Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sub-Zero Memories

There is something about the middle of winter where time seems to slow down and jump ahead at the same time, sort of like a wrinkle. I feel like I have accomplished nothing but still have no time. Not to mention, I have not thought of writing any more than I've thought about venturing out into the cold weather.

I wonder if you've experienced cold like I have in my life. I know some of you have, and I know some of you think you have. But until you've lived in the flatlands of the midwest, where wind whips like an angry slave-driver, you have no idea. The first step outside on a sub-zero day with gusting wind sucks the breath right out of your body. You are literally gasping for air. A few more steps and your eyelashes have frozen together and you are suddenly aware of the amount of frozen snot in your nostrils. If you're lucky enough to not have to spend ten minutes scraping your windshield, then you jump in the car hastily, only to find another layer of ice has accumulated on the inside. The engine takes a few encouraging words of, "come on, come on, you can do it" before it turns over, but the radio has retired until warmer weather.

So why do we live in these places deemed unsuitable for humans? Well, I'm not sure I can answer that question. Family, jobs, school, tradition. Not knowing anything else. I talked to a friend the other day who still lives in the frigid plains of the Midwest. She said she hates winter, absolutely despises it. It affects her mood, makes her depressed. "So why don't you move?" I asked her. "Because there's something about spring. Something about April and May when everything begins to thaw, the birds come out, and I can see green again." I had to agree, there's something magnificent and truly magical about the changing seasons when you live somewhere with such drastic weather. To us, spring is not simply a change of wardrobe, it is a symbol of life.

But until that day comes, (which sometimes in the mountains may not be until June,) I have to resort to adjusting the thermostat and returning to humble activities. In the middle of winter I find myself yearning for some sort of nostalgic feeling, a time to reminisce with myself. Today I ventured out to the used book store, (the temperature finally rose to 10 degrees,) and browsed the children's section. I recognized titles and characters I had once cherished in my bedroom as a child. I thumbed through the pages of classics and series that I collected on bookshelves and in piles next to my bed. It made me remember when my parents would get so upset that I was still up at one o'clock in the morning as an eight year old, still reading with a flashlight. "You'll sleep til noon tomorrow!" So I would turn it off, listen for the light switches to flick off in the hallway, and then turn it back on when they left. I picked out three books, one of which I read as a child, and two that I had always dreamt of reading.

When I got home I stacked the books on the coffee table and got lost in reminiscing. I grabbed a photo album from the top shelf and opened it up. Middle school, high school, college. I hadn't looked at this in years! What was I wearing? What happened to her? How did we get out of that one? About six years ago I took all of my photos, boxes and boxes, and threw away 95 percent. I wanted to move on with my life and I didn't want heavy boxes and even heavier memories to weigh me down. So now, looking through one photo album gives me peace and the simple feeling of nostalgia I sometimes need.

I had the afternoon to myself and let myself regress in age, thinking about old boyfriends, teachers, vacations, and troubles. One photo led to the next and pretty soon I was flipping the pages of an old journal. I came across a checklist of life goals. What a goldmine. A writing teacher in high school made us make a list of fifty things we wanted to do before we died and told us to hold onto the journal to make sure we accomplished them. Reading them made me laugh, and I actually got to check a couple off today, but some of them are still far-fetched or pretty heavy, especially for a 15 year old to be writing about.

The first one is "1. Reach happiness." With pen in hand, I couldn't bring myself to check that one off. I have to say I am extremely happy and I have had some amazing moments in my life. But is this "reaching" happiness? Have I accomplished it? I don't know if I will, or if I ever want to check that box off. Because what happens after that?

Others were very specific like, "11. Eat at at the Plaza," "19. Own a convertible," and "50. Meet Savion Glover." Not so sure some of those are going to happen, but I love being reminded of my frame of mind so many years ago, in so few words.

Some brought me back to high school immediately. "52. Find the perfect pair of jeans," "16. Tell my kids about seeing the fall of the World Trade Center." Suddenly I remembered sitting at the grey, plastic desk, several rows back, writing and pausing, thinking and writing, making my list from whatever popped into my head.

A few pages later I found a list of sentences over three pages. I'm not sure what the assignment was, but the lines flow like a vivid memory, which I'm sure I wrote in five minutes just so I could finish my homework and go cruise around listening to music with friends. But now, ten years later, I am so glad I finished the assignment.

October 22, 2001
Dear Journal,

These are the neighborhood sentences:

When I was in the fifth grade a wild turkey ran down the street by Lindenwood Park.
Maggie used to be my best friend and we'd go talk on top of our neighbor's shed roof.
Every Fourth of July you can see the fireworks through the Lindenwood Park tree tops.
Rollerblading in the streets is always so hard because of the cracks in the street.
The squirrels would always perch on our fence and eat the fallen acorns for their meal.
Our tree was cut down last year because it had a disease and would have affected other trees.
Natalie and I went sunbathing on my roof one time and we could see the whole neighborhood.
Our block is so long that I have no idea who lives on the other half.
Sometimes I babysit the little girls down at the other end of the block which is actually really fun.
My mom and I sometimes sit in the gazebo in our backyard in the morning and listen to the world wake up.
Jess and I found out that we have ten people on our block who go to South yet we never hang out with one another.
When I was in the seventh grade, Maggie and I had a sleepover in the camper that her dad had borrowed for us.
In the winter our street is one of the last to get plowed because it's a very low-traveled street.
I go walking around our neighborhood with my mom when it's nice out which ends up being a two miles walk.
We've only had one block party ever since I've lived here and that was probably five years ago.
Even though I've ever really know the neighbors very well, it's a nice and cozy place to live.
When we step out in our front yard we always watch for storms coming cause you can see the huge clouds over the roofs.
My brother and I used to hide in the front yard pine tree that we had made into our fort.
Sometimes my brother and I would gather sticks and berries pretending that we were natives or orphans.
About five summers ago I invented the game tree tag and all the kids would play it in our front yard for hours on end.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"So, what's the next step?"

How many times in our lives have we all panicked about our future? About work, a place to live, where to live, expectations, family. There seem to be so many milestones in our life, so many times that we have to go, "Oh god - what am I doing next?" I don't know many people who constantly have it figured out. They're probably out there but I'm certainly not friends with them. You know who I'm talking about. The person who graduates on time, has the job lined up, the wedding date picked, and the baby room already painted. If I have to choose between yellow or green wall color, I think I'm better off not knowing.

And that's where I'm at in my life, as so many times before. What's next? Today I met with the president of my university to talk about my graduate research. Last summer she met me and said, "Let's talk." Finally, six months later we did just that. I sat down, gave a thirty second summary of my research, and she looked me in the eye and said "So, what's the next step?" I felt my mouth gape and my eyes search the wall behind her for answers. Framed certificates, academic posters, a window. Nope, I'm not going to find the answer there. "Uh - well..." I sounded like a complete idiot, so unprepared for this great opportunity. The rest of the meeting was a blur as I spoke like a politician, avoiding the question. All that I could think about, in the back of my mind, were her haunting words: "So what's the next step?" Next step for what? Today? My research? After graduation? That adolescent feeling of doubt and fear swept over me as I spoke empty words to the president, thinking to myself, "What is next?"

Think of the phrases you have heard so often: "when you grow up," or "the real world." Am I nearing those toll bridges in my life? Many of us Gen Y-ers are just entering the work world, just buying houses, or just getting married. They say "40 is the new 30," so does that make 30 the new 20? If so, I have a long way to go until I mature and feel ready to enter "the real world." If that's true, our generation is still finding itself, growing up, realizing that we don't want to stop learning or stop exploring. I don't think it's a sign of immaturity, just a sign of open-mindedness and a willingness to keep seeing the world with wide eyes. If that is how we will continue to live, then I'm not sure any of us will ever "grow up" or enter "the real world," as our parents used to put it. But frankly, as far as I'm concerned, that's ok with me. We'll figure it out together.