One Year Later

I graduated a year ago today.

My life then: listening to lectures, gabbing with friends in dorm rooms, attending Masses at Gesu, writing term papers on convoluted concepts, some of which I’m still struggling to grasp.  I had hot cookies on Mondays, $5 pizzas at Papa John’s on Tuesdays, Friday night dinners with my aunt and uncle and chicken nuggets or mac ‘n cheese or whatever other dining hall delicacies were available on the days in between. It was four years of Grey’s Anatomy binge sessions, highlighter-covered hands, crappy apartment couches and shivering, snowy walks to Johnston Hall.

That life came with an expiration date: May 22, 2016.

The crappy couch and mac ‘n cheese, they’re still there, dominating my everyday life. So, too, are my trusty highlighters, which I use to review financial budgets and lawsuits and whatever other documents I’m sifting through for my story of the day. But the other stuff, it’s been replaced with palm trees and school board meetings and a helluva lotta humidity for a person with my type of hair to have to handle.

I’m halfway across the country writing for a newspaper I hadn’t heard of 15 months before. I’m living in a house on Hilton Head Island with two other reporters. I’m a 15-minute bike ride to the beach. Five days a week, I cross the bridge and, if I time my commute just right, am graced with the sunrise over the Lowcountry.

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-3-23-18-pm

Courtesy @mandy_matney

I’ve had some cool assignments for my job. Trying to hold a state agency accountable for a statute that went into effect following a state-of-emergency declaration. Writing about cute kids at a Christmas Pageant. Interviewing a military man who, up until months before 9/11, was working in the Pentagon building. Covering when The Bachelorette came to film an episode on the island. And, my most exciting career opportunity thus far, covering the before-during-and-after of Hurricane Matthew, the largest natural disaster to hit Hilton Head since Hugo roared through in 1989.

But let’s not romanticize post-grad life.

I have found my job much more challenging than the one I pictured in my mind. The journalism in my head — the ideas of sitting at a coffee shop talking with sources about crime and death and the meaning of life, of writing big exposes that led to changes in state laws, of getting calls from readers praising the prose I penned — has been replaced with the daily grind of reality where incessant emails clutter my inbox, where every day seems like a fight with FOIA officers, where each story seems to be a struggle in distilling nuanced cases into themes without making sweeping overgeneralizations. I have changed no state laws. I have received approximately two “Loved your Sunday story!” emails. In fact, a reader said in response to one of my stories that “This is why we are seeing the end of print journalism in the world. Good thing there will always be barista jobs.” I squirm in my office chair because I feel like a fraud in my grown-up clothes, interviewing people who have been at their job for at least 12 years while I have yet to hit the 12-month mark.

I was reading through a bunch of commencement speech quotes online today when I really should have been editing my story about the school district’s culture of critics. I came across one that really resonated. It’s from a speech Ariana Huffington from the Huffington Post delivered to Vassar College grads:

“We have, if we’re lucky, about 30,000 days to play the game of life. And trust me, that’s not morbid. In fact, it’s wisdom that will put all the inevitable failures and rejections and disappointments and heartbreaks into perspective.

Office6In the past 365 days, there’s been a lot of mistakes and disappointments. I plowed my car into a tree. I’ve pitched a lot of dumb ideas. I’ve lost a newsroom friend to industry cutbacks. I’ve missed deadlines. I call friends and family back home in desperate doubt that the decision I made, the one to move halfway across the country, was somehow right, at least for now.

This time in our lives is trying and messy. We sit in our office cubicles or teach or decide to go to grad school, all the while wondering, searching, for any sort of validation that we’ve picked the right path. And the grown-ups tell us to calm down. God, I hate that. “Everything will work itself out,” I’ve been told. I want to see the bigger picture, to be assured that all of this worrying and work will lead somewhere. We don’t yet have children or spouses or secure jobs or whatever it is that will make us feel like we’re living with some sort of legitimacy. I mean, I don’t even know if I want those things, but I want something. 

What I struggle with most in this new life is the lack of an expiration date. For the rest of my life, there is no more May 22 telling me it’s time to move on. It’s almost like I have to come up with my own arbitrary expiration date. It’s just me and my highlighter-covered hands to make something of it.

 

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