When I arrived in Macomb, Illinois there was a heavy and humid fog that drained everything of its vibrant Midwestern color. The main drag through town was dotted with ghostly residents moving slowly in the summertime air. Watching my former world go by was like living in an eerie dream sequence. It felt unreal, like a reflection of what used to be, though nothing in particular changed in the mere 10 weeks since I left—just me.
It wasn’t moving that felt rushed, it was moving on.
I arrived at my empty apartment, and looked around at the haphazard and miscellaneous cleaning supplies I left behind. Not ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work, I instead settled on lying flat on my back, staring at the unmoving ceiling fan, arranging all of my limbs to be perfectly beneath each of its dusty blades. I lifted my head just enough off the ground to pop open my computer to play iTunes, thinking of something melancholy.
The music universe, which includes radio stations, Pandora, iTunes, any general shuffle function on any music device anywhere, has a way of knowing. I am convinced of it. The first song to play, in a library of several hundred songs that would take up more than 5 solid days of time if played end-to-end, was “Home” by Phillip Phillips. It was a song I never once heard before August 14th, 2012, when Dr. Sarah Schoper, one of the primary faculty members in my graduate program, stood before a room full of anxious first-year graduate students unsure of what they had gotten themselves into, gave it to us as a gift—a promise that, together, we’d make this place our home.
I was still on the floor, staring through the fan now, instead of at it, letting myself freely well up, feeling the tears slide down the sides of my face and pool a little in my ears. I was grateful for the release, because it hadn’t come 10 weeks ago in the very moment I was prepared for it, wanting it. Feelings evidently can’t be scheduled. Lesson learned.
Still on the floor, I composed myself slightly and mentally drifted from the hallowed halls of Horribin Hall back to my empty apartment. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, reacquainting myself with its smells and sounds. It’s strange how each place is unique in that way.
I rolled to my side and remembered the stain on the carpet from where a mug full of hot tea slipped from my sleepy hand as I read. Getting to my feet felt like a chore, but once I peeled myself off the floor, I turned slowly around and carefully considered each portion of the apartment. I’m convinced I could see a ghost of myself sitting between the missing couch and ottoman, unkempt and frazzled, promising to reward myself with a shower after just two more pages of this paper.
My fingers slid over the scrapes on the walls that felt friction from the large desk I assembled with the help of my friend Ryan’s muscle and power tools. I hardly used that desk for actual work—its job was to sit there and keep my files organized and my paperclips neatly separated from my pushpins. It didn’t make the move to Lincoln with me. It was large, heavy, and not functional for my purposes, so I sold it to a fellow graduate student who will hopefully make better use of it.
After emotionally acclimating to my new old surroundings, I decided to get to work. I soon realized I was alone with myself for the first time in recent memory. No typical distractions from emails or Facebook or cable—even my talk-and-text phone was abnormally lifeless. I was bored of my iTunes library, cursing my taste in music I now find mostly terrible. So in the stillness and silence of the evening, I began to wash and scrub.
The repetition of the activity threw me into an even deeper reflective state of mind. I thought about how grateful I was to have spent two years in the company of some of the most wonderful people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, and in a town that was largely devoid of most of the amenities I used to consider necessities. The relationships were deeper. The living was simpler. And I was excited to have a taste of it again if only for a weekend. But without the people I love, the taste wasn’t quite as sweet as I expected. All the old haunts were empty of the old energy (and volume) we’d bring to them.
It was sad. I was sad.
And making it sadder was the fact that, despite my unfettered glee that accompanied my new professional adventure, I was realizing as I scrubbed my dusty floors that I will never get back what I lost when I graduated. Three times a day I want to be able to tell my cohort what happened at work. I crave that company and that audience again.
But more than any of that, I suppose I’m craving some kind of closure. We spent weeks saying goodbye, but the actual moment our fellowship disbanded, never to be fully reassembled again, was unacknowledged, at least as a group. We had just graduated and we were all celebrating with our guests who came to support us, and I distinctly remember thinking, “Well, now what?”
Now we leave. And so I left, because I didn’t know what else to do.
After two sweaty days and a lot of vinegar and baking soda, I surveyed the apartment. The emptiness of it seemed to suddenly reflect a scary emptiness inside me that I was unaware of or not bothered by before. I am challenged at work and I’m learning new things and I’m working with students constantly, but I’m lonely. And doing something about it is going to take a significant amount of both time and energy, because to quote Dr. Brene Brown, “You can’t hotwire connection.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could?
After a melancholy weekend of manual labor, I passed over my keys to a kind landlord with what I learned are exceptionally high standards of cleanliness. Yet again, I caught myself thinking, “Now what?”
Now I leave. And say the formal goodbye. And cry most of the way home. And be fully present in Lincoln, Nebraska.