We met at a bar in North Vancouver. The 49ers were playing, and I was in the company of two uprooted San Franciscans, Parisa, and their mutual friend whose name I’ve since forgotten. Our tall table formed a right angle between the bar and the big screen; we shouldered off our jackets, sat for a few hours with our chests directed towards the game, drank Stellas and listened to each other at half capacity. It was loud and the service was rushed.
I was simultaneously enchanted and repelled by Parisa. She kept laughter accessible in her throat, spoke with her entire body and lived across the Burrand Inlet with her parents—whom she portrayed as the kind of couple whose freezer is stocked with frozen meatballs and spanakopita squares. The best hosts are always prepared for a party, she reminded us.
The game faded when she talked and drew us in like moths to flame when she didn’t. In her silence, we sat useless in the blue glow and waited for the score to change. When it was finalized, she looked back at me, swiped through her phone, and asked, “do you want to take the Seabus together?” It was dark and the worry of getting back to Gastown at night without a map or phone must have been visible on my face. I nodded.
“Great. We gotta go though, it leaves in eight minutes.”
I stood, said goodbye to the others and slung my jacket over my arm. The drawstrings bounced against my shins as we sped down the hill to the water’s edge.
Plastic kiosks the shape of tombstones glowed in the near distance. “They take cards, right?” I never got around to withdrawing Canadian cash.
“They do, but I got it. Here—take this one.” She pulled a ticket the size of a business card from her purse. It was thin with the luxurious sheen of a Neiman Marcus receipt, and I lost myself to the vision of a sales associate in a black blazer sliding the sheet across a granite countertop and circling the 90-day-exchange information with her fingernail.
The sound of Parisa’s voice brought me back, “No one’s ever checked my ticket before,” she said. Why she bothered to buy one at all was a question that felt very American.
Aboard the ferry, we sat opposite each other in white plastic chairs and moved across the water like butter on a warm pan. She told me of her plans to live in South America come January and even asked how I interpret joy—though partway through my explanation her attention waned and turned inward, a pattern I’ve come to recognize in those who live in measurements and comparisons. We were minutes away from docking; I shifted the focus to her.
“What about you? Where do you find joy? What do you think it is?”
Her answer—distant, limp and embattled with vague references—made me think of a line from George Orwell’s 1946 Essay, Politics and the English Language:
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
What did she believe? What was in her heart?
The motor sung, then hummed, then purred as the overhead lights rose to a jarring brightness and we were corralled into a narrow terminal, a windowless time capsule, a stale, linoleum-studded path that disguised evening as afternoon. Once outside, Parisa and I lingered for a moment with our hands comfortably by our sides before exchanging cards and going our separate ways.
“Keep in touch, I want to hear all about South America,” I said over my shoulder as I walked Eastward, uncertain if I’d ever hear from her again.
A week later, she emailed me.
“Our conversation sparked some thoughts in me,” she wrote. “I kept thinking back to put my finger on this whole joy thing a bit better, I think that I've realized joy and fulfillment go hand in hand. I think joy is living with purpose - finding your happiness inside instead of from outside praise. I think maybe that's why I was having a hard time articulating some of my ideas around it - I've been feeling fairly removed from "purpose" the last little bit. It's funny, but I don't think I really realized just how negative of an impact that was having on me and my perspective until I got a little bit of purpose and intent back into my routine (South America here I come!)”
Her timing was uncanny. Before checking my inbox, I had been tumbling through the Internets and came across a Mark Manson piece that differentiated “having a life purpose” from “living with purpose” in which he recommends that we stop asking “what should I do with my life?” and start asking “what can I do with my time that is important?”
Because of its resonance, I bluntly asked in response: “what about your upcoming trip to South America feels important?” To which she said,
“I think the great thing - and maybe the important thing for me right now - is that I have been in my comfort zone for a long time. Obviously this isn't any sort of a complaint, but I've been so lucky to be so secure - great people and support system, fantastic apartment, steady job I like, things to look forward to... I'm so excited about being nervous and anxious about something! It's an uncertainty that's necessary, and that I've missed.”