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  • Writer's pictureZanny Merullo Steffgen

Coming into my own

In the month since I last wrote, I have come a long way in my view of myself and the life I want to live.

It all started with the tattoo appointment, something I had considered doing for the two years since I had beaten POTS. Much in the way I signed up to study abroad three years ago and was hit by the reality of that choice when I stepped on the plane, I made the tattoo appointment and thought nothing of it until I sat in traffic on my way to the tattoo shop from work and began to sweat thinking about the reality of that choice. I was choosing to permanently alter my skin (in the form of an angel tattoo on my wrist) to represent a difficult time in my life and the people who played a role in my recovery. As I sat in the chair, holding the hand of my best friend and telling her about my day while the artist prepared my wrist, any nerves I had experienced faded away. When the job was done, I felt like higher concentrated version of myself, like my outward appearance reflected the life experiences I’ve had, and it was exhilarating.

The next great learning experience was my first accident as a driver. I hit a parked car in a parking lot and owning up to that, leaving a note for the driver, and dealing with the various hassles that followed the incident opened my eyes to another reality of responsible adult life. It is painful to know that one second of mistake can lead to hundreds of dollars and dozens of phone calls, but growing up is about facing that second of mistake and accepting it. I am grateful that taking a gap year has allowed me to learn lessons that college would have protected me from for another four years.

After living in Italy and attending boarding school, I have thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with my Western Mass roots and experiencing a different side of American culture. One morning, sitting in a little bakery in Belchertown with two bouncers from work, I became hyperaware of that cultural difference. I was listening to a conversation about the military, about life experience and how unimportant daily complaints seem when you’ve seen the moment between life and death. The conversation turned towards politics and one exclaimed that “liberalism is a form of mental illness.” In that moment I was extremely proud that I could be friends with these people and also those who consider themselves liberals, and that I care about them equally. We then went on to play a round of golf which humbled us all.

Lately I’ve made an effort to make better use of my free time. Instead of spending time on an electronic device, which I could do anywhere, I have begun to play guitar and sing again, I’ve finally gotten around to finishing a scarf I had started knitting several years ago, I’ve taken hikes and followed long paths through the woods I’ve always wanted to explore, I’ve started reading  Rumi’s poetry and books on Native American history, I’ve experimented with cooking. Last week I took a roadtrip with my best friend to the North End of Boston and met up with one of her friends there. We explored the historical section of town, had Italian food, talked with Italian shopkeepers, and were shown around a college dorm. The freedom to take such a trip, a day of experiencing and eating and seeing another way of life, is something I appreciate immensely. If I could say one thing about the value of a gap year, it’s not that it shows you what you should do in life, but what you can do in life, which is a precious gift.

Since I have been made host manager at the Hangar, work has consumed most of my time and thoughts. This past weekend, however, I decided to take the first Saturday night off I had had in two months and make the drive to Andover to watch the Exeter/Andover games and be reunited with many members of my graduating class. I picked up a former fellow classmate (now on a gap year, too) who lives near me and we flipped through staticky radio stations as we headed to Andover. The games went by in a blur of hugs and “how are you?”s, and we soon gravitated towards our old friends, our old ways of being together that were so familiar. I drove a few friends to Exeter where we ate dinner together at one of the restaurants we used to walk to on weekend nights when the dining hall presented particularly bleak choices. Conversation touched briefly on what our new lives consisted of, then hovered over old stories and memories for a while. That night we celebrated our new phase of life and new freedoms in typical college fashion. The next day, driving two good friends to Connecticut from Exeter, we all felt a little off and did what Exonians do best- Harknessed it out. For the two-hour long car ride we talked about how much we missed our friends and how this weekend had stirred up old feelings and the confusion of visiting the past with the knowledge of our new presents. We talked about how we were disappointed with our interactions with our old friends and the way we chose to spend our time together, how we were scared to think this was the last time we would be reunited in such a great number until our fifth year reunion, and how we  all needed a break from our high school identities and time to become our new selves, but also felt nostalgic for the familiarity that had greeted us at Exeter. I left the conversation mourning the loss of high school, but full of love for the close friends I knew would outlast the natural tendency to grow apart.

My thoughts about the future have shifted in the last few weeks. With the presidential election passed, I have given serious thought to where I want to be next year. Now that I have been exposed to so much variety in life, I yearn for more real life experience, to fully be an adult and start to give back to the world that has taught me so much. My plan is to move to a city next year (whether in Italy or America I have yet to decide), get a job, rent an apartment, attend classes at a local college, and get a dog to keep me company. I’m hungry to learn, but know myself well enough to know that I would not be happy living at an American college. With the freedoms these past few months have given me (the freedom to replay the beginning of my favorite song five times in the row while driving, the freedom to dye my hair and get a tattoo, the freedom to choose how I spend my time) I have furthered my relationship with myself and explored my identity. The future still remains foggy for me, but much like studying abroad or getting a tattoo, there will come a time when I will have to make a decision for myself and jump into its new realities.

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