People have stories about themselves. What they can and can’t do. I had a bible full of these things. In the Old Testament, I couldn’t live anywhere without public transportation, because I can’t drive. I couldn’t take care of myself, because there was an email to respond to or a friend to see or an empty barstool somewhere, waiting. I couldn’t live alone, because I have bad credit and plus was afraid I’d fail at the maintenance of living: the purchasing of Windex before the old bottle runs dry and the setting up of utility bills and then the paying of them, the choosing of furniture and the feng-shui. In living alone, my tolerance for mess would be exposed, amplified. In living alone, I would not cook or clean or take out the garbage when it was time to take out the garbage because there would be no one to impress, no witnesses. I would let the sink overflow with stained dishes and decorate my nightstand with glasses of stale water because that’s who I’ve been, I’ve seen it myself, that’s what I do.
In the Old Testament, I had to sit at a desk from 8–6, traditional job or no, and take on every work opportunity, exciting or no, because financial security was more important to me than considering why financial security was so important to me. More important than anything else. Of course I wanted good health, happiness, passion — but work is science, a math problem, I could solve it, I could follow a formula and predict the outcome. The other components of a well-balanced life, I tasted them just often enough to feel satisfied. To trick myself into believing that these were fleeting states, would always be, why chase them. They’ll come back and they’ll leave again and let’s not get too attached to joy/love/exhilaration, here. They’re not tangible. I can’t invoice for self-actualization. There is no direct deposit for fulfillment.
The month before I moved to California, I unraveled. I had begun to see a therapist earlier in the summer because I had zero confidence I could make a cross-country move alone. Relying so heavily on others will do that to you. I relied on people for rides, to navigate foreign vacations and also domestic ones, to remind me I was capable even when I already had evidence that was the case. And now I was relying on this therapist. I needed someone to witness me, evaluate the data, and conclude that yes, I could figure out how to ship my belongings and find an apartment and get from place to place without the MTA. I could learn to drive, just like most 16-year-olds. I could be independent.
I grew more confident with every session, but in that last month — even with most of the arrangements confirmed and my former bedroom half empty — I relapsed on insecurity. I spent entire days in bed and occasionally, on the floor, which I hadn’t mopped once in the year I’d lived in my apartment. On one particular floor morning, I played Jim Croce’s “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” on repeat for an hour, sobbing over the dissolution of my relationship and dreading the idea that in a few week’s time, I’d be doing the same, but on the carpeted floor of some stranger’s Airbnb, thousands of miles from my support system. I texted a friend: “Should I just pull a fake out and move to Hudson with you,” “I wish I could just leave all my crap here and be like jk going to Europe,” “I guess I kind of have to look at it as anything’s better than staying here.” As much as I hated the Old Testament restrictions, they were familiar. They were bleak, and they drenched my heart in stomach acid, and sometimes they made me jerk awake from the brink of sleep because I felt certain what was coming wasn’t rest, but death. Still, it was all familiar. Not like Los Angeles.
And then I arrived at my Airbnb and we had a bit of a honeymoon, me and L.A. A “vacation period,” which is a term I learned from my ex, who learned it from a therapist. That Oz-like feeling where you’re addicted to the newness and the color. I’d reduced my workload to make time for apartment hunting, and I was a guest in someone else’s home and also, in other people’s lives, and everything was so out-of-control transitory that whatever I did was without consequence: eating out every meal, and walking for miles down Sunset Boulevard, and deciding a day in advance to join a friend on an overnight trip to Vegas. On that drive, surrounded by this expanse of desert with nothing to see but grey sky for miles, I had a first-time thought. “We’re free,” I told my friend, who was (obviously) driving. He was used to freedom, so I continued, “I didn’t have to tell anyone I was coming here. I didn’t have to rearrange my schedule or give notice or even think about it. All I had to do was say yes. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.”
But wasn’t I always free to make my own decisions? I have no family to consider, no boss to report to, negligible debt. It was me who chose where to live, who to live with, where to work, who to love. It was me who defaulted to the Seamless app, me who glommed onto a more holistic lifestyle in theory but not in practice. I did all of that, growing miserable with the results while accepting them as gospel. I organized my arbitrary priorities and abided them, the laws of my one-woman island. I wrote the pages I was tired of reading. Classic sunk-cost fallacy. I had devoted so much time to telling myself the story of what I could and couldn’t do, how could I possibly abandon it now?
I spent one lawless month in that Airbnb, waiting for the New Testament to arrive. Living in Los Angeles gave me a glimpse into my future life, one that was on pause until I found my own place. I hung my clothes in my temporary closet and when I ran out of hangers, left the suitcases on the floor like open-faced sandwiches. I bought Babybel cheese and applesauce and squeezed them onto refrigerator shelves bursting with food that didn’t belong to me. I sat by Echo Park Lake and listened to an 11-part podcast about the Manson Family, read books at The Holloway, fell in love with the herbal aisle at Lassens, knowing this neighborhood could either be a one-month stand or something like home.
It ended up being the latter. Despite my bad credit, I was approved for a junior apartment on Sunset. It has exposed brick and a huge closet with shelving on top for the books I refused to Marie Kondo out of my life. The apartment is like a studio, but with a bathroom so far from everything that guests can comfortably shit without destroying the bedroom. My bathtub is deep, the kind you can actually take a bath in: good, because in the New Testament I take baths. Long ones, with Epsom salt and bath bombs I made in my kitchen (they are hideous, but they work). At first I only took baths on Sunday evenings, but now I take them whenever I have an idle hour. I have a tray that extends from one side of the tub to the other, on which I keep my vape, my phone, a glass of wine or a can of LaCroix, depending on time of day, and a candle that smells like the woods. I prop my laptop up on a trash can and watch reruns of Catfish. Sometimes I wear a facial mask. This makes the Old Testament laugh. Old Testament is side-eyeing me right now. What about work? And Gchat? What about eye strain and back pain? What about the illusion that the world needs all of you, every second, and you’re sitting here taking a fucking bath?
That’s not all I do. I make my bed. I never made it before because other people told me I should, that it’s an easy way to feel better. I don’t like people presuming what will make me feel better, or maybe I just didn’t want to feel better, but now I do. I cook myself breakfast and lunch and I clean the dishes afterward, usually the countertop and stovetop, too. I don’t want to invite bugs, although when they do come over, I don’t kill them. I know they’ll leave and come back again. I sweep and mop and clean my fingerprints from the bathroom mirror — not once a week but as soon as it needs to be done. I don’t dress my chairs in outfits I’ve tried on and rejected, or litter every surface with half-empty beer bottles. That’s Old Testament shit.
In the New Testament, I take vitamins each morning and night, not just when I’m sick. I drink apple cider vinegar and aloe vera gel and green tea with garlic-infused honey. I sleep eight hours. I use the cocoa butter and beeswax and glycerin and coconut/almond/jojoba oil and citric acid and oatmeal soap base and essential oils I accumulated in Brooklyn when I dreamt up the person I was supposed to be, and I make things. Soaps, chapsticks. The hideous bath bombs. I set up accounts, pay bills. I address concerns with the building manager. I play the records my dad gave me, the ones that collected cobwebs on the bottom shelf of my bookcase back east. I do the laundry. And I work.
In the New Testament, I realize my obsession with work was not just about financial security. It was about value, validation, adding something to a world I only seemed to take from. It was a distraction. It gave me an excuse to not take care of myself or my surroundings, an excuse to never become the person I knew I’d be if I only had time. I was too busy! Working! Maintaining a social life! Drinking! In truth, I was afraid to morph into a more balanced me — what if that person had no value? Did I really want to find out?
Turns out that’s an empty fear. Value is mutable and more importantly, subjective. The only value I can possibly be aware of is the value I assign to myself. And I value the me who knows when the Clorox wipes are about to run out more than the me who eschewed cleaning altogether to scroll through Tumblr and call it part of the work day. I value the me who can sleep through the night without Xanax and Zantac and anxiety-induced heartburn tearing at my lungs.
All told, I’m not less productive than I was in New York. I just consider balance to be part of my work. Changing my stories from “can or can’t do” to “will or won’t do” is part of my work. And I had to move for that to happen. I had to be alone with a blank space and for the first time fill it without preordained priorities, without reliable familiarity, without someone telling me I am capable.
In the New Testament, I am my own witness.