An advice column inspired by the Dear Sugar advice column on the rumpus.net. Submit your questions to Trinity’s Pepper at email@example.com Dear Pepper,
Growing up, all the adults told me that university would be the best time in my life, that I’d meet my best friends at school, that it would be magical—the beginning of the rest of my life. And here I am, well into my university career, and still unhappy. These past couple years have not been the best time in my life; in fact they've been some of the darkest. I’ve connected with only a handful of people and there is nothing magical about my experience. School is hard, I don’t feel invested in the “community” despite being involved, I’m often hopeless and lonely, and I despair about the future which looks bleak.
Yet there are moments when I choose happiness—I make an effort to be happy, to be content, to love the people around me, and these times are wonderful. I look back on the dark times and wonder how I could ever have been in that place. Yet I always end up back there.
My college experience hasn’t been what I anticipated, to say the least. Sugar, why don’t I feel like I belong here? Why can’t I choose happiness all the time?
Sincerely, Living in Darkness Yearning for Light
Dear Living in Darkness Yearning for Light,
I was nine when I decided I didn't want to go to university. I declared it so decidedly my mother laughed. Looking back, it was a laugh of wisdom. A kinder response than “Oh Pepper, you know so little; you do not even know how little you know.”
Your letter made me think of that nine-year-old version of myself. I felt so old back then and yet had years in front of me like a long stretch of Montana road. I did not know then that middle school would be unforgiving, or that a boy would rip out my heart in the eleventh grade, or that in order to find a piece of myself I would move across states and borders.
I read this short story in my English class that same year that boy ripped out my heart. It's called “Eleven.” Have you read this, LDYL? It's about a girl on her eleventh birthday and she says something so profound it has imprinted itself on me ever since that day we read it out loud in my English class. She says, “The way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.”
You are probably wondering why my response has anything to do with the question at hand. But in times when I feel exactly how you feel, when I begin to wonder if it is this place or if I will feel this alone and this much despair no matter where this journey takes me next, I see a vision of the rings inside a tree trunk. And I begin to understand that it's never really about the question at hand. And I realize that nine-year-old Sugar had the same issues I have now, only with different faces and a different setting.
The year I graduated, I picked this place because it sounded cool and distant. I liked the vision it cast of who I was when I told people. I liked that the boy who ripped out my heart would probably never see me again. I liked that I was headed for a different Sugar, that I was destined to be a different, happier person. My first year here was terrible. It nearly killed me to finish it. I was convinced I would not come back.
I'm staring at the blank part of this page and I want it so badly to resolve. I want to assuage your grief. But I can't do that for you. I feel alone here too. And in a simpler world I wish I could tell you my name and we could hang out and vent about how hard this life can be and will continue to be. But that's not the point. The point is for you to cultivate an understanding that what you are longing for is joy and that joy is a choice no matter where you are or who you are with. No matter the season you are in. No matter the facts.
I sat underneath the shade of a tree in a broken country the summer after my first year. And I realized I was still alone there, maybe even more alone. The world was still dark and bleak. And I understood that I could not run from who I was. And sometimes who you are is completely raw and cut open. Sometimes our expectations ruin reality.
LDYL, if I could leave you with anything, I hope you learn how to transcend, not just for this season but for the many to come. I hope you realize that in the dead of winter there is still an internal summer. I hope one day at the end of this semester, you are laying on your bed in that tiny excuse for a dorm room and you hear the rain and realize that one day, you'll laugh at your child, too. I hope you'll one day tell stories of this place, of this one tiny ring in your tree trunk. I hope you see that it made you a better person.