Before I moved to Missoula, Montana—halfway between Denver and Seattle and a long way from anywhere—my social circles were limited. I’d lived in bigger, more diverse places with deeper pools to pick from, yet I’d tended toward friends who were my own age or with whom I shared a common bond over something solid—like education, geography or sport—and I hadn’t reached very far outside my comfort zone when looking for friends.
But things were different in Missoula. Missoula’s population is colorful, eccentric and dynamic. Boundaries that exist in other places are non-existent in Missoula, where I became friends with felons and strippers, addicts and people in recovery, homeless folks and millionaires hiding out. I learned a lot about people and their goodness. I discovered that virtue, values, and humility wear a lot of different costumes.
I made friends with a woman originally from South Africa who’d lived in many exotic places before following a man back to Missoula. (Moving to Missoula for a man doesn’t make a woman exotic, and is more cliche than not. But that, my friends, is a story for a different day.) She had a clothing company and organized parties where she’d display her designs around wine and cheese. The label on her designs said NKA, which I found out stood for No Known Address
At that point I’d moved a fair amount, but my moves had been organized, calculated, and based more on common sense than on whims. Even my limbo had a method to its madness. Now: not so much. At last count I’ve had thirty-five addresses.
It occurred to me the other day that I’m about to change my address for the third time this year. When fall turned to winter I was in Missoula, but heading for San Cristobal. When winter turned to spring I prepared to leave for Naples. And now, spring has just turned to summer and I’m preparing to leave again. But this time it’s different: I’ve planned a summer of visiting and there’s no one destination. I will use my mother’s address for my mail, but as it stands right now I have No Known Address.
I’m fairly certain that a few things will get lost in the mail, which brings me to the title of this post: My Essence is Lost in The Mail. It’s not, of course, because that’s impossible. An essence isn’t something that can be lost. It’s what’s realized when everything else—like an address, a job, a home base—is stripped away. The greatest gift we can discover about ourselves is who we really are. What fires our engines? What feels right when we’re doing it and wrong when we’re not? Who are we when we’re vulnerable? (Note: by vulnerable I do not mean weak…)
I’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time writing these past six months, which means I’ve been alone, and because I left Missoula to do this I haven’t had the opportunity to walk out my door to be surrounded by familiar faces and places. In my aloneness and vulnerability I’ve discovered a lot about myself, and one of those has to do with my ability to trust.
I’ll do almost anything for a person—even someone I barely know—unless (or until) I discover that person is untrustworthy. Over twenty years ago a friend described me as someone who’ll be “Your best friend until she’s not,” and I think it’s still spot-on. Translation: I trust out of the gate, but I’m not a doormat.
Two and a half years ago I was working as a waitress and a woman came in alone and ate and drank, but when the time came to pay her bill she realized she didn’t have her wallet. I paid her bill and trusted that she’d pay me back in a couple of days when she found her wallet or got to the bank. It wasn’t that seamless, and I wrote about that experience and the ensuing mayhem HERE last October.
People told me to let it go, reminded me that it wasn’t even about the money, and all sorts of things I already knew, but I really wanted to give Nicole a chance to make right on her promise to pay me back. I didn’t want to pencil a tick mark in the “people suck” column. In the interim Nicole and I have exchanged some words that haven’t always been kind, but we moved beyond it. She told me that she simply doesn’t have the money to pay me, but that she’s been designing earrings to raise money for a permaculture project and wanted to send me a pair, not in lieu of payment, but as a wearable-art gift, and I was delighted. Because really: it’s not about the sixty bucks. It’s about accountability.
(NOTE: I’d go without food to pay someone back, but the fastest road to disappointment is expecting people to act the way you want them to act or to do things they way you would. Ain’t gonna happen…)
Nicole and I recognized some similarities in each other and accepted a few differences. We started to really speak to each other and acknowledged the likelihood that we could have been friends if we hadn’t had our “misunderstanding.” I made an about-face and went back to trusting, which is a state I’m more comfortable with than doubt.
Nicole’s earrings are made from recycled materials and incorporate stones and bits from around the world. She told me she was making a pair for me that symbolize “my essence” and I wasn’t sure what that meant–we hardly know each other–but I liked the concept and appreciated the effort. She told me she’d just gotten her hands on some materials that came from South America and wanted to incorporate them into my gift and I started to wonder about my essence weighing down my ear lobes, but still…Trust, right?
She gave me a choice between hammered silver or copper and it was a tough call, but I told her to make the decision because I couldn’t and anything representing my essence was bound to work, right? Three months later—and preparing for another change of address note to the USPS—the earrings representing my essence hadn’t arrived, and to be honest I’d forgotten about them. Last week I wrote an email to my friend Emily, who has been a part of this journey with Nicole and me (and my journey at large), and I said, “It looks like my essence is lost in the mail.”
I was mad at Nicole for a minute, but got over it and wrote to her to tell her I’d be moving on soon. I mean, when the earrings representing my essence travel across the country I want them to be able to locate me. Nicole let me know that she’s still working on the earrings and has one more piece she wants to add. She told me “the essence continues to brew and evolve” and will look great with my hair and skin. I sent her my mother’s address and three emojis: the flamenco dancer, the crystal ball, and the setting sun. And that was it.
One thing that Nicole and I chatted about during our “make up texting” was that we’re both from the east and we’ve both traveled a lot, and that all of the places you’ve been make you who you are, but at the core you’re still you regardless of geography. There’s only one person who can write and sign your permission slip for authenticity.
Yes, it can be easier to let your freak flag fly in a place like Missoula, and easier to lose it in a place where most of the population dresses like every day is Easter. Or not. Your essence—your boiled down version of yourself—isn’t something you can lose or gain. Not in the mail, in the air or in affairs of the heart. Your essence can be masked, hidden, and disguised, but what it boils down to each and every time is choice. Are you going to be you or are you going to try to be someone else? What feels genuine? In the end there’s no hiding and the truth flushes out: Wherever you go, there you are.
It’s you in your glasses and sweatpants, it’s you blown out and dressed up, it’s you crying because you’re happy and laughing because you’re scared. It’s you at your best and your worst and the line in between is in sand, which means, of course, there’s no line at all.
There are infinite ways to define essence, but one thing remains true: it’s not something you can lose. Not even if you try.
Emily said recently, “Limbo is not a destination,” and I inhaled her words. Limbo can be ignorance or it can be bliss. It can be fleeting or it can be agonizingly protracted. It can be a state that is emotional or physical. It can be scary in a feet-off-the-ground, head-in-the-clouds way, but it can also be that beautiful moment right before you make a decision to go in one direction or another. As Willie Nelson says:
“Still is still moving to me and I swim like a fish in the sea all the time/But if that’s what it takes to be free I don’t mind/Still is still moving to me.”
I employed a therapist during the final month of editing the second draft of NOT WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR because I needed a little help making sense of my past and my future. Truth be told, I needed a little grounding. He gave me a lot of valuable advice, but one thing that’s come up repeatedly is this: “When you don’t know where you are or what you’re doing look down at your two feet. That is where you are right now, and right now is all that matters.”
Right now is all that matters
Emily and I are both writers who support each other in a process that is dauntingly solitary. It helps to know there’s someone else out there fighting the same good fight. We’ve talked about blogging on the same topic before, and this is our kickoff to that. Please go check out Em’s blog at for her take on “My Essence is Lost in The Mail.”