Ask Jenny

What is the difference between desire and longing?

January 16, 2020

For the last six months, I lived in a bustling, crazy artist collective in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Day in and day out, people were singing, including me. We chased exciting things, for the art of our lives, between giggles, casting calls, retail shifts, bus rides, and service jobs downtown. I had not patiently sipped on a soup in months. In fact, I hadn’t been patient at all in months. I got a rash on my face one week, probably because I was so impatient, manic, completely careless. When my roommates noticed, one gave me calendula cream and another gave me blueberries. There was one morning where a bunch of us all shared a chocolate banana smoothie batch while we vacuumed our old couches and played the Lizzie McGuire movie in the background for the third time that week.

Every day, they dealt with my sarcastic, sing-song, up-tempo workaholic soapbox. I lived here because I long to start my own companies. The first company I wanted to start was called Plot Twisters, an education technology studio that helps young people reflect on their life journeys. I had a dream—I still do—to make books and software and travel across the country in my car, visiting classrooms, launching a summer camp. But at the beginning, in those months immediately after college, I had no idea what I was doing. I felt unconfident and unconvinced by every effort to make something useful, so I thought it’d be good to be around people who were confident, or at least had honest conviction in their creativity. I was half-right about the people. When I moved into the artist collective, I met people who had conviction, in their appearance and voice, their artwork and their metamorphosis. I soon learned, though, their confidence in a receptive, accepting world often flickered, like mine.

What we all had in common was that we all had a vision we longed for, separately, in the private moments, sitting in the backyard, between glances in the mirror. We listened to each other’s processes. I watched them take care of their skin and practice the piano. They heard my disdain for the world, my gratitude for it, every good comeback and all the bad ones too. I had a tendency to wake up at 5am and write ideas for my company in a hoodie while I boiled water. Anyone else accidentally up at that hour shared quiet space with me while we both silently acknowledged how very odd it was that we were both awake, shuffling around. Time moved so fast on those weekdays, even when I would wake up early, because suddenly it was bright out and time to start my part-time strategist job and pay the bills. I would clock in remotely from home, then the mailmen would come knocking, and then everyone would be up all at once, dressing, eating, calling, running. I would click around on my laptop for a few hours for some clients at our common table, then drive to meet my team in the Arts District in the afternoons, then come home at sunset to a warm, noisy house.

On one of my last nights, two artists who came to LA from opposite sides of the planet debated about the reality show on TV while the rest of us sat on the couch, nibbling on snacks, scrolling through our phones. The actor who rode a motorcycle played the piano. We had yellow walls and cheap colorful lanterns strung across the ceiling. Everyone else was running up and down the stairs, in and out the doors, shouting their dreams, laughing on the phone, complaining about their day, talking funny business. We had to open all the windows because the actress from Nigeria was cooking with palm oil again, and that always made us cough.

Each night, some scene just like this would end when my head hit the pillow of my bunk bed. I slept in the six-person room, and we endured each other’s voices and snoring. The air conditioning was always too loud and too cold.

In this house, I learned what I wanted out of my time. My routine in the collective felt more and more temporary, like a transition, the flight to a destination. Throughout my months, my vision for Plot Twisters became more and more clear. But most days were so exhausting that I didn’t have the patience or peace to make anything. Though I had many fun and beautiful moments, I grew latent, restless, irregular, and unhealthy. I recognized what lifestyle qualities I needed to feel more stable. These preferences solidified consistently over time. For example, while living in a house with so many people, living alone became more and more desirable. I felt too easily affected by the moods of others and I needed less stimulus. I soon woke up every day wanting to be alone. Also, as silly as it is, I really wanted to light and enjoy candles. We weren’t allowed to light candles in the house because it was a safety hazard. After learning this rule and enduring months of bustle and suspension, my biggest desire became a destination: a peaceful place for myself, where I could quietly light a candle, unbothered.

So I pursued this. When I found the cheap studio near the mountains, I moved in. I am very lucky. I write to you now from a large rug on my floor, under a loft bed. I live in an old bungalow court with families who have lived here for decades. My apartment is the smallest in the neighborhood and can feel quite dingy, but I have my own tree and a walled walkway. My closet is roomy and I have a full kitchen that I can dance in. I am a few steps from the local library, and a few more from the nearest farmer’s market. The mountains are a 10 minute drive. I try to hike a trail each week, even when it rains. I do miss moments in the artist collective, but a soup stews quietly on my stovetop this morning. I am enjoying a candle.

If I were studied like an animal, the field notes might read: Jenny cared for her herd at the crowded house, but soon began to behave unhealthfully, so she left to make her own home alone. If I were studied like bacteria, I joined a colony of cells, absorbed the gene of conviction and confidence, then split off to take the gene to a new environment. If I were a scientist, I would wonder about the choreography of these movements. Why was the animal uncomfortable in the crowd? What about the new environment pleased the bacteria?

Well, I’m no scientist! I think these days, I’m just trying much better to just enjoy the music. What I mean to say is that I loved the artist collective, then I learned what I wanted for my healthiest self, so I moved forward. I don’t think it can mean too much, besides that I am moving forward, toward my desires, which hopefully will move me toward the dreams I long for most. I think: I must have a lot of luck, to be able to move as I do.

The important thing is, now that I’m alone, nothing about my original longing has reversed. I still have that vision with me, the one that grew clearer as I lived noisily, the one that grows clearer still as I live here, hidden away. Moving to this studio is like arriving at the next destination in a long journey. I wonder about journeys as a collection of destinations, tied together by what I choose to designate as a beginning, middle, and end. For my current journey, the beginning was the seed of my dreams growing up, then college, then the artist collective. The end is creating a world where I can have earnest conversation every day with all kinds of human beings about how they are the protagonist of their own journeys, making tools that support self-advocacy. And the middle is here, now. To be determined. Listening to music by a candle. Testing my patience while hiking a mountain.

The difference, I think, between desire and longing is about patience. What I mean to say is that longing is something of the long haul. In the story of myself today, I wake up and want to go on a morning walk. I plan to walk tomorrow, too. And also the day after, and the next day, until one day, on that walk, I see something bigger.

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