I have lived my life for the past eighteen years according to the familiar rhythm of the school year. Semesters and midterms and breaks formed my notion of time, and I was always working toward something specific, be it a diploma, certification, or award. My academic life has shaped my perception not only of the seasons, but of my own self-worth. I have spent so long believing in this system of reward in the form of achievement and purpose in the guise of assignment that when I emerged from it, I felt lost.

Work during the summer felt the same as any other summer job I’ve had— the awkward pacing of getting to know everyone, timing the commute perfectly, figuring out the actual job. But then, when I took a week off to go to my last Camp Kesem, the interns left. I returned to an emptier office and a stunned realization that this was my life now. It was September and I was still here.

My brother started his first year of college this year, and helping him move in made me long for the structure and direction that being a student gives. Although my teenage self complained about the arbitrariness of assessments as a way to justify my own laziness, I realize now that so much of my identity and lifestyle was shaped by my status as a student.

I’ve always loved back-to-school season, with its crisp early-fall air and still-sharp pencils. In elementary school, I’d pack every item on the required list into my backpack like I was playing Tetris. Once, I woke my parents around 4am to take me to school. I loved the newness of the start of another school year— new teachers, new people in class, new things to learn. In hindsight, this might’ve been my childish way of internalizing my school changes throughout primary school, but it always felt like a welcome refresh. I could start over, be a slightly different, slightly better version of myself, forget about the previous year.

Now, I find myself caught in my real life, the one that I’ve made, or chosen, or fallen into. There are no restarts. I don’t get to finish a school year and collect $200 after passing Go. (I’ve never received actual monetary reward for completing a school year, but work with me here.) It’s jarring to realize that this is it for the foreseeable future. Of course, I’ll end up going back to school at some point, and changing jobs, and reaching other milestones. But for now, I’m just here, going to work, doing my job, coming home and cooking dinner. Not having concrete things that make me feel like I’m doing “it” right – it being life, or living, I suppose – has left me confused and anxious. So as I continue to adjust to this new, long phase of living, I’ve had to find little achievements, small victories to enjoy, that keep me feeling capable and whole. Here are a few of them.

Starting a new recipe, briefly panicking because I’m not sure if there’s any garlic or onion left in my pantry, and realizing I bought a huge sack that might never run out.

Also known as buying things in bulk and thanking myself later. The same applies for toilet paper, and contact lens solution.

Finding “extracurriculars” to give me structure and routine.

The theme here is really that I need predictability and plans to feel good and stable, and I didn’t recognize this until about a year ago. I became restless pretty quickly into starting full-time work, and I realized it wasn’t because the job itself was boring, but because I needed more going on in my weekly schedule. I’d gone from a jam-packed week of 5 classes, 2 jobs, and several time-consuming side activities to a simple 9-to-5. Of course I felt restless coming home and not doing anything for the rest of the night.

To combat this, I auditioned for a community choir in my new neighborhood that holds weekly rehearsals and several concerts a season, then rallied a few of my friends to form a monthly book club. This, coupled with a solid gym routine, gives me 1) things to look forward to throughout the month and 2) regularly scheduled human interaction (always a plus).

Having more than a single set of sheets, so I can loll about in clean sheets without having to do laundry. 

This brings me an inordinate amount of personal satisfaction.

Completing annoying tasks I have to do (packing for a move, staying on hold with Eversource for an hour to set up electric at my new apartment) without a second thought.

When I was younger and stayed at my grandparents’ house some weekends, I’d whinge and groan about simple chores that my grandma would assign me. As a child, putting down one’s book and getting up to pick some tomatoes from the garden seemed like an insurmountable task. But my grandmother would always tell me sternly, “Life is not about the things you want to do. There will be plenty of things you have to do, and instead of wasting your time and energy moaning about it, you might as well just get them done.” I used to think she was being mean and just didn’t “get it,” but I live by this now. At some point, I decided that the complaining and procrastinating was more trouble than it was worth. Now I just get these things done.

Cooking meals from memory, instead of with a recipe.

Nothing makes me feel more adult than heading to Trader Joe’s, picking up what I need, and making some delicious dish by heart. Speaking of Trader Joe’s…

Knowing where everything is in my local Trader Joe’s without circling the store five times before checkout.

The Trader Joe’s down the street from me has no clear organization whatsoever. Not only does it have checkout lanes on two sides of the store, but you’ll find cupcake mix slotted above frozen pizzas and various herbs stuffed into a top shelf of produce seven feet high— no, seriously, I have to climb (simultaneously avoiding putting a foot into the broccoli) to grab some cilantro. And look, maybe it lends the store a bit of mystic charm, but when it’s a weekday evening and I have very little motivation to elbow fifteen equally frazzled young adults to get to my eggplant, finding the ingredients I need for dinner without wandering aimlessly for an hour is the greatest victory.

I know these all seem like trivial things. But there’s a big transition happening here, and I’m only now starting to realize that my old craving for positive feedback on papers and high test scores was just a placeholder for my real needs of feeling safe, and content, and significant. And these little things seem to be doing the trick.

Featured Photo by Stephan Seeber from Pexels