Welcome to the twenty-fifth installment of Open Book. If it’s your first time here, click here for a little background.
I feel I have the authority to say this because, as of this summer, I have officially lived in five different apartments over the past five years. I’ve reassembled my IKEA bed so many times I don’t even need the cryptic directions anymore.
But it’s not just the packing and box-lugging that make moving terrible. I think what sucks more than anything is the fear. Fear that that you’ve chosen the wrong place, the wrong price, the wrong roommates. Fear that the neighbors will be the kind from hell. Fear that you’re somehow hurtling in the wrong direction but tough shit ’cause now you’re legally obligated to stay out the one-year lease. Fear, most broadly, of all the nebulous unknowns.
That fear is the topic of today’s post. Bear with me, because this one goes way back— all the way to April 25, 2013.
On that day, I walked out of my last college class ever, returned a missed phone call, and got a job offer to be an assistant editor for a magazine called Down East. I was prouder of myself than I’ve ever been.
I was also terrified. The job was in a small town in Maine, a place where I knew absolutely no one, and where friendly 20-something roommates were scarce. (Believe me, I Craisglisted my heart out trying to find one.) I was daunted by the prospect of creating a new life for myself somewhere I’d never been.
But you know how the the old saying goes: Recent college grads with crushing debt who want to work in competitive fields can’t be choosers. Or something like that.
I took the job. I signed a lease to rent half of a Victorian house for $800, which is something I tell New Yorkers when I feel like seeing a few jaws drop. I graduated. And a few weeks later, my family and I drove up north from Massachusetts with all my belongings.
We crossed the border into Maine, drove past Kittery, Ogunquit, Kennebunk. Near Freeport we merged onto Route 295, where a buoy lay in the left lane of traffic. As I watched it disappear under the station wagon, tumble a few times, then grow smaller in the rearview mirror, I felt as if we had passed a threshold. At the very least, we were beyond the point where it would be considered strange to see maritime paraphernalia in the middle of the highway. Ready or not, here was my new life.
It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve now lived in New York City three times as long as I lived in Maine.
That one year felt like an eternity, though not always in a bad way. It was full of exhausting, fulfilling work at Down East. It was also full of new adventures, like biking to lighthouses and rocky beaches. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my brief stint as a fly fishing model for one of Down East’s sister publications.
But it was also full of loneliness. I’d head to the YMCA and the farmer’s market and the street fairs and wonder precisely how adults go about making friends in the wild. A few times I went to a bar downtown and introduce myself to whoever happened to be occupying the stool next to me. This strategy did not work.
At night, I stayed wide awake listening to the unfamiliar noises of the the old Victorian house, half believing each creak signaled the entrance of an intruder. The solitude and quiet got to be so unbearable that I often made the four-hour drive down to my parent’s house to spend the weekend with them, leaving at the last possible second — 4 a.m. Monday — to get back to the office for a new week of work.
That spring, my boyfriend took time off from his internship in Los Angeles to visit me. One afternoon we sat on a rocky outcropping at a state beach and made a pact that, come summer, we’d move to New York City together. Me for publishing, him for TV. We had absolutely no proof that it was a good decision. All we had was a guess that the city would make us both happier. You know — concrete jungle and dreams and all that. All we knew was that neither of us felt like we quite fit where we’d landed.
And just like that, I was moving again.
The day I resigned from my job, I was a wreck. I cried before I told my boss, while I told my boss, and then for the entire day after I told my boss. I still loved my work at Down East and I was dogged by the worry that I was making a massive mistake, among many other many unknowns. What if I couldn’t find a job, or an apartment? What if my boyfriend and I weren’t ready to live together?
That day, I did something that I only do when I’m in distress: I wrote myself a letter — like, from my present self to my present self — in my journal.
And it wasn’t just the letter. I burned up PAGES of my journal at the time, writing the same sentiment — I am really fucking worried — about 700 different ways.
Now that I look back, I wish I’d thought to channel a bit of local lingo I learned in my short time on the job.
In some parts of Maine people have a saying that goes, “Hard telling not knowing.”
It’s the kind of thing you offer up when presented with a question whose answer is currently unknowable. Like, will I someday deeply regret putting that fly fishing photo of myself on the Internet? Hard telling not knowing!
I had no idea what would happen when I left Maine. I wasn’t sure I could actually get by in New York. But what I failed to grasp at the time was that no amount of journaling, nail-biting, tossing and turning, or self-to-self letters was going to change that.
Instead, I fretted all the way to July, when I finally landed in New York City apartment barely larger than the walk-in closets people sometimes complain are “too small” on shows like House Hunters. (Honestly, eff those people.) I took a temporary job at a magazine, earning $10 an hour, and my boyfriend was scraping together rent money doing freelance TV work, which is a nice way of saying “driving around a large van full of cameras.”
But I felt like I could finally exhale.
I found — just as I expected when I first laid eyes on New York at age 16 — that I am suited to this city. I love being surrounded by people all day. I love that there’s always something open, someplace you could go if you needed to. I love falling asleep to the constant rasping of overworked air conditioners in the alleyway. These things bring me an inner calm I never felt in Maine.
But deep down, I know that this feeling of content is tenuous, forever subject to change and/or utter obliteration.
I never planned to move to Maine and didn’t plan to leave it so soon either. I had no idea I’d fall in love with my job in Maine, just as I had no idea I’d fall in love with an apartment on the sixth floor of a building with no elevator in New York. To me this is proof enough that there are plenty more Life Events I Definitely Haven’t Planned For lurking in the dim near-future, soon to be revealed.
Some will happen to me no matter what I do. Others will hinge upon decisions that I make — decisions to move to a new place, to leave a job, to change careers, to upend relationships or start new ones. To me these are far more fearsome. It’s easier to accept that there some outcomes over which you have no control. It’s terrifying to reckon with the infinite, unknowable consequences of a single, personal choice.
In my young adulthood have spent a great deal of energy obsessing over that latter type of unknown. I tried to do so in a quasi-scientific manner, using spreadsheets and pro/con lists and careful analysis.
But what happens when that analysis leads you right back where you started? What happens with the columns in the pro-con chart have an equal number of items? What happens when you use up a small forest’s worth of paper rehashing the exact same list of concerns in your journal?
That’s when a deep breath and one good “Hard tellin’ not knowin’” can go a long way.
Recently the saying just resurfaced in my brain as I thought about my time in Maine. And I’ve been using it frequently. No, whispering it to yourself can’t erase worry, but I’ve found it can tamp that worry down just enough to help me make it through one day, then another, then another, while I for bits of the future to come into focus. I haven’t crunched the numbers yet but I think it’s spurred a significant reduction of pro/con lists in my journals and in my head.
Because I know myself, I know that I will struggle to follow the advice of this adage, probably for as long as I live.
But as a lapsed Mainer I still wanted to share it with you.