Coming up for air
In terms of an introduction, this is a column about nothing in particular. But it’s also a column about anything under the sun. I don’t know if this affords me unmeasurable literary freedom or if it cages me in, wandering aimlessly around the halls of banality. But as a circus manager in charge of transporting the big top from town to town has probably said at least once, “Let’s get this show on the road.”
If you’re my mom, you might know I used to write a column in Statement called “Soundtracking,” where I would pair events and feelings with specific songs in an attempt to highlight the musicality of life, which is often filled with repetition and been-there, done-thats. If you happen to not be the woman who brought me into this world and supported me in everything I ever did (even during the mullet phase in middle school), you probably have no clue that column existed. And I’m okay with that. It was an experiment in exploring myself.
Every two weeks, Statement editors (sometimes much to their dismay I’m sure) afforded me the privilege of scrolling through Spotify playlists and recounting tales of embarrassment, profound life changes and even my own lackluster deflowering on one specific occasion. But every time I sat down to write — and even now, as I sit at my desk hoping the patron saint Billie Holiday will give me something of value to say — I wrote to destress. I wrote to take a moment for myself. I was comfortable where I was, click-clacking away obnoxiously because I never learned how to type.
No seriously, I never learned how to type. My right hand goes wild but my left pecks and only covers like 10 or 15 keys. I look like that gif of Kermit the Frog at the typewriter, but only typing 30 or 40 words per minute. But back to writing.
I wrote that column because I felt as though it was where my needs and skills (or lack thereof) fit best. And I absolutely loved it. I had the freedom to revel in my past embarrassments, to explore the deepest caverns of my memory and share them with the world. I was able to toy with the past while staying incredibly present. Now, it’s the future I’m scared of.
Cut back to this most recent Thanksgiving — the worst holiday when you don’t have a concrete, step-by-step answer to the foreboding question, “What are you thinking post-grad?” The question looms over every conversation with every third aunt 18 times removed. Even when the words aren’t leaving their lips, you can see it in their eyes. It’s like when parents can’t wait to ask the waitress how their day’s been.
Some inquiring adults I can evade with a simple, “I’d be happy in anything as long as I’m writing.” I do mean that wholeheartedly, but it really does the trick to get people off my back. Then I can go on my merry way. But one especially persistent relative dared to hit me with the follow-up.
“But what does that mean, Matt? What happened to journalism?”
(Before I have the chance to respond) “You’re almost 21! You can’t not know what you’re gonna do after you graduate.”
After that one interaction, I lied awake at night, trying to imagine a million different futures — my own fig tree straight from Plath. I made so many yellow legal pad lists, scrawling internship pathways, connections to call in, everything a higher-education institution has taught me to do. It’s not what you know, but who you know. But how am I supposed to figure out who I know if I don’t even know myself?
Over every gust of wind on this campus, every echo, I hear a voice. The voice demands your future be set in stone. Whether it’s your own decision or someone else’s — what you do, the voice cares not. But the voice badgers me every day for not knowing exactly what my plan for the future is. If I don’t have a pathway I can confidently outline to any newcomer who demands one, maybe I should just do what others want me to do instead. Then I never have to figure it out myself.
An hour ago (an hour from writing, not an hour real time from when you’re reading this. That would be crazy if I could time that out), someone asked me what my plans are this semester. When I told them about being a deputy Statement editor — and how I planned on taking a step back from the 24/7 News process I used to be entrenched in — I was hit with a big, fat “Why?”
And now I would like to present to you a list of questions it is acceptable to ask someone when they are excited about their new job on Statement, even if it doesn’t fit in your expectations of what you thought they might do with their life:
“What are you guys thinking about doing with Statement?”
“Are your occasional columns gonna be like Soundtracking? Your mom told me those were great!”
“Why are you so strapping and handsome?”
And here’s a list of questions that aren’t acceptable:
“That seems like a step back. Why don’t you want to do more?”
“Don’t you love The Daily?”
“Why are you already crying? It’s only 9 a.m.”
I know this isn’t their fault (especially the crying bit). It’s just our immediate reaction. We expect people to strive to do the most they can for the things they love. And I do love The Michigan Daily and News. With my whole heart. But I also love being able to experiment with other projects and mediums of expression. Taking a step back to bask in what you’ve created and focus on yourself shouldn’t be an instinctively interrogated decision.
But here’s where my typical, self-destructive behavior would kick in, telling me I’m being self-serving and letting people down for not doing more.
This semester, I’m trying a new thing. It’s called confidence. Haven’t heard of her before, but we’ll see how she is.
In an ideal world, I just want to breathe. And we aren’t afforded much time to breathe at this university. It’s four years, maybe five, and then you’re thrust out into the scary world like a newly christened ship embarking on its maiden voyage. Everyone wants to know about where the ship is going, but few ask how the ship’s doing as it bobs in the water. As a professor once told me when I almost broke down during office hours asking what I should do with my life, higher education should be a place for experimentation.
As members of this university and, even broader, as humans, we need to collectively encourage exploration. Because what typically follows experimentation is a better understanding of self. And isn’t that what higher education should be about? Finding out who the hell you are?
Take that ceramics class even if the credits won’t count for anything. Who says you can’t play mandolin? Tell the world to take its expectations of you and feed ‘em to the birds.
As Socrates probably once said, “Love yourself, you’re worth it, cutie.”