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“…and I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” – Emily Dickinson 

(photo taken at Lake Gaston on my 20th birthday.)

20 years old felt like the beginning of burning out.

It felt like working 37 hours a week and taking 6 classes because free-time scared me. It felt like dropping out of a sorority and a boy ultimately choosing someone else. Like living on Hell Block in a small, dark loft-style room that couldn’t even fit my full-size bed–a space my friends lovingly deemed “Anne Frank’s Attic.” It felt like a lot of nights spent alone in my bed, eating nachos and drinking $2 red wine from Trader Joe’s, and wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. It felt like wanting to drop out of college and deciding to apply to study abroad instead. It felt like using my friend-of-a-friend’s fake ID for many months, like holding my breath each time as the waiter or the cashier or the bouncer studied my ID, then studied me, then gave me my drinks. Like deep, dark panic attacks in which I would drive myself to Patient First, convinced that this time I was really dying. It felt like writing this question in my journal: How can I be so young and already so tired?

21 years old felt like the south of France.

But at midnight on my birthday, it felt like 5 shots in 5 minutes followed by singing ‘London Bridge’ by Fergie at karaoke. 2 weeks later when I moved, it felt like showing up in a country where I didn’t know anyone, intending on staying for 4 months and instead delaying my college graduation by a year so I could stay for 6 more. It felt like the freest I’d ever been, the freest I could ever possibly be. Like fresh baguettes and rosé in the sun at noon and crêpe after Nutella-oozing crêpe. To learn another language deems it deeply necessary to learn a new way of thinking that far surpasses grammar and dives deep into culture, deep into the foundations upon which we live our lives. 21 felt like taking a closer look at everything I’d ever known to be true. It felt like traveling to 15 countries on a shoestring budget, only eating street food and drinking whatever was the cheapest in that part of the world and sleeping on trains and in creaky hostel bunk beds. Not caring, because we were in Berin and Prague and Lisbon and we were young and the world was absolutely and unconditionally ours. It felt like learning how very many lives we live within this one that we have. They are all both temporary and eternal.

22 years old felt like coming home in every sense of the word.

It also felt like leaving home. It felt like the house I grew up in being sold and reinhabited while I was gone. It felt like 100 years of reverse culture shock, relearning things I can’t believe one year in another country had erased from my memory: the streets of my hometown, my cell phone number, how to drive. How big everything is here–people, cars, coffee cups. 22 felt like moving into an apartment with my artist friend, Miriam, and her orange cat, Argonaut, and beginning my 5th and final year of college. It felt like taking my first creative writing class ever, and sitting in a small room of people feeling like I finally connected to something, like I finally belonged somewhere. It felt like alchemy. Like drinking a lot of Rolling Rock and Devil’s Backbone and merlot and bloody marys, and eating a lot of vegetable omelets for breakfast and nacho mountains for dinner. It felt like wondering what the fuck I was going to do when college was over; half-heartedly applying for things and being rejected and applying for new things. It felt like a hazy health crisis that left it difficult to eat or think clearly all summer. It felt like too many doctor’s appointments, too many unanswerable questions. It felt like deciding to move to another country anyway.

23 years old felt like Amsterdam–

an intricate spiderweb of winding streets and crooked houses and tiny revolutions. It felt like trying to understand how Family functions. It felt like trying to somehow fit into the one I was working for and living with, that I could never truly be a part of. It felt like teaching two small humans–ages 6 and 8–an entire language. Like trying to learn an entire other language myself. It felt like compromise. Patience, understanding, trying and trying and trying and trying and trying. It felt like sometimes looking up flights home. Like bicycling everywhere, cooking dinner in Celsius, sitting on the ground of the central train station for hours listening to travelers stop and play the piano that said, “Play Me.” So many people did. Sometimes a crowd would form around the music and everyone would sing. It felt like witnessing many miracles the size of a human palm. It felt like volunteering some nights at a storytelling space that obliterated my heart and made me feel more human every single time I left. It felt like spending Christmas in England and the 4th of July in Greece. 10 days in Greece, which felt like a lifetime of its own, falling in love with 60 people from all over the planet. A time too perfect to believe. It felt like seeing the midnight sun in Iceland while alone in my hotel room. 23 felt like going to museums and movies and bookstores alone. It felt like the first step to trying to be my own friend.

24 years old feels slippery.

There are still 2 months of it. It has felt like a lot of things I don’t have words for or understanding of yet. It has felt like the end of the world several times: November, January, March. June. It has felt like cleaning out my mom’s storage unit, spreading all the drawings from my childhood on my dining room table. Saving a few. It has felt like writing classes and a job in an office and learning news ways to live in this city. It has felt like being honest. It has felt like many trips to the mountains, to the ocean, to the forests of Virginia, like cabins and camping and that tiny writer’s room an hour away. It has felt like meeting a lot of people that I didn’t know I needed to meet. It has felt serendipitous. It has felt like hiding and like staying. It has felt like not having a sip of alcohol for 84 days in a row. It has felt like spoonfuls of almond butter and cans of sparkling lemon water. Like handfuls of stones and wildflowers. Dreams of a big, black snake biting my left ankle. It has felt like I’ve had a chronic illness for 10 whole years now, because I have. Almost 11.

It feels like a lot has happened and that nothing has happened at all.

It feels bewildering and impossible and promising and intriguing.

It feels like I have no idea what I’m doing. But it also feels a lot like Thank You.

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I am one of the searchers. There are, I believe, millions of us. We are not unhappy, but neither are we really content. We continue to explore life, hoping to uncover its ultimate secret. We continue to explore ourselves, hoping to understand. We like to walk along the beach, we are drawn by the ocean, taken by its power, its unceasing motion, its mystery and unspeakable beauty. We like forests and mountains, deserts and hidden rivers, and the lonely cities as well. Our sadness is as much a part of our lives as is our laughter. To share our sadness with one we love is perhaps as great a joy as we can know – unless it be to share our laughter.
We searchers are ambitious only for life itself, for everything beautiful it can provide. Most of all we love and want to be loved. We want to live in a relationship that will not impede our wandering, nor prevent our search, nor lock us in prison walls; that will take us for what little we have to give. We do not want to prove ourselves to another or compete for love.

For wanderers, dreamers, and lovers, for lonely men and women who dare to ask of life everything good and beautiful. It is for those who are too gentle to live among wolves.

— James Kavanaugh, There Are Men Too Gentle To Live Among Wolves

 

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Last week I wrote down everything I need right now.

Things I need to do, things I need to buy, things I need to plan for, things I need from other people, etc., etc. The list was–I am not kidding–two and a half full pages. In paragraph form. Because I didn’t want to make a *to-do list.* That would just overwhelm me and I knew I’d find myself adding a bunch of things I’d already done so I could get the high of crossing something off of said list. I didn’t need that. This wasn’t about getting anything done. It was about simply acknowledging everything swimming through my brain the past few weeks–all of it, how much of it, the sheer weight of it.

A list doesn’t pour the way a paragraph does, and what I needed more than anything was to pour.

Need can be tricky. The churning seas of Need and Want spill into each other and, because my mind works in a very All or Nothing sort of fashion, when I make a to-do list I often suddenly feel as if I NEED to do/have/receive all of these things immediately, right this very second, ready set go. My expectations for myself and for the way life works are highly unachievable.

A few days ago, I was sitting outside on a friend’s balcony, because I was house/cat-sitting for the week. I’d just gotten off work, had gone straight from work to my house to pick up some stuff I forgot (insulin, pretty important) and do a load of laundry. Then I went back to the friend’s house to maybe sit down for a second and also feed the cats. I’d been going, going, going all day, all week, all month.

From her balcony, I could see my car parked across the street. I started wondering to myself if my tires didn’t look a little flat, and remembered the check engine light that’s been dancing on and off lately, and that weird, semi-dramatic sound it’s been making when I accelerate. And so begun the spiral: I need to put air in my tires. And I need to get my car looked at ASAP (on Friday, my one day off of work per week.) And where am I going to live next year? And why haven’t I started looking into grad school? And I need to call my grandparents–I am the worst granddaughter in the world. And speaking of the world, what is my place in it? What am I even doing? How am I helping? What have I been doing for the past 24.5 years?

As you see, things can start to get a little out of hand.

In this particular moment, though, my thoughts started to slide through my mind like molasses, my eyes locked onto one particular fuschia plant for too long, and my hands started to tremble. Low blood sugar. Because in all of my working and laundrying and existential-crisising on the balcony, I’d forgotten to eat.

I went inside and grabbed a juice box and sat on the couch, drinking it and waiting for my mind and body to come back to me. 10, 15, 20 minutes… and all I could do was sit there until the sugar swam, until the weakness passed, until I was myself again.

I cannot emphasize this enough: if there is one thing in the world that can bring me back to reality–to the nature of real, true, life-or-death Need–it is low blood sugar. Nothing else matters, nothing else can matter, until I take the necessary steps to take care of myself.

By the time my blood sugar had risen to a functioning level, and I stood up off of the couch, I’d realized something. All I can focus on right now is taking care of myself, I thought. It is just the only thing right now.

You might be thinking, “This really isn’t some grand revelation. It is pretty basic shit, Sarah.” But for me (and for many people I’ve discussed it with endlessly), this is no small task.

I want to do and be everything all the time, for myself and for everyone else. I want my to-do list to be all scratched out at the end of each day. I want to say Yes to every invitation and to never have to ask for anyone’s help. This is how I have lived a lot of my life: saying Yes when I really felt No, because it is easier to just get through it rather than explain to someone why I can’t or don’t want to.  And then there is… the not asking for help. My fear and horror of possibly becoming a burden or an inconvenience to someone else often sends me running for the hills, to my own small world of one, before I’ve even reached out a hand. But I’m working on it.

“You can’t possibly foresee what other people can or cannot handle,” someone told me recently. “Reach out for help if you need it. Just ask. And if they can’t, I promise you someone else can.”

According to my aforementioned 2.5 page letter, I need A WHOLE LOT of things.

But when I really scale it down to the things I need in order to take care of myself these days, a few things are concrete and I can walk away from the rest, at least for now. This blog, for example, I have mostly stepped away from during the past few months, yet it is still here waiting for me when I have a little free time on a Sunday afternoon. The invitations I’ve declined may have disappointed a few people, but I’ve been honest, and like true friends, they understand.­­­­ So maybe I should write down all the things I don’t need to work myself up about doing right this very second. That list–who knew?–could go on and on.

Right now I need to truly, painstakingly slow down and take care of myself.

Let the people who can, help me do it.