the foundation upon which all of my “other people are better at this than I am” philosophy was based.

I ended a friendship, not knowing if I was doing the right thing. I watched as another friendship fell apart unspoken. And I failed to keep another one alive. I adopted the phrase, “Friendship is hard, right? Why doesn’t anyone talk about how hard friendship is?” People agreed with me, but I just assumed that’s because my eyes were kind of watery and I can be pretty intense sometimes.  The kind of intense that makes people agree with me, because I have obviously given this a lot of thought.

All the while, I felt embarrassed by how thrown I was by friendship. How no one really talks about it, because it’s supposed to be easy, I guess.  I wondered allowed to my mom and step-dad if friendship is different and maybe more complex now that people don’t all get married very young. If friendships sustain you through your 20s in a way that they didn’t used to--if they do not take the backseat, the sidekick role where they are easier to maintain.  If they take more care than other relationships, because they have the potential but not the guarantee of lasting a lifetime.

I started writing about it and talking about it, and people responded and reached out to me. I started Dear Salt where a third of the questions I'm asked seem to be about friendship. I bugged a couple friends about this topic in preparation for writing this post. I talked about one of the things that makes me feel most alone--most alien--and now I feel less alone.

Ze Frank challenged us at VidCon to talk about the things that make us feel most alone, and I want to pass along the same challenge. Write about it. Talk about it. Vlog about it. Tell us what makes you feel most alone in an effort to make others (and yourself) feel less alone.