I went home this weekend. Not home to Memphis, but home to my friends in Arkansas. I hugged librarians, ate lunch with the English department, and spent hours in professors’ offices. Then I laughed until I cried at a sleepover with my best friends. It was the perfect weekend. I did all the things I wanted to do and saw all the people I wanted to see, and somewhere, between the laughter and heart-to-hearts, I realized that this is what it means to belong.
Maybe I should explain.
As most of you know, I graduated college a few months ago and have had a rough time adjusting to the post-grad landscape. I knew that leaving school would be hard — my biggest fear was that I would stop writing — but what I didn’t realize was that the same insecurities that stifled my words would wreak havoc on my ability to find a job. Unlike most majors, English doesn’t point to an obvious career (unless you license to teach, which I didn’t). So while my practical nursing- and education-major friends spent the summer beginning jobs and moving on, I floundered. But the problem wasn’t just that I didn’t know what to do; it was that I didn’t know where to go. I’d spent the past four years building a home, only to have the big bad wolf huff and puff and blow it down. Moving on seemed impossible because I’d lost the thing I most desired: a place to belong.
A few decades ago, Mary Oliver penned a poem called “Wild Geese.” In it, she writes,
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
In college, I belonged. I knew my place. Once I graduated, that place and the confidence that accompanied it disappeared — or so I thought.
We’ve all heard that sermon illustration about the doctor spanking the newborn, not to make him cry but rather to make him breathe. The pain of the slap and the baby’s reactionary cry are the most effective way to communicate hey kid, you’re on your own now, so I really need you to breathe. Well, graduation was my slap on the backside, and this summer was my great and gasping response. It wasn’t fun. I hated it, and even as the summer unfolded and pinpricks of light broke through the dark night of my soul, I never fully believed I’d be happy again — not like I’d been in the English department. But what I have come to realize in these weeks and months is that happiness is fleeting and often entirely circumstantial.
I thought that I was happy when I climbed into my car on Friday and drove to Arkansas. The picture I took before leaving seemed to prove that — I was thrilled! But the more I looked at it, the more I began to realize that mere happiness couldn’t make my eyes sparkle and my dimples show. Something more powerful had transformed my expression into the truest, freest version of itself, and that something was joy.
So I haven’t lost my place. My circumstances have shifted, communication is a little harder, and my self-confidence has taken a hit, but that is all. My friends still love me, my professors remember me, and deep down inside, I know that. I mean, just look at that picture. That is the face of a woman who belongs.
Four months ago, I thought that graduation meant The End of all good things. But what I have come to realize — through both the joy of this weekend and the long aching emptiness of summer — is that graduation was not the end of my story. It was just the close of a long and beautiful act, and now that I’ve read the opening lines of Act II, I think I can carry on.