Aren't we most ready for love when we've first done all we can to fill our own hearts?
It's after hanging up with Animal Poison Control for the second time in one week that I start to seriously question my life choices. In an attempt to save money on absurdly high San Francisco rent by pet-sitting, I've nearly killed a nice family's dog and their cat while they obliviously travel around Morocco. I'm working as a freelance writer, making enough money to get by but not much more. I don't know where I'm going to live after next week. And I'm dating a man who rides a skateboard and unabashedly uses the word "tits."
As I glance at the normally sprightly cat, who accidentally overdosed on thyroid pills hours ago and hasn't budged from the beanbag chair since, a wave of panic rises in my chest. Two days earlier, the dog scarfed down a bar of dark chocolate in a matter of seconds, leaving the wrapper in shreds on the floor. What if they die? What am I doing? I should be married by now. I should have a stable, high-paying career. I should be taking care of children with a husband in a home we've built together, but instead I'm caring for strangers' pets in a city far from home, and clearly not doing a good job even of that.
How did I get here?
Somewhere in my early twenties — a pocket of time when I was blissfully certain that my life was going to turn out exactly as I was picturing it — I decided there were just two things I really wanted out of life: adventure and love.
First, adventure. I would pack as much exploration and variety into my life as humanly possible. I would travel constantly, live in many different cities, and work at all kinds of jobs. I'd meet people from every corner of the world, and have enough unique experiences to feel that I'd crammed several micro-lives into my one.
Second, I would find a Great Love. Someone who'd understand me, challenge me, and embrace my imperfections. I'd take care of him, and we would share everything. We'd build a life together then live it happily ever after, and we'd have a bunch of kids along the way.
It never occurred to me to wonder whether my two goals might be at odds with one another, or even mutually exclusive.
Ten years in, my life has been replete with adventure and variety. I've lived in seven cities in three different countries, shedding possessions and attachments like dry skin, moving more often than anyone I know. In 2015 alone, to my grandchildless parents' horror, I moved four times.
I've been a financial analyst, an auditor, an accountant, a language teacher, a recruiter, a ski bum, a surf bum, a marketing associate, a content manager, a freelance writer, a graduate student, and a volunteer. Many of the choices I've made have hinged on enabling freedom of schedule and location: short-term leases, contract jobs, careful budgeting. The vast majority of my income goes towards travel, and I never bypass an opportunity to jump on a plane.
Love, however — of the romantic, monogamous, long-term variety — hasn't been so rosy. Milestones on my track record include: a broken engagement. An on-again/off-again romance that, while deeply passionate, never quite developed into a stable relationship. An ecstatic certainty that I'd finally found my Great Love, followed by abject heartache upon realizing I had not. And dozens upon dozens of first dates, classified on a spectrum from bland to excruciating.
Friends and relatives offer me the same advice (sometimes solicited, sometimes not): Stop traveling so much. Stop moving around. Stop trying to do so many different things. You can't expect to settle down with someone if you're not settled down yourself. Pick a place, establish a life, then love will come.
Are they right? All this time, have I been sabotaging one of my dreams by chasing the other?
While it would be remiss to blame my singleness exclusively on wanderlust, it has undeniably affected my relationships, and my lack thereof. Sitting with my latest date in my latest location, I explain that, well, I sort of live here, but not really, and I'm not sure how long I'll be here for, because it kind of depends how things go, and if another option comes up or the weather gets bad I might end up leaving, and... they hesitate. They're reluctant to invest in an option that sounds so risky. More often than not, it doesn't matter, because I'm gone before we've had a chance to get to know each other.
In the past five years I've loved two men, men who made me want to stop moving just so that I could talk to them, laugh with them, drink them in every day. I was in the same city as each at the time, but I didn't have a stable job or an established routine. I wasn't sure how long I'd be there for. Upon hearing that they were a factor in my decision to stay or go, my boyfriends squirmed. They looked away. Stay for yourself, they said, if you want to. Don't stay for me.
While it's likely these relationships didn't work simply because neither man was right for me, I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I'd been more stable. The past ten years have had their ups and downs, but on the whole, I don't have many regrets. My wanderings have brought me irreplaceable friendships, life experiences, and joy. But I have a feeling that if the next ten years end up looking similar — solo trips abroad, tables for one, short relationships that inevitably crash and burn — I won't be quite as thrilled. With each year that goes by, the weight of my decisions seems to grow heavier, more fraught with the possibility of regret, less cushioned by an expanse of time that used to feel endless, but feels increasingly fleeting and compressed.
We've all heard stories along the lines of: boy meets girl in exotic travel destination. Connection is intense and immediate. After just a week together, boy moves to girl's hometown. A year later they're engaged and blissfully happy.
I suppose I always pictured myself as half of one of these couples, or half of a similarly impulsive, romantic, love-bridges-great-distances type of story. But I have to remind myself that these stories are the exception, not the rule.
More often, relationships blossom where there is already a shared stability of some sort: a daily commute on the same train line, repeated interactions at the neighborhood gym, or, at the very least, a Tinder match who lives in the same city as you and isn't planning to leave anytime soon. While it may sound romantic, in reality most singles aren't longing to chuck their daily routines in the dumpster so as to gallivant into the unknown in pursuit of love. People want to meet someone who can easily mesh into the life they've already established.
This leaves me contemplating a question that probably crosses the minds of many singles: to what extent should I change my life in order to better my odds of finding a partner?
We wonder whether we should take up more hobbies, stop going to bars so often, go to bars more often, move to a new city where the dating pool is fresh. Or, in my case, give up my nomadic lifestyle, choose a city, sign a 1-year lease, get a full-time job, and settle down alone in hopes that my newfound stability will yield Great Love.
It's true that it's hard to make lasting connections when you're always on the go. And it's true that love blooms more easily when its roots can curl and extend into solid ground. You'll meet more people by joining a soccer team than you will by swimming laps, and spending your Friday evening socializing at a bar will probably get you more dates than browsing at a bookstore will.
But what if you like being on the go, and swimming laps, and browsing in bookstores? What to do then?
Ultimately, don't our spirits shine brightest when we follow our personal bliss, whatever it may be? Aren't we in the best position to offer ourselves to another when we've first done what we can to fill our own hearts?
While I long for a partner and a family, there are still so many other things I want to experience, so many micro-lives yet to be lived. Time scares me with how fast it passes; maybe I won't get that army of kids I always wanted.
But one day, there will be a love strong enough to make me want to stay. Strong enough that, if my partner and I are apart, the cost of plane tickets to see each other will seem like pennies. Strong enough that a lack of long-term leases or jobs won't change a thing, because however our paths cross, it will feel right, and it will be worth some sacrifices. Instead of stay for yourself, the words will be stay for us, or better yet, let's go together.
That love is what I need. Anything less is not the right love for me, and is not enough to make me give up a lifestyle that, while it may make me less dateable, consistently fills my heart with gratitude and awe.
Besides, it's much more fun to be the exception than it is to be the rule.