Living in Present Tents

Transience in my year away from home

By Nina Murray; illustration by Kelsey Skordal

I am terrified of the dark. Or, rather, of being utterly and completely alone in the dark. I blame my best friend, who forced me to watch horror movies on Halloween when we were in eighth grade. I haven’t been able to handle the darkness alone since.

The real beginning of this story isn’t eighth grade. It’s my junior year of high school. I’m sixteen years old and everything is falling apart. 

My junior year, 2010 to 2011: my parents were together, I had a boyfriend I loved (or so I thought) and I had a solid group of friends. I went off for my spring semester to High Mountain Institute (ever heard of it?) and returned to an empty house with an exhausted heart. 

In the same way that television shows build up storylines in order to tear them down, so went my sixteenth year. In four months, I broke up with my high school boyfriend, my parents told me that they were separating after giving me and my sister no indication that anything was wrong, and my entire extended family decided that they all had an opinion about the divorce and they were going to tell me about it. God damn it.

I was depressed during the summer after my junior year and for most of my senior year—most of 2011 and 2012. I tried on self-destruction to see if it fit, but it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. It would seem that my controlling nature came out and forced me to regulate how much alcohol and weed I would consume. I would usually drink wine with my mom, watch “Downton Abbey” and try not to think about our empty house.

I spent that summer after junior year staring at the dark shapes on my ceiling and talking to my new HMI boyfriend (I move fast). I distanced myself from my friends, hoping not to infect them with my despair. I didn’t realize until later that passively watching these relationships crack and fall apart made me an active participant in their destruction. I read the Harry Potter series over and over until my mom noticed me crying for no apparent reason while I read and strongly encouraged (re: drove and walked me in) therapy. So I went.

Once I started school again, all I could think was: “Fuck this.” I had gone to the same school for 13 years, I was so done with this shit. Which brings us to my gap year. The idea of a gap year, a space to breathe and calm down, began to bounce around my brain. It grew stronger and louder until it convinced me. 

I forced my parents to accept my gap year through a combination of youngest child manipulation and separation guilt. 

My mother asked me,  “What do you even plan on doing? You can’t stay here all year.”

“As if I’d want to. I already applied to a gap year program called Where There Be Dragons. They have programs all over the world, but I want to do the course in Bolivia and Peru in the fall.”

“Then what?”    

“I was thinking of going to that spiritual retreat outside of Ojai, California in March and doing their work exchange program for a month. You work a few hours a day and you get to live on their land. We’ll see what happens after that.”

 “You’re going to do this alone?”

I left L.A. two days after I graduated and didn’t return for six months. I spent those first months of my gap year living out of my backpack, out of hostels, out of home stays. I was a vagabond, and I loved and hated it. I wanted to stay away, but the umbilical cord of home always tugged me back. It was so easy to fall back into routine, into my typical relationship with my mother, the only person left at 1001 Las Pulgas Rd. However, I couldn’t go home because I wouldn’t let myself.

It’s the fall of my gap year, 2012. I’m standing in a tiny phone booth in the city of La Paz, Bolivia, and I’m sobbing into the phone to my mom. Walking down the stairs of my hostel into the Internet café next door sapped all my energy, and I’m exhausted. I can’t walk or stand for very long, and I’ve hiked to the bathroom down the hall so many times I start crawling there. She says, “Nina, please come home. You’re so sick with so many parasites.” But I can’t leave yet. I will go to the hospital so many times in the three months that I’m in Bolivia that the instructors of my course will just shake their heads and sigh when they decide that I have to go to the ER again. But again, I don’t leave. I’m not that kind of girl.

I needed to breathe, I told people who asked me why I left, but really, what I needed was to run away and not look back for a while. So I did.

I’m fine being alone. I really am. It’s the spring of my gap year, 2013, and I’m living by myself in a tent on a spiritual retreat in Ojai, California. My campsite is called Moonrise, and I can’t think of a more beautiful name for such a beautiful place. 

I’m alone at this campsite called Moonrise in more than one sense. It’s the first time in almost two-and-a-half years that I have not been in some sort of romantic relationship. I’m trying not to think about it.

I begin unpacking my huge red backpack and taking my stuff out. I start setting the tent up, the one I’m so proud of, the one I had bought with my own money from REI a week before.

Two weeks before I left for the spiritual retreat in Ojai, I walked into the Outdoor Education office at my alma mater and asked to borrow a tent to live in for a month. They very kindly refused. One of the guys working there told me, “Just buy your own tent. It’s kind of like buying your first home.”

I think about this interaction as I unfold the poles to my tent. Once I get it all set up, I look at it and think: home. It’s not quite right. Not yet. 

My real home is about two hours south of that campsite. My real home has neither my father nor my sister inside it. My real home is hard for me to be in because I remember the couch I sat on while my parents told me they were breaking up and my ears decided to stop working. I remember my childhood bedroom, where I would sneak out the window to smoke weed with my boyfriend. My home is full of too many translucent memories, floating in and out of focus every once in a while. So I left.

I’m looking around my campsite called Moonrise, and a familiar thought occurred to me: “What the fuck are you doing here?” I asked myself that question when I was riding my bike to school in Bolivia and getting chased by at least seven of the neighborhood dogs. I asked myself that question when I was driving to a music festival in Tennessee with two girls from Denver that I’d never met before. I will ask myself that question many more times. 

Instead of running after my mother’s Honda that’s already halfway back to L.A., I ignore the thoughts that urge me “just go home, it would be so easy.“ I’m not that kind of girl, you see. I don’t give up very easily.

What scared me the most was the not knowing. Not knowing whether I’d be okay, not knowing where I’d be in a month. Not knowing anyone when I looked around any of the people who surrounded me, and who, in time, I came to consider family. 

I never knew what was going to happen next and it was fucking terrifying—and wonderful.

And so I found myself, alone, in a campsite called Moonrise, thinking, “How the fuck did I get here?” when, really, I knew exactly how I got there. I had decided, consciously or subconsciously, that L.A. equaled depression, and in order to recover, I had to leave. So I did.

I learned to close my eyes and say in my tiny tent in Ojai: “It’s okay.” 

I grew up. I cooked for myself, worked at the retreat, did some sweeping and gardening a few hours a day, and entertained myself when I wasn’t working. I was 18-years-old and laying in a hammock listening to podcasts about history. I thought about how perfect the moment, the light and the feeling was. I would touch my arm and think how good, how kind, my own touch was.

I’m not 18 anymore. I’m still terrified of the dark. I went on an Outward Bound trip over Spring Break, my first, and my stomach dropped when I heard we had to go on a solo trip. So, I gathered wood and cooked dinner and made my shelter and told myself it was giants bowling when the ice was cracking and refreezing louder than any stereo system, and I realized that I couldn’t sleep because my thoughts wouldn’t whisper me to sleep. I snuggled down in my double sleeping bag and thought: home.