My neighborhood is more youthful this Monday.
I moved to my neighborhood in June. It was a unique mix of gay and ethnic populations, with men wearing short shorts walking their dogs in the morning and girls in bright African fabrics running ahead of their mothers on the way to church. Tonight, though, a new population had slipped in, seemingly over night. Groups of bright-faced freshmen wondering out of McDonalds, a boy on a skateboard smoking an e-Cigarette (I still, after many explanations, do not understand these things) and a group of returned students lugging bags and books between stores and their dorm halls. Just a few blocks south of Loyola University, my neighborhood indicates a new school year.
Walking home in the August heat, one of just a handful of hot days in Chicago this summer, my thoughts quickly reminisced about my college years. That first Jackrabbit football game, the energy in the Union, the clinking of glasses with friends you hadn’t seen in three months, Brookings back to life. Those four years, that place. It always makes me smile.
One of my friends used to say that college was the best time of her life. It was surely a good time for me, but far from my greatest years and when I go back to Brookings, a bit older each time, I am reminded that my happiness and joy is sort of frozen in time, where it should be. It’s never the same, but it shouldn’t be. That’s what makes it special.
I have no regrets about my university years. They were well lived and I gained many good friends that are still my rocks to this day. SDSU may not have shattered the world I knew but it did crack it, giving me the courage to break it open on my own.
I didn’t always feel that way, though. I had a lot of regrets about what I did and didn’t do in college and adjusting to life after college was way more difficult than I anticipated. Actually, I had no idea it would be hard, no one told me that. In that first year after graduation, I moved away and then back, I took a job and then quit it. I spent long nights in bars and on friends’ couches trying to figure out how I could ever go on, how I could ever be anything but a student.
“Yeah,” I thought as I walked past sandwich shops and closed antique stores, “that was a really hard year.”
“Actually, it’s kind of how I feel now.”
“And I got threw it.”
It’s funny to me that I didn’t realize this similarity until just tonight.
Last week, I told a co-worker that I am going through this existential crisis because I don’t know what I am. Being a Peace Corps volunteer was my goal for so long and when I finally could add those three letters to my name – Heather Mangan, PCV – I refused to believe they wouldn’t always stay there. And then they were gone, as if I didn’t acknowledge their built-in expiration date. I do not know what is next, nor do I have even a goal to at least short of direct myself towards. I am down right terrified that my significance and purpose in this world ended when my service did.
Of course, I will always be an RPCV and it’s OK for me to feel lost and a bit empty in this year back home – absolutely every RPCV I’ve talked to has felt this way. I felt so relieved when one of my friends from Lesotho told me she doesn’t know what to do with her life either, and she is enrolled in school right now. She then shared something that her cousin told her and it struck me: “Don’t let your past experiences alter the vision you have for yourself.”
As the one-year mark of my return gets nearer (it’s been more than nine months) I am starting to be more in tune with my life in front of me and not the one in memories on the other side of the world. My Peace Corps experience, in both Lesotho and Niger, is one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, but it’s not the greatest. I still have many wonderful, wonderful moments to live and I can only do that if I throw all of my attention to right now. It’s also very much OK that I don’t know what to do next and that I feel a little lost, life is like that sometimes. I am still transitioning and I need time to just wander, physically and metaphorically. The path can’t always be clear.
It took me a good year to accept that I was no longer a student, but that didn’t mean that life was doomed to end there. Actually, it was just beginning because three months after the year anniversary of my graduation I applied to the Peace Corps.
My adventure did not end after college and will not end after Peace Corps.