You Are Here. Where to Now?

Bay City Mall map

Bay City Mall map (Photo credit: wachovia_138)

Lately, I can’t help thinking about those glossy sign posts at the mall, the ones that boldly proclaim “You are here” when you scan over them looking for Anthropologie, the food court, or just a place to buy the random things people buy at malls like Yankee candles and bizarre T-shirts from Hot Topic.

People like those maps because they provide a sense of direction in a world of re-circulated air, bright lights, and fake plastic plants. While life’s buffet of possibilities can seem as overwhelming as the Mall of America, there isn’t a quaint map anywhere pointing me in the right direction.

A trip this fall to D.C. to see some of my college friends brought me to a bookstore where the title “The Defining Decade” jumped out at me. It’s all about how to make the most of your 20s, and as I’m still in the early stages of this decade, I thought perhaps it could be helpful.

As I began to turn its pages, I heard my own voice and the voices of my friends, acquaintances, and former classmates in ways that had me nodding my head, saying “exactly” a lot, and being filled with relief that this author actually got it. There’s even a chapter entitled “My Life Should Look Better on Facebook,” which discusses how many people purposefully structure their pages to represent themselves in the most pleasing–and sometimes misleading–ways.

No twenty-something’s life is a perpetual party full of sports events, shopping trips, and cruises to Cabo.

While that’s kind of a drag to realize, it’s also liberating to remember that the people behind those digital accounts are going through a lot of the same things: uncertainty in a time when nothing seems solid as well as periods of real happiness when they see what they’re after starting to materialize.

All I’d ever heard before reaching this point in my life was that the 20s were a wonderfully exciting time of possibility, of starting a career and figuring out one’s place in the world. Of taking trips to foreign countries, getting lost and being unable to tell the cab driver where you were staying. Of throwing theme parties in your too-small apartment and enjoying dinners of Ramen noodles, satisfied that you’d bought said food and party decorations with your own hard-earned money. Of enjoying girls’ weekends before settling down into married life, of living on a budget, making mistakes, and trying your best.

It’s actually a lot more complicated than that, and normally, not nearly so glamorous. It can feel like a state of limbo, where employers treat you like an adult, but you often don’t have the background experience to make all the appropriate adult calls. Somehow, there’s this sense that walking across a stage and being handed a diploma magically granted you the ability to fill out tax returns like you’ve been doing it for years, sign all your emails with “best regards,” and understand car parts like a mechanic. But when was I supposed to learn all that stuff or gain some transcendental sense of awareness?

The answer appears to be as I go along.

The first real social shock of welcome into adulthood was the multitude of engagement notifications that slowly crept in during senior spring. You know, the ones that stay stuck to the top of your facebook newsfeed because everyone can’t keep from “liking” them. Then it turned into wedding invitations sent out in the mail–invites for 22 and 23-year olds in some cases–many of whom hadn’t decided whether or not graduate school was in their future or not, let alone how many children they wanted to have, where they wanted to live, or which religious faith would take center stage in their lives.

That shock has turned into a feeling of normalcy as more people I know get engaged every few months. I feel happy for my friends that seem to glow, even when I do miss the quality time we used to spend together when weddings seemed at best like a destination very far down the road and at worst like a small, orange square on the LIFE game board.

While some people in their 20s are camped out in graduate school gearing up for careers that require extra education, a portion of them are turning classes into a 9 to 5 job in an uncertain economy. Others are bounding down the aisle toward an elaborate wedding reception whose sparkliness will hopefully be mirrored in the marriage. Yet, I can see how having a life partner or starting classes at 11 a.m. for that matter are a pleasant respite from sitting behind a desk all day and playing “grown-up” when your mentality just isn’t quite there yet.

Still, what seemingly slipped everyone who knew better’s mind in all their advice-giving lectures was that your 20s are also a time of intense self-absorption (this blog post included).

Sometimes I find myself missing the golden period of creative writing classes, sitting under oak trees and hearing people argue about literature, back in the day when all that mattered was my knowing a sonnet from a villanelle. I was unaware what a fragile place that world had in the larger scheme of my life.

Recently, two current seniors from my college reached out to me about internship experiences at my company. And while I chatted with them, I couldn’t help but think, “This used to be me.” They had that sense of naiveté and innocence and “whatever will come, will come” that somehow, although it used to shine on me too, has fallen from my shoulders, leaving most of its golden dust pounded into the metaphorical pavement. I envied their energy and freedom to, for at least the next five months, act like the larger world doesn’t exist. But I know it does, and they will have to make important choices once they’re a full part of it.

Talking to them also helped remind me that I am growing up, that people are depending on me, and that, while I now realize every single opportunity from marine biologist to astronaut isn’t really open to me, if I’m honest with myself, the comfort that comes from the writing world, from reading and talking about good books, and from occasionally putting my two cents in and providing honest feedback and advice to those who ask, is more than enough for now.


Posted on January 12, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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