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Summer dreams ripped at the seams

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Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta sing about the carefree days of the summer leading up to their senior year in “Grease.”

And as every school-age kid knows, summer is a golden idol to be worshiped, a magical span of days where time stands still, tans are perfected, and that small stack of pop fiction finally gets thumbed through. Having worked through the past three summers since graduation, this is my first summer off like a student again. It’s a little odd to have the freedom to wake up when I’d like, spend an afternoon at the pool, or go on a vacation without having to check in with HR for scheduling.

Over the last semester, I’ve worked as a tutor to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade elementary kids, helping them with their math and reading skills. During one of my last days in the classroom, I asked a girl named Avery what she was most looking forward to about summer. Her answer stunned me and sent me through a time warp.

It resembled exactly the summers I’d whiled away about 10 years ago at my grandmother’s apartment complex. Young Avery was looking forward to taking one of her best friends to her grandma’s house for a week (she just wasn’t sure which one yet) and watching whatever she wanted on TV, swimming in the community pool, and walking to the nearby grocery store to buy ice pops. So simple. So summer.

My own youthful summers were varied, but a portion of them were spent at my grandma’s apartment complex, Strawberry Hill. The name sounded like poetry to me. The quaint brick columns at the entrances even had little tiles with strawberries wrapped in ivy embedded in them. I’d hang out with my oldest friend Dayna (since both our grandmothers lived there). We would hit a tennis ball back and forth on the courts and memorize the Sorting Hat’s songs in the Harry Potter series. “A thousand years or more ago when I was newly sewn / There lived four wizards of renown whose names are still well known.” Absolutely low-key and deliciously dorky. Our grandmothers smiled politely and looked confused when we sang out J.K. Rowling’s words to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island” as they sat on the couch.

And I can still remember shouting out the answers to trivia questions we made up as I jumped off the fanciest pool’s ledge and into the white-blue water as Dayna called back, “Yup, you got it!” just as I splashed down.

Once, I bought a needlepoint kit from Michael’s craft store, and, a diligent follower of instructions, my grandma pulled out a pink basin and soaked all the thread in water before we got started. I’m not if that helped the stitch work or not, but my aunt found it hilarious. Other times grandma would drop balls of dough into boiling water to make European-style doughnuts. I’d name them after boys in my classes, and whichever dough ball rose to the top first represented the boy I’d eventually marry.

A nearby Fresh Market was a beautifully cold and darkened world for two girls to escape into. It was full of classical music, fragrant blooms near the automatic doors, and a mouth-watering display case of baked goods. It takes so little to make kids happy. Cannolis and fudge brownies are an easy place to start.

Last year, Dayna and I happened to be back in the area and drove through to say hello to her grandmother. Afterward, we walked past the tennis courts and along a sloping sidewalk through groves of thick oak trees toward the small playground that still sat nestled against a hill side. The steep, silver slide that hurdled us down to slam into the grass remained. So did the gymnastic bars and little cars and airplanes resting on thickly coiled springs for toddlers to bounce on.

But we weren’t little anymore. When did we get so big? I didn’t know, and I don’t think she did either. It happened slowly, most likely when we weren’t looking. Pieces of that childhood carefree innocence, curiosity and sheer delight over the simple things still live on. But the magic of life has lost a little luster, to be sure.

Sometimes I long for the impossibly hot summer days spent watching Nickelodeon shows like “Salute Your Shorts” and “Guts” with my toes dangling off my bed. It beats figuring out student health insurance and fellowship agreements, not to mention planning out how to buy furniture for and setting up an apartment. I’m not sure how exactly to set up a router either, and I’m not too keen on learning at the moment. I’ll just pray all my meals turn out edible, my car runs smoothly at all times, and I never shrink an article of clothing. See? No fun at all.

So for the next few weeks, I’m going to read and write and swim and see a few movies. I’m going to forget all about being an independent adult. And maybe Dayna and I will have to plan a trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter next summer.

 

 

 

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Dear Friend,

Counseling

Counseling (Photo credit: Alan Cleaver)

 

I’m not sure when it happened, but lately, a lot of the people I communicate with treat me like I’m their personal therapist. The only catch is I’m not making the big bucks, sitting on a plush couch, drinking mocha lattes, and scribbling notes into a yellow legal pad about how often they speak in the past versus the present tense.

 

Sometimes, after I’ve languished on my bed for a while and tried to offer up both sympathy and useful advice, just as I’m about to open my mouth to say something about my life, they’re ready to hang up!

 

And I’m not only talking about a select few. It’s becoming more-than-most of my twenty-something buddies.

 

I spend a good three to five hours on any given weekend fielding phone calls from friends looking for love in all the wrong (and right) places, the ones who know they really should fill out those grad school applications, the ones wondering if their careers are taking them in a viable direction and those who still can’t stand their parents.

 

I’m starting to think that when all your friends are in the same capsizing boat as you are—as in they’re the same age and also trying to find themselves and meet the minimum payments on their credit card– no one can fling the orange life vest out far enough to save you. They’re too wrapped up in all the same problems you have, so they don’t see them with the insight it takes to get beyond issues.

 

Now, while I’m flattered to be considered level-headed, diplomatic, empathetic, and a good advice-giver, HELLO! I need to talk about ME sometimes too.

 

So, for all of you out there who feel like you need someone to pour out your soul to, for all of you who feel exhausted, not to mention resentful, of always being considered the strong, stable type who absorbs others’ problems like a good sponge, I hear you. And I empathize.

 

The sad part is that when I turn to the thirty, forty- and fifty-something women in my life who have been-there-done-that and could offer up solid words along the lines of, “You¹re kind, you¹re beautiful, and you’re talented, so take a deep breath! Everything is going to work out!” they often come up a little, well, short.

 

They listen better than their younger counterparts, but I’m amazed at how encouraging they’re not. It takes a lot for me to be emotionally vulnerable, and I don’t enjoy doing it unless I feel safe and comfortable. So when I say applying to J school freaks me out because I feel like the odds aren’t in my favor or that I don’t want to attend a wedding alone when my high school BFFs will be there coupled off, that’s your cue to say something reassuring.

 

(In case you were raised by wolves and don’t know this).

 

Yet, when I confess, these women I’ve known and respected for years set their lips into a pursed-grimace thing and smile at me through these oh-you-poor-dear eyes.

 

Then they say things like, “Graduate school is a tough market. There’s stiff competition. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Or “Get used to feeling alone. Friends in relationships will leave you in a New York minute. They don’t want to hear about your yoga class! They want to chat about china patterns and how to hang curtains.”

 

Maybe that’s been their experience, and if it is, I’m sorry about it. I wish things had gone better for them. But why rain on my parade before it really even starts? Why drain my hope?

 

So here’s my advice to those of you, who like me, are feeling a little down now that the mega-blowout, glitter-ridden, Mojito-drinking birthday parties are no longer the norm and parties of one are no longer the exception.

 

Believe in yourself. Don’t depend on everyone else to do it for you. They’ll disappoint you eventually, guaranteed. It’s not that other people don’t care, but they’re human and living their own lives, which always takes precedent. One thing’s certain though: they’ll never know how you feel unless you tell them.

 

And here’s what you might want to mention to them (regarding themselves) and to yourself (regarding yourself): You are attractive, smart, capable, kind, fun to be around, and going places.

 

Everyone has inherent worth just because they are. Are what? Are in existence. Each unique individual on this planet is worthy because we are all another way universe is becoming conscious of itself.

 

And we deserve to be treated accordingly.

 

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting some hard battle,” Plato once said.

 

Even if they seem privileged and blessed to your eyes, it doesn’t mean that your friends don’t face challenging struggles. You may not know the whole story—you might want to listen. To know all is to forgive all.

 

Plus, your kind words could be the catalyst to get them believing in themselves, so they in turn can take actions to benefit others. If you can’t handle lower-level insecurities, how are you going to deal with facing a life-threatening illness, divorce, or financial problem?

 

In short, why aren’t we giving each other more hope?

 

No, it’s not always easy to listen and be present, but if you don’t do it, you can be damn sure you won’t be invited to the blow-out, glitter-ridden, Mojito-drinking future friend parties. Why not? Because you will not have earned a place at the table.

 

Our relationships could be a lot more fulfilling if we all tried to remember to treat other people like what they have to say is significant and valid. And if you can possibly spare them, words of encouragement are welcome.

 

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.

Many the Miles

You've Got Mail (soundtrack)

You’ve Got Mail (soundtrack) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“How far do I have to go to get to you? Many the miles” sings Sara Bareilles in one of her hits. While she may have been talking about love and emotional distance, I’ve been thinking about those words lately and how they apply to friendships tested by geographical distance.

When you’re growing up in your community as a kid, all of your friends are right there waiting for you around every corner. You see them in the classroom, at church, on the field at sports practices, and hanging out in the neighborhood pool. Then, if you’re lucky, you move on to college and have around-the-clock access to friends that feel more like family by the end of four years. Craving a late-night snack break? Someone’s right there with you, enjoying that gooey quesadilla. Want a study buddy to make it through the latest, nastiest math problem set? Your friend does too. Need to vent out your frustrations about how the entire world is unfair? There they are again providing the Kleenex.

But what happens after everyone walks across the stage and begins his or her journey into the future? What about when some of the most important people in your life now live hundreds or even thousands of miles away? This isn’t a romantic relationship–you’re not about to uproot your life to move in with your boyfriend and rush off to Target together to pick out gauzy curtains.

You know that your friends need to go where their economic or academic opportunity beckon them–even if their bright and shining lanterns are leading them down a path directly opposed to the one you find yourself taking. That’s the mature and responsible viewpoint. Yet that doesn’t always comfort you when you’re dealing with the inconvenience and frustration of rarely seeing them.

Sure, you can email and text occasionally. And for the more in-depth news debriefings, Skype and phone calls will always be ready to lend a helping hand. But here, I must pause and add as a side note that Facebook is not a love language. We’re all guilty of relying too much on social media to feel “connected” to each other, when, in my opinion, you need face-to-face time with people to truly forge and maintain relationships with them.

But as we enter the “We’re All Grown Up” phase of life, there are work schedules to contend with as well as grocery shopping trips, law school exam seasons, evening subway commutes, and weekends spent at significant others’ family’s beach house. It’s hard to keep up with everybody. Sometimes it’s hard just to keep up with yourself. There are so many distractions to wade through that it can feel like you’re sinking in quicksand in a South American jungle with no visible means of support. You find yourself wondering: what kind of priority are you in your friends’ lives? And are they all priorities in yours now that the late-night frat parties are over, and the sun has come up? For me, my friends are one of my highest priorities, but I respect that that is not the case for everyone.

Naturally, we all want to feel special, so sometimes not getting a friend’s validation often enough can make you want to just forget about him or her for a while and as the old saying goes, “call the whole thing off.” But somehow that isn’t the answer because you know, deep down, you really do care about all these people. Even if sometimes they can be self-absorbed, over-extended young adults who can’t be bothered to pick up the phone or give you a few days notice if they’re going to be in the area. Really, you do care. Especially because looking in the mirror shows that you can be that person sometimes too.

Still, if you’re lucky enough to have found some great human beings out there–and I must say that although there are the occasional moments of frustration, I definitely am–you’ll be able to spend a long weekend with someone or grab lunch as you both happen to find yourselves in the same place at the same time. Still, it’s not exactly the same dynamic as it used to be. Not only is the person sitting across from you at said lunch table different, but you’re different too. And the conversation is different. The easy-breezy french fry stealing episodes and cafeteria chats about upcoming movies from days of yore might seem shallow and out-of-place in this new relationship paradigm. You can, of course, lob some old inside jokes back and forth, but you don’t have that level of day-to-day familiarity with your friend like you once did. Thus, both of you somehow feel that you need to catch each other up on “Major Life Events” Diane Sawyer-style until it feels more like you’re on a job interview than enjoying time with one of your nearest and dearest.

So how do you retain some of that flowing familiarity and closeness that you used to have with these people? Well, for starters: stay connected to them! Call them once every few weeks and see how they’re doing or shoot them an email. If you see or hear something that reminds you of a conversation you once had or a trip that you took together, let them know about it. And while you’re at it, it’s probably not a bad idea to show a genuine interest in their new pursuits, even though you’re no longer a constant part of them. You’ll make their day–I promise. All it takes is a few minutes of your time to show that you care about them and still value their presence in your life.

Is it hard to stay connected to long-distance friends? Absolutely. Will you inevitably drift apart a bit as you lead different lives in different cities? Absolutely. But do you want to run into each other twenty years from now at an alumni function and feel awkward as you realize that–now that your career is more stable and your youngest child no longer needs constant supervision, of course–you miss them and don’t even know who they are anymore? Probably not.

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