Photo by the talented Kimberly Crist
“Why are you apologizing for enjoying something?”
C and I were cruising through the Utah desert in my 2008 converted Sprinter van. My home on wheels. I had been fiddling with the radio controls to queue up an episode of a tech podcast I enjoyed as we raced from one desert to another. Sagebrush and sandy book cliffs blurred by us in the background. I mumbled something along the lines of:
“I’m sorry, I’ve just been enjoying this lately.”
C has the habit, one I love, of asking blatant and direct questions about my weird, unconscious habits or ticks. I say “whatever” to casually brush off that the thing I’m talking about matters to me or makes me emotional. I apologize for what I enjoy. Or whatever.
I didn’t immediately know why I did either.
His question stuck with me. Rattling around in my brain as we bumped our way down washed-out county roads. We scrambled among the desert rocks to get a good look at the big canyons along the foot of the La Sal mountains for sunrise the next day. He had long forgotten asking me about my weird reflex, but I still didn’t have a good answer.
Honestly, it bugged me for days after he left. I wrestled with the implications of not knowing why I felt such a compulsive need to self-doubt in the days after, contemplating the possible short-coming as I navigated slot canyons and stretched myself out under the desert skies.
I found myself cataloging all the times I had said “I’m sorry” when introducing something I loved to someone.
Every morning as I took in the sun-kissed sandstone I formulated a little more of a response to my internal critic. I wasn’t apologizing for enjoying things. I wasn’t even apologizing for the things I was enjoying.
I was apologizing because I had a lifetime of experience that who I was showing it to might not like the thing. I was apologizing in advance for being and enjoying something outside of what they wanted.
That’s the thing about people like me. Writers, creatives, introverts. We spend our entire lifetimes building worlds out of the characters of others. We stitch together skills, stories, hobbies, and mannerisms into a performance of the ideal. We play out a reality filled with elevated versions of ourselves inside our heads until it feels right until it feels ready. Only then do we present its doors and windows through curtains tied in self-doubt, desperate for guests but anxious of our wares.
For me, my umwelt was made of the trimmings of radically different worlds. What made it into my orbit wasn’t carefully pulled there, but haphazardly thrown in.
I grew up around giants, literally and metaphorically. My father and his cohorts, the village that raised me after the death of my mother, were the kind of people who have stories written and told about them. They threw themselves into the fray of Nature herself, conquering the great whitewater of the American West in sun-faded neoprene rafts. Leading the meek into the chaos. They flooded the walls of the small, mountain-town tavern I grew up in with raucous laughter and endless ribbing.
They fed me tales to create the heroes of my world.
Because they were so much, so legendary, my early days were spent witnessing them and their stories. I took their fables inward and began crafting ones of my own. I spent countless hours in our library and on my bedroom floor collecting as many stories as I could. Quietly gathering the heroic into my inner world like a magpie hordes all things shiny.
For a while, this was my entire universe. Inhaling everything interesting around me, but rarely exhaling interests and passions of my own. I went along with the ride, letting the current around me pull things forward.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I’d begin to feel othered and outside of the cultures I loved, an experience that only evolved as I grew older. I hated my early years as a teen in my hometown, mostly I hated my friends turned bullies. I begged my dad to let me homeschool and be alone with this idyllic world I was creating within myself.
Soon after, I went away to boarding school in Connecticut at 15. I was thrown into an entirely alien world. I hadn’t spent time outside of Colorado up until this point, and my bubble was filled with dirtbag, Woodstock-era hippies. I entered a reality that was opposite in nearly every way: Where I came via scholarship, my peers were supported by decades of often obscene familial wealth. Where I had been among the top students in my old school, my knowledge paled in comparison to child prodigies and Ivy-league recruits.
The source material for who I wanted to be was radically fucked.
I spent three years uncomfortably straddling these two realities. In one, I rode my bike around my small town, sun-soaked and river-drenched, and forever known as my father’s daughter. In the other, I threw on ill-fitting attempts at formal clothing and tried to shove my lanky form into a civilized, educated package.
In each world, I was asked to renounce the other. In my world, I began to apologize for both.
I have scars from the push and pull of existing in the gravity of two very different, very powerful realities. As I get older, they become features of the world I’ve built for myself in between them.
In this world lives every version of myself. The scholar. The writer. The weirdo. The musician. The lover. The bitch. The worker. The friend. The hot mess. The adventurer. The child. The badass. I roam vast desert-scapes. I study software development. I spend hours practicing climbing techniques. I throw myself into manual labor. I pet a lot of dogs.
This world is good. It’s pure. It’s mine. It’s where I go in the hours, days, and months when I fade away from relationships and friendships when the outside world gets to be too much and I feel like I don’t belong to everything enough.
But it’s lonely, even with every version of myself for company. I desperately want to take my friends, my family, perfect strangers, by the hand and lead them in. I ache to show them all the valleys of the things I love, but the scars of how I’ve been rejected rise like mountains from molehills.
These bruises are a dull ache that my enthusiasm for bringing people into my umwelt often goes unseen. That often those I want to usher in will close the door without a second glance, put off by a glimpse of this aggregated quilt of two worlds.
So I’ve apologized in advance for being what they won’t understand. I’ve retreated into a world all my own, to bear witness to their stories instead. To do as many writers before me have done, orbiting the stories of others, taking what’s shiny from their worlds, and leaving the rest.
I like to think I’m alone in this. But in today’s world of over-digitized, hyper-specialized culture selection, I know most people have isolated themselves into silos of their own. But where most take comfort in the singular, the familiar, I find myself liberated in the unknown and drawn to what’s unlike me.
I have little patience for monofaceted people and lifestyles. Whether or not that’s a shortcoming, I don’t honestly care. It’s the mechanism that makes me witness and collect the best of people. It’s what drives me to fall forward instead of down into the abyss.
I think it’s a fundamental failure of humanity to focus only on what validates and comforts your worldview and to only seek out what’s different when you hope to assimilate it. I know that’s abrasive, and, again, I’m not sorry.
It’s through this discomfort that I--and anyone--become better. It’s by celebrating the unfamiliar, witnessing it in others, and enjoying the umwelt of people totally unlike you that we become better.
Here is your chance. It’d be a disservice for me not to tell the stories of the giants I’ve seen and fail to recount their battles. It’d be a disservice for you to overlook it.
Photo by the talented Tarmine Guichette