The Fear of Forward Motion

Change is … good?

Picture a young 23-year-old boy. Picture him with a beard or without, with glasses or with contacts, with brown eyes or green, but you must picture this: A young, 23-year-old boy frightened of any decision, whether its scope of influence affects his next two seconds or next two years.

Picture him sitting in the basement of his parents’ house, trying to physically quell the urge to play that great new Playstation game he just bought, and mentally quell the urge to think about the people who’ve made his life worthwhile but aren’t with him in the basement. He’s trying to move beyond his past, but he’s afraid that if he starts forward, everything behind him will vanish into a slippery haze.

He has a horrible memory.

Maybe this is the reason why most people, myself included, are afraid of change. I don’t want to lose my college years. I don’t want to forget anything or anyone associated with them. And if I move on, how will I remember? If I’m faced with new problems, where will there be room to think of the old ones?

It’s been a year since I’ve graduated, and though I wanted to go straight into graduate school, I managed to wait long enough and safely sabotage that. I kept telling myself that the change was too great, that I needed a year just to survey my options.

This year of surveying my options has brought an end to everything I had that made me feel important. The productive chaos of college is gone. The thrill of acting in front of audiences is inaccessible. I’ve lost relationships and frequent contact with many of my friends. All the things that make me happy are associated with my past, not my future. Or even my present.

Part of me sits at home in the basement trying to summon the energy to move. Most of me still walks the streets of a small Maryland town, trying to remember when I was happy.

This, of course, is no way to live. You know that. I know that. But the ease of living this way is very alluring: nothing can go wrong because nothing is happening. And when I think about it, I feel paralyzed and useless — but hey, at least I’m making money and still have all of my senses and my limbs. It could be worse. And if I try to move on, it may very well become worse.

So I’ve stumbled through the last year, every once in a while taking small risks. I applied to graduate school again. I looked into local theater. I wrote half of a play at work. I went out on the town with my friends. I became content with my residence in limbo, where I was neither happy nor depressed, successful or failing.

Then I was accepted to graduate school.

When life is a haze of routine and inaction, you don’t really believe it when good things happen. I opened the letter from Eastern Washington University fully expecting to be rejected, just as I had already been from two other schools, but there was no “We’re sorry our program cannot accommodate you at this time” in this letter. My eyes instantly fell on the longest word on the page:

“Congratulations.”

Wow, I thought. Spokane, Washington. That’s out west. Really out west. I’ve never been farther west than Georgia … or Pittsburgh. Which is farther west? I’ve got to go get a map.

Soon after I learned of my acceptance, I received another letter that told me I had received a scholarship that knocked off half of the tuition. They were paying me $8,000 to pack up my things and trek from Pennsylvania to Washington. They were giving me money to write for two years. Just write. This was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.

Right?

I mean, I’ll still have to take out more loans. And it is pretty far away. Everyone I know and love is over here, on the east coast. It won’t be possible to find an apartment out there. It won’t be possible to pay for it, either. Maybe I should try again next year and hope to get a teaching assistantship. Maybe I need another year to make enough money to do this.

It’s too much change. Maybe I need to plan more.

A few days ago, EWU told me that they needed to hear if I was accepting their generous scholarship in under two weeks time. I sat in my basement room twirling in a chair, staring at the letter until the words formed more of a picture than a message.

This was the one-year anniversary of my graduation from college, and I was leaving in just a few hours to see the class behind me end their college careers. I didn’t have enough time to think about it now. I had to go. I had to be there for my friends.

Every time I drive back to college, I get a little queasy. Something about the idea of going back makes me feel like I’m still in the past, that I’m staying in Pennsylvania but Maryland has custody of my life and lets me visit on alternate weekends. I always have fun, but it always hurts a little to realize I don’t belong there anymore.

This time was a bit different, since I wasn’t the only person that didn’t belong; several graduates showed up over the course of the night. I stayed up until 5 a.m., an old habit that I always slip back into, and crashed on a couch to sleep until the early morning ceremony.

I woke up to the sound of people donning their caps and gowns, and to the sound of my stomach tying itself into various geometric shapes. It was ridiculous: I was nervous, almost terrified. I did realize that I wasn’t the one graduating this year, didn’t I?

My friend Chris stirred on the floor, sitting up and yawning. He muttered a sleepy good morning, rubbed his eyes, smiled.

“Good morning,” I said, then without thinking, “I think I’m more nervous about today than I was about our graduation.”

“Really. Why?”

“I’m … not sure.” I wasn’t. “Everybody’s moving on, I guess. More people being scattered into the veins of America. More people I’ll probably lose touch with.”

“You don’t have to lose touch.”

“Yeah, it’s just going to be … different.” I sighed at my lack of eloquence. “Whatever. It’s ridiculous for me to be worried.”

“A bit.” Chris stood and stretched. “We’d better get ready.”

My stomach settled halfway through the ceremony, even if an eerie feeling of deja vu pervaded the campus lawn. The president was saying the same things he had said to us just a year earlier, and in a way, it didn’t feel any different.

It was the same feeling of being a spectator.

I had an idle thought in the back of my head that made me feel like I hadn’t graduated yet. That I had been a spectator last year as well.

Nothing had changed.

I sought out all of the graduates I knew, hugged them, congratulated them. And with every person I found, I felt my stomach wind tighter. I had talked to graduated and graduating alike all of last night, and they were all doing something that seemed to me important and interesting: Joining the Peace Corps and going to Africa, teaching full-time in Virginia, writing a novel, teaching English in Japan, working for the Shakespeare Theatre in DC, getting married, spending the summer in New Hampshire working at a local theater … I couldn’t believe how … prepared everyone was.

Everyone I hugged was nervous about entering the real world but excited, too, because they had something waiting for them.

It had been a year and I still had nothing waiting for me.

I walked off the campus and drove to a graduation party in Chesapeake City, then to one in Bowie, all the while marveling at all the incredible things my friends were doing. Washington College was no longer the home to all of them, and they weren’t just spreading across America. They were crossing oceans into foreign countries. Maryland couldn’t hold sole custody of my life anymore, because the people that embodied my memories were leaving. They were changing.

To a young, 23-year-old boy whose worst fear is making a choice, decisions come in split-second flashes of epiphany. Leaving the second graduation party of the night, I turned to hug the hostess. “Congratulations again,” I said, even though I wished I had something more meaningful to say. “Good luck with everything.”

“Thanks, Sean. Drive safely.” She began to open the door. “So, are you going to grad school? In Washington?”

I paused for a second, my hand on the screen door. I felt my face break into a smile involuntarily. “Yes. Yes I am, dammit.”

She smiled, told me I should be excited, that she was happy for me, that it was wonderful. And I thought, Yeah — I guess it is pretty wonderful.

Africa, Japan, Virginia and D.C. are all lucky to have these people within their borders. And I count myself lucky to have them in my life. I make a promise to you all, and to myself: You will not be forgotten, or taken for granted. I’ll be introducing your stories to the West Coast, and everybody that knows me will know you.

We’re moving on. And change will do nothing to us but what we ask it to do.

Article © 2002 by Sean Woznicki