When I was eight years old, the only thing I wanted to be was president, and Tommy Hanlon told me in front of everyone in my class that I couldn't be.
One plank arm, square in my face with a noodly little finger: "If you weren't born here—you can't be president!" he squealed, a proud look in his eye.
At the time I was ostracized and lonely and distinctly un-American. I was, by the Southeastern Pennsylvanian definition, a "normal looking" eight-year-old, with a whole lot of love to give, but I had an untrustworthy accent that I'd brought over from England and a few other Victorian ticks like asking a question by raising a single index finger. The other kids came up to me during recess, when I would sit by a brick wall alone to read, and demand that I say something, for their entertainment. The attention was tantalizing, but not long-lasting, and it was the wrong kind anyway. I'd return to my book and they'd scamper away laughing, and I'd feel even more alien than before.
After that year, I did away with my accent quickly, but it took me longer to feel that I was good for more than entertainment, and even longer to feel like I belonged.
If you can believe it, a lot of very serious stuff happens at malls. Teenage romances fizzle and burn; elderly couples live their last breaths marching through sterile air-conditioned halls with slippery tiles; smoothies are blended for the lonely. My best friend, one of the only people who had ever accepted me for who I was at that age—a doofy, British, gap-toothed uncertainty—was telling me she was having a baby while we ate lo mein in the food court. She was eighteen and I was seventeen and we had a month until we graduated high school. I blacked out for the entire conversation, saying unhelpful things but caring so stupidly deep for her that I kept nodding emphatically. I didn't have any answers and neither did she, but we'd be okay, we'd figure it out.
She'd been a part of my life since the early years of my tormenting, give or take one or two until I’d shed my accent, and she was as close as a sister. We'd both had troubled relationships with our dads, hers still at home and mine thousands of miles away, and we'd cry disgusting hot tears on each other's shoulders when we'd reveal details about melancholy events that had shaped who we were. When she told me about her pregnancy and that she'd shared this with no one else, I suggested she tell my mom as a trial before telling her own.
A woman whom I'd befriended when I lived in Los Angeles years later told me she was afraid of my family because we were so "mafia-like." My mothers' side is Italian, so the comparison fit there. But then I gave it more attention. Were we “you're in or you're axed”? Potentially, yes. A survival instinct ran thick with us, passed down from hardy, working-class Italian women (who were and are the matriarchs and patriarchs of the family) for generations. But we are welcoming and curious of new creatures in our orbit and, if they can be trusted, we come to love them like our own. My friend is as much a part of my family as any of us, though, by contrast, blonde and willowy.
She told my mother either that night or the following, and we enacted a game plan. When the baby came, she'd give it up for adoption. She'd tell her mother tomorrow. As mine had said, "She will do nothing but want to help you," which ended up being entirely true. She had a baby bump at our prom, but local paparazzi was unaware. We were still feeling cool-headed and decisive. It was one of my first experiences with leadership and problem-solving, though it was obviously much more complex than that. Sharp-eyed rationality was the only way I could wrangle with a reality so serious at that age.
It was October and with dizzying swiftness, the plan had changed. She'd keep the baby, she'd raise him in North Carolina. I'd get pictures to my email of her holding him, loving him, smiling. I was aghast and young and thought, Do I now love him as I love her? How does this work?
He belonged to her and she and I had belonged to each other. We had helped each other feel love and value when there was no one else there, and now there was a third. The first time I met him, only a few months later, I had never felt love as pure.
It's a strange thing to be an adult who doesn't feel like they fit in. We're taught to outgrow those feelings, or force belonging onto environments, like our university experiences or in our jobs. We don't have a choice—if you get to a point late enough in life when you haven't found like-minded spirits, then you've failed. The playing field is supposed to be more level, the grass cut more evenly. But when you're a person with a panoply of experiences or traumas or shakeups in your life, is it possible to find someone, find anyone who can identify, the way I had with my best friend as a kid?
We carry great pains and tangled memories with us every day, and feeling validation is one way to let those troubles lie. But what if we don't have that validation and we can find no one to understand, to relate to us? Our experiences are so singular, even witnesses of the same event will tell wildly varying stories. In a favorite song of mine by Frankie Cosmos, she says, “I make my canteen so heavy,” implying that our heft is a choice. Parts of ourselves, traumas we’ve endured, we can let them go, with or without the confirmation and acceptance of others. But why is it so hard to do?
A mentor of mine in England committed suicide last year and I didn't tell anyone for a few days. I didn't respond to text messages about other things, which prompted one friend to ask if everything was okay. I told him I needed some radio silence. It was impossible, and remains difficult for me to explain, who this person was to me, as nobody I knew in America had met her or knew of her. They had no context, so I thought they couldn't understand. I was purposely making my canteen heavy.
She was one of my mother's closest friends when we lived there and when my brother and I visited England in subsequent years, she was not only patient, but encouraging of my tweenage interests. I played her a Fenix TX CD on her stereo and she sat, smoking cigarettes, grinning.
"This is great, Dayns! Love it! Rock on!"
She was the reason I loved music. We'd sit on the floor of her friend Dizzy's apartment when I was a kid, and they'd strum on acoustic guitars and I'd lean in to listen, a little too young to know the difference between a spliff and a hand-rolled cigarette. Years later, when I’d smell fresh tobacco, I’d think of her. She was another one who I had belonged to, a person who made me see my own value by showing me things she loved and being interested in the things that I loved, and her absence made me quibble with who was left to understand. Her death was like the birth of my best friend’s son—I felt a connection abruptly severed.
When I did tell my friends in New York, their compassion was enough. I mourned quietly until I let the weight go, lightening up my canteen. She had struggled and I didn't want her to struggle. She wasn't alone anymore, and with the warm responses from my friends, neither was I.
I've had friendships that have been lost or gone awry because I've wanted so much to know everything about the person, to consume their history and to learn what makes them who they are. I revel in the meeting of friends' parents because—wow, you have come from these two people, or this person. And what are your grandparents like? What story did they carry with them? Why does this joke that I made hurt you but this other joke does not? I like how you responded to our waiter in that restaurant. Who taught you how to do that? Where did you get your love of spicy food from? Do you call home on major holidays?
But the act of investing in others is not selfless at all. In fact, it's something that requires exchange, not in a one-for-one way, like some therapeutic tennis volley, but as if two people were taking a boat out onto a lake. I will row for a little bit until my arms are sore, and then I hope you'll take over, after you’re done resting. When one feels unloved or unwanted or like they've never belonged to something or someone, it’s very difficult for them to fully take over the boat. The friendship catches the stillness of the lake and their companions are likely to dive out and swim to shore.
Our feelings for each other are very often tied to the way we feel about ourselves. I've sought out "cool" friends because I wanted to feel cool. I've dated selfish men because I didn't feel I had self-worth. I've undermined the value of people until they've proven themselves a worthy contributor to my entourage, a mafia-like technique above all. I worry—and have worried—that the need for validation from others, to prove that you are alive and someone recognizes you, comes with a series of its own very dangerous self-destructive tendencies. As the adage goes, don’t let anyone else fill up your cup. Be alone and be strong in being alone.
The desire to connect, to reach out and understand others, has been a particular challenge in the time of the internet. The gratification and validation is so immediate and yet so hollow that I occasionally find myself confusing trigger-happy fear of missing out for friendship or empathy. No one wants to feel as though they aren’t aware or aren’t clued in or aren’t relating to what is happening on this vast wide world of digital thoughtstreams. We all want to like—or love—the same things at once, in a similar way to how much we want to hate the same things at once, too. We want to belong to each other, but the result is too simplified, too rudimentary. We lose our human complexity this way. We don’t get closer to empathy, we get closer to ones and zeroes.
One recent birthday, I had ended up at the apartment of some friends who were a little younger than me and who had all known each other from their numerous internet pursuits: blogs and freelance writing and Twitter profiles. Their language was so unfamiliar that it felt alien—they talked in likes and reblogs and usernames, referencing people that they hadn’t met yet but describing them like old pals. They’d taken a lot of Adderall and stayed up until 6 a.m. espousing the validation of this person’s reblog or the merits of another stranger’s album review. When I went home, I crashed—both exhausted from the skittering conversation and its emptiness and from the late night—waking up a few hours later to an email from one of my friends. He’d been motivated by my presence (and the Aderall) to tell me he had feelings for me, in a rambling, thousand-word long manifesto that he’d been writing while I was still at the apartment.
The sweetness of its declaration was replaced by my longing that we’d been able to connect on this level in person. That the interaction he wanted, the confirmation he was seeking from me, could have been expressed in real life. I didn’t feel ready to give any part of myself to him—I was rowing our boat weakly and without passion—because I didn’t feel that he’d given it his best go either. The human part of it was lost. You can’t belong to a second life.
At a different party, I’d heard someone say “the internet isn’t real,” to which I bristled and disagreed. Real things happen online every day, I’d said. Real journalism, real discoveries, real unveiling of worlds you might never see, real learning, real passions. The one thing I didn’t say, however, was real connections.
When my best friend’s son was about four or five and picking up on the brassy—if vulgar—language of my family, who he’d been around since birth, he flippantly called my uncle a “ball buster” when they were goofing around in my living room. I had never heard so many people laugh for as long as we did, rolling around on the floor while my friend’s son laughed along, swatting at us playfully, not exactly sure what was so funny.
All of our bellies were aching from too much food and were now stretched-tight from laughter, and I still tear up when I think back. That is what it meant to be living and breathing and human. We belonged, in health, to each other.
Previously: Tips For Taking On the Summer