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  • Writer's pictureZanny Merullo Steffgen

Update: My Adult Gap Year

When I was a fresh high school graduate at the age of 18, I took a gap year, spending six months living with my parents, working in a restaurant, and volunteering before traveling solo through Europe. From the ages of 14-17, I'd dealt with horrific health problems that changed everything I thought I knew about life, so the decision was just as much about giving myself time and space to process that experience as it was about delaying my entrance into the adult world or having adventures. I'm the kind of person who typically thinks more about the people around me than myself, but during my gap year, I directed my attention inwards. Who did I want to become? What was important to me and why? How did I enjoy spending my time? I posed those questions to myself and then attempted to answer them with my actions without judgment. At 18, that meant getting started as a host in a busy restaurant, spending time with family, volunteering with kids, and taking frequent road trips before a big solo adventure overseas.

There was something about designating a whole year to personal development that let me justify following my every whim. So I did things like making a split-second decision one late night to drive several hours to New York City to visit friends in college there, arriving past 2 am for an unexpected and somewhat sleepy reunion. I took my days off from work to drive Massachusetts scenic byways without a destination in mind, letting the days shape themselves according to my each and every impulse. I got meaningful tattoos, spent my Thursday evenings volunteering with children in a battered women's shelter, and started treating myself to meals or spa days and becoming at ease in my own company. By the time I traveled to Europe to begin the adventure portion of my year, I already felt more comfortable in my skin. I continued indulging in whimsical exploration during my travels, spending time in a volunteering program in Naples, Italy, bouncing around Europe to visit various friends, and making new ones at hostels all over the continent. I pursued spiritual adventures, too, spending a week in retreat at a Buddhist center in Ireland and then walking the Camino de Santiago Catholic pilgrimage across Spain. At the end of my gap year, I had a new, expansive sense of self that felt like it fit me just right.

Those of you who know me know that I never made it back to school after my gap year, despite my intentions. Instead, the gap year was extended by another year (thanks to issues applying to universities in Europe), and I continued my inner journey. That meant returning to restaurant work and sampling different activities out of pure curiosity. I audited a Russian literature class at a nearby college, joined a singing group (one I was introduced to by an author who I'd written a fan letter to and then became friends with, but that's another story), and during late drunken nights with friends from the restaurant honed my billiards and poker playing skills. I was lost, but not in an unpleasant way. All I had experienced up to that point helped me move forward authentically. By the end of my second "gap year," I had saved enough money from restaurant work to travel and headed to Cambodia, where I ended up living for nearly two years and meeting my future husband. While pursuing a directionless life had its challenging moments, it also allowed me the freedom to experiment until I could find the activities and friends and places around the world that felt right. It allowed me to know who I was at a far younger age than most do. These gap years didn't even negatively impact my ability to find a career--I went on to have a successful run in restaurants (working my way up to the well-paid assistant general manager position at a high-end bistro) and gathered experiences that would serve as the foundation I built my current writing career on.

Because happy endings are the stuff of fairytales, my authentic, joy-filled lifestyle didn't last forever. Health complications compelled me to leave my home in Cambodia, and my now-husband's immigration complications meant we moved from a developing country to a ritzy American ski town, resulting in serious culture whiplash. There I had terrible experiences in the restaurant industry, and soon COVID hit and my health problems began dogging me again. To say the few years since then were tough would be an understatement--from broken bones and hospital visits to financial problems, relationship issues, work stresses, family emergencies, and even a global pandemic, it's been a period of steady, pervasive challenge in all facets of life. Luckily, since I've been through a few difficult periods already, I knew how to hang on for dear life and make it through this time. Even so, in the last few years I feel like I've become a ghost of my former self. I spent much of 2021 and 2022 holed up in my apartment working, distracting myself from all the inner turmoil and outer change that had taken place since I last was happy. This phase I'm in mirrors the one I went through at 18--still processing traumatic experiences, out of whack internally, a little bit lost and very much ready for something new.

That's why, as 2022 came to a close, I decided to make 2023 my Adult Gap Year, a concept that was well-received by my Twitter following. This time, I don't have the luxury of taking a chunk of time away from responsibilities, or investing in travels to "find myself." I'm designating this year as my adult gap year simply to justify my focus on exploration again as I settle into the new version of myself that's been forming during the last tough years. It was my recent move that prompted this--after three years in the small ski town of Telluride, Colorado (where I was miserable), my husband and I moved to Fort Collins, a city on Colorado's Front Range. We'd only spent about a day and a half in Fort Collins before our move and knew no one here. The idea was to get closer to Denver (where my cystic fibrosis doctors are and--perhaps more importantly--where a major airport is) while still retaining some connection to the mountains. On our brief visit to Fort Collins, we discovered that it had all the amenities of a big city with the feeling of a laid-back neighborhood. Jackpot. We've now lived in Fort Collins for four months (a month and a half of which we spent away from Fort Collins visiting family on the East Coast and in Germany), and I'm now in full Adult Gap Year Mode. Here is what that means for me:

Taking my cues from the first gap year, my first step was to look for a volunteering program. I've volunteered with children pretty much since I was one myself--I earned a Girl Scouts Bronze Award from babysitting kids at the same battered women's shelter where I spent my first gap year volunteering, acted as a mentor for troubled kids when I was in middle and high school, and started a charitable organization during my time in Cambodia to benefit an underfunded village school. I've always had the sense (inherited from my mother and father who have volunteered years of their time to help others) that it was my responsibility to give back to the community somehow, and I've always enjoyed the energy of young children and the ability to offer them trustworthy guidance outside of their homes and schools. So I did some research and found a program that would allow me to spend a few hours once a week with the children of recent immigrants and refugees while their parents took English classes. Because of my limited geographical knowledge of this area of Colorado, I committed to this program without knowing that it's nearly an hour's drive away from my home. Even after I'd learned about the commute, I decided to do it anyway, thinking I could spend that time on the road decompressing and listening to podcasts or music. So for the past month, I've driven nearly an hour once a week to the town of Greeley, where I play with young kids for a couple of hours. The kids instantly charmed me--they are the best-behaved bunch I've ever worked with! I spend these hours holding crying babies, making up fun games with toddlers, and trying to make language learning fun and embarrassment-free for those kids who speak very little English. After each shift, I walk out of the immigration center with a healthy dose of joy and optimism--spending time with children always has that effect!

I've also signed myself up for yoga classes and dance classes, with the goal of finding joyful movement again. My lifetime of health issues has made me resent my body rather than love it, and I feel the need to shift that relationship. Some of the best times of my life have involved dancing--clubbing adventures in Europe and Asia, I'm thinking of you--so I thought dance was a good place to start. When first thinking about taking dance classes, I assumed it would only be natural to return to ballet, which I did for many years as a kid. But after sampling a few classes at my local studio, I decided to make an Adult Gap Year decision rather than a rational adult one, and go for the dance that would take me out of my comfort zone the most. For me, that's beginner hip-hop. While I consider myself a coordinated person, I'm not particularly smooth in my movements (more like downright clumsy), so hip-hop is my chance to attempt something without any desire or expectation of mastering it. I go into the studio hoping to let loose and have fun, no matter what the end product is. I laugh as I struggle to remember all the moves in a combination, or cheer on my fellow classmates as they freestyle across the floor, and leave class each week pleasantly challenged and somehow more enamored of life.

Every Saturday morning, I get up and head to a cafe downtown for coffee and conversation with Italian speakers in Fort Collins. I speak Italian (I visited the country often as a child and then went to high school there briefly and had a serious Italian boyfriend for a couple of years) and miss the Italian lifestyle, so Adult Gap Year Zanny knew that this would be an excellent addition to my days. This morning, I sipped my latte and nudged beginners toward correct sentence structure, offering a word when they were searching for one or gently adjusting their grammar. I listened patiently as the elderly Italian-American woman with dementia asked the same questions and told the same stories of growing up speaking Italian at home in San Francisco. Then I sat with the more advanced group, lapsing into comfortable, fluent Italian as I talked with two other young women about work and learned shopping secrets from Bruna, the only true Italian there today. For nearly three hours I sat immersed in conversation, surrounded by people as passionate about the beautiful language as I am, and came home full of the love and warmth and pleasure I remember from all my days in Italy.

I'm only a couple of months into my Adult Gap Year, but I feel as if I'm waking up from a long slumber, shaking off the traumas of the past years, and getting to know myself again. I've stopped feeling the pull to stay at home on the couch every time I want to go out, and I've stopped being wracked by anxiety (thanks, COVID) every time I meet up with a group of people. I've begun moving again, showing patience for my sick body and remembering how it once was a vehicle for fun. Slowly, I'm making friends, too, and sinking my roots into Fort Collins soil. I met up with the cousin of a good friend and spent four hours in a restaurant with her, nursing glasses of wine and talking about pretty much everything. I've downloaded Bumble BFF (after convincing myself that it's totally normal to use a dating app to find friends), and I'm about to set up my first friend date for next week. I've developed a more relaxed approach to work rather than trying to squeeze every last bit of productivity out of myself, and I've started a healthy bedtime routine so I end up reading and journaling for the last hour to wind down before sleep. I still don't feel completely like myself yet, but I do feel a thousand times better than I felt last year at this time, and for the first time in a while, I feel hopeful about the future. This is what I'm bringing into my Adult Gap Year--the intention to pursue fun, curiosity, and whimsy, and the space to see what comes of it.

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May 29, 2023

Magnificent piece love loved it!


Mar 05, 2023

Another wise and thoughtful piece of writing!! Vaya con Dios.

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