I graduated from college one year ago today. Looking back, I don’t remember a word of advice my commencement speaker gave my graduating class; I barely remember who the speaker was. Maybe she was a sub-par speaker (as it were I still remember parts of my brother’s college graduation speeches), but maybe it’s also true that we can’t really heed advice until it becomes relevant to our lives. Which is why, every time I see the sun set over the Manhattan skyline (or even every time I see a roach scuttling through the busy streets late at night), I can’t help but think of all lessons New York City has taught me about being a Citizen of the Real World in the year I’ve lived here. Indulge me while my blog temporarily becomes an anecdotal life advice column; a commencement address from New York City to you.
I always dreamed of living in New York City at some point in my life. I dreamed of it in the way anyone dreams of unfamiliar, well-loved places. The city’s mystique allured me. To me, it was a place more foreign than Europe. Whenever I met a fellow college student from New York City, I tried to imagine what their experience growing up in the “greatest city in the world” must have been like, but I was lost for even a vague image. So, when it came time for me to decide “what to do with my life” after graduating from college, the perfect opportunity to experience this mystery came along. I was offered a three-month internship at Food Network Magazine.
I was on top of the world the day I accepted the internship (not to mention overwhelmed—I remember my body overheating at the student union and having to chug a gallon of water to feel slightly less than parched.) I felt important, I felt accomplished, and I felt so excited that I would finally get to experience New York—not from the eyes of a tourist—but from the eyes of a resident. “This,” I thought, “this has got to be the real world.”
Though there was no way I could say no to the chance to write about food for the Food Network in New York City, at the same time, leaving the Midwest was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. At that time I felt I was just beginning to feel very rooted both professionally and socially in the city, and I knew if I stayed I’d have some great employment options handed to me. But alas, I packed my too-large suitcase with a few belongings, kissed the Midwest adieu, and began my journey into the Real World I had chosen for myself.
The whole journey was a little easier knowing my internship only lasted three months, and then I could move on to another Real World. But as that third and final month eked closer and closer, I felt myself beginning to hold onto the city a little tighter. Experiencing NYC on a $0 budget for three months was one thing (read: an unfurnished apartment, peanut butter and jellies), but I knew it would be an entirely different reality if I could afford a thing or two outside of my too-high rent. I’ll give it until January, I thought.
I’m still here. A whole year later, and I’m still a resident of New York City.
The simple fact that I’m still here scares me in a very real way. It scares me because, it’s been so easy for me to say “just a month longer” so many times that I wonder just how long I’ll keep playing this game with myself. It scares me because the city is known for sweeping up the lost and adventurous and dazzling them with literally a whole world of opportunity to be and do whatever it is they please. It scares me because it feels as though the more I consider leaving, the harder I feel the city pull me back.
But between the push and pull, the incredible homesickness I’ve felt, and my bank account being far too empty for a short spell, I’ve learned and grown and discovered so many things. Like, in a big way. In a Real World way. Being so far from home has been painful, but the knowledge and adventure and love and joy and I’ve gained from being here far outweighs the harder moments. Here are a few of the greatest lessons this city has taught me:
1.) Expect the Unexpected. One year ago as I turned my tassel from right to left, the last place I would have pictured myself today was in New York City as a struggling freelance writer and buyer of specialty foods for Whole Foods. I had plenty of visions for my life in the Real World, and this was definitely not one of them. But way inevitably leads on to way, and I’ve consequently wound up at one of the happiest points in my life.
2.) “Do not be satisfied with the stories that come before you. Unfold your own myth.” Those visions I did have of my future—of my internship at the Food Network launching me into some swanky career in food writing, were largely based on societal standards for landing a “career” immediately upon graduation. But as my internship progressed--as truly amazing an experience as it was--I realized that swanky career--that 9-5 desk job--was not what I wanted at all. I was not ready to settle. And when I found my happiness elsewhere, I realized that there are plenty of ways to pursue a passion or a dream, and it’s often in a place only you can recognize.
3.) Learn to Savor the Small Moments in Life. Anyone who’s graduated from college knows that, even though we were all broke, we had it made. We were surrounded by swarms of people our age, clubs and organizations for every interest, free access to the gym, plastic lunch trays to borrow when you can’t find a sled anywhere. I mean, that was the life, right? I’m sure it was a combination of no longer being a college student and moving to the biggest city in the country, but all of life’s tasks suddenly became a lot harder when I did. I had to stop letting things come to me, and instead put my heart towards pursing them myself. (Though I admit the story of furnishing my apartment solely with street side giveaways is an exception to this story.) I found myself slowly simplifying my life, and in doing so the beautiful moments suddenly became much more beautiful.
4.) Be Vulnerable. The process of letting this city take me in involved learning to became a more vulnerable person. In college, it’s easy to feel satisfied staying in your bubble, but doing so in the real world can be a dangerous and often times impossible. The determined, fast-paced, hard culture of NYC is basically the opposite of what I was used to in the Midwest, and consequently caused more than a few moments of complete loneliness and homesickness. There was a day or two after my internship ended and before my new job started that I came so close to forgetting everything and hopping on a plane back home. But the minute I accepted my loneliness and fear of the making it out alive was the minute I knew I would and it would be more than worth it as a result. Accepting fear and willingly putting yourself out a limb guarantees a life more fully lived. It's not easy, but it's worth it.
5.) Only Let the Important Things Affect You. Once you accept fear and put yourself out there, it’s important to be smart about what you let affect you and what you don’t. Immersing myself in the culture of NYC meant adapting to a feeling very opposite of the Midwestern Nice mindset I grew up with. At first I had a very hard time getting used to people bumping into me in the streets and not apologizing, or cashiers barely looking up from their register as they check you out. But eventually I realized it wasn’t worth wasting my energy on letting a natural element of this different culture upset me. It’s just the way it was. One perfect example of such a New York Moment happened this winter as I was heading to work on the train at 6am. It was just me and a suited gentleman in this particular train car. The train paused for a minute (not ten seconds as it normally does) at a stop and a cold, snowy gust of air blew in one door and out the other. The suited gentleman was so moved by this gust that he felt compelled to let out an emphatic “What the fuck!” as his newspaper flopped in his hands. It took every fiber of my being not to laugh. Which brings me to, finally,
6.) Laugh. A real good stitch-in-the-side laugh is absolutely the best medicine.
Thank you, New York City, for being more profound than my commencement speaker. And thank you for leaving the year ahead of me just as unpredictable as this past year has been.
“The great joy of setting out lies entirely in the unknown.”