Portrait of an undergraduate as a young woman
by Sarah Ross; illustration by Mikala Sterling
It was Christmas break my sophomore year of college, and I was ten hours into a drive home to Wyoming. The sky and ground were all the same icy, flat color, occasionally broken by the pulsing lights of oil refineries. I drove with one shoe off and one shoe on; I followed stray thoughts down twisting paths, directed by the lyrics on the radio and the signs I passed. I hummed, I glanced in the mirror, I had imaginary fights over past grievances. And then I tried to pass a car that had its left turn signal on. As I passed, it turned. The second before impact, I yanked the steering wheel in the opposite direction. When my car hit the other, they were almost parallel, and they glided together in a metallic grip until the momentum shot my car off the road. Right before the sickening crunch, I closed my eyes and said, “No no no no.”
* * *
I’m no good at transitions. Each one I can remember has been marked by this car crash feeling. I’m floating, dreaming, consumed by the minutia of the day, which rattles in my head more than it exists in the world:
• How will I get my prescription filled?
• Is it ok to send a birthday card a month late?
• Why is my acne worse now that I’ve begun actually washing my face?
• Do I spend too much time on the Internet? (Yes).
• Should I actually do something about it?
Then, almost mid-thought, I realize I’m careening toward a precipice, and all the internal rattling is suspended with the anticipation of impact. These preoccupations are preserved like flies in amber, perverse specimens of my own unconsciousness, lack of intentionality, self-centeredness—inability to notice a left turn signal. I brace. I freeze. “No no no no.”
The first of many ungraceful transitions was that from fourth grade into fifth. In all my years at Wilson Elementary, the classroom desks had been in friendly bunches, each marked with the name of a student in neat letters. In fifth grade, though, the desks were in austere rows and didn’t have nametags. “How will I remember which desk is mine?” I wailed. My dad assured me that I wasn’t the only one feeling anxious, that fifth grade would bring its own challenges, but also its own joys, that I might even grow to like my new desk.
Now, I’m graduating from college in eleven days, and my fears are the same as they were in fourth grade. There’s no neat little place in the world with my name on it. I don’t know how to find where I’m meant to be, and I’m worried I won’t recognize it when I do. And most of all, I’m facing the idea that externally-motivated transitions may force increased awareness, but they don’t necessarily connote a final arrival at some higher level of understanding. The anxieties that plagued my eight-year-old self are those that plague my 21-year-old self, but today I have less faith in those adults and institutions that surround me, providing conflicting advice about the “real world.” Without complete faith in the authority of impervious institutions or older generations, locating authority and fundamental truths proves difficult. The fear I feel about leaving college is founded in this realization that there is no real template, that all I have is the authority of my own experience.
Moments of transition crystallize and clarify entire periods of life, revealing some of these truths that I seek and serving as markers from which to gather bearings, to imagine a way forward through increasingly turbulent transitions. If these moments of change are like car crashes, the learning occurs in the raw moment after the accident, surrounded by the debris of what has irrevocably happened and confronted with a sometimes painful and always ambiguous future.
* * *
After the accident, I frantically pulled on my other shoe, stumbling into the negative double digit cold and running toward the other car. “Didn’t you see my turn signal?” the woman screamed as I approached. The driver door was smashed in—she couldn’t get out, but she was fine. “Yes. No. I don’t know,” I replied. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” I didn’t have a phone, and she called 911. I stood uneasily in the dark, empty night, the weight of what had happened—and what could have happened—settling on my shoulders. I wanted to repent, to demonstrate my regret, my understanding of the severity of what I’d done. So I stood outside my car, shaking and gulping to keep from crying. After watching me shiver for a few minutes, the woman opened the passenger door of her car and told me to get in. She lent me her phone so I could call my dad to tell him that I’d totaled the car that I’d had for six months, that it was my fault. He began the long drive to pick me up. The woman said that if he didn’t arrive in time I could spend the night at her house.
I only remember fragments of that night—and nobody’s name—but what I remember most is the heavy feeling of shame in the face of the kindness. The woman who I had hit was a nurse on the way to visit a patient and had been turning into the patient’s long ranch driveway. The patient saw the chaos of the headlights converging on the highway, and she’d driven out to see what had happened. As her kids huddled in the back seat, the patient rubbed my back, murmuring that it was okay to be scared.
The woman’s husband and a police officer arrived. They were comforting, paternal, bearded and smelling of smoke, blowing white puffs of breath as they assessed the damage, agreeing with nods and grunts that we’d been lucky, that it could have been much worse. I was shuffled from warm car to warm car. The policeman took my statement, calling me “hon” and telling me that everyone has one crash and that I’d reached my quota, that he was just happy we were alive. While he took the woman’s statement, I sat in her husband’s truck while he called his kids and explained what had happened. I apologized. I cried. He replied in monosyllabic reassurances. When my dad arrived, I was sitting in the back of the police car. The policeman let me out, and I collapsed into my dad’s familiar embrace.
My dad shook everyone’s hands, thanking them for taking care of me. I stared in disbelief at a snowbank, watching as they called a tow truck, mechanically transferring my things into my dad’s car. In the following days, I talked to the insurance agent, negotiated rides around town with my parents, told and retold the story, assuming different levels of responsibility each time. It had been a minor accident, and I’m extremely lucky that it’s the worst I’ve had. Still, the veil between comfort and safety and complete destruction and devastation is a thin one, and I’d almost lifted it completely. The fact that this reality could coexist with the mundaneness of insurance paperwork and logistics was almost too great a cleavage for me to comprehend.
* * *
What I learned that night is that kindness is hard work. Accepting kindness (or being kind to yourself) when you feel your most dark, ashamed and undeserving is hard, and offering kindness to someone who is reckless or selfish is harder still. The authority garnered from lived experience isn’t incurred in calm moments without challenge; it’s earned in the raw ones, in the moments where kindness and compassion prove difficult, when pain and guilt and loss are suspended together with the ordinary. I feel that now, struggling to complete the tasks of the everyday—doing laundry, touring apartments, sending emails—when I comprehend that so much is about to change. I think about losing a place I’ve called home, my identity as a student, friends and acquaintances, some stability and entering an unsure future. My tactic thus far has been to resist all of this with every muscle in my body. I deny, nap, overdraft my checking account, cancel lunch plans.
In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes that it is these moments of loss, fear and impatience with banality that teach the greatest lessons and that reveal the greatest truths. “Before you know what kindness really is,” she writes,
you must lose things
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
Kindness must also be executed in the sphere of the mundane. “It is only kindness,” she writes,
that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters andpurchase bread
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
It is easy to become consumed with the desk fear—where is my place? Where am I meant to be?—but this is ultimately dizzying and unsatisfying, the disorientation revealed by the fact that each transition serves as a reminder that there is no ultimate arrival destination. There is no grown-up who will take my hand and lead me safely to an endpoint. Rather, there will be one million end points every day, one million chances to be kind—to take the dog for a walk, to remember an important anniversary, to acknowledge the pain of another, to offer warmth to someone who acts unconsciously or violently. I have to trust that this is enough, that this is the only authority and truth I need to sustain me even, and maybe especially, during the most difficult times.