At the end of 2014, having relocated from Portland to the middle of nowhere in the Washington high desert, I made the decision that if I was ever going to do something considered taboo or against the grain of what the general perception of me is, I might as well do it then before I start self-rationalizing why I can’t or shouldn’t.
So I did. I got a tattoo. Specifically, this one.
The appeal I had in this image to justify it being permanently attached to the skin of my shoulder was two-fold.
1.) I have always had an active fascination with both Japanese history and the Bushido culture of Samurai.
2.) The definition of the term ronin, according to Webster’s states, “a vagrant samurai without a master or clan.”
Now, to be utterly transparent, the concept of the samurai is something which the tiny romantic part of my being which still exists could snack on for the rest of time. To me, how could a person not be enthralled with the idea of having an existence which is centered around the three pillars of self-discipline, serving others honorably and spending every day actively working to become the best version of you that you can be?
Once it clicked in my brain as a very angry and emotionally fractured middle-schooler that this is how an entire subculture of an entire nation which I’ve never seen or experienced firsthand managed to exist for the better part of 1200 years, I gladly let its influence sink its teeth into me like a Great White Shark going after a helpless, wandering seal.
The flipside of it has been the long-standing feeling I’ve had through most of my adult life that even though I have friends and people whom I care about deeply, I’ve long felt like a man without a tribe.
When I was a kid, I found myself trying every day to track down what I thought would be my tribe, which was difficult being a scrawny, intelligent nerd who had more trivial knowledge in my head than your average quiz show and passions which ranged from the far-flung majestic reaches of the astronomical universe to the slapstick cartoon chaos of watching Bugs Bunny out-duel Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd.
I am, beyond a doubt, the very model of the modern, major dork, geek, nerd…whatever label you want to slap on my forehead.
Back then, such terms were used entirely as a pejorative by the judgmental cabal of pretentious, elitist egotists who made up the greater student body of the school I was forced by federal law to attend and I hated them with the hatred that germinates entirely from the bipolar tree of aspiring to be accepted by those people and showing them that their insistence on defining me as something beneath them wasn’t going to get through my emotional armor.
In lieu of that, I managed to find a tribe that worked for me at the time. We were the rejects, the outcasts, the socially-awkward, never-gonna-be-popular-unless-we-manage-do-something-either-extremely-improbable-or-nefarious. We were also the smart, the passionate, the empathic, the creative and those of us who had so much to offer, if only we weren’t forced into the box of trivialization, marginalization and ostracization because we didn’t wear the right clothes, drove the right car (or any car for that matter) or lived in the right part of town surrounded by McMansions and manicured lawns.
Like most people, I guess I figured once I reached adulthood, having undergone the typical college experience, I’d have transitioned from that tribe to a new one that was more suitable for the person I’d hoped to evolve into. Instead, I married into a relationship which required me to not have any real connection to anything close to a tribe, due to the insecurity and fear of my partner who believed, regardless of whatever I did to reassure them that I wasn’t going anywhere, being around other people even in the most platonic airspace meant I was looking for the first way out I could find.
In spite of this, I managed to hang onto the tiny tribe of friends and loved ones who I wasn’t going to disconnect from, no matter what machinations were considered by my continued association with them. But once the relationship ended six years ago, I woke up and realized that with those friends and loved ones moving onto the stage of their lives where they have kids and mortgages and far different priorities that I had as a single divorced parent with a career and general existence which got nowhere near where I’d envisioned it to be by the time I reached this age, I found myself again feeling very much like a man without a tribe.
Editorial Note: I want to be clear on this that I am not speaking of my friends and loved ones who’ve managed to get to that checkpoint in any sort of negative manner. To the contrary, I couldn’t be legitimately happier that they’ve attained said level because A.) I love them very much and their continued happiness is important to me and B.) I wouldn’t wish the struggles and hurdles I’ve had to overcome to get within anything close to where they’re at on them or anyone else, even on my worst day.
If there was a perk to suddenly being detached from the life you had was the thing I’d tell myself as a coping mechanism for having gone through the tremendously unpleasant and soul-crushing experience of finding yourself without a family and the essential relationships that provided the core of your self-identity, You don’t belong to anyone anymore. No one owns you anymore. You answer only to yourself and you have a finite amount of time to rebuild your life into something which is as close to happiness as a person like you is ever going to attain. Now go find it.
Part of why I packed up whatever earthly belongings I chose to hang onto into a rickety trailer and drove 3,006 miles back to my home in New England was because I am still looking to expand my tribe because being a ronin is not as romantic a lifestyle as we like to think it is because human beings are social creatures. We gravitate to others for both psychological and physiological reasons.
About two weeks ago, I had a chance to go to a gathering of of people who have gone from being the bottom of the social ladder in the 20th century to close to the top of it in the early 21st at NerdCon:Nerdfighteria, which held its inaugural event just down the street from where I’ve been staying here in Boston.
I didn’t have much of a plan for what I was going to do when I got there. I wasn’t going to really meet people or be all that social. For the days leading up to it, I was actually trying to convince myself that I could unlock the achievement of going to my first-ever con as a civilian, as opposed to a working journalist, and speak to no one. Not a single person. I would spend $60 to be a perpetual wallflower and just see if this community, which touts itself as being open and accepting of everyone regardless of background, gender, race, creed, color, sexual preference, political stance or particular fandom.
For the first day, I didn’t speak to anyone and I didn’t stick around for any of the late-night social gatherings because I had the luxury of escaping to the oasis of work. The rest of the night was spent arguing with myself about whether or not I’d go back for Day Two or not, because even though I’d observed these people for hours, I was giving myself every logical reason for why I don’t belong to this tribe.
I’m too old, too messed up, too passe in my passions, too out of touch with what a ‘nerd’ is in the new modern context where we’re the pinnacle of the social and intellectual food chain, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…
Around noon, I was sitting in the auditorium surrounded by thousands of people who’d come from all over the world (I shit thee not) to affirm their part in this particular tribe, listening to one of the two men who formed it, John Green, and a handful of other internet idols speak about the struggles they’ve had with mental illness, social awkwardness and other issues which are not exclusive to self-identified rejects like me, when John dropped this emotional hydrogen bomb on his audience.
“It’s true and it’s really important to internalize that. I know most of us can’t do it most of the time, but it’s actually and deeply true that you are worthy of being loved and you are worthy of love.”
No sooner did he punctuate that sentence with the period, the atmosphere around me was filled with the collective choking up of all of us who had spent most of their lives having to reject that concept because it had been reinforced in us by so many people, parents, classmates, teachers, bosses, neighbors, lovers and those whom we wanted to bestow our affections upon that we absolutely are not worthy of anything, including love.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told over and over and over again that I qualify as one of those people or how many times I’ve had people try to convince me that I actually am worthy of it, with me having to rely solely on my fractured psyche and biased instincts to decide who is right and who’s wrong.
I guess the point of rambling about this over the past 1500+ words is me processing this in the hope of figuring out whether or not I can actually accept the possibility of transitioning from the ronin-life I’ve been accustomed to for most of the past decade into one where I have a sense of belonging to an actual tribe again.
The elephant in the room which I have to deal with along with it is the active resistance which my depression-addicted brain is going to put up to defend its position that I will never be worthy of anything in the same galaxy as being loved or the rare and beautiful privilege of loving someone else.
I know it’s there. It’s always going to be there because that’s what you have to accept when you recognize there’s a pervasive part of your personality which is never going to accept you as anything other than what you believe you aren’t.
In that regard, I’d like to think I’m still as much a part of this tribe as I was as a hyperactive and emotionally-starved adolescent. Suppose I should find my particular patch of earth and set up a tent.