The move to Edinburgh is the most obvious sign of the changes I’ve made in my life over the past few years. I read the book Designing Your Life after I was already well into the process – job quit, bags packed – and it felt like an affirmation.
In retrospect I could see the “prototyping” I’d done before coming to the decision to transition to self-employment and live in the UK. I wasn’t simply looking for a new job and a new home: I was attempting to build the lifestyle I wanted. I’d started the process before my brother died, so the fact that I was ready to pick it up again was a relief.
That lifestyle includes freelance work that often allows me to work where I want when I want, with the flexibility to travel mid-week, take courses or visit a museum during the day, and be more purposeful about where I put my attention.
That lifestyle is possible because of who I am and the resulting choices I’ve made along the way, too. I’m not particularly unconventional by many standards – no punk phases in my past – but I often feel out of place. I don’t have an easy answer to “where are you from?” It depends on the context. Not wanting marriage or children, being an atheist – these things separate me from the mainstream to some degree.
That feeling of being out of place – of knowing my loneliest times occur when I’m surrounded by people – is what propels me to embrace solitude, but also to seek new places.
What do I want, here in Edinburgh, starting over in so many ways but bringing more knowledge of myself than ever? I’m answering that question all the time. I’m nesting in my new home, traveling to new locales, learning new things, indulging in old comforts.
But designing the lifestyle I want is also a matter of immense luck.
This was my second Christmas here, and I’ve been able to rethink what Christmas means to me, too, away from expectation and duty. I’m not going to get all Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus or post-ghost Ebenezer on you. But one of the ways I’ve added meaning to the season has been volunteering with Crisis.
They offer services to homeless people year-round, and work on strategies to end homelessness altogether. Over Christmas and New Year they put on a multi-day event where they take over a community centre and offer food, clothing, showers, personal services like hairdressing and massage, activities, entertainment, and a safe and warm place to hang out. The idea is to provide a festive Christmas season for those who want it, and also to connect those who are receptive with ongoing support.
My role seems insignificant: I was a general volunteer assigned to the recreation area, tasked with sitting at the tables and engaging with the guests in games and conversation. What’s the worst that could happen, I lose at Trivial Pursuit? Almost finish a jigsaw puzzle that turns out is missing a few pieces? (Turns out I’d’ve been lucky to get close to finishing the damn puzzles.)
Of course it’s not that simple. Last year before my first shift I was anxious. What if I was terrible at it? I’m not great at small talk, and not used to working with people experiencing homelessness. We were trained well and told that if we felt we couldn’t manage, we should ask to leave, no hard feelings. The important thing was not just our own mental health, but for the guests to be surrounded by people who weren’t judging them. I didn’t think I’d need that out, and would have been horrified if I had, but knowing it was there was what made it easier to walk through the doors of the community centre that first day.
I wasn’t terrible, but that’s because it wasn’t hard. I observed and hope to emulate people who were much better at small talk than I am, but the experience didn’t feel altruistic. We were just people hanging out, in a place designed for companionship among those who wanted it, and solitude for those who didn’t.
A few guests thanked me, saying it was so nice to have a place where they were welcome. Not just tolerated, but welcome. Imagine having that feeling so rarely? I never feel so out of place that I can’t sit in a coffee shop or wander in a shop or find a park bench without fear of being asked to leave.
Some told me their stories, some wore their stories in their mannerisms, some just wanted to play Trivial Pursuit or good-naturedly mock my attempts to finish a jigsaw puzzle. The stories were about mental illness and addiction, or injury and illness, or precarious employment, or family breakdown, or all or none of the above.
I thought of my mom’s mental illness and alcoholism and how lucky we were that she and her kids were looked after by others. I thought of coming home from school to be told to pack our things and head to a hotel, and then a friend’s home, and then other temporary accommodation, and how lucky we were that there were places to take us in. I thought of how it’s a luxury to feel out of place when I have a place, and how quickly luck can change.