At 16, you always thought you would die after high school. It’s not that you wanted to die, but you couldn’t fathom how you would keep going. What it would look like to follow those big, big dreams. You secretly felt stupid about having dreams. Your brain couldn’t picture it happening; therefore, it couldn’t exist.
Your thought pattern was half-right—not about fearing the unknown, but about the vision. You don’t have to know how you will get there, but you have to know you want it. To squeeze your eyes shut tight and see yourself at the end goal, no matter how insurmountable or ridiculous it seems. And the rest is just hard work. Head down. Light on.
You open your eyes. It’s Monday. It’s unseasonably warm. The cat is asleep on the couch. It’s 4 in the afternoon and you are home. It’s not a holiday. You don’t like this feeling, the heart palpitations that start when you remember you don’t know when you will get paid next. You send out invoices like sweepstakes entries. There’s $40 in the bank, but you’re owed $3,000. This is how you make your living now. You are lucky.
The table is littered with textbooks, a TI-83 calculator inherited from an old love and mechanical pencils. It’s unfamiliar, the evidence that someone in this house is doing math or writing not in pen. Yet somehow, the subject you always hated is growing more appealing. You like that it’s finite, that there are rules to be followed, that there is a right and a wrong answer.
It’s a shift from all the pretty lines and the yearning and the whimsy that you crave. And in that moment, I swear we were infinite, reads your favorite line from “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which your friend bought you for your birthday one year. He inscribed the inside cover, “…for hours of high school sadness.” Sometimes you miss feeling infinite. You miss feeling breathy. You think about the clichés of getting older. Aging doesn’t scare you so much as losing yourself, as the fading intensity.
You are about to turn 30 and you are back in school with 19-year olds. They speak freely, they listen when you talk, they cannot believe you are that old. You all want to be nurses, you collectively lament over organic chemistry.
Your professor is a baby boomer, a retired chiropractor and an avid storyteller. She infuses lessons on elements with anecdotes about the ’70s. While the space between electrons is too small to fathom on the human-sized scale, it’s highly significant at the atomic level. And if all the electrons were aligned in a specific pattern, there would be enough space to put your finger straight through a solid piece of matter. She swears she proved this once in her early twenties, when she and her friend both watched a potato chip fall directly through a table. They looked everywhere and couldn’t find the chip—and concluded that it was caught inside the table between the electrons. This had nothing to do with being stoned, and everything to do with proving scientific theories, she said.
School is different the second time around. Or the third time, if you count your previous degrees. Or the fourth time, if you count all the times you started and stopped the process when it got to be too much. When it was scary, when you chose friends over homework, when you thought you were too old to be making drastic changes, when it wasn’t comfortable to be broke, when you didn’t believe you were smart enough to tackle science. When you couldn’t fathom not being a writer, even though making a living off of it was making you unhappy. When you lost sight of the end goal.
School is different this time around. It’s no one else’s fault that you chose the path of most resistance; you own it as a means to an end. You are learning the art of patience with your eye on the prize. You are learning how to settle into discomfort, to welcome the unknown, to put one foot in front of the other and recognize that it’s all you can do. Sometimes you can’t see more than three steps ahead, and that’s just the reality of now.
You are sure this is right. You are sure that if you keep your head down and not allow yourself to be consumed by the forces working against you, you will make it through. You are sure that there is space—no matter how small or inconceivable—where everything lines up.