All things considered, I’m not sure if it is good or bad for my personal wellbeing that I live 45 minutes from my former college. I could give pros and cons for both sides of the coin, on one hand saying that I’m glad, so glad, that I can drive a little and still see all my favorite people who remain undergrads, all my favorite people who remain professors, all my favorite people who graduated but stayed in the area, a dear younger sister, and the smattering of buildings that I made my home for four years on any given evening. On the other hand, I can just as emphatically say that the emotional force of such drives, such returnings, often renders me later that very same evening useless in the bathtub with chocolate and a blank stare at the ceiling and my feelings on high SOS alert. Good? Bad? I don’t even know.
I feel like twenty-two must be the epitome of bittersweet. Or at least a really good example. School really takes it out of you, you know? Emerging after 16 years of it takes some serious detoxing and some serious reevaluating. We are all sort of stranded out here trying to building little lives out of useless fodder like report cards, textbooks, and the three mugs we bought in college. We’ve left our hearts in our dorm rooms and in dear friends who live, somehow, in other states, and now we’re embarking into the workforce or lack thereof, clueless and nervous, and, frankly, tired. Some of us have husbands somehow (#me) but most of us don’t. All of us feel more lonely than we’d like to admit. And now we are stuck sitting alone on the curb in front of a brand new apartment (or parent’s house) wondering if we should be busy beefing up our Linked-In account instead of looking at the clouds and contemplating crying. Again.
(I really hate linked-in.)
It’s an unmistakeable feeling. Extreme bittersweet, emphasis on the bitter with a touch of can’t-go-back. I can sum it up in a phrase that I borrow from a pretty fabulous play called Women of Manhattan by John Patrick Shanley.
“We are all, all of us, doing very well. And terrible.”
Yes, JPS. Yes.
We are doing very well. In fact we couldn’t be better! We are somehow living places, somehow feeding ourselves, somehow maybe making money, somehow not turning in circles in confusion or going to the mall too, too often. We have jobs, we have significant others, we have things we read and write, we have foods we like to make, things we are proud of, secret thoughts and feelings, favorite smells, ideas about what should happen next, or some combination of these things, which truly, in the grand scheme of things, works out to the fact that we are all, all of us, doing very well.
But also terrible. We are also terrible, shivering people. We feel a little skipped. We feel a little like we are wandering or annoying or tiresome or useless. We feel like we’ve lost things that were very precious to us. We feel guilty when we entertain the thought of “I wish,” or “If only.” We feel unseen, unremembered, unappreciated, unsmart. We don’t have a whole lot to show for ourselves, not much to point at and be lauded for. No one is publishing us. No one is noticing us. We don’t know why we can’t get the jobs of our dreams when, clearly, we are perfect for them. We sometimes accidentally ignore the emails we get about paying back our student loans and our cars are making a funny noise but hopefully it’s just because it’s cold outside and it will be probably be okay. We are all, all of us, doing terrible.
This past weekend, I went to an intensely special re-gathering of a group of 13 dear, freshly-graduated friends and colleagues from the college theater days of yore (last year). We were finally back together, all together, for the first time since graduation (if you can count three of the 13 being skyped into the party.) It was wonderful, better than any of us even possibly expected, to be back together. We know each other well, we remember things about each other, we have a lot of shared vocabulary and experience, we are people who actually truly love each other. For four years we built a home together. And then we tore it down.
When it was time to graduate last year, we all agreed that, for better or for worse, it was the end. Because it had to be. We called it the end, we walked through the rituals, we grieved the loss, we celebrated our work. We attempted closure in the best ways we knew how with our community all around us. We cried, we danced, we packed our bags and left notes in our lockers in a grand frenzy of loving and holding and hoping and carrying.
And we left.
And then, on a Sunday night in 2016, we somehow found ourselves all back together again eating tacos at Victoria’s house, with the three of us missing only a Google Hangout away. It was almost the same, almost like it never actually ended, almost like it had been. But not quite. There was something new in the room with us, a fourteenth member of our baker’s dozen, not loud, not obvious, but present, sitting in the corner, unnoticeable but unmistakeable. A net to be tossed with not enough strength in the room, in the world, to toss it.
Loss. Great loss. True loss. Loss that is worth paying attention to.
Leaving school is nothing to be sniffed at. It’s a way of life, an entire worldview, a whole childhood, ending at graduation. We must allow grief for the things we’ve lost. We must allow that when we all come back together, something new will be in the room. We must allow that we are different than we were before. We all are. We are all, all of us, doing very well, and terrible, shivering with loss, eating lovely breakfasts, sitting on the curb, spending too much money on silly things like cake, crying in the bathtub, talking to people we love on the phone, applying for jobs, writing pieces of poems, missing eachother and our selves, and coming back together and feeling completely normal and completely out of sorts. And that’s actually how we are supposed to be! Because we are just twenty two!
So why does it feel like the jumble of threads that I hold in my tiny hands is supposed to be my life? Why does it feel like every day that goes by without a real, worthy, job is a wasted day? Why do I miss people even when I’m in the same room as them? Why can I be doing very, very well and very, very terrible all in the same day?
Why? Because I’m twenty two. I’m just twenty-two. I’ve lived literally only twenty-two little years on earth, one quarter of the years that I’ll hopefully have, and for most of those years I was a short and wandering child with half ideas and a yellow-walled bedroom trying to sing and dance for everyone I knew and stuffing pizza in my mouth every chance I got.
And now I’m starting something new. A wild transition. The bad years, as I’ve heard them called. Somehow I know that very well and terrible, as cruel and confusing as it is, is how I’m supposed to feel. And I also know that we need to talk about it more. We all need to tell each other how it feels, with bravery and ownership, pointing at our loss and calling it blessed. To know that how we are doing is good enough. Very well and terrible is no longer an unqualifiable contradiction. It’s a way of life.
This is a song for twenty-two. This glorious horrid age deserves more of my voice than I give it, so I’ll lend it this tune. I’ll sing the twenty-two-ness of me, a happy, sad, very well, terrible lament. When I return to the places I love these days, it makes me unfathomably sad, the sort of sad that makes me wander Goodwill afterwards with not even enough energy to try anything on. I recently bought a three-pound bag of Swedish Fish and ate the whole thing. I absolutely waste some of my days. I’m writing this blog for some reason, and trying desperately to sort out the jumble of threads I have in my hands, but, honestly, the knots are getting tighter and I’m starting to think they’re sort of pretty. I take out a lot of books from the library but sometimes I don’t read any of them. I’m doing very well and terrible. I’m supposed to do very well and terrible. I notice that loss comes with me wherever I go. And I’m telling you about it. I’m singing twenty-two and letting you hear it. Why? Because maybe it means you’ll help me throw the net of my loss. Maybe you’ll let me help throw the net of yours. Maybe we can all sing twenty-two together.