I typically don't post on Saturdays, but today is sort of special. It's been 10 years since I wore a Carolina blue cap and gown and, under Carolina blue skies, was pronounced an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Sometimes it feels like only yesterday that I was picking up dinner to go from Franklin Street Pizza and Pasta on my way home from journalism classes in Carroll Hall. Other times, it feels like a hundred years ago, like it happened to another person.
In a way, it was a different person who earned that degree a decade ago. To point out the obvious, I do have a different last name now. And I have learned so many things in the days and years since graduation, I truly am a different person. If I could talk to that scared 22-year-old girl, here's what I would tell her.
1 // Your job will never define you. For some people, yes, their job will be a major factor in defining who they are as a person (doctors come to mind). But you, dear one? You'll so try hard to get a good job in journalism, but it's going to be a long, rough road. You'll work at a restaurant and babysit, find a newspaper job, get laid off, and then spend five years working in a field you don't like with people who tear you down every day. It will suck. A lot. You will eventually come to a job that is a great fit for your skill set, but by that time you'll realize your job doesn't define you. You have so many other interests and qualities that define you, and frankly, they're more important. And that's a good thing.
2 // You will find a husband. Just like everyone says you will. However, you totally and completely have the right to feel validated for your fears, because it's going to take quite a bit of time and several lousy contenders before you find a man so perfect for you that it's almost unbelievable. Yes, he's hot. He's incredibly smart, well-educated, driven, interesting, hysterically funny, and he comes from a great family. Also, he loves food and wine and dogs and travel just like you, and will become the best friend you never dared hope you'd have. Hang in there, little one. Seriously, he's coming. And he's worth it.
3 // Those friends you made? They're for life. You'll all eventually get married and they'll have babies, and hopefully you will too, and it'll get harder to find time to spend together. But the love and loyalty you have for each other will never waver. You'll still email. And text. And when you do get together, it will be that much sweeter. You're all much more complex now, with much more depth, now that you have all gone your separate ways, into different careers in different cities with different husbands (hi, you're not Mormon) and different friends. But in your hearts, all of you share that little corner apartment off Airport Road, and it will connect you for life.
4 // It will take you a depressing 11 years to get back to Firenze. But it will only take you seven to get to France, where you'll fall in love with a small town that you previously didn't know existed. And from there it will only take you four years to move to that little town in France, where you'll get to live for six months, sans job, with the aforementioned hot husband. You can do this, dear. You can take a deep breath and wade through the muck and survive until you get to go back to Europe. Because it's beyond awesome.
5 // Your parents and brother will become some of your best friends. Right now, your parents are those people who cluck worryingly over you, hoping (praying) you'll find a job with really high paycheck and good benefits. Your little brother is the kid who, on your joint graduation family trip to Cancun, had only ice cream and Jack Daniels for lunch and drove you crazy the better part of the afternoon. But as you and little bro age, you will become fantastic friends. It'll also get a lot better when you throw your laid-back spouses into the mix to counteract the highly strung, type-A Payne family genes. Family truly makes the best friends, and you'll wish you had more time to spend with them.
6 // You'll miss Carolina every day of your life. Even though you're going to have a great life with your hot husband, sweet dog, wonderful family and amazing friends, you'll stop sometimes and think of Chapel Hill and it will actually, physically hurt. You'll suck your breath in, and sometimes tears will spring to your eyes. Tears will spring out of your eyes every time you hear the Clef Hangers sing Carolina in My Mind.
A lot of people won't understand this. Most people won't understand this. Not every college is like this. For four years, you walked on crazy sacred ground, part of something that, in the grand scheme of the world at large, only a few people ever experience. You traipsed the same ground walked by the likes of Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, and your own mother. You are so, so lucky. I know it hurts like hell to leave, and it will for a long time to come. But you are part of a bigger brother- and sisterhood now. When you see a UNC sticker on the back of a car, you'll get all excited and say, "Those are my people!" You'll walk up to perfect strangers and strike up a conversation if they're wearing a Carolina t-shirt or hat. Chapel Hill won't be under your feet any longer, but it will be in your heart. This poem by Thomas Wolfe, c/o 1920, will still be one of your favorites:
"But sometimes when the springtime comes and the sifting moonlight falls, they'll think again of this night here and of these old brown walls, of white Old Well and of Old South. With Bell's deep booming tone, they'll think again of Chapel Hill, and - thinking - come back home."
And that, my dear, is the biggest thing you need to know. You'll grow and change and marry and evolve, but you can come home again. Because now, home is inside you.