In praise of digital relationships, romantic and otherwise

Earlier tonight, as I prepared to go to bed, I looked up a few old schoolmates on Facebook. People to whom I was never particularly close, even then. The ones I found were nearly strangers to me. I have nothing in common with them now, and the only thing I had in common with them then was geography. Even that wasn’t exactly a matter of agency, given that we lived where our parents had chosen to live.

I’ve long rejected the notion that friendships and relationships should be based on geography. Obviously you’ll eventually want to meet your closest online friends and especially your online romantic interests, and romantic partners would ultimately relocate for each other. But choosing a friend or a partner based on elementary school or high school or even college always seemed needlessly limited to me. I know many people who found their long-term partners in school; I wasn’t one of them. And while I do retain close friendships with many people with whom I went to school, I have just as many close friends whom I met through various online means, based on our mutual interests.

Because of my shyness and, to use the technical term, resting bitch face, I’ve long had difficulty getting close to people I meet first in person. I know that I come off as a bit awkward and aloof. I communicate much better in writing. Even my co-workers compliment my humor and wit in our office chat program. So it makes sense that someone like me would more easily forge written-based relationships. 

One of my best friends now is someone I’d have never met at all, in person or otherwise, were it not for our mutual love of Harry Potter and various other geekery. We crossed paths online over five years ago and up to this point we’ve visited each other and we regularly chat long-distance about other things: cooking, pets, work, moving. I talk to her about things I’d talk to any true friend about in person.

My current long-distance partner (soon to, in a few weeks, hopefully become my short-distance partner for a few days at least) approached me because he admired my online writing about, of all things, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” That was six months ago and we’ve been talking non-stop ever since. Though I’m eager to see him, I don’t consider what we have to be inherently less meaningful because it’s mostly based on written communication.

Finally, the peril of going to school in the Midwest and in England and living on the East Coast is that nearly all of my friends, even if they began as in-person friends, became long-distance friends. Written communication is absolutely essential, whether it’s a tweet, email, text, Facebook message or something else. This is what helps me sustain my friendships, because the vast majority of my friends live hundreds or thousands of miles away.

I have more in common with a handful of people thousands of miles away in England than I do with a handful of people in Kansas with whom I shared a few years of schooling 20-odd years ago. It’s worth it to me to forsake in-person interactions for the time being in exchange for a deeper emotional attachment through writing. I wouldn’t trade a day’s worth of emails with my partner for 50 middling OKCupid dates in D.C.

But I am excited to see him, though …

In search of “home”

I do some of my best thinking on the Metro. There’s nothing to do, really, except think and go over things in my mind.

My little epiphany this morning was in my realization that, while I can safely say that I don’t feel much emotional attachment to where I grew up — without my friends and parents and other family there, I’d have no reason to go back — I also don’t have that many roots in D.C., despite living here for a year and a half. I think deep down, I see my time here as temporary and transient. Will it end up being so? Maybe. Maybe not. Plenty of people in D.C. planned to stay for a year or two, and lo, 30 years pass and they’re still here.

Then I thought about what makes a home. How do you decide to lay down roots? When should you decide? Should you fall in love with a place, and stay out of love for that place, or should you fall in love with a person, and lay roots with them wherever? I don’t think it’s too much to ask to love someone and stay with them in a place that you’d love even if you weren’t with them. I hope to be so fortunate.

I’m also not sure that time expended counts toward a feeling of home. I still think of England as “home” on some occasions, despite only living there for two years. On the one hand, almost two decades in the Midwest hadn’t done much to solidify nostalgia for that place. The jury’s still out on D.C., I have a certain fondness for it, but can’t help this nagging feeling that it too is just a pit stop on the road to … somewhere else.

Traveling is something I have to do, almost compulsively. Even my trips that get planned months in advance receive almost obsessive attention. Is my travel bug some subconscious method of “scouting” a possible home? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m destined to just be a wanderer, moving here and there whenever I manage to overcome inertia.

At the end of the day, I think a true home has to combine both people and location. It’s not enough to live somewhere you love if you have no one to share it with, and it’s not enough to be with someone you love if the location makes you miserable or unhappy.

Wish me luck eventually finding that happy balance.

The Hierarchy of Needs

Earlier today one of my friends shared an … edited … version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The base — the broadest, most pressing immediate need — was Wi-Fi. Some days, that’s a very accurate assessment.

Maslow’s hierarchy should be familiar to anyone who took a high school psych class, ever. The actual base is physiological fulfillment: food, water, warmth. Next is stability and security. Love — friendly, familial, romantic — is in the middle. After that comes self-esteem and respect. Self-actualization is the highest point. The idea is that you have to fulfill the lower needs before you can fulfill the higher ones.

Marking my one-year anniversary, both at my job and in D.C., has lately gotten me to start reevaluating my needs and what I want out of my life. Despite seeing so many of my friends starting families, I reaffirm to myself that that’s something I want, but only when the timing is right. It’s not something to do just to tick off a box.

I guess the hardest part of climbing the pyramid is figuring out what self-actualization, on an individual level, actually means. Some days I’m afraid that maybe I’m doomed to be a nomad, shifting from place to place without ever putting down real roots. Then I think of staying in any one place forever, and I can’t breathe. So it’s a pull in opposite directions: fear of loneliness on the one hand, fear of being trapped somewhere on the other.

Ultimately, I think, self-actualization (and the accompanying feeling that you’re where you’re meant to be, doing what you’re meant to do, with whom you’re meant to be) is probably like being in love. When you’re there, you know. And if you have to second-guess yourself, look for exits or wonder if you’re there, you’re not.

So for now, until I do get that feeling of actualization and permanency, I’m going to embrace my nomadic nature and appreciate people and places that I know are probably fleeting. And when I get to the “right” place, I’ll know.

Overcoming a mental block

This is very hard to write about, but I think that if I do, I’ll feel better about it.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to loosen up and let go and just let things happen. I like being in control of myself and having a plan, knowing what I’m going to do, and when, and how. But it’s hard to do that when another person is involved. So right off the bat, that lack of control is kind of frightening. At the same time, I have to respect the other party and accept that in this situation, I’m along for the ride.

I’m pretty personally bruised in this area, having been hurt deeply before. It’s been more than a year and I’m still not sure I’m completely over it or if I’ll ever be. But I don’t want it to affect my future with anyone else, and part of making sure that doesn’t happen is overcoming this sense of dread. This fear that at any moment, the other shoe will drop and I’ll be left alone, that I’m unlovable or not worth the effort. That other women are more interesting, or friendlier, more outgoing, prettier, or otherwise superior to me. It hits me at varying times: on the subway, at night in bed, when I walk to the Metro.

It’s a sick, nagging feeling. I have to tamp it down every day. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t. I try not to let this persistent sense of self-doubt affect the new things, but it’s hard. And I’m terrified of explaining how and why I often feel this way, lest I prove myself right.

I just have to keep at it, keep blocking out the noise and realizing what I really do have to offer.

(Baked goods.)