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Note No. 14

May 13, 2009

Six years ago last weekend, my mother celebrated her 28th Mother’s Day; my sister got married and I graduated from university. How fitting then to be back in the city where it all happened: Athens, Ga.

It’s quite serendipitous, really. When the H1N1 virus reared its piggy head in Mexico, seizing tourism by the neck and shaking until planes cancelled flights into the country, Cancun hotels reported a 40% drop in occupancy, and public venues, among them bars and restaurants, were forced to limit capacity to 80 people. As the world took on an apocalyptic air, my sister just wanted me home and booked a flight for May 1, telling me to shut the doors on the business and leave.

Getting me off the island was a bit like giving a cat a bath but with a lot of coaxing and cooing from various ends of my support network, I finally managed to throw a mess of things into a suitcase and drag my teary self off the rock.

Once I made the trek, I was glad I did. I mean, friends, family, food, frivolity: what’s not to like, really? And now that I am here, I am reminded once again that all things happen for a reason and that this one is apparently something of the take-stock-and-don’t-veer-off-the-path variety. That is, if memories were baseball bats, I would be black and blue by now with the number that seem to be beating me over the head, all the while giving me the sensation I am supposed to realize something.

It all began when I missed my original flight back to Atlanta, took a standby connection to Baltimore, and found myself on an extended weekend with good friends in D.C., a place associated with many happy Christmases, Easters and summers at my grandparents’ house outside the city. In this nostalgic setting, I not only submerged back into all the doodads and whatchmacallits that go with American culture; I reconnected with two people I had not really spent time with since college, back when all of us were barely into adulthood, trustingly following our courses of study like beacons in the fog. To listen to them talk now about their careers and the things they hope to accomplish in the near future, it made me ponder the workplace competition of which I am currently not a part, and I wondered if I missed it or not.

It is a point I continue to muse upon now that I have finally made it back home to the town of my alma mater. On Saturday, after having lunch with my first ever newspaper editor, the one who gave me my earliest assignments and initiated me into the world of deadlines and bylines, I cut through campus to get to my parents’ side of town. Pausing at the famous arch that you may walk under only after you have graduated, I watch as a girl hangs from the structure, her father taking photo after photo as a long line of her fellow alumni stand waiting for their turn to pose, all of them wearing the same black robes I had donned on May 10, 2003.

It’s a bleak time to be entering the workforce in 2009 but that does not appear to be on the mind of this girl, whose peaceful expression of contentment for the lens turns into an unabashed grin of accomplishment, once she has hopped off her perch and allowed the next former classmate to step up.

Passing under the sprawling oak trees and admiring the antebellum architecture of the buildings, I think back on the classes, people and projects that took me in and out of almost every doorway. I do not miss it, I realize. Rather, it’s akin to having braces on my teeth: I am glad I did it; I have a lot to show for it but I would not want to relive it.

Of course, while I can never imagine wanting orthodontics back on my teeth, I know that one day I will pine for these years, just as I can now look back longingly on grade school, because through my rose-colored glasses, all I can see are overnight class trips, after-school sports practices and Friday night skating parties. Feelings of social inadequacy, class projects with lazy slackers who make you do all the work, extreme disdain for parental rules, on-the-floor-and-writhing-type angst over boys? Evidently, I never had to deal with any of that; my childhood was idyllic.

Continuing my journey, the journalism school now in my line of vision, I do yearn for the clear-cut simplicity of those collegiate years: take that class; read these books and study for this test. Steps later, I am reminded that my memory is a little pinkish. Outside the empty stadium, where the commencement ceremony had been held only a few hours before, notecards are strewn about on the street and sidewalk, vocabulary terms printed on one side and definitions on the other. The writing is feminine and I can just imagine this girl throwing them up in the air and walking away as they flutter down to where I find them now as a reminder that it is a liberating feeling indeed to get rid of old notebooks full of professors’ thoughts and to sell back textbooks laden with other people’s theories. Finally, it is her turn to make her own discoveries, follow her dreams and choose her battles, admit her mistakes and acknowledge her achievements.

What am I to take then from this glimpse into the lives of newly initiated adults? Perhaps it has to do with the look the girl at the arch was making, the one that says that you finished what you set out to do, regardless what it required. Maybe it’s a reminder to stay true to your original plans and not lose sight of your real self, regardless of the little revelations you’ll make along the way, such as finding out coffee’s not that bitter or that Woody Allen’s not nearly as funny as he used to be. Possibly it’s about that little person inside that doesn’t waver, the one that determines whether you are an early bird or a night owl; the one that dictates whether you work now and play later, or vice versa; the one that makes your parents remark, “Oh, well, you’ve always been that way. You were feeding yourself before you could walk.”

None of this is to say that I want to leave my tropical paradise and go back to a cubicle at a newspaper, where I started my post-graduate career. For one, my meal with Don has confirmed my suspicion that now is not the time to try to reenter my field of print media, what with free Internet news making tangible press almost a moot point.

Furthermore, the beauty of the island is that there is no pressure to go somewhere and do something and be someone all the time. Corporate culture simply does not exist where the majority of commerce is conducted in family-owned bars, restaurants, novelty shops and hotels. A good percentage of people still carry a standard issue Nokia phone (no camera built in), and golf carts and scooters are the most common form of transportation.

If you live and work there, you cannot have a commute longer than four-and-a-half miles, the length of the island; the incoming and outgoing tide of tourists set the pace of one’s work life, so like it or not, you are probably going to be forced to slow down at least two or three months a year; and if you cannot finish something today, it is most likely OK to do it tomorrow.

Stay there long enough and you forget the standards of more Westernized lives, the ones where people wake up to put on suits and heels, and travel to distant offices, where everyone is vying for the same position, so that the only way to stay ahead is by working right through dinner and enrolling in resume-enriching courses on weekends and weeknights.

And so, the eve before my flight back to the Caribbean and its easy, relaxed acceptance of everything, I find myself thinking just a little bit more about goals and life choices, and looking a bit more for balance, the kind that takes the best of both worlds and fits it into one, perfect sphere.

I want answers but I am left with the question: is that possible?

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