Zanny Merullo Steffgen
The Next Phase
After a rough few weeks of adjustment to my new lifestyle and the loneliness of taking the unusual path, I have reached the point in my gap year where I feel I have adjusted to my new reality and have found fulfillment. To give you a good sense of my new reality, here are some highlights and updates since my last post:
I’ve gone swimming twice now with my dad in the shockingly cold waters of Ashfield lake. Both of us have significant physical pains and ailments, and both of us love to swim. For those few brief minutes in the cold water, from the first splash that awakens every part of our bodies to the last lap before the cold soaks through our bones, we feel freed of the weight of our physical problems. I have cherished those moments with my father and nature.
Not only have I recently been promoted, but I have also come to find a community I belong to working for the Hangar Pub and Grill. A few days ago, when there was a particularly fancy party going on in our function room, the bouncer came to the front of the restaurant and we took turns coming up with names for the people we saw coming in the door (“Right here we have Gaylord Lancaster the third.” “And here comes Henrietta Futon, hailing from the great country of Canada.”). On busy nights the restaurant hums with constant noise of happy people drinking and eating, and as I run around busing dishes or greeting the regulars (“Hi Al, how are you today?” “How’s the darts game today, Brian?” “Fried jalapenos again, Eugene?”) I can’t help but smile, content to work hard, and create the fun atmosphere of this popular college bar with my coworkers. It’s a haven of beer and food and fun, and an endless learning experience.
Being at home has allowed me to be more of a presence in my sister’s life. After having lived away from her in Italy and then at boarding school, I am finally able to drive Juliana to school, go to her soccer games, or sit at the kitchen table listening to her perform an interpretive reading speech for her rhetoric class with a variety of accents and facial expressions and funny voices. Often I look at my sister, who surprises me each day with how much she’s grown, and wish I could watch her play soccer forever, or that the eight minute speech would carry on and on through time. It is truly a gift, getting to extend my time living with the people I love the most. I come home from work to a hot meal on the table and a loving family, we sit together in the living room and watch rock documentaries together, we go out to eat and take the whole drive to agree on a restaurant, we say a prayer together before my sister goes to bed every night. In the mornings I wake up to a hot cup of strong coffee and my smiling mother, I get to talk to her and eat with her in a way I never had time to do before. I cherish these moments, glad for a break in the rushing flow of life to spend with my loved ones before I head off to my next adventure.
Even though I have lived in Williamsburg my whole life, I have never been to the Big E until a few weeks ago. I bought concert tickets to see X Ambassadors, and jumped in the car with my best friend Izzy, headed for the Queen of All Fairs. There we tried every kind of fried food imaginable, saw pigs and horses in pens and petted small goats and puppies, and walked around debating whether to go on a ride or not (we didn’t). At the concert, we were the people singing the loudest and dancing with our abandon, laughing at the man in front of us who didn’t even so much as sway to the beat. After many years of school and responsibility, I was finally able to let go and have fun like a child.
Once a week, I volunteer at a battered women’s shelter with a group of homeless children. The point of the program is to give these kids something to look forward to- an hour and a half of attention and fun. The first half hour is baby time, where I hold an infant and talk with my fellow volunteers about how our weeks have been. The next half hour is filled with the crazy energy of toddlers, and I often leave the shelter with one of their paintings, or their handprints in green or blue on my arms and face and clothes. The last half hour is spent with older children, one with whom I throw a baseball or football, another who tells us about getting in trouble at school, a third who heads straight for the crayons, and a fourth who plays tag and shrieks with excitement when she barely escapes me. I leave the shelter exhausted and happy to have this time to play with children whose family situations aren’t as wonderful as mine.
Recently I decided to take a roadtrip on my day off to visit my friends Annie and Jorge at Wesleyan and Yale Universities. Without taking too much time to plan, I threw a backpack and sleeping bag into the back of my car, blasted my Bastille CD, and set out to see my close friends from high school. What started as a simple visit turned into an Exeter reunion, driving to Yale and back to Wesleyan twice, getting a tour of both campuses, sampling dining hall food, attending a college English class, and seeing the people who had been integral to my happiness at Exeter. At Yale, we gathered all the Exonians we could find for a late night sandwich run, and talking and laughing with these people, even the ones I hadn’t been close to in high school, I suddenly realized that I had missed them terribly. At 12:30 am, with adventure and espresso pumping through my veins, I took Annie and Jorge to New York city to surprise our Exeter friends there. This summer a group of us who had started at Exeter junior year together had spent the summer exploring Europe, and after living and traveling with these people, they had become like family to me and I needed to see them. At 2:30 am, after two hours of blasting music, excited conversation, and two wrong turns (both Jorge’s fault), I found a parking space across from Columbia University, and Annie, Jorge, and I headed to the dorm to surprise our friends. After another Exeter reunion, more late night food, and a long talk, we left the city at 5:30 am and headed back to Yale and then Wesleyan, exhausted but full of love and the relief that comes with being with people who know you well. I think I speak for all of us when I say that this excursion was reinvigorating and reminded me that even as our lives diverge, there are some friends I will never lose.
To break the monotony of my schedule of exercise in the mornings and work in the afternoons, I decided to take a day to myself and nature. Fall is my favorite season- with the crisp weather, the beautiful foliage, the re-emergence of apple cider and maple sugar candy- and I decided to celebrate it by driving through the scenic byways in western Mass. I chose a road and drove, and it led me to the most spiritual and beautiful day I could have asked for. I walked a bike path by a reservoir, then sat on a log with my feet in the water looking out at the hills dotted with yellows, oranges, and reds and leaves tumbling out into the air. I got back in my car and kept driving until I had crossed the New York border, hoping that some greater spirit would guide me where I needed to be. When I saw a sign for a Peace Pagoda, I took the turn and walked through the woods until I found a huge monument to the Buddha and a temple, where I sat and meditated and prayed and thanked God for bringing me to such a spiritual place. On the way back home I wound my way up Mount Greylock, stopping at each lookout to sit on the hood of my car and take the colors in. It was a beautiful, restoring day of peace and nature and a perfect adventure to remind me why I am taking this year off.
So, I am at peace. I am making money, giving back to the community, taking time to myself, and taking care of my health. I love being with my family, I love the freedom to take adventures when I want, I love the openness of the future. I would like to thank Franny, a friend from middle school who has just finished a gap year of her own, who gave me some advice which has aided in my arrival at such a state of peace. The most important secret she shared with me was not to wait around for the adventure to come, but to remember that this is my gap year now. These moments are a gift, are open for me to fill in whatever way I want to, are for creative projects, things I have always wanted to try, drives and hikes and explorations. Moving forward, I hope to try even more new things and bask in the love of my family and these moments that are sure to be some of the best of my life.