How Dropping Out Changed the Way I See the World
Updated: Oct 5, 2022
Leaving a big city and a job in an office isn't the kind of thing that raises eyebrows anymore. When the pandemic erupted last year, tens of thousands of people took refuge in suburbs and rural America. But my family made the leap a decade ago, and it had nothing to do with lockdowns or “hot spots.”
We shed our old life because it had stopped making sense.
I’d been slowly cracking up inside for years and had done my best to hide it from myself, the people around me, and even my partner, Lisa. But my condition was deteriorating, faster each year. Towards the end, I had the same grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it attitude about my job that I reserved for trips to my gynecologist. Yet in spite of the round-the-clock emails and hours glued to a desk that prompted weekly trips to my chiropractor and the occasional expletive, I managed to muddle through for one reason.
Those forty-eight precious hours that dull the sting from an endless loop of crazy and temporarily fill the growing emptiness inside us. A bottle of wine and a pay-per-view movie on Friday night, a relaxing breakfast on Saturday, and by Sunday afternoon we forget about what's waiting for us Monday morning. Weekends convince us that even if our lives make no damn sense, they make just enough sense to hang in there and get over it.
But as time wore on, I was having more trouble hanging in and getting over it.
So I spent more of the few quiet moments I had with Lisa trying to explain why the world was suddenly feeling so funky to me. She had a common sense about her I'd always respected, so even if the things I was pointing out hadn’t been flashing on her radar before, she was able to see them once she pulled focus. But it was knowledge without power, because she didn’t have answers or solutions. It was like watching a train moments before it derailed and feeling powerless to stop the inevitable impact.
One evening I came home from work just as Lisa was starting dinner. Our son was playing on the kitchen floor with our Greater Swiss Mountain puppy, who delighted in the toddler's attention. As I busied myself dicing veggies, I summoned the courage to tell her what she had already begun to suspect: I had to leave my job. Then I added something she hadn’t seen coming. I had to leave California, too.
She stopped and turned to face me, frozen in an open-mouthed stare.
“I can't stay here,” I said. “I've got to get out.”
“Do I look like I’m joking?”
I could see the gears turning in her head, deciding how to walk that fine line between offering much-needed support and staying true to her sensible and practical nature.
“Look, I know you’re stressed,” she said gently. “Really, I get it. But maybe you just need to take a beat and find a new job, or maybe start your own firm. There are a lot of different ways you can practice law, right?”
“This isn’t just about my job,” I said. “It’s about all the other stuff we’ve been talking about.”
She held this thought for a moment. It seemed the conversations we'd been having recently, or at least vital portions of them, had lodged in her mind. Yet even though she would never delegitimize my feelings, her cautious nature prompted her to look for less reactive solutions than simply uprooting and hauling ass out of the state.
She nodded slowly. “You're right, things are definitely changing. Every day we wake up, and everything feels a little bit less like it did the day before. But… packing up and leaving California? That's such an extreme step. And where would we go?”
“We have forty-nine other states to choose from.”
“But how many would we feel comfortable in? I think you might be taking diversity and tolerance for granted because you’ve lived here for so long.”
I paused and gave it some thought. In truth, I had only lived in two other states in college and law school, New Jersey and Massachusetts. To be honest, I had no idea what it was like in the forty-seven others.
“Okay, fair point,” I said. “But shouldn’t we at least be open to the idea of exploring?”
She threw up her hands, exasperated. “Fine, say we’re able to buy a house in Colorado.” Lisa had extended family in Durango and was fond of visiting them, so it was a more likely choice than any of the other options. “How would we make a living? I don’t have professional relationships outside California. And how much work is an entertainment lawyer going to find there?”
“We’ll figure it out,” I said. Deep down, I knew my chances of reinventing myself as a forty-something lawyer, even armed with Ivy League credentials and a glowing resume, were about as high as my odds of becoming a professional dancer. But I also knew that optimism, however misplaced, was the key to selling my plan to Lisa.
But she still wasn’t persuaded.
“Babe," she pleaded, "I’ve lived here all my life. You’re asking me to give up everything I know and take a chance and go someplace — God knows where — I have no clue about? Doesn’t that scare you?”
“All I know is that I can’t stay here and keep doing this,” I said, irritated and surprised by the desperation I felt rising in me. “Staying on this path is what scares me more than anything.”
I had expected resistance, but the intensity of her pushback surprised me. Couldn’t she see that there was more at stake here than just an impulsive desire for a change of scenery? Couldn’t she understand that my desperate need to turn my life around came from a place of wanting to do what was best for our family? I felt betrayed, not only by the person who was supposed to understand me better than anyone else, but also by negotiation skills that served me so well when wrangling agents and lawyers but were failing me when I needed them the most.
Lisa stared at me, taken aback by my outburst; getting worked up wasn't scoring any points with her. So I closed my eyes and took a deep breath as I tried to steady my thoughts.
I held her shoulders and pulled her close. “I know this is home,” I said, as gently and calmly as I could. “I know it’s all we’ve ever really known. But be honest. Look around now and tell me how much this still feels like home. Don't you see what it’s becoming? Can’t you see where this is all headed?”
She was quiet for a few moments. The gears were starting to move in her head again, her common sense taking a narrow lead in a race against emotion.
She nodded, then sighed. “Okay, alright. I’ll think about it.”
That was all I needed to hear.
None of This is Sustainable
One of the most difficult things you can ever ask the person you love to do is uproot their life and take a giant leap into the unknown.
It means asking them to give up their sense of identity, belonging, and connection to everyone and everything they value. To surrender what they hold dear, along with the little annoyances they’ve grown accustomed to and have even become comfortable with. This is what I was asking Lisa to do, and there were so many reasons for her to say no. She had lived in Santa Barbara nearly all her life, so extracting her was like convincing an Olympic sprinter to amputate her leg to take up knitting.
Lisa thrived in the sunshine and Mediterranean temperatures that allowed year-round outdoor activity and spontaneous trips to the beach or mountains. She loathed “the horror” of urban sprawl eighty-five miles south in Los Angeles. She treasured Santa Barbara because it offered a rare blend of slow-paced metropolitan living along with a generous dollop of arts, culture, and Latino-inspired diversity. Festivals, concerts, and offbeat ethnic dining were within easy reach, and U.C. Santa Barbara brought college town hipness. But the biggest reason for both of us to stay put had nothing to do with any of these things: everyone we had ever known and loved, from family and friends to our dearest colleagues, lived within a ninety-mile radius.
From the outside looking in, leaving made absolutely no sense.
But looking from the inside out, the picture changed dramatically. As much as Lisa adored southern California, unpleasant realities were emerging that she couldn’t ignore. Life in the Golden State had become a money pit; it was getting a lot more expensive to enjoy the perks that kept us there. We were treading water comfortably, but it was questionable how much longer we would have the strength to do so, especially if I got caught in the next “rolling” layoff or corporate restructuring at Viacom, the company I had worked at for nearly ten years. We weren’t getting any younger, and if we didn’t find a way to goose up our savings the next chapter of our lives was going to look ugly.
But our world was changing in other ways, too.
Having grown up in California, we took for granted that traffic was horrible and would only get worse, but it was starting to significantly impact our lives. Friends and family lived “nearby,” but dense traffic made it a chore for us to see them on a regular basis. It often took half an hour to creep a few miles on the 101 freeway, and when we dined out we sometimes spent more time trying to find a place to park than ordering and finishing our meal.
Further south in L.A., where I spent my work week, the population explosion had gone parabolic. Driving from one part of the city to another had become so time-consuming that I found myself shunning lunch with colleagues. The time it took to get to a restaurant, eat, and get back to my desk added hours to a day that was already painfully long.
And there were the less obvious changes that Lisa and I had quietly tucked in the back of our minds, like the creeping effects of climate change. Shrubs and trees alongside roadways that has once been healthy and green during winter and spring were now brittle and dry year-round, providing ready fuel for wildfires that would soon ravage the region on a regular basis. This was years before the state would find itself in the grips of its worst water shortage in history, but it wasn’t hard to see where things were headed in the not-so-distant future. How many more people would the environment be able to support, and for how long? What would it look like when water became more expensive than the gas we put in our cars?
Crime was something most people in our circle didn't spend a lot of time discussing, but Lisa and I could sense it was becoming an issue. L.A. had always been sketchy in some areas, but pricey neighborhoods like West Hollywood and Venice had also become risky places to venture after dark. There had even been an unsettling incident in our sleepy cul-de-sac when a vagrant had attempted to break into the house next door. Arguably, no corner of the planet was completely safe anymore, but simple math pointed to the obvious: more people + decreasing space + fewer resources = more problems.
One of the things we loved most about California was its rich cultural and socio-economic diversity, but we'd begun to notice more homeless gathering on streets whenever we ventured in and out of L.A. Our friends brushed it off as “normal” or “to be expected” in any big city, but we couldn’t help but wonder if the state was destined for semi-feudal status, with a few wealthy strongholds surrounded by throngs of people barely hanging on and struggling to get by.
The incessant demand for space, the impending clash between those with access to resources and those without, and the time it took to earn a living just to hang on in the midst of all of it was becoming overwhelming. None of it felt sustainable.
What if the Golden State was nearing a tipping point? What if we were already there?
Beyond what was happening in the world around us, our “introspection intervention” had also forced Lisa to come to terms with the fact that she was increasingly frustrated with her own career. She had quit her job at the Santa Barbara Public Health Department to become a stay-at-home-mom, and while returning to the same line of work might have been the “safe” thing to do, it wasn’t a path she was eager to resume. She didn’t loathe her career as much as I did, but her mounting frustration over budget cuts and government bureaucracy left her longing for a new career path.
But more than anything else, Lisa hoped that “dropping out" would restore a sense of balance to our increasingly polarized lives. Spending most of my waking hours going to work and sitting at a desk left me with little time to share in domestic duties. Lisa was primarily responsible for the emotional labor of our household and deprived of intellectual stimulation. Bailing from the rat race offered a chance for us to create a more integrated life together.
When we’re moving through the world a million miles an hour, without stopping or resting, it’s hard to notice the things in our life that need attention. Like planes in heavy rotation, we just keep flying until that loose bolt or spring shakes loose and dooms us. It’s only when we take ourselves out of commission and perform much-needed maintenance that problems become evident. In fact, they become so obvious that we wonder why we never heard that squeak or grinding noise that now seems obnoxiously loud.
When Lisa and I paused to give our lives routine maintenance, it was clear that we needed to do a hard pivot and change with a world that was quickly changing around us. So after months of heart-to-heart discussion and gentle nudging, Lisa agreed it might be a good time to step out of the game and assess our next move.
If we had been ten years younger, the idea of starting over might have intimidated us. The irony was that while age had brought us closer to the end of our lives, it had also gifted us with experience and knowledge: we knew that we were smart, resourceful, and determined enough to do almost anything we set our minds to. The gambit might put us behind the eight ball in the short term, depleting whatever savings we had, but it seemed a risk worth taking.
Getting Lisa on board with the task of re-inventing our lives was the first and hardest step on the road to restoring sanity to our lives. The next step — deciding where to re-invent ourselves — was actually much easier. Tucked away in the back of my mind was the place I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about for the past year and a half, the place where I had first learned, however briefly, to quiet my thoughts.
We Know We’re Not Crazy
We’d made our first trip to Montana two years earlier to attend a reunion with Lisa’s extended family. We spent the week fishing, hiking, relaxing and savoring brisk mountain air that was pleasantly free of wi-fi signals, and I had found myself embracing a stillness I had lost in my routine of perpetual motion.
So when we began plotting our escape from a life and a world that no longer made sense, it wasn’t surprising that Big Sky had slowly crept to the top of our list. The idea of retreating to a quiet corner of the world — where we could live sustainably and for less money in vast natural beauty, “re-invent” ourselves and our careers, take time out and re-calibrate, and create a “whole” life together — was suddenly alluring. On the surface, those were the reasons we answered the call from Big Sky.
But whether or not we realized it at the time, the attraction ran deeper. Much deeper.
* * *
The American Dream died a long time ago in Montana.
The people born here (and even most newcomers) have known for a while — long before the zeitgeist went mainstream — that there is something seriously messed up with the world on many levels. They were ahead of the curve, so to speak.
Their lives, and their world, haven’t made sense to them in years.
A decade ago outsiders might have called them crazy, but Montanans have always known they weren't crackpots. They also knew they had plenty of company. Because they’re surrounded by nearly a million other people who've been seeing the same things for a long time, people who have been drawn here by a force they can’t identify, people who sense things are going sideways fast and believe it’s pointless to even pretend they aren’t.
Most don't waste time trying to pretend they still have a shot at getting ahead in a rigged System; they knew a long time ago that ship had already pulled anchor and sailed. At this point, they’re just trying to cling to any flotsam and jetsam they can get their hands on, hoping they can hold their breath long enough if they're sucked beneath the waves.
The thing that surprises me most about the people here is that they come from all walks of life; you simply can’t tell a Montanan by looking at them. They might be a recreational sports enthusiast, a New Age spiritualist, a die-hard hunter, a Bible thumper, a cattle rancher, a permaculture aficionado, a survivalist/prepper, a yoga enthusiast. Or any mix of the above.
The non-natives come from every corner of the country and almost every income level, and if you ask them why they’re here they’ll probably tell you they feel liberated by the wide-open spaces, a land measured by acres of wild grass instead of miles of asphalt. Or they may tell you they have finally decided to let go of a world that's spinning too fast for them to hold on.
They may not look like each other or have the same lifestyle, they may not pray to the same God or believe in any God, they may pass their free time in the mountains, rivers or lakes, or they may prefer to read, bake bread, and hunker by the fire. But most of them have one thing in common: a general sense that the world outside their Big Sky bubble is something they would rather leave behind.
* * * When you move from one of the biggest urban centers in the country to a town with no mall, one grocery store, and only a handful of restaurants, changing the way you move through the world isn't an option; it’s a necessity. There’s just a lot less crap to buy, fewer things to entertain yourself with, and a lot less stuff to get worked up about.
When you’re loosely tethered to the outside world, you also tend to uptake information differently. You stop exchanging sound bites with people so they can reinforce your world view, or so you can argue with them if they don't.
"News" comes into your world in a trickle, not a torrent. It's colored by fewer filters, and the need to instantly consume any of it declines dramatically. When you turn on the TV, you find yourself more interested in the local weather than anything else going on in the rest of the world, and you begin to tune out the shrill pundits whose opinions used to matter so much to you. Distancing myself from the cacophony of cable news is what first allowed me to step back and start looking at the world in a completely different way. And I would learn that it’s the way most Montanans have been seeing the world for years.
One morning in 2012, about a year after we left California, I turned on CNN and learned the U.S. had lost its AAA credit rating. The financial pundits were buzzing about what it would mean for the economy, the market had jitters, and everyone was pretty worked up about it. I had no clue how it would all play out, but it sure didn’t look good.
After listening to the pundit babble for half an hour, I pulled on my Muck boots and work gloves and headed outside to start my morning chores. I found Ry, our ruddy-faced carpenter (transplanted from Oregon), sifting through a pile of two-by-fours by our barn. We had hired Ry to build another chicken coop after a grizzly had mutilated our first one, slaughtering all but one of the foul we had raised in SoCal and transported via air conditioned-van to our new home.
“Hey Ry,” I greeted him. “How’s it going?”
"Oh, we’re gittin’ ‘er done,” he drawled, which is Montana slang for "It may not happen as fast as you'd like, but it will eventually happen."
“I was just watching the news,” I said, perching onto a tree stump. “Have you heard the latest?”
Ry tipped the bill of his cap above his eyes so he could see me better in the early morning sun. “I try not to,” he said.
I watched him for a moment, not sure if he was joking, then realized he wasn’t.
“I don’t watch the news,” he continued, by way of explanation.
“So…you don’t know what’s going on now?" I asked.
He shook his head. “Nope.”
Now my curiosity was piqued. “But if it might affect you, don’t you want to know about it?”
“What for? I got no control over any of it. Do you?”
Ry hoisted a plank of wood onto a sawhorse and started measuring.
I gave it some thought. All the hand-wringing and jawboning about a falling credit rating made for exciting TV chatter, but at the end of the day it probably wouldn’t change the fact that Ry would still have to get up and repair coops or fix barn doors the next day, and the day after that, so he could make money that didn’t go as far as it used to. However it turned out, his life would likely still be heading in the same general direction.
I nodded. “Yeah, I hear you,” I said. “I guess we moved here because we wanted to leave the real world behind, too.”
Ry stopped, looked up from the sawhorse and stared at me.
“Are you serious?” He jerked his thumb toward whatever lay beyond our fence. “You call what’s going on out there the real world?” He shook his head and gave a half-snort, half-laugh.
“Let me tell you something. There ain’t nothing real about any of it anymore.”
Ry didn’t have a college degree, and he had never studied economics or political science. But in one sentence, he had summed up what had driven me to drop out.
In the years that followed, I would spend more time pondering my exchange with the plainspoken carpenter, and I would slowly come to realize what I believe so many others are starting to grok now.
We are surrounded by illusions that persuade us to believe we live in a world we don’t really live in.
The American Dream was just one of the illusions I had accepted and made part of my reality, but I had started glimpsing the others long before we moved to Montana; I just hadn’t realized it. Now, sequestered in the woods and “unplugged” from the busy-ness of the outside world, I began to see the other illusions with crystal-freaking-clarity.
In the woods, I was able to reflect on the funky-ness I had been seeing for years and the nagging questions I would later realize were all connected. With the benefit of stillness, I could do what has become so difficult in a world that bombards us with fear, anger, and unspoken agendas: pull focus and see the Veil of illusions that distorts our understanding of “reality." The Veil that hides fundamental, and sometimes painful, truths about the world we really live in.
So here I am: a gay black woman hanging out at the 45th parallel, surrounded by a whole lot of people who look nothing like me, worship a God I don’t believe in, and live a heterosexual lifestyle I have no interest in. The people here are friendly, and they don’t hassle me, but you might still be asking yourself: is that reason enough for someone like me to lay roots in a place like Montana?
The answer is yes, absolutely. Because here I find myself among so many others who have also chosen to “unplug,” people who look at me without focusing on our differences, but who instead pay more attention to what we have in common. And I think it’s what we have in common now that matters most.
But when we’re “plugged” in, this message gets lost.
We spend our time demonizing “the other side” because they don’t share our values or personalized struggles. We waste our precious energy fighting each other over the things that separate us and ignoring the bigger stuff that affects all of us.
I believe our best hope for dealing with the problems we all face is to identify what’s really causing them. I also believe the source of what truly ails us lies not in the differences in our skin color, that other people don’t vote the way we do, or that not enough people are getting vaccinated. I think the true source of our common problems is hidden by illusions. It’s up to all of us to come together — as one people and one tribe — and identify the true source of these problems before it’s too late.
Are you with me so far? Good. Because I have a lot more to share with you, so let's keep going.
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