I recently went to my high school’s ten year reunion. There is something decisive about a decade. I am no longer just a few years out of high school, no longer just a few years out of college and thirty is coming up fast. You can’t help but get to thinking, “What have I been doing with myself?” Or the more dangerous version that can easily devolve into self-loathing angst, “What have I accomplished in life?”
I blame Oprah. She always makes me feel not only like I could be doing better, but that, indeed, it’s 100 percent on me. I just need to think positive and put my mind to it! So far, I’ve decided to stop reading magazine features about the “Hot 30 under 30,” which seems to be helping.
With the reunion as a resounding reminder that the years really have marched by, I’m thinking back for the first time on the entire sweep of my life since high school.
I stopped keeping a diary in high school. I was wise enough at that age to look at the things I was writing down and to see that they would mortify me years down the road. Without a written record, it’s easier to pretend we were bigger people than we really were, that we didn’t spend hours mooning over some doofy little boy who didn’t even know we existed and wasn’t worth the pain anyway. There are some things worth forgetting.
Right now, I’m trying to remember what it was like to be eighteen. I have to remind myself how little I really knew back then. My world was very small – Portland seemed like a big, exotic city to my eighteen-year-old self. Among the things I was exposed to in that first year of college were: vegans, gay people, sushi, organic gardening, skinny-dipping, bone-dry cappuccinos, tofu, bluegrass music, pot, microbrewed beer, dumpster diving, Critical Mass, carbon emission credits, Islam, hookahs, and cross-country skiing. I also got my first email address. And that was just year one!
I loved those college years so much because, like high school, there were clear rules for success. I worked hard in my classes, studied, listened and asked questions and, in turn, I got good grades and honors on my thesis. However, the moment I graduated, the idea that life made sense and there is a clear formula for success, indeed a clear definition for success, was completely upended. I was thrown into a full-blown panic about what to do with my life. I would literally wake up at three in morning in sheer terror that if I didn’t do well at my current unpaid internship, I would undoubtedly fail in life and never get a fulfilling, paying job and, also, I would probably never find a boyfriend. I sent out resume after resume and penned a million cover letters. Everything I’d learned in 22 years didn’t count for much.
I don’t know what you could say I really learned in college. Really, the biggest decision I made was that I left home. That decision to leave my comfort zone was the one that made the difference. I would continue to make that same decision over and over again – when I studied in Cuba instead of Spain. When I left my job as a reporter to travel in New Zealand and then move to Mexico City. When I stopped writing for a living, the only work I’d ever known, and started renting warehouses to Mexican businessmen. When I followed love to move to yet another new city and start my life all over again, this time in Los Angeles, working for a state senator.
But that’s just me being writerly and giving my life a logic, after the fact. At the time, I had some vague goals. I had some notions of where I wanted to go, and I considered myself ambitious, but those goals kept changing as I learned more and saw how the world around me was changing, which is why my 18-year-old self would probably be pretty disappointed in where I am now. In a quiz I filled out the summer after senior year, my answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was “Really cool.” According to my younger brother, I’ll never achieve that one.
The goal that I have the hardest time letting go of, and haven’t really let go of, to be completely honest, was my high school dream of being an investigative reporter. I wanted to be Lois Lane, or better yet, Bob Woodward. I wanted to blow the top off this whole thing – to be the voice of the voiceless, to speak truth to power and wield my pen like the sword of justice. Instead, I watched the media industry implode and changed my goal from being a foreign correspondent for the New York Times to being “paid enough money to live.” There’s no quick way to describe the deep sense of loss, but also the blossoming of possibility I’ve felt observing and participating in the changes in the media industry over the past decade. I still play tug-of-war in my mind over whether I wisely saw the writing on the wall and adapted to survive or gave up on my dream too soon. I usually placate myself by concluding that I may still be able to achieve this goal; it just won’t take the form I thought it would when I was 18.
So here I am at 28, taking stock of my life. I support myself entirely, working as a communications director for a non-profit. I live in a cute, little one-bedroom with a patio in Los Angeles and I have a car. I blog and take photos. I assist my boyfriend with his special event photography and video business. I speak Spanish, another one of those goals I had as a teenager. I am still friends with lots of people that I’ve always been friends with and I’ve picked up some other cool people along the way. I don’t know if my 18-year-old self would meet me now and pronounce me “really cool” or be secretly disappointed. But my current 28-year-old self would say that life is pretty good, and that’s more than good enough for me. After all, I still have 12 years to make the “Hot 40 Under 40.”
A big special thank you to my friend, Lizzy Acker, who was my editor for this post. Can you believe that all this time I’ve just been posting things straight out of my head with no editor?!! Thank goodness for Lizzy, who is not only cool, but a bona fide published author!!