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Next Stop: Graduate School

CheersBarA college friend recently shared a concept with me: Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. It’s actually the name of an old Broadway musical. But I think it’s a clever proclamation for my life lately.

It’s not that it’s bad. As a young woman about to embark on the adventure that is graduate school, I know I’m lucky.

Yet it’s hard to watch the small signposts pointing me forward when sometimes I just want to curl beneath my blankets and hide. It’s hard to watch my high school friend’s family Chinese restaurant – the one where I’ve shared jokes, gossip and Sesame Chicken for more than a decade – change ownership overnight.

One day my friend is behind the counter ready to take my order. The next a woman who barely speaks English is smiling at me entreatingly. And although the newspapers dotting the shelves are familiar, and the Crab Rangoon tastes nearly the same – there’s a distinct flavor of goat cheese that wasn’t there before – I feel a little more empty inside.

Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I could go to the Windy City and encounter the break-neck pace of journalism studies at Northwestern’s Medill, or I could give one of the cradles of American history – Boston – a chance and try my hand at long-form writing. Would life in upstate New York be dull or peaceful? Where can you study creative nonfiction, magazine layout, website coding and press ethics all at once? Do I need to return to a large college town with southern charm to feel back at home? It’s a little overwhelming to have my inbox crammed with new educational suitors every few hours. I feel like I’ve got a lot of offers to go the prom but can’t decide who I want to date.

For many Millennials these days, graduate school is a way to advance their educations and marketability. It can also be a place to duck out from real-world responsibility. I have many friends who’ve never worked a day in their chosen careers – unless you count practicums.

But where else do you go but forward when the past life you once had has all but disappeared?

It’s sad to think about how many friends from middle and high school have vanished into the crush of life, never to be seen or heard from again. They move to new cities and forge new worlds for themselves. Some have the nerve to get in touch when they need something, of course. Others delete their Facebook accounts or drop you as a friend without so much as an argument to justify it. I guess they’re just cleaning house and deleting the people they don’t talk with as frequently anymore. I can’t say I feel that close to them either – unless we were in the same room or something. Then I’m certain feelings of connection and shared experience would come rushing back. If not, that’s what alcohol’s for, right?

Visiting friends around the country since college graduation has taught me one thing: the happiest ones were those whose school programs build for them a sense of community. It’ll probably be obliterated as soon as they earn their diplomas, but still, it offers someone to study with, have brunch with, and go out with on the weekends.

A sense of place and community seems fragmented in today’s world where people move on to the next best job opportunity swiftly, even if it sends them halfway around the world. One day you’ve got a buddy in the next cubicle to swap OMG emails with. The next your side of the office has been all but cleared out, leaving you amid dusty monitors, an assortment of pens that don’t write well, and the almost audible sound of “The Way We Were” playing softly in the background.

Sometimes, I want to return to the carefree days of summers spent in New York City where the concrete sucked up all the heat. I remember fun afternoons splashing around in a tiny pool with my cousin, snacking on hot dogs before driving upstate to see relatives.

It’s important to enjoy every moment. Every moment ends. The ridiculous time where the guy a few seats down from you at the concert was swaying wordlessly with his eyes closed, and you and your buddy cackled like hyenas? That’s a moment. Because one day she’ll be living 1,000 miles away from you. That imprint in time where you feasted on chocolates sitting on white mattresses in the bedding department of Macy’s catching up with former besties is a moment, too.

It’s comforting to be in a place where everybody knows your name sometimes.

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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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