I had a fantastic time in Ireland for my MFA residency. My husband and I spent a few days in London and then a few days in Dublin before he left and my school stuff started, but I loved Dublin so much I was really excited to spend so more time there. I was right in the heart of Dublin for school, and I looked forward to nights spent exploring the streets and sharing meals and drinks with my fellow MFAers.
We stayed on the campus of Trinity College, which was gorgeous and amazing and legendary, but also caused this introvert some anxiety. See, our group was spread out over three different dorm buildings, with no common space to hang out and find people who needed a dinner buddy or a walking buddy or a pub buddy. And the rooms had no wifi. And there were no phones in the rooms. So, basically, it was almost impossible to find someone to hang out with if you didn't make arrangements during lecture.
Oh, and see this map of the university?
Most of the people in my program were staying near that green square on the top of the map. Our classroom space was by that small-ish green area at the bottom left. Want to take a guess as to where my room was? See the building on the very, very right top side that looks like it's not even connected to the campus? Yeah.
So, I knew I was going to have to really put myself outside of my comfort zone when it came to socializing on this trip. Because, yes, it's about school, but it's also about making connections, both with the city and with the people going through this program with me. And I go to school with some RAD people, you guys. They are talented and funny and smart and genuinely nice people. I like them all.
But, you know when you're thrown into a new group of people you don't really know, like at a conference or a seminar, when you have a moment of free time you always try to find "your person?" The person you pair off with who seems most like you, who becomes your event best friend? Well, I just really struggled finding "my person," both last year and this year, and while I hung out on the outskirts of a few different groups, there wasn't a person or group of people I paired off with right away, and it left me flailing.
To be totally honest, when it comes to pairing up, I would normally find the biggest partiers, the "young and fun" group, and join in with them. The people who close down the bar, singing along loudly with the house band, are generally my people. But being on deadline during residency threw me off. I couldn't spend my free time pub crawling because I had writing to do, and, sadly, I'm at the point in my life when even one beer makes me so sleepy I might as well take a Benadryl. No writing gets done after even a short visit to the pub, and I had to write. So I missed my window of hanging out with that group.
But I'm not in the go to sleep early group. I'm not in the parents group. I'm not in the "we've been to a zillion residencies together and we are totally best friends" group. I just...I had a hard time finding my person niche.
And so, that was a lot of my problem. I was no one's best friend. No one was thinking, "hey, we should see if Jessica can come along." I wasn't the first person anyone thought about when it came to finding dinner plans or saving a seat for or anything like that. And that's fine, because I did make friends and I do like everyone and I invited myself along to a lot of places. But I also spent a LOT of time by myself. I like spending time alone, but on my own terms, and this wasn't always on my own terms. So I also spent a lot of time video chatting with my husband (in public, because I had no private wifi), almost in tears because I was so frustrated and lonely and I didn't know what to do about it.
I mean, it's not like I didn't try. It's very hard for me to put myself out there, but I tried you guys. The logistics were bad, though, like I said, and I couldn't always find people. And then when I did, I was my usual disastrous self, and, jeez, sometimes I can't blame anyone for not wanting me to be their person.
Like, one night I invited myself along to dinner with some great people who were really fun. But I had these allergies...you guys, I was SO allergic to London and Ireland. I couldn't stop sneezing some days and my eyes were swollen and runny and my skin was itchy and it was absolutely terrible. So I'm at dinner with these really nice, fun people and I can't stop sneezing, so I can hardly participate in the conversation. Then it is ridiculously hot in this pub (the weather in Ireland was so bizarre when we were there--sunny and in the 80s almost every day, and no AC in the entire country), and I am hot and sneezing and tired from sneezing and just uncomfortable and frustrated and annoyed at myself for letting this dinner with these cool people go so horribly wrong by being the worst dinner companion in the history of group dining. And then there's some issue with the tip and someone's bill and I can't math because I feel like I'm going to pass out and I think I did some money thing wrong and now I'm all convinced everyone hates me because I'm a terrible dinner companion who stiffs on the bill. So I went home thinking, this is why you're lonely, Jess. This is why no one wants you.
And then we take this bus around. And I look down the center aisle of the bus. I could plop down next to someone and chat, or there is that glorious row in the very back with allllll the leg room. And I am six feet tall with these legs that I have to shove in the small space of a normal seat, so I end up resting my chin on my knees the entire ride. And on the uncomfortable flight over, I must have pinched something because my left leg from my knee to my ankle was numb the entire trip. (It still is, actually.) So, when it came down to it, I would skip sitting next to someone so I could stretch out my legs in the back, alone. Maybe it was the wrong choice. Maybe I should have just sucked up the discomfort and folded myself in next to someone. But, ugh. I wanted to stretch my legs.
It was all just so hard for me, guys. And exhausting. And frustrating.
We eventually left the housing nightmare in Dublin and crossed the country to Galway, where we all stayed in this hunting lodge-turned-hotel that had a restaurant and a bar and all this central meeting space. (And we won't talk about how, out of 70+ people, everyone else got in their rooms and I was the ONE damn person whose room wasn't ready and I couldn't shower or nap and I cried alone in the hotel lobby. OMG I'm making this trip sound terrible, and it REALLY wasn't, but, yeah, there were some low points.) And I thought, finally! I won't have to scramble for people to hang out with! We have a central meeting spot and we can't really leave this hotel very easily. This is the change I've been waiting for! My trip will turn around now!
But then everyone has dinner in the hotel restaurant and I walk in and I'm still on the early side, so there are a few tables of people, but they are all full. I know more people will be coming, so I just plop down at an empty table and wait for someone to join me. But then people come in and other tables fill up and no one sits with me and no one sits with me and and no one sits with me and then finally someone from another full table takes pity on me and switches to my table (I LOVE YOU FOREVER FOR THIS, KIEKO!). But we were at this four-top, and the rest of the restaurant fills up and no one sits with us, even though I am watching people squeeze into full tables by dragging chairs across the restaurant while we had two extras. And I wonder, if she didn't move over here with me, would I literally have eaten this meal alone in this full restaurant?
And four different times, yes, FOUR TIMES, I sucked it up and said, "Hey, guys, can I sit here with you?" and plopped down at a table where people were eating or drinking or working, only to have the people there leave within five minutes or so of me sitting down. All four times, the people had legit reasons for getting up--it was never just because of me. But still, four times and your start to wonder, you know? Especially because it got harder for me to do each time, and then it would happen again.
I just kept coming back to...what is WRONG with me? Because these are cool people. Smart and funny and people I have a lot in common with. They are all writers, many of them are teachers, we all like to travel. Why can't I seem to find common ground with anyone here? Why doesn't anyone want to sit by me? And my introvert instinct was to just stay in my room where I can't get rejected and only come out for lecture and workshop. But I couldn't do that. I had to keep trying.
I will say, by the time the last two nights of residency came around, I finally started to feel comfortable in my own skin. There was a big group hanging out and working, so I joined them. Then there was a big group hanging out talking and singing and playing guitar and I joined them. I went to an awesome lunch and didn't feel like I was a huge disaster. I felt welcomed. People talked to me. I laughed with people and had fun and felt like I belonged. Finally.
But, by the time I finally felt comfortable, like people were seeing the real me and I was having fun, it was time to go home. Of course.
I've always known I'm slow to warm, but does it always take me 10 days? Are all my residencies going to be like this, because it takes me exactly the length of our trip to feel comfortable and warm up and become the type of person people want to have dinner with?
I don't know why I'm sharing all of this. My insecurities...let me show you them.
I'm not trying to whine. Not at all. I truly do love my MFA program, and I think it is full of amazing and talented people. I feel unbelievably lucky to be able to work alongside them, and I am very glad to know them. But why is the social stuff so hard for me? Why do I feel like such an outcast sometimes?
I know it's all ME and not them, which I wouldn't really get if I didn't understand my own introversion. I'm fiercely introverted, and I know that, so I know WHY I feel the way I do. But knowing this didn't make it easier to deal with. It didn't heal the social side of me who was sad to be walking the streets of Dublin alone. It didn't ease the embarrassment after the fourth group of people got up and walked away after I sat down with them. It kept me from being upset at everyone else, but it didn't keep me from being upset at myself.
Knowing yourself is half the battle, I guess, and I'm glad I have myself somewhat figured out. But the other half is dealing with yourself, and that part doesn't seem to be getting any easier.