Art by Sara Nettle.

Frankly Speaking is a monthly column that explores Gainesville’s social scenes and cultural mores by examining our generation’s behaviors.

The grass in the Yulee Pit facing Museum Road was brown and worn from the constant weight of students picnicking and lounging in it. It was a Sunday afternoon in September my freshman year, and my friend and I had been tanning for hours under the guise of getting some reading done. In a moment, the sun escaped behind the gigantic Beaty Towers, where I lived.

“I think I’m going to head home for the evening,” I told my friend.

I thrust my key into the lock and opened the door to my tiny suite. Glancing around the room, I noted my poster of The Strokes taped to a starkly white cement block wall. I counted my pairs of flip-flops all lined up in a row under my extra-long twin bed. As I studied the items in the room, a sense of alienation grew within me. I caught a glimpse of a panicked and rotund 18-year-old face in the mirror.

I didn’t recognize any of it. How could this be home?

Just a couple months before, I was performing in the Sebastian River wind symphony and sitting at a round lunch table with long-time classmates and pals. I was an active part of existing environments bigger than myself, and I owned the streets on which I biked.

My identity up to this point had been carved out for me by exterior circumstances: where I lived, my involvements and the people I surrounded myself with. But that was high school, and this was college. This was time for a Fresh Start, time to Find Myself, the Moment in which I would ripen like a peach.

What should have seemed like freedom felt like a death sentence, because I hadn’t Found shit. I was a ghost wandering through foreign environments, searching for traces of familiarity or comfort. In the dramatic parlance I would’ve used back then, I was teetering on the edge of a seaside cliff, huge gusts of wind threatening to send me plunging into the depths at any moment. Who was I without my anchor, my home?

In my junior year, I was overjoyed to find that Animal Collective aptly summed up this quandary on the track “Taste.” “Am I really all the things that are outside of me? Would I complete myself without the things I like around?” The song put words to a previously nebulous problem: How much of our identity comes from outside of us? When we leave one environment for another, do we lose parts of our identity?

 Have you ever noticed the similarities between human beings and kitchen sponges? When we’re brand-new, we sop up everything put in front of us. As we age, we get stiffer, more resistant to changing shape or incorporating new elements. That stiffness means we’ve fully developed our filtering process through which all external stimuli must pass.

To answer these questions, psychologist Carl Jung touted individuation, a process through which one isolates and develops their individual personality from the collective human experience. Jung believed those who master individuation ended up more responsible and harmonious, with an understanding of the relationship between human nature and the universe. Of course, this is only achieved after identifying, then integrating your ego, your personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. Add that to the lifetime bucket list, brah.

My friend Jack came up with an easier solution: create a filtering process to determine what external sources become part of your internal identity. Embrace your inner kitchen sponge.

 Have you ever noticed the similarities between human beings and kitchen sponges? When we’re brand-new, we sop up everything put in front of us. As we age, we get stiffer, more resistant to changing shape or incorporating new elements. That stiffness means we’ve fully developed our filtering process through which all external stimuli must pass.

Sure, everything we learn and sense has a certain influence on us, but we’re in charge of deciding what outside sources are allowed inside. We consciously filter what we’re exposed to by asking ourselves a couple questions: Does this person, place or thing move me? Can I lose myself temporarily in this, and will I come out the other side more whole? Is this aligned with my worldview? What aspects of my worldview or identity does this call into question?

Asking these questions gets us in the habit of respecting the sanctity of our individual identities. We shape our identities with gentle motions, little by little, until we create a Truth that feels comfortable. An internal sense of Home that remains constant as our environments fluctuate.

I struggled during my college years as many do, because I hadn’t yet created my own sense of home, my filter that would allow me to experience new things and confidently decide either yes, this thing is for me, or not. I grew up emulating my mother and my female friends and when they were no longer sitting next to me, I had to figure out a whole new approach. When I finally felt comfortable spending long chunks of time by myself—maybe at age 23—I knew I was on my way to becoming a stiff sponge with a seasoned sense of self. Today, I have a voracious appetite for observation, and I know instinctively when I see, hear or feel something that jives with who I am. Inside it goes and stays.

For some, like my friend Tico, the filtration process is developed in childhood. Innately, we can develop a mistrust of the information presented to us, and we search for ways to find our Truth. Growing up, Robertico felt like the black sheep. While his family raved about sporting events, he looked to the arts for inspiration. He didn’t feel like he was part of the whole in which he’d been placed, but he didn’t need to be. Who he was came from inside of him and from a careful selection of external influences. Though he didn’t identify as queer until college, he knew early on that he didn’t fit into any socially prescribed boxes.

“There are certainly people I look up to for their contributions to society, but I don’t necessarily shape my identity to match theirs,” Tico told me. “That’s odd to me. I think we are socialized to fit certain categories, so I try to resist those. I actually find myself not fitting into many spaces. But I’ve never felt more whole.”

The filtration process allows us complete creative control over our identities. If it’s mastered, we can navigate any setting with a sense of security. Being a stranger in a strange land doesn’t feel so bad if you’re familiar with yourself. To this day, I experience moments of disassociation, usually coinciding with the start of a new relationship or project. Oddly enough, I’ve found that what I once feared now has healing properties: losing myself in a sea of anonymity.

Last month, I flew to California for a ten-night solo vacation. When I walked along Ocean Beach in San Francisco, nearly a decade after my time in Beaty Towers, I watched the late afternoon sunlight glint off the water. That familiar pang in my heart hit its mark. I was in a new place, far from family and friends, but I knew those diamonds of light well. I almost recognized myself in the undulating waves of the unruly Pacific. I was transported into myself for a single moment. Home is wherever I am. •

Tyler Francischine is a writer, event planner and audiophile who would rather be floating on her back in the Atlantic.

You can find more of her writing here or on her blog.