To open, I happily admit to fiercely loving every one of my friends’ babies. Furthermore, each and every partner or spouse my friends have found is a wonderful addition to the circle of people I love. And I am friends with some of the greatest people on earth, and there are more in my tribe every year. I have learned more about what to look for, work for, wait and hope for, in a good partner from my nested-pair friends than I’ll ever be able to explain. Similarly, as my generation begins to re-people the world, I am breathlessly grateful to witness what soft-stern molten forms love must take to raise a mewling infant into a kind human.
I am constantly amazed at how the heart expands to hold all that we cannot help but love.
Nevertheless, when I am cranky and my calendar seems heavy with baby due dates and weddings, I am full of a strained combination of irritation and disgust.
Of course this unkind and selfish sentiment covers fear, of course it covers loneliness, of course it covers my most terrifying nightmare that as the cast of my world shifts and changes, my role in it all disappears.
There are countless ways in which I am lucky. For most of the life I have been responsible for, I have stitched in and out of beautiful pocket communities, all filled with other adventurers and seekers of something. In some ways, everyone ran away to join the circus, but what we found was not lions in cages and fat ladies singing on Ferris wheels, but each other and ourselves.
And perhaps, to the world outside the circus, outside the woods and waters, the summer camps and mountain lodges and matatus and travelers’ hostels and tight communities of seasonal jobs, we were the sideshow freaks, the ones who don’t quite fit, who allegedly lack linear drive or profitable ambition or understanding of civic duties, gender norms, and grown-up responsibilities.
But it didn’t matter, then, because we all had something like each other, and the knowledge that we weren’t alone in scampering from place to place, person to person, purpose to purpose trying anything and everything that might fit. We had that, and we had the smug and gleeful comfort of being modern Kerouacs and Abbeys and Caulfields—wandering and not letting the best parts of ourselves be devoured by the somnambulant phonies outside our circus tents. We were—we are—kind people and responsible citizens, even if our resumes are eclectic and our moral fiber suspiciously unmainstream.
Life at the circus itself is frequently terrifying—choices yawn up and demand to be made and all the hungry tigers of emotional insecurity are barely caged. There is also, in that rawness, a sort of wildness—perhaps just selfish adrenaline—that is beautiful. And, with nothing else to tie any of us down, we spent hours agonizing and analyzing and dreaming up the next thing. Several friends and I used to sit down regularly for life crisis meetings. We’d get out our lists and scraps of paper with ideas and just talk everything out for hours. It was exhausting, it is exhausting, but it is rarely boring in the way that mature life patterns frighten me with the specter of living in a rut—even a cozy one—for the next seventy years.
What I miss, what I fear will disappear under the nests and onesies of my lovely erstwhile circus folk, is both the willingness to adventure and the support of fellow wanderers. For very good reason, the circus is emptying at a distressing rate.
When there are a lot of us marching around outside the box of normal adulthood, we were a community of gypsies. When there are few, well, it does begin to feel like one is a freak.
And we’re not—those of us still a little unmoored at the circus—freaks or rejects or somehow emotionally or relationship-ally disfigured. We’re just not where the majority are, and that is a damn fine and damn scary place to be.
It seems like I blinked and when I opened my eyes most people I love have found something or someone or someplace that fit better than they’d ever found before, and their wanderings slow or change key. Suddenly, my people have started businesses, written books, built houses, had children, put on plays, fallen in love with a right person, become doctors, and all the rest of their kaleidoscope of talents. Whereas, I don’t find myself very much closer to solid guesses about the shape of my life than I had when I was ironing out scraps of post-it notes to share with friends across internet café tables. I don’t want to stop casting about for what fits and works, but I also don’t want to straggle when everyone else is somehow home.
It would be boring if we all went to the same places, is something that I tell myself when another shot of a beautiful engagement ring pops up, when another perfect baby arrives, when more houses are built and bought and made into homes, when more and more friends seem to get where they wanted and strove to go.
The home and the writing of books, I know that I want. The ring and babies I don’t know if I do. The person on the other side of the ring, the other side of the babies, to make the home with—that I’m much more sure of wanting. Before everyone began pairing up so solidly, I felt a little like we all belonged to each other in some way, a circus family. And, of course, there is the belonging to blood family and close friends that transcends all later-comers and all time. But it is different, being friends, when the nesting pairs start to cozy off. A dear friend reminded me last winter that those sorts of relationships take time and effort and can be very hard, but there is such reward for the time spent that free hours spool away to nurture that relationship above all others.
And I love that for my friends, that they have a person who will be their champion, steward, cheerleader, lover and boxing coach. I want to see those relationships work; I do not want my wonderful friends—or anyone—to feel lonesome and alone on cold nights. While I know that there can still be some loneliness in the richest partnership and that it is much simpler to speak patly and plurally as "we" than it is to merge independently minded gypsy selves into those two small letters, there is the sense of, hope of warmth and security amid the reality.
Of course I have bouts of bitterness, of jealousy, of insecurity, of fearful suspicion that—having been in love with a few good men and bruised my heart deeply in the process—my chances are all up, or that it is because of something deeply broken in me that I am so frequently the third or fifth or seventh wheel. Mostly, I worry that I missed a crucial developmental step that makes me unable to progress in any decisive and driven way, that I’ll spend my life as basically twenty-three years old and longing for gypsy friends, creative revolt, and a home in the wilderness, but somehow never committing enough to get anywhere and never being satisfied with where I am. Meanwhile, my friends will—as the heart demands—commit to caring for the life they’ve chosen or found and spend more and more time on their passion-fueled work and nests and hatchlings.
When I feel like this, I like to get in touch with my other un-nested pair friends. There are other people out there who do understand both loving the nested ones and the babies, and why being questioned about your local emergency contact can bring on an emotional funk. Who struggle with wanting to be held, but not hobbled. And that it’s fine and healthy to feel both. We are happy, being mostly free to do as we please—from eating ice cream for dinner to contemplating moving to Antarctica or starting a band or explaining our actions to no one—but we also have darker commiseration about how the world operates in binary, and that if one isn’t two-by-two, the mistake is transmitted as either a personal flaw or a fixed decision.
Being a party of one is neither. What looks like a yawning gap of lonesome unknown one day is the thrilling beckon of the wild another day.
Beyond the personal insecurity, I miss the feeling of belonging to a group of creative-thinkers and adventurous doers—revolutions and world rebuilding seems possible, over those confused piles of scrappy dreams. I believe that my nested-friends’ ideals are no less exciting and radiant than they ever were, but it is different to bounce ideas about writing books of poetry or confounding climate change around with people who are circumstantially more attuned to questions of bath time or if they should change their name after marriage.
I have learned, lately, more fully what happens when family changes demand the priorities of your energy, of your heart. All other things necessarily slip by the wayside when you are needed, when you need. We all juggle our own hearts unblinkingly for the deepest people in our lives people. I can readily see—emotionally and biologically—how dreams of a communal revolution, of a gypsy circus are subverted by the sweet and demanding realities of traditional adult milestones.
Perhaps fear of being pulled further from my wanderings is why I hold out at the circus: I am selfish and don’t want to find my passions subverted before they’ve been realized or to lose the vibrancy that there is with brilliant confused loved ones striving together towards something, even individual somethings. The force of will, the hunger, to not accept should and normal and anyone else’s expectation of your own behavior—this is a beautiful thing. I’ve been told it is adolescent, that I have some disturbing Peter Pan like tendencies, that I need to pull my shit together, accept—or just make—the necessary compromises, and the like. But I cannot see why growing up must follow a set pattern, why being an adult means leaving the circus, leaving the spark of imagining something different than what is behind.
This, all of this, is just a note to the others at the circus to say: you are not alone. We are not alone.