Or, You Can’t Cross the Same Water Twice
I spent last week at the Viable Paradise reunion, the first one ever held. In many ways it was fantastic – the staff was great, seeing fully a third of my class and many of the other VPers I’ve gotten to know over the last three years was awesome, and Martha’s Vineyard remains lovely. But while it was billed as “Paradise Regained,” I think that’s not something that’s possible for cave-beasts like me.
I am a serious introvert. I spend nine months of the year seeing people other than my wife once a month, maaaybe twice if it’s on non-consecutive weekends. Then I go to a handful of conventions over the summer, see all the people I can handle, and retreat again. That’s been working fine for the last few years, but this year I’ve been feeling more and more stressed at events, and the reunion helped clarify why.
One of my planned coping mechanisms at Viable Paradise proper was to be as unremarkable as possible. I wore my dumpiest clothes, didn’t speak up much in groups, and tried to be friendly without being super noticeable. (This did have an unfortunate, albeit temporary, dampening effect on my courtship of my now-wife Alex, who was a fellow classmate.) I needed to avoid managing too many intense group interactions, and I succeeded in that.
VP remained pretty unbalancing, but it was mostly for other reasons. I was in an unsteady emotional place going into it (a friend had just committed suicide,) and discovered some unanticipated triggers on-site (I’ve talked about my relationship to music before,) but also was not terribly insecure about my writing – I knew it wasn’t yet great, but it was ok, and I was getting better. So I was off-balance, but not in the way that it seemed like the workshop was totally set up for, so I just… coped.
I wasn’t thinking about all this, going into the reunion. I was expecting it to be a nice social time, a chance to see everyone and enjoy the lovely location, lighter scheduling and comfortably established friendships. So I was super surprised when a) it sent me into introvert shock almost instantly, because everyone could see me, and b) I discovered I had left all that emotional baggage on the island, never expecting to come back for it.
The place was the same, but all of my relationships had changed. There were thirty or so people I knew and wanted to chat with, half of whom I wanted to spend serious quality time with. There were instructors who had become con friends who were again sort of but not quite instructors, and that was weird. The staff were *entirely* at various points on that not-peer then peer and now kinda-not-peer spectrum. And, ironically, the lighter scheduling meant I had to keep making choices about what I was doing – choices I was completely unprepared to handle.
And I didn’t handle it super-well. I spent a lot of time hanging around the edges of things, trying to pretend no one was noticing how off-balance I was. I took some long walks. I remembered why people drink at cons. I realized that some discomfort at other events over the summer was due to the same exact thing, rather than bringing the wrong sleep meds or whatever.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. I got lots of time with people I really wanted to see, which was great. I remembered, sitting in the music room, how raw I was around music the first time I was here – and also realized how much the SF music scene has allowed that to mostly scar over. Laura’s still gone, but… still not gone, in that same weird liminal way that I never did write a successful story about. And I do love this community.
I’m a community manager, a long-time professional one, and one of the traits that allows me to do that particular kind of emotionally intense work is a persistent avoidance of getting too deep into a community. I like that extra bit of distance – always accessible, always informed, just not quite in the thick. It’s where I’m comfortable. The individual relationships that I choose to build are what bridge that distance and keep me connected, even as my personal twitches keep me a little bit apart.
So when I looked up at the bright moon over the water as we sailed away, I realized that, while VP changed my life in many marvelous ways, it’s gone. It’s over. And that’s ok. I am in a great place in my life, I’m at peace with myself, and the internet-friends/con-friends/occasional-houseguests thing is actually a much better way for me to participate in this community than a super-intense mass weekend in person. And it’s something to consider, as I look at next year’s travel schedule – maybe I need a few more trips to visit specific friends and not quite so many conventions.
It’s worth re-emphasizing that this wasn’t overall a bad experience for me, or one I regret. The reunion was well-run, welcoming, and totally worth the trip. I crossed the water, and then I crossed back over, and I’m now completely convinced I ended up on the correct shore.