When I’m sad, overwhelmed, or just completely stressed out there a few songs I have to listen to. By this point, they’re engrained in me. There’s a process to all this listening to, just in case you were wondering. I make sure there’s enough gas in my tank, load up these songs on a Spotify queue and drive until I feel lost enough to want to get myself home. It used to be easier when I was in high school and waitressing tips only went toward gas, but now gas is more expensive and I don’t have a job where I make tips, so being stressed can be pretty costly. When I’m “lost” figuratively and trying to figure out the next part of my life (or more perspectively, my week) it seems like literally getting lost is the best way to let myself know things aren’t so bad. I have a roof over my head to get back to and people who will give a damn if they don’t hear from me by the end of the night. It puts things into perspective. But I know what you’re really wondering – my songs, which play on a loop after the last one finishes are – “American Girl” by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, “Pour Some Sugar On Me” by Def Leppard, “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, “Jack and Diane” by John Mellencamp and of course “Free Fallin'” (it’s important to bring a playlist full circle and Tom Petty has a simplicity with words).
These songs are simple. They’re not the most complex, nor do they tell stories relatable to every situation, but they paint pictures of simpler times where Jack and Diane shared chili dogs outside the Tastee Freeze and one highway seemed to be able to take you wherever you needed to go. While I love things about my life and the opportunities I have that never would have been an option in the 60’s or 70’s, it’s always been enviable to me to think of a time where a bottle of beer was a quarter and there was nothing else better to do on a Summer night then sit on the front steps and talk while a car drove by every so often.
“She’s a good girl, loves her mama, loves Jesus and America too. She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis, loves horses and her boyfriend too.”
I’ve always related to that line. From the time I was too young to know more than one Elvis song, or what a boyfriend really was. I just knew that I wanted to be that good girl. That simple person who was okay with the vanilla in life and made people around her happy. It wasn’t until lately that I realized I was no longer vanilla. I’m still a good person who loves super deeply and horses remain the most adorable creatures to me, but no one ever warned me about losing my vanilla – so I’m warning you (or if you’ve lost it, maybe you’ll relate a bit).
Let me explain to you what I mean by “losing my vanilla.” My whole life, I’ve mapped out just about everything. From the outfit I’d wear on the first day of school, to the cake I wanted for my sixteenth birthday. Before iCal was a thing, I had hand written planners that I’d copy my homework to months in advance. I think I was the only fourth grader who went around the classroom adding everyone’s birthday’s to her agenda so she wouldn’t forget a card that day in school. I chose my high school and auditioned to get in two years before so that by the start of my eighth grade year, I knew what was coming next. I even chose my college and took my S.A.T’s the end of my sophomore year. I liked things done in advance because, although it was stressful, I always knew what was coming long before the “last minute” bell rang.
At the beginning of this year however, when I started my Master’s program, I couldn’t believe I didn’t know where I’d be in September. It bothered me so much that in October I was sending out emails to people in Nashville, the city I knew I needed to be in for my career and my life, asking for job opportunities the following year! No one told me that at some point, the certainty fades away. That there’s only so long you can put pins into your roadmap before you run out of space and need a new one. It just seemed like up until I graduated with my M.B.A. there were steps. Step 1) choose a college, step 2) choose a major, step 3) find a job to pay for rent, step 4) make friends and love and create a life in the place you’ll call home for four years, step 5) graduate… step 6) there are no more steps – please continue to the nearest exit.
That’s the moment you lose your vanilla. That’s when things stop being black & white, cut & dry, step-by-step-simple. They get hard. You pick a place you think you love and realize you can’t find a job from 1,000 miles away. So you decide to move down there with nothing but your clothes, a shower curtain, and a thousand mugs in the trunk of your car. You part with stuff you love and people you’ll miss so bad to chase a dream you feel is right. There is no right. There is no wrong. You can ask the universe for signs, or maybe even make them up yourself like I do when I hear a song or see Tennessee Whiskey at a restaurant with my parents, but at the end of the day it’s up to you and nothing is foreseen.
Packing up my apartment at school a few days ago, I realized all of this. Sitting on the floor of my closet folding shirts that suddenly had so many memories attached to them it hit me that my home for the past four years would now just be a place on a roadmap. A city I once lived in filled with memories and people I’ll never forget. I am who I am now because of that. Because of the choices I made and the roads they led me down. It was there on the floor of my closet I realized I was no longer vanilla and it was there I knew I became that “free fallin’ girl.” The one who has nothing but time. As scary, eye-opening and life changing as that may be, it’s also pretty exciting, exhilarating and new.
That’s the truth about the end of college, or at least the truth about how I see it. I remember being excited for a time when all I had to do was work and “adult” and go out to cool dinners, or work lunches with no homework to come back to at night. As soon as you walk across that stage to get your degree though, you realize just how much you’re going to miss the late night study sessions and the Sunday afternoons writing papers with the windows open and acoustic music playing through your bluetooth speaker. It’s like driving down a road for twelve hours at 80 mph and then coming to a red light and waiting and waiting and waiting for it to turn green again without knowing what will happen once it does. The best part about waiting at that light though, is listening to the songs that get you through it, taking advantage of the breather life is freely giving you and knowing you have people that give a damn if they don’t hear from you by the end of the night.