Out of the Nest

I think about this often, not because I feel that I am “growing up”, but more so because I am graduating. And graduation, I think, marks the end of the tumultuous and intense journey of adolescence. I feel that after graduation, adulthood will hit me like a storm, whether I am ready for it or not. Therefore, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to grow up.

The idea of being “out there”, by myself, didn’t really solidify until this past summer. I spent my summer researching fascinating chemistry at a lab in OSU. I lived with my boyfriend, who had unintentionally also decided to research at OSU. Being in a city, on a big campus mostly devoid of other students, was a lot of fun. We felt like little kings of the summer. The world was ours to feast on, the oyster’s pearl in our hands. Towards the end of the summer, I was invited by my lab to stay longer to finish up our project. As a result, I watched everyone in my research program leave. I was booted out of our program housing (a beautiful dorm with bathrooms and shower in every room) and found myself sitting in my lab with all of my belongings, wondering where I would live, and what I would do to occupy my free time. 

Luckily, my graduate student mentor and I had developed a close relationship. She offered me free housing, and the presence of her gray cat, Henry. It was during this time that I also realized that my work in the summer had actually culminated into something, and there was a real chance that my group in the OSU lab would be able to finish the project within the summer and have enough data to pump out a publication. I thought, I must stay here, work this final push and finish the project. I will be living with my boss, away from everyone I know and love, and working long hours. But I must take this opportunity.

This past summer was the first time that I had truly felt alone. I think that there is a difference between feeling alone and lonely. I have always experienced feeling alone like wading through a very vast ocean with strong current against you. It’s a solo journey, that is the nature of the beast. Loneliness, however, is wading through a very vast ocean with the phantom pain of teammates that should be there, but aren’t. I felt very alone as I slogged through 70+ hour weeks of chemistry, E. coli, and FPLCs in the daytime, while feverishly dreaming of my experiments at night. My friends were far removed from my situation, being both geographically distant and also occupied with their own importance. I turned to my parents for help. I was a baby bird who had finally fallen out of the nest, looking up from the ground into the branches high above, waiting for my bird parents to teach me how to fly. My bird parents blinked at me confusedly, not understanding why I sat there so uselessly. Absolutely unsympathetic. During that time, I often wondered what I was working so hard for, and if that was what adulthood would be like. Geographically estranged from my friends, lacking support from my parents, neck deep and gasping for air in an underwater rat race. 

I think what I wanted to hear the most was a “good job”, or some verification that the time I had invested in my work was commendable (especially from someone I looked up to). However, I came to realize that desire for verification was the result of a poorly mixed emulsion of exhaustion, burnout, and depression. I realized that what I needed was not verification, but a sense of personal well-being and meaningfulness in my own life.

I think something a lot of people struggle with, especially in late adolescence to early twenties, is being comfortable with being alone. I think I am pretty good at being physically alone, but having a drive that is fueled by myself alone, that makes myself, alone, most happy, is hard. I guess figuring out that equation is part of the thorny path to growing up. This year I’ve been trying to focus on doing things that make me most happy and feel like myself. Exercise, being alone, journaling, and getting things done. All of these things are one-person things. To me, being alone is healing and meditative. 

I think that going somewhere away from everything you have ever known is a difficult but so, so so important task. This summer was the most productive summer I have ever had, in relation to both science and personal growth. It was a really tough summer--but that does not mean that it wasn’t enthralling. Looking back, this past summer felt like a gritty blur of adrenaline rush. For the most part, I think growth does not feel good. Oftentimes, growth only happens when it is forced. But after this summer, I feel more like myself. I feel stronger, more weathered. Hands more calloused, tougher sails for the sea. I have more faith that whatever part of growing up comes next, I might be a bit more ready for it. And I feel this way for every baby bird that has fallen out of the nest. Now that we’re out of the nest, the only place to go is up into the sky. 

Image credits: Feature, 1, 23