Hey Former Self: This is How to Survive the First Year

I was reminded when I inadvertently made a noise in the back of my throat the other day when I read the words “April 2013” that I still have emotions about graduating college. This doesn't come as a surprise; I frequently speak with one of my college friends who also lives in my new city about the fact that we believe we will always miss it, or at least miss parts of it: the friends at constant easy access, a stimulating environment in both academia and friendship. Going to dinner with professors, hosting our own social experiment parties, skipping class to go on a walk with your best friend.

As much as I miss these things, I think about them a lot less than I used to. The images of the life I loved so much are no longer on repeat in the back of my brain, every hour of the day. I no longer find myself crying while hiding scrunched on top of a hay bale in a shed that does not qualify as a barn, and not just because I no longer live in any proximity to hay bales. For a long time after that I didn't think I would ever stop being sad every single day.

Over a year after graduating, I am doing far better than just the simple baseline of not being sad every single day. So here's what I would say to my year ago self, and to my current and future self on how to survive in this here world without all of my friends at arm's reach, without professors to tell me how to live, without a life that is so easily surrounded by art and literature:

Read books, read so many books. Read all the books you didn't have time for because you were scamming free wine from academic events, gossiping over hangover breakfast in the commons, writing scorchingly honest essays in twelve hour periods, unable to read anything but the occasional assigned essay because you passed out the moment your head hit the pillow.

Read books to catch up for all the time missed, read books to fill up the time, read books to regain emotional stability. Reread books, buy more books than you can read, buy books for the future home library, because now that you're not in a place you're afraid of leaving you can think and dream about the future again.

While you're busy missing the wonderful people you loved so much and had the privilege of being surrounded by for four years, meet people who haven't had the privilege of such incredible luck.

Some of these people will be boring backpackers who make you realize that traveling and meeting new people isn't as idealistic as people make it out to be. This will be frustrating at the time, but it will only make you feel so much more grateful for who you were given.

Some of them will be friends who carry you through one of the worst weeks of your life even though they've only known you less than two months, and you'll be thankful that Johnston made you into a person that these people would love.

Some of them will be cruel to you, and they will remind you of your luck once again because you were raised by people who trained you in the art of empathy.

One of them will be a German twenty something named David Pastorias who will talk to you for hours outside a club in Nice and show you that not every traveler is just looking to drink. One of them will be a rapper from New Jersey who will fall in love with you for three days in Budapest. Four will be distant family members you've never met in the Czech Republic who will selflessly take you into their home for a week and make the traveling feel a hundred times easier. One will be your best friend's best friend from studying abroad who will remind you that you and your friends are not the only thoughtful, engaged twenty-somethings out there. One will be a fifty year old man who you will room with for three months who will teach you how to clean a kitchen and give you great dating advice and have you test out his hangover bars made of spirulina.

And ten or so of them will be your coworkers, who will shepherd you into the world of adult employment and teach you that not only is waiting tables a real job, it is a more real job than many of the 'real jobs' you fantasize about because it is held by people who are chiefly concerned with making a living in a way that you and many of your college comrades have never understood. They will put up with every mistake you make in your first two months, they will say they love your humor and sing You Can Call Me Al with you when it comes on the stereo. But most importantly, they will teach you just how privileged you have been to have a mostly-free education in things you loved fiercely, and that the world owes you nothing. You will become close friends with these people who you'd have never encountered if you'd stayed in the sheltered world, and they will make you realize things that will make you hate the unfairness of the world but also laugh at the beauty of it. You will come to love people who are your opposite: a recent high school graduate republican going into the Air Force, a 40 year old Mexican cook who makes you eggs every morning and who you will defend with ardor when the new waitress says he's 'mean,' a man whose husband is in the army and is working his way through nursing school.

I know that you are afraid of never seeing the friends who you cherish, but you will. You will spend a glorious week with two of them in Palau, you will ring in the new year in Seattle with two others. You will lie in bed with one of them and 'play Tinder' and laugh until you can't breathe. They will send you messages about how they know they shouldn't still miss school but they do, and you will say me too, me too. You will see them less, and you will not be surrounded by them, but when you do see them you will pick right up where you left off. That doesn't mean you shouldn't mourn that you will not be surrounded by them anymore, this is a great loss and it should be treated as such, denying that it is a loss will only hurt more in the long run.

You will reunite with a large majority of them at renewal, and it will be more beautiful and more terrible than you could have imagined in only the way that Johnston knows how. It will remind you of why you are alive and it will also tear you apart. You will sit in a dark room with fifteen people who seem like versions of yourself in other bodies and you will laugh and speak nonsense that somehow you all understand and you will lie with all your body parts entangled with theirs and wonder how the hell you are going to survive without them.

But you will.

Don't compare yourself to any other recent graduates, any soon to be graduates, or any adult in the history of the world. Everyone's journey is different, and you have no idea what privilege or horror someone has had to get them where they are. Anyone who seems happy all the time is either lying or insane. When you admit your weaknesses you will find that your true friends admit that they spend just as much time being miserable and not knowing what the fuck is going on as you do, no matter if they are in relationships or have great jobs or any other seemingly great situation. Everyone is confused and trying to find their way through the thicket of shit. You will be closest with the people who acknowledge this and embrace it, and together you will build a long distance raft which will help you navigate the churning sea of this thing they call 'adulthood.'

You and the other on your raft will connect with the rafts that set sail before you, and learn just how dumb you were while an undergrad and how ungrateful, and it will come as a small consolation prize that you now get to join the adult club of real life. You will find a strange camaraderie with that Paramore song about being on your own in the real world. When people still in college tell you about all the ways they're going to do it differently than you and your friends when they graduate, you will smile, nod, and think in your head, “tick, tock, tick, tock,” and wait for them to join the club.

You will wonder countless times how the hell it is possible to live as an artist and an intellectual while you're working at a cheap breakfast restaurant. And you will learn that the answer is both more simple and more challenging than you would have expected. The simple answer is that you do. You live. You do it. You manage. The challenging answer is that it's a lot harder to live and define yourself as an artist while working for minimum wage plus tips than it was when you were in college. You no longer have the luxury of lying in bed until five pm with a hangover, or skipping obligations to take a bath with your best friend, or having ten people who will faithfully read your forty page experimental essay. You certainly won't have three days you can disappear from the world for to write said forty page experimental essay.

Instead, you have to go to work. You cannot skip work, so you learn to get up at six or seven am and go. And when you are not at work, you learn that you have to go back to work, because this is how you live as an artist who is also a waitress. Your day off waitressing is your day on writing and painting and reading. You learn that you must read and write every day, and save your tip money for oil painting supplies and used books instead of new dresses and craft beer. (Okay, oil painting supplies and used books AS WELL AS new dresses and craft beer.) You learn that you are the only person who can define whether or not you are an artist, and that to live up to that definition for yourself you must write and read instead of sleeping in and watching television and drinking on weekdays. There is no immediate pay off for this other than the fact that it makes you feel alive.

Every morning when you get up to go to work which you cannot skip, you will regret every single time that you skipped a class, because you love learning and you do not love waiting on strangers. You must learn to forgive yourself for this, for no other reason than you were happy and free while in college and you never want to bemoan yourself for having relished that freedom which you no longer have.

As much as you hate going to work every morning, you will love going to work every morning because it gives you a purpose. Being settled in a routine will make you feel calmer than you have felt in years. This is the first sign that although you still miss college, you are perhaps healthier without it.

On the subject of health, your diet will stop consisting of commons food, leftover commons food, Cuca's burritos, Tecate, and hot plate quesadillas. For a long time your diet will consist of the food one eats while traveling, but once you settle you will realize that you actually do enjoy cooking for yourself and eating vegetables. This may not be worth as much to you as going to Hangar with different sets of friends two times a week, but your body will thank you for it later. You will learn to not 100% hate exercise, instead to only slightly dislike it and treat it like an entertaining but slightly unruly classmate. You will feel better about life while doing Zumba than you do while sitting around complaining, and for now, that is enough.

Another gift that life out of college will give you is time. In college, you felt that there was never enough. You were always worrying about how many/few weeks were left before the next break/the end of the year. You were trying to fit in every new friend and every party and it all left you with a frequent sense of high strung anxiety that there just wasn't enough time.

Now, all you have is time, which will prove to be a blessing. Use this time to find new music, which you haven't done in years. You'll hear songs that help you understand exactly what you are feeling about the past and how you want to feel in the future. You'll have enough time to make a balance of your life that feels correct rather than jamming in every possible thing that fits. With this time, get enough sleep and learn to cook and balance a social life and a creative life and a working life. You will have time to do laundry, but you somehow miraculously will still not find the time to clean. Go on dates with all weird kinds of men, discover new bars and wonder how everyone got so hip. Find a favorite stall at the farmers market, where the man always slips you an extra bunch of kale. Learn to like kale and actually discover which way you want your meat cooked and which types of beer you like best other than 'an IPA.' In other words, you will start to become an adult.

But the most important thing about time is that you will no longer feel like your life is a race against the clock. As much as you miss every day of your life being a grand adventure with another party to plan and another professor to go to dinner with, you understand that this is an exchange for your long term mental health.

Of course, there will be moments in this year that you will still cry, and not every moment, not even close, will be one of enlightenment about the beauty of the world and the shine of the future. Thoughts like these will threaten to cripple you:

“The only constant of the rest of the life is that I will always be missing my friends.”

“Every year that passes, every day that passes, I will be farther from the place that I loved.”

Sometimes you will be falling asleep and songs that you listened to in that last month will come on and you will have to rouse yourself to turn them off because it hurts too much to feel like you are falling asleep in your old room. At the same time, you hope that you have moments like this for the rest of your life.

Every day you will wonder if it will all work out. If you will eventually get into grad school. If you will be a waitress for the rest of your life. If you will ever have a place in the creative world. You will wonder if any of the boys will ever not suck, and if you'll ever find people who you love as much as your friends. You won't find the answer to any of these questions, not in the first year. But every day it gets easier to live with the uncertainty. And for now, that is enough.

So the short answer to how to live? You do. You make things. You talk to old friends who are far away and create a new life with the friends who are nearby. You find yourself talking about college less with the near friends and instead talking about your jobs and what you're doing this weekend and the boys you meet. You have new inside jokes. You come up with a hundred ideas a week about what to do with your life and you research ten of them and you accomplish one of them, and all of it counts towards something.

Last year, you were terrified of the fact that you didn't know where you'd be in a year. Now, you still have no idea, but it's a joyful sense of wonder, like when you got a geode split open for you at the cave you took one of your best friends from college to in your home state, and the rock that started out as a brown dirty mass split into five sections of crystal, shining in the still air, with countless tiny pieces falling down to the ground.