Seven months ago I was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in a sixth floor walk-up apartment I’d found all by myself, with three roommates and a mouse and a view of the Chrysler building out my bedroom window. I was in an almost-three-year relationship with the first girl I really loved who loved me back and we said things like “forever” and “when we get married” and it felt like the truth. I was working as an editor at a magazine in midtown and my parents were proud of me. Two of my best friends had just moved to my neighborhood and it felt like everyone who mattered was no more than a subway ride away. Everything was going according to some sort of vague plan I had about how to be a twentysomething person until one day I woke up and knew I was doing it all wrong. That is how I have described it to everyone who has asked. “Everything was really great until one day it wasn’t.” Lots of people ask. Where I come from, it’s strange to leave New York when you have a job and a girlfriend and an apartment. I was supposed to feel lucky, and for a long time I did.
It really was a sudden shift. I started to wake up feeling anxious. I’d fall asleep next to the glow of my computer and in the morning I’d grab my phone to check Twitter before I got out of bed. I hated these habits but I couldn’t stop; part of my job was being online all the time. My responsibilities at the magazine multiplied and changed and going into the office every day started to feel like drowning. I stopped trying and felt angry at myself. I started getting ocular migraines and when I went to the eye doctor he assured me that lots of people end up needing glasses because of the strain of staring at a screen all day. I wondered why I had to stare at a screen all day. The muscles in my right forearm started hurting all the time, and a girl in my writing workshop warned me not to type in bed because she had and now needed to sleep with a wrist brace for her carpal tunnel. I tried to picture what would make me feel happier – more money, a new job, more recognition? – but none of it sounded good. What if Gawker hired you? What would success look like? What would it feel like? None of the supposed answers to “success” seemed appealing. I worried that digital media was not the place for me. I wondered what other people my age did in other parts of the country, other parts of the world. I tried to figure out what I actually wanted. I missed things I’d never had.
At first the doubts and the questions were small and quiet, so I just pretended they didn’t exist. It is a poetic scientific fact that it is easier to stay than to go: inertia. But then one night at the beginning of May I went to see Cheryl Strayed, one of my favorite authors, read at Public Assembly. I stood in the back by myself and wept as she read from the title essay in Tiny Beautiful Things, a book made up of advice columns she had written as Dear Sugar for The Rumpus. It is a letter to her twentysomething self, filled with bits of wisdom and advice and reassurance. Less than a minute in, she read: “You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough… Be brave enough to break your own heart.”
I didn’t stop crying while I waited in line to have her sign my book, and I tearfully apologized when I finally stood in front of her, clutching my copy and a tissue. “Don’t be sorry,” she said. “Crying is the most human thing.” “I know, but you’re not supposed to cry in New York,” I hiccuped. “That’s okay,” she said. “I’m not from New York.” I nodded and willed myself to stop crying long enough to speak. “I’m not either,” I said. “And…” Be brave. “I think I have to leave…and it kind of sucks.”
She looked up at me with such kindness as I twisted my mouth into a knot and tried unsuccessfully to blink away all my tears. “You know, it won’t suck forever. That’s one thing I can promise you: I promise it won’t suck forever.” I nodded, and she took my hand and said, “Close your eyes and let yourself see the beauty that’s to come.” She squeezed my hand and let go and signed my book and I thanked her and left the venue, still crying. I started sobbing in earnest when I got outside and started walking north toward the East River. I walked all the way to the pier and sat on a bench overlooking the Manhattan skyline, and only then did I allow myself to open the book to the page she had signed. “To Vanessa,” she wrote. “Wishing you beauty on the journey.” I took out my journal and wrote in all capital letters: “WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE.” But I put a period at the end of the sentence, not a question mark. Because I already knew.
A few days later I wrote to the Autostraddle team in one of our daily emails – emails I had been receiving for almost a year at that point – and shared my feelings, per usual: “guys fyi you heard it here first, the likelihood that i will quit my job, leave new york, and move to a farm sometime within the next 12 months is pretty much 100%.”
I wrote lots of emails about all of this to lots of friends over the next few months. I wrote to Gabby and Katrina in June: “I want to be traveling and moving and seeing new things and I don’t want to be at my desk all day and I want to be outside and see parts of America I’ve never seen and I promised myself I would take risks in my twenties and I stopped taking risks approximately three years ago and I don’t want to wake up and be 50 and wonder why I didn’t do the things I always said I’d do.” Katrina wrote back: “I’m really proud of you. Far too many people sit around at their desks feeling all dead and weird inside because we’re supposed to feel like we’re so lucky to just have jobs and feel dead and fucking whatever. It’s so sad to see this happen, especially to queer people who are supposed to know that there’s so much more to life than what we grew up believing…I’m proud of you for taking risks and doing what you want, and I hope it’s everything you’re dreaming, and if it’s not that, I hope it’s something equally eye-opening and different.” Gabby wrote back, too: “…you don’t want to wake up 20 years from now, hunched over from staring at computer screens, full of deep seated lines in all the corners of your mind and skin that are filled with all the places you’ve never been, loves you’ve never had and all the things you wished you had done…i love you. you got this. fly high, baby.”
I broke up with my girlfriend, quit my job at the magazine, let the lease on my apartment run out, and told all my friends I was really truly leaving New York again. Then, at the end of August, I did.
This is the part of the story where everything gets tricky, because while leaving is hard it’s actually easier than figuring out what happens next. I am used to leaving. My parents left South Africa when I was four and then left Canada when I was 10. Seven years later I left Boston to go to school in New York, and then I left to study abroad in London and then I left again to spend a year in Israel. When I called one of my close friends from high school this summer to let her know I was planning to leave New York again, she didn’t sound surprised at all. “Frankly, I was shocked you’d managed to stay put for so long.” I’d been in New York for just under two years this time. It’s true, I get itchy feet. The sexy name is wanderlust but when you move past the desire to the hard parts of leaving it doesn’t always feel sexy. Another close friend who gets the same itches described it like this: “My heart feels like it beats in places I don’t know, so I have to go there and find it, ya know?” I do know. Some of us must be wired differently. It doesn’t matter how much I love a place or the people there who make it home. And I do, love the people, so much. I miss every person who has ever meant anything to me. But in spite of that love, I pick up and go, over and over and over. I’m not looking for something better; if that were the case I would never leave. I’m looking for something new. Stories. Adventures. Pieces of me I haven’t found yet and won’t ever find if I stay put. So even when it’s hard, I always go.
I’ve spent the past three and a half months plotting to go, properly. When I left New York I moved back in with my parents in a suburb close to Boston, to clear my head and work as a part-time nanny and save money and figure out what I mean when I say I want an adventure. I have spent a lot of time questioning if I really am being brave. I’m scared. What if I’m not brave or interesting or smart? What if I’m lying, what if I’m boring and lazy and a bad writer? What if this was all a mistake?
Now it’s December and I don’t feel like I’ve figured anything out. But I promised myself I’d be gone by January 1, 2014, and I’m going. I have a plane ticket to Israel booked for December 30, and after that everything is a question mark. It’s unlike me not to have a plan – the only thing as consistent as my tendency to leave is my absolute obsession with orchestrating what comes next – but I have decided that 2014 is both my year of not knowing and being okay with not knowing. I’m going to see what opportunities come my way. I’m going to say yes. I’m going to find beauty on the journey.
Which brings me to the part where I leave you. Because yes, leaving everything behind means Autostraddle, too. Part of what prompted this particular urge to go is the feeling that I’ve got to get away from the wires and the waves and the anchors tying me to computers and deadlines and things I can’t touch. I’m not taking my laptop on this journey. My mom is insisting I take a phone for emergencies but I don’t want to stand in coffee shops praying for wi-fi. I want to meet new people face to face and erase things like “SEO” and “pageviews” and “TweetDeck” from my memory, at least for now. A person who means a lot to me once explained that she deleted her Facebook for some time to heal her brain. I don’t think technology is bad and I don’t think we should denounce it all, but I do think as we keep adopting more and more of it we’ll start realizing we need to actively cleanse ourselves of it from time to time because it does change our brain in ways that can hurt. Or maybe we won’t all have to do that, but some of us will. I do.
I’m stepping offline for a little while. I will stop updating my Twitter and my Tumblr and I’ll let my gmail inbox get unruly and also, most relevantly for this particular essay, I will step down from my position as Straddleverse Editor and I will stop writing for Autostraddle for some time. And when I tell you that there are tears running down my face as I type this, please believe me, because when I say this community means more to me than anything else in the world, I am telling the truth. So many things have changed since I decided to leave New York earlier this year – almost everything has changed, actually – but that remains true. That will always be true.
When I found Autostraddle I was so lost. I thought I might like girls but I questioned myself constantly because it wasn’t something I had known about myself forever, and I didn’t think I had been born this way. It felt more like a decision, or a choice, and I didn’t know if I was allowed to make it. Who was I to call myself queer, with my long hair and my floral print dresses and the laundry list of men I had kissed and dated and fucked and loved. I read the site for months before making a commenter account and even then I signed up as “V,” not “Vanessa,” because I was scared someone I knew in my real life would see my comments and laugh at me. Not because I was gay – I come from a liberal town and went to an extremely queer-friendly university – but because they would say I wasn’t. I didn’t feel like the old me but I wasn’t sure what the new me looked like either, and I definitely didn’t think I had any agency in creating her. But I did. We all do. “I didn’t evolve, I changed,” Riese once wrote, in my favorite essay she has ever written. It’s true. I changed into the person I am, and it is entirely because of this community. And now I am going to take that person out into the world, and it is entirely thanks to all of you that I am brave enough to go.
I feel so privileged to have spent the past year and a half getting to know all of you. When Rachel, Laneia and Riese wrote to the new contributing editors in July 2012, offering us all positions at Autostraddle, they said: “You have something to offer the readers — it’s your job to figure out what that is and then do it justice. We’re so excited to see how you choose to use your space at Autostraddle!” I worried at the time, wondering what exactly I had to offer the readers. Autostraddle was a space that had given so much to me; how exactly would I give back?
Taking on my beat as “community cheerleader” and eventually becoming Straddleverse Editor happened organically. I love people, and I love connecting with inspiring humans, and I love love love cultivating the incredible community that we have. I don’t know what it’s like to be the community editor at other websites, but it doesn’t feel as though my role at Autostraddle is just another job. Maybe that’s why it feels impossible to quit, unlike my day job at the magazine which felt very easy to leave. Autostraddle is my home, my family, my community. Autostraddle has allowed me to become me.
When I say I have learned so much about being a person from every single one of you, it doesn’t feel hyperbolic. My Straddler On The Street interviews inspired this adventure. It was after speaking with Jillian that I got it into my head that I could go farm, and Thea made me feel like not knowing exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life was okay. Juliet encouraged adventure. Grace urged me to seize the day. Lex inspired me to stay creative. Jaime made me consider visiting the South. Julia forced me to reevaluate my perceptions of my own body. Tiara validated my ideas about maintaining one’s self in a relationship, and just recently Connie reminded me to stay present and focus on enjoying the now, because we never know what the future holds. You have all taught me so many lessons.
I am grateful to Riese, Laneia, and Rachel for letting me write this, because I wanted to say goodbye. I didn’t want to disappear on December 30 and leave you wondering why I left, or if I’ll ever come back, or why I so rudely ignored your email submission for Straddler On The Street. I’m leaving because I have to, I’m coming back one day because I already know I’m going to miss you, and I’m not ignoring your email – I still want to interview every single one of you, and if you can wait a while, I promise I will.
I don’t know how to say goodbye, so I’m gonna skip that part. I’ll say thanks instead. Thank you, Autostraddle community, for helping me become a person who is brave. I love you, and I’ll see you soon. In the meantime, I’ll be wishing all of you endless beauty on your journeys. You deserve it. We all do.