I don’t remember the first time I heard John or Hank Green call Nerdfighteria their hometown, but I remember the immediate sense of recognition. It wasn’t so much a revelation as a validation: if these guys pledged their allegiance to a nebulous internet community instead of their birthplace or their gradeschool stomping grounds (four hours north of my own) or even their colleges, so could I. And I did.
When I stumbled into this community seven years ago, that’s what I needed more than anything: something to look up to, someplace to nurture my beliefs and convictions, somewhere to finally put roots down and begin to grow. Good soil. I didn’t have much of a home and I didn’t have much of a hometown, but it wasn’t long before I found both.
In February, I attended NerdCon: Nerdfighteria in Boston. I was beyond unprepared — I’m not used to wintertime cons, and I didn’t have the usual “gotta get ready to be a human” preparation marathon leading up to it, and I’d sort of been in hiding from the world for the months prior.
Here’s the short version:
The day after NerdCon: Stories in October, I was laid off from my job at the Harry Potter Alliance along with two other employees. I had been with the HPA for more than five years, within which I had rebuilt my life and rebuilt myself and cobbled together some sense of purpose and ability. I became who I am, and I started towards becoming who I wanted to be. I was given a way out of a household I had never been quite sure I could survive, and for a few years things were good. I had my dream job, and I had my dream team, and then I didn’t. The money ran out and, from one day to the next, everything changed.
I still don’t know how to talk about any of this, and I’m not sure when I’ll be ready, but suffice it to say that it’s been a very difficult few months.
To be clear, I am very lucky. After a couple of months of not being able to pay rent and one disastrous last straw involving a break-in and blood, I moved in with friends in a small town in Massachusetts. I have shelter and food and I get to spend my days with very, very good people.
Still, it’s made it easy to hide how bad things have gotten inside my head — how the sense of self and worth I had finally started to build over the past five years crumbled when its foundation vanished; how the darkness of mental illness engulfed all else once it didn’t have that little light keeping it at bay.
Even in that darkness, though, there were sparks.
an abridged list
At NerdCon, I:
- sat in the opening ceremonies and worked on a powerpoint presentation, surrounded by friends and cracking jokes.
- watched Olivia run the Wizards in Space/Wizard Punk table, receiving so much well-deserved traffic.
- shared another wizard rock show with so many friends, which is one of my very favorite things in the world.
- gave a presentation called Nerd Punk: the Music of Nerdfighteria, where I talked about bands the community had created and curated.
- attended part of the panel on mental health, feeling distinctly unalone.
- cried a bunch while John talked about the people who make this space what it is.
- cried some more.
- got to spend time with people I love who I wouldn’t know were it not for this community.
- was struck, again and again, by a new and familiar sense of belonging.
Of all the cons I’ve gone to, Complexly’s events have gone above and beyond to equalize the voices and experiences represented and celebrated in their programming. I‘ve seen firsthand how hard the staff works to make this happen — how deliberate and thoughtful each step is — and I can’t say enough about that commitment’s impact. On the event. On the community. On me.
Because it’s difficult to lead a community, especially when it becomes bigger than your wildest projection. It’s difficult to keep it true to your mission and it’s difficult to have it even approximate your vision. It’s unimaginably difficult to make that community materialize in a physical place for a few days, let alone make it be safe and welcoming and affirming.
But NerdCon did it with flying colors and open ears and so much heart. It was the place I’d imagined all those years ago, and then some — better, not worse, without the rose tint.
One of my favorite staples of the nerdfighter community is the Thoughts from Places tradition, whereby people crystallize a destination by its moments and memories and unlikely lessons.
So here’s what I was thinking:
I thought about growing up, and how young I was when I started out here, and how young I am still. How, even when it feels like it’s all ending, it’s only just beginning.
When I stumbled into the nerdfighter community, I was overjoyed just to find something to counter my isolation and loneliness. I happily accepted being a nameless part of something bigger as all that I’d get out of it. I figured, given my circumstances, that I’d always be distanced from the people in it. But that weekend, at NerdCon, I couldn’t look around without seeing someone who had changed my life in some concrete way. I couldn’t walk ten feet without running into a friend I’d made there years or weeks ago, couldn’t stumble into a panel without its subject being connected to something I’d sat in my room reading about or watching almost a decade ago, couldn’t feel alone if I tried.
At the closing ceremonies, John spoke about the stuff that keeps this community together — the stuff that makes it special:
“It’s really about making spaces where people can make connections — trying to create spaces online and IRL where people can find their people. Where you can find people that you can make stuff with. Where Esther could find the Cats.”
When an entire community develops an idea of a given group of people you happen to know, it’s difficult to reconcile the community’s collective imagination with what you know. It’s easy to want to tear apart every misconception, wrest each idealization until nobody ever stares too long or tweets too brazen ever again, burn the paper cages they’ve boxed your friends in. I am, by nature, protective of people who don’t necessarily need protecting — people who, in fact, have far more often protected me. And sometimes I am protective of people who I never knew but whose life changed my friends’ lives, whose heart informed my friends’ hearts, and who I am thereby thankful for. And sometimes these people come up in a room filled with a few thousand strangers, each with their own imagination, and my knee-jerk reaction is to brace for more misimaginings still.
But in that moment, I heard John nail down the simple truth of it: this was a place where we could find our people. Everyone there knew one such story, but maybe — hopefully — this weekend was what it took to understand that it wasn’t the only one. That the magic of this place was that this story was one of hundreds of thousands. We all had a story. We were all lucky.
During that speech, for the first time at any panel that weekend, I wasn’t sitting with any of my friends. I was across the cavernous mainstage room, standing by the door, listening to John Green talk about people I’d come to know. People I’d connected with, made stuff with, burned up so many hours across screens and states with. People who knew every word to every song at the show the night before. People I could spot and run to within seconds of walking into the mainstage room because they were huddled in a group, yelling along to Hamilton. People who were there, and people who were not there but there in group messages and smiles and reminders to drink enough water. People I’d found — not just once, years ago, on the internet, but time and time again, even just that weekend, every time I needed them most.
So I thought about improbability. I thought about the weird, wonderful trajectory of my life. I thought about how, because of this community, there is abundance where I feared there would always be scarcity. And all weekend long, I felt grateful. Not just in the way that I’ve felt grateful every day I’ve been in this community — even on the worst days — but in the way old things are made new. All weekend long, I saw the sum of all these whirlwind years as though separated and suspended in thin air so I could finally take stock, piece by piece: every lucky break, every time somebody believed in me and helped me out, every star in every constellation.
I’m always, always aware of these things, but it’s only sometimes that I can fast-forward through the past seven years of my life in a perfect montage. Here is the girl staring out at the world through a keyhole. Here are the then-rare ventures into something that felt like home. Here are the years of longing and terror and stubborn hope. Here is the first plane ride, and the second, and the tenth. Here are all the massive nights she gets to live, and here is how she stretches them out to last her all year. Here is the time she escapes and does not come back. Here are the hotels and convention halls and backyards. Here are the songs and the late nights and the infinite moments she tries to bottle. Here is how she remembers, again and again, what she said she wouldn’t ever forget to be. Here is how it always leads her home.
And NerdCon: Nerdfighteria felt like home.
It was equal parts new and familiar, a place I’ve never really been but have long been waiting to return to. It’s the place I daydreamed about when I was first dipping my toes into this corner of the universe, when I wondered if this might be where I finally belonged.
It took me back to my earliest days here, and the newness of that permission to be all the parts of me I was taught to sand down.
I’ve noticed that I’m quieter about some things as I venture into new corners of the world. For all the time I’ve spent talking about defying convention — for all the grumbling I do in thought and conversation about cynicism — I’m always too quick to take shelter. Not because I’m surrounded by people who make me afraid to be enthusiastic — I’m not, not anymore — but because all those old lies are so etched into my brain that I tend to default back to them when I’m backed into a corner.
NerdCon reminded me that everything I’m proud of or thankful for came into my life on the strength of my commitment to enthusiasm, and that I need to lay that foundation again to move forward. To start again.
NerdCon reminded me that this place isn’t just where I’m from; it’s where I live. That, if I gather the courage to lose the easy shroud of darkness, this community rewards me with so much light.
If we endeavor to either live and die in our hometowns or avoid that fate at all costs, I think I’ve chosen the former. And I think I’ve chosen my hometown.